Start and finish of a beautiful friendship

An old interview with Mark Donohue reminded me of the best-developed Ferrari 512 of them all – the 1971 Penske-entered Kirk F White/Sunoco-sponsored car which he co-drove so spectacularly with David Hobbs. Penske acquired it as a year-old Hollywood Sports Cars 512S which had been driven by Jim Adams on the West Coast. Penske Racing then completely re-worked it for the target Daytona 24 Hours in February 1971. Woody Woodard and veteran Indy craftsman Lujie Lesovsky did most of the work, which even involved Lesovsky building in effect a new mid-section tub.

The factory’s works prototype 512M body shape had appeared late in 1970 and promptly won the Kyalami 9 Hours driven by Jacky Ickx and Ignazio Giunti. Working from photographs, Penske then devised its own M-spec lookalike ultra-lightweight body panels, moulded by Berry Plasti-Glass.

Ferrari greeted this new American customer with open arms and Donohue visited to select parts required. “Then they presented us with the bill and we had to start subtracting things. They were doing us no favours ’til Roger inally talked them down.” Still Penske ended up with a bare minimum of parts, while Traco back home prepared its two V12 engines to see 600bhp from one and 620 from the other.

The pain-stakingly re-assembled, much-modified hybrid Penske Ferrari 512M proved blindingly fast first time out at Daytona, where drivers Donohue and Hobbs gelled almost from first acquaintance.

The immaculate blue and yellow car used Indy-style aeronautical ‘dry-break’ fuel couplings on both the fill and air-vent sides of its tank system, with clear plastic hose on the vent side to warn the instant the system was full.

Penske’s first stop saw its quick-fill ploy give an immediate advantage over the Rodríguez/Oliver Gulf-Porsche 917, but the team soon lost the lead as a fuel pump drive-belt, fuel pick-up and the alternator faltered. But at midnight Mark crashed the car in avoiding Vic Elford’s freshly wrecked 917.

Despite having shattered both left-side suspensions he managed to limp it back to the pits, where the team cannibalised another 512 to rebuild it all. With the once-beautiful lightweight bodywork bound together by racer tape they soldiered on, and still managed to salvage a third place finish.

Penske then found itself in the parts queue among rival Ferrari entrants, and to oblige the team the factory would sometimes send it used parts when new had been ordered, but could not be made in time. Sadly, according to Donohue, Penske had already paid for new parts, so the relationship became… tense.

The Penske-Ferrari’s original rear wing had been destroyed at Daytona, and before the Sebring 12 Hours team engineer Don Cox went bigger, and better. Bigger meant the wing could run at a lower attack angle to generate as much, or even more, downforce without costing too much more along he straights. They had no way of balancing it out at the nose, so Mark adjusted it to the point where understeer was minimal relative to improved rear grip.

The team was a man short and Mark then volunteered to drive the transporter to Sebring. But when they were loading it at 2am he tripped in a drain and badly sprained his left ankle. Departing Philadelphia at 5am he drove for 24 hours to within 100 miles of Sebring only for the truck to break down.

The great Penske team then arrived at Sebring on a tow-bar, but its big-winged Penske Ferrari still qualified on pole.

By this time Porsche also had quick-fill re-fuelling rigs, but on track Mark was able to reel in Rodríguez’s Gulf 917, only for Pedro to hit him three times as he overtook, bursting one of the Ferrari’s tyres. Flailing rubber destroyed its fuel vent, so later stops took longer and Donohue/Hobbs finally finished sixth.

Penske was left with one high-hours Ferrari race engine, a spare unit whose heads would no longer seal against gas pressure, two broken body sets and precious few fresh gearbox and suspension parts. Kirk F White, the prime sponsor, had run out of money but then dug deeper for a shoestring entry at Le Mans.

A new factory engine was changed when Donohue detected a rattle during practice. Filipinetti begged its use for its Michael Parkes car despite Mark assuring the team it would only break. He inally agreed to lend it, but only if they would replace it regardless with a brand-new one. Sure enough, it broke.

The Penske Ferrari faired no better. Just four hours into the 24 some debris in an oilway starved the camshaft bearings, and they were also out. Mark recalled how Ferrari then rebuilt the borrowed engine and returned it instead of a brand-new one, as had been agreed. And that became a potent factor in Penske opting to run a Porsche the following year.

The 512M was re-prepared for the Watkins Glen 6 Hours with revised dampers, tailored new Goodyear tyres and an engine freshly rebuilt by Traco. Mark qualified it on pole, and he and Hobbs were running away with the race only to have the left-side steering arm pin shear.

The Glen weekend included a round of the Can-Am Championship for which Mark then qualified the Penske-Ferrari sixth, only for its engine to fail, again. He savaged Ferrari in his great book The Unfair Advantage, recalling, “It wasn’t worth the aggravation to deal with Ferrari when all they sent us was junk. The ‘world’s fastest Ferrari’ never won a race.”

Doug Nye