The 24 Hours of Daytona

Dull entry—tense finish

Daytona Beach, January 31st, 1971.
The Daytona 24-Hour race has, for many years, been the season’s opener for the Manufacturers’ Championship but this year it became the second event following the 1,000 kms. of Buenos Aires. The entry for Daytona has always fluctuated from very good to mediocre, but this year was by far the worst to date. No true works teams were present, Ferrari, Matra and Alfa Romeo considering the fast banking not suitable for their latest 3-litre Group 6 prototypes.

The strongest most serious approach to the race came from the two Porsche teams. The JW Gulf ream had two 917s and a training car for Rodriguez/Oliver and Siffert/Bell. The cars were similar to those used in the Argentine with slightly detuned 5-litre engines and four-speed gearboxes. The team was also trying a new tail section with a lower reduced drag profile and two large stabilising fins but, although this gave increased speed on the straights, it reduced handling efficiency on the banking so was not used. The Martini Rossi Porsches were the two Argentine cars with fresh 4 1/2-litre engines and four-speed gearboxes shipped out from Europe for Marko/Lins and Elford/van Lennep. Due to a breakdown of the ship from Europe, the Martini team missed open practice and the first day’s qualifying which determined the first ten places on the grid.

Opposition to the Porsches was from seven privately-owned Ferraris. The most formidable was the beautifully-prepared 512M completely stripped and rebuilt by Roger Penske Racing and driven by Donohue and Hobbs. The car had been completely stripped even to the semi-stressed skin and built up again to perfection. The fuel system was redesigned to try to overcome some of last year’s shortcomings and a single spoiler stretched right across the back instead of the more usual twin spoilers.

North American Racing Team had three 512Ss for Posey/Revson, Young/Gregory, Bucknum/Adamowicz and an ugly rebodied 312 for Chinetti/Veiga. Two further private 512s were entered for de Fierlant/Gosselin and Merzario/Juncadella, both painted yellow, although one was from Belgium and the other from Spain.

The rest of the 60-plus entries were Porsche 911s, 914/Carreras, Corvettes, Camaros, Chevron B16s down to a tatty Volvo, a Cortina and a Fiat 124. Fortunately for the fast cars the 140% rule was being applied and only 48 cars came within this bracket, so the real rubbish was excluded from the line-up as they had not lapped sufficiently fast enough.

The first qualifying period was on Thursday afternoon and the top ten times were guaranteed the first ten places on the grid irrespective of what happened on the second day. Donohue set the pace with a lap of just under 1 min. 44 sec., seven seconds faster than Andretti’s record, and then he sat back while the Gulf Porsches whittled away at their times until Rodriguez just beat the Ferrari time by 3/100ths of a second. Donohue then went out and chopped another second off with a time of 1 min. 42.42 sec., a speed of 133.919 m.p.h. The Posey/Revson Ferrari 512 was slightly faster than the Siffert/Bell Porsche 917 and they were on the second row. The two Martini cars set times on the second session which would have put them on to the third row, but due to the regulations they were on the sixth row behind two Corvettes that were over 12 seconds slower.

Race day was dry but windy, and the rolling start with 48 starters moved off just before 3 p.m. Donohue put the Ferrari into an immediate lead with Rodriguez hanging on close behind in the Gulf Porsche. On the open track the Ferrari moved ahead, but in the heavy traffic of tailenders the Mexican was able to close right up, even taking the lead for a short time. The traffic in the form of a large piece of Detroit tinware put the unwary Marko’s Martini Porsche off, breaking the rear suspension, which put the car well back.

Both Donohue and Rodriguez refuelled on the same lap and so were close together as they moved into the second hour. Siffert’s Porsche had the fuel mixture leaned off in practice, until it reached the stage where it was capable of another seven laps before a refuel. The Ferrari attack was blunted fairly early when both the Belgians and the Spanish 512s went out with engine trouble, as did the NART 512s of Posey/Revson and Gregory/Young. Donohue started having problems after the second hour when a terminal broke on the alternator and two longish pit stops were required to correct the fault. This left both Gulf cars well in the lead, until just after dark Bell left the pits and had the galling experience of a connecting-rod breaking as he accelerated back into the race. This left the Rodriguez/Oliver car in the lead with the Elford/Lennep Porsche just behind, a position which remained until midnight.

With only 20 minutes to go to the ninth hour, EIford had a front tyre go on the East banking and slammed into the top wall, ricochetting wildly up and down the banking to finish on the grass at the bottom. Coming into the tyre smoke and dust Donohue braked as the yellow lights began to flash, but a Porsche 911 was slow to respond and bounced off the Penske Ferrari several times. The Porsche rolled when it hit Elford’s wreckage but neither drivers were more than shaken. Donohue struggled to the pits and for an hour and ten minutes the mechanics worked with tinsnips and tape to rebuild the Ferrari body before it rejoined the race.

The Martini team had lost one car and it was not long before the other car was in, having its drive shaft replaced, a job which took over an hour and a half. Then in the morning Marko had a tyre burst and for some time the organisers had difficulty removing the wreckage which was forced hard against the wall at the top of the banking.

As dawn broke the clouds gathered and there was the first of many short showers, which other than causing the drivers some difficulty also delayed the Apollo 14 space shot only 70 miles to the south of the circuit. The Rodriguez/Oliver Porsche was, at the 18th hour, 43 laps ahead of Bucknum and Adamowicz in the NART Ferrari, who were 14 laps ahead of Donohue and Hobbs, although this gap was relentlessly being whittled down. Then the relaxed tenure of the race changed when Oliver slowed and came into the pits with the 917 firmly locked in top gear. For an hour and 32 minutes the mechanics slaved at the gearbox, removing the cogs, replaced those damaged and rebuilt the box, thus if the box worked properly Rodriguez had an opportunity to win. Meanwhile the Bucknum/Adamowicz Ferrari moved into the lead, which increased to over two laps advantage before the Mexican driver rejoined the race. The box worked well; as long as there was no further trouble his lap times soon indicated that the JW Porsche would overhaul the Ferraris comfortably, but Donohue would need some extra luck if he was going to snatch second place.

As the last hour finally ticked away the Gulf Porsche duly took the lead and crossed the line in first place, while Bucknum/Adamowicz were content to hold second place, for the Penske car made two more unexpected pit stops to replace the alternator drive-belt which broke three times in total. A reliable Chevrolet Corvette rumbled into fourth place ahead of a 3-litre Ferrari and various Porsche 911s, 914s and Corvettes.

Except for the last hours and the entertainment of mechanics working under pressure, this year’s 24 Hours was dull. However, the next race at Sebring should have the current works teams back into the fray.—M. J. T.