1959/61 Porsche 718/2

Porsche’s history as a Formula 1 constructor is as short and unspectacular as its time as a sports car manufacturer is long and illustrious. The records show Porsche entered the World Championship for just two seasons and emerged with just one victory, and that in a race where over half the field including most of the front-runners retired.

But still the idea of an F1 Porsche fascinates, even if it is more for what might have been.

The 718 was not a car born to Grands Prix; it stumbled across F1 almost by an accident of evolution. The clue is in the title. Technically this car is not a 718 at all, but a 718/2, because the original 718 was the pretty two-seat sports car designed to replace the 550A, perhaps better known as the RSK. That was in 1957, which was also the year in which Porsche first made its presence felt at an F1 event, when no fewer than three 550s entered the German Grand Prix. But these were not F1 cars, nor properly the F2 cars of the category in which they entered, but simple sports cars with passenger seats and spare tyres removed. With Juan Manuel Fangio up front driving the race of his life, it’s no surprise few took notice.

Next time Porsche tried harder. Realising that slippery enclosed sports car bodywork could be a help at ultra-fast circuits, and with F2 resurgent after one of its fallow periods, in 1958 it entered a 718 RSK into an F2 race at Reims, ranged against the might of the works Cooper, Lotus and Ferrari teams. 

This time it had been converted to a central driving position, the headlights removed and the body shape mildly modified. And with Jean Behra behind the wheel, and despite the fact that the poor car had only weeks earlier won its class and finished fourth overall at Le Mans, it trounced the lot of them.

Then, at the end of the year, the FIA announced that from 1961 F1 would be run to current F2 regulations. Porsche found itself having built a sports car that would run at the front in F2 while at the same time preparing the ground for a serious F1 assault in ’61.

Which, in essence, is what happened. The 718/2 was developed over the winter of 1958-59 in time for the season-opening Monaco GP, where its little 1.5-litre engine would be less than usually disadvantaged against the 2.5-litre F1 cars. Wolfgang von Trips qualified it a creditable 12th, ahead of much more powerful machinery, but then turned triumph to disaster by binning it at the end of lap one.

The car competed sporadically through the rest of the season but the big assault came in 1960, a year for which no fewer than five cars were prepared, led by Stirling Moss who’d race for Rob Walker in his colours but with full factory backing. The best of both worlds, you might say.

For a team in its first proper season of single-seater racing, with a car derived from a now rather aged sports car, the 718 can be said to have done spectacularly well. Had it not suffered some distinctly un-Porsche-like unreliability it would have done better still. Moss took pole and led at Syracuse before retiring, but led a Porsche 1-2-3 at Aintree and Zeltweg. At season’s end the teams decamped to South Africa where Stirling won at Killarney and East London.

Today his memories are uniformly fond: “It was a typical Porsche: very strong, fast and easy to drive so long as it wasn’t raining.”

And so to Formula 1 in 1961 by way of a simple regulation change. Moss had learned a lot in 1960, the most salient point being that quick though the 718 was, the newer, lighter Lotus 18 was quicker still, and into its arms he ran. Even so, with Dan Gurney and Jo Bonnier on the strength, Porsche was not without capable helmsmen.

Nor was the 718 yesterday’s news, despite its age. Sure, the Lotus was quicker and Ferrari’s six-cylinder ‘Sharknose’ 156 the class of the field, but the Porsche was far from outclassed. On the contrary, back at the happy hunting ground of Reims it failed to win Porsche’s first World Championship F1 race by just 0.1 seconds, Giancarlo Baghetti slipstreaming his Ferrari past Gurney to earn his place in history as the only person ever to win their first Grand Prix. Dan charmingly puts this result down to “my perennial good luck in France”, but it was no fluke: he was second again at Monza, second at Watkins Glen and by season’s end equal third in the drivers’ championship with Moss, beaten only by the runaway Ferrari pair of Phil Hill and the late von Trips.

And there the 718’s tale as a works car concluded, though the fabulously eccentric Dutch nobleman, Count Carel Godin de Beaufort, bought Stirling’s Rob Walker car and tirelessly campaigned it up to 1964, even qualifying an impressive eighth out of 26 starters for the 1962 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. 

As for the 718’s replacement in ’62, the 804 was a new-from-the-ground F1 machine powered by a flat-eight engine. But by then both Climax and BRM had their own eights, and while the 804 had the odd moment in the sun – Gurney coming through a decimated field to win in France and take pole at the Nürburgring – by the end of the season this new, purpose-built F1 car had amassed fewer points for both team and driver than the previous year’s antediluvian adaptation of an earlier design.

The car you see here is 718/2/03, the third works car, usually raced by Graham Hill during 1960 before Moss took it to success in South Africa. It was a car Hill claimed to thoroughly enjoy driving. In his Life on the Limit autobiography penned in a hospital bed in 1969 he wrote, ‘It was entirely different from the normal run of British cars – such as Lotus or BRM – and it felt a lot different. It had a super engine, very smooth and reliable, which fairly purred along. I am not sure that the roadholding was as good as the British cars, but the car felt solid and always seemed as though it was one unit and not a collection of parts.’ In racing’s most dangerous era, that must have been comforting indeed. For 1961 it was taken over by Gurney for most of the season and is the car that came second at both Monza and Watkins Glen.

It’s waiting for me now. Godin de Beaufort used to say he stayed with the 718 because it was the only race car big enough to accommodate his generous dimensions. Whether he spoke in jest or not, I’m grateful for the same reason: the car is absurdly comfortable even for all 6ft 4in of me.

The dash could hardly be simpler: a large rev-counter with a familiar Porsche typeface flanked by two smaller dials for oil temperature and fuel pressure. There are fuel tanks on either side, the one on the right compromised to make space for a gearlever that’s too far back, and an oil tank above my knees. It fires eagerly on a push start, the fiendishly complex four-cam flat-four barp, barp, barping into rumbustious life at the first lift of the clutch.

Read the reports of those who raced it and you’ll find the biggest complaint concerned the six-speed gearbox: Bonnier thought it needlessly over the top; Moss hated the absence of an external gate so much he got Alf Francis to fit one from his old Maserati 250F, much to the chagrin of the works engineers. Today, however, it seems the perfect device for keeping this peaky old motor in the zone. It doesn’t do much below 4500rpm and is strongest between 6000-8000rpm where, says Porsche, it should now be producing a healthy 180bhp.

The numbers say its power-to-weight ratio puts it in the modern supercar performance bracket and it certainly feels that way. But what interests me more are the brakes, which are fabulous despite being drums and seriously old hat even in 1960, and the handling which seems almost imperturbable. That trailing arm front suspension is derived from nothing more glamorous than a VW Beetle, but it works. On the limit and playing with the throttle, the 718 is so stable I wonder if those who raced it might have wanted it to be more reactive and fluid. To me it seemed unflappable.

But the overriding impression is one of unbreakable engineering integrity. Hill’s autobiography may not have been the best ever written, but when he spoke of the 718 feeling like ‘one unit, not a collection of parts’, he described the car perfectly. Not bad for Porsche’s first F1 car, which started life as a sports car four seasons earlier…

1986/87 Porsche 961

There is one person who could give a unique insight into the Porsche 961, the man who raced it on two of the three occasions it took to the track in anger and was at the wheel when all Porsche’s hopes and aspirations for the car went up in smoke. Literally. Now preserved for posterity on YouTube, you too can see the instant when Kees Nierop downshifted for Indianapolis at Le Mans in 1987, turned in, lost the back of the car and sat helpless while it destroyed itself against the barrier, before hopping free of the wreckage when the ensuing conflagration made it clear his heroic attempt to recover to the pits would be in vain.

But Nierop is not speaking. “You drove the car, you write the story,” was his most useful comment when I called to ask about his experience.

It’s a shame but not a disaster, for the 961 is capable of speaking for itself. Most conveniently thought of as a racing version of the 959, it was conceived in 1983 with a view to assembling a production run of racers for Porsche’s many customers worldwide.

However, the 959 programme involved technology never seen on a road car, which took longer to realise than at first hoped. By the time the 961 went skidding off into the scenery in ’87 just a single car had been built, and Porsche, its hands full with road and racing projects, elected not to continue with it. So not only did the car die, but the programme too.

Except reports of the car’s death were exaggerated. Yes, it was badly damaged in the crash and fire, bad enough for it to take Porsche two years to reassemble it, but beneath the blackened bodywork essentials such as the tub and engine had survived remarkably well. Since then, a handful of miles at Goodwood Festival is the sum total of its exercise. Before we spin the odometer up a little more, we should linger over what exactly is sitting on the Weissach asphalt awaiting further instruction.

Even though the 959 was the fastest car the world had ever seen, the 961 is much more than a track-prepped version. You can see that it is lower and wider and boasts a substantially bigger rear wing, but the more significant variations are on the inside.

For instance, it is half a tonne lighter, a staggering amount of weight to lose from a car whose Kevlar and Aramid bodywork had already been designed to be as light as possible. More significantly, its 2.85-litre flat-six motor had its power raised from an impressive 444bhp in road-going trim to a monumental 680bhp. This placed it on a par with the 956s and 962s, even if its engine with its single cylinder head per bank was not a direct development of Porsche’s famed Group C motor.

It was simpler than a 959, too. There was no need for novel sequential turbocharging when the engine was only ever going to run flat out, nor would the racer come with the road car’s anti-lock brakes, adjustable dampers or ride height control. What was retained and made the 961 unique among cars raced at Le Mans was its four-wheel-drive system, complete with a facility for the driver to adjust the front to rear torque split according to the conditions.

Its Le Mans debut could hardly have been more promising. Driven by René Metge and Claude Ballot-Léna, it rattled down to Mulsanne at over 200mph hour after hour, finishing seventh overall, beaten only by Group C Porsche prototypes. But its next outing at the season-ending race at Daytona with Nierop at the wheel was a disappointment, fears of tyre failure on the banking limiting its speed and its result to a poor 24th.

Nierop wasn’t meant to be driving the car at Le Mans the following year and only got the seat when his much-fancied 962 (which in testing had been second-fastest only to one of the less reliable Jaguar XJR8-LMs) was written off in practice by Price Cobb. The 961 was holding a steady 11th when its story came to an abrupt end 17 hours in.

Today you’ll find no sign of the accident, the only notable difference between then and now being the conventional Dunlop wet tyres clothing its massive 18in rims. In period it would have run with Denloc run-flat rubber, but these days they’re unavailable.

The cockpit is a bewildering mess even by the standards of mid-80s Porsches, but at least the basics – excellent all-round visibility and the inimitable gauges – mark this out as what at its heart it really is: the ultimate 911.

Like every Porsche racing car I’ve had the pleasure to experience, the fundamentals of driving it are easy. You can see out, the cabin is well ventilated and the gearbox carries a synchronised shift between each change to stop the driver making a fatigue-induced mistake at 4am. The engine fires and it sounds like an old 911 Turbo recorded at 45rpm but played back at 33. It’s not a pretty noise but it is interesting, and boy, it has purpose.

By the time the 961 made its debut Porsche already had a dozen years of preparing and racing turbocharged cars, so I had hoped some of the lag talked about in early cars would have been exorcised. I was wrong: even today you’d not expect to extract 238bhp from each litre of capacity without consequences, and in the case of the 961 that means off-boost performance that borders on the pathetic.

You wait and wait while the tacho needle staggers around the dial, anticipating the loud whooshing sound that heralds the arrival of boost and that thump in the kidneys. Easily capable of spinning four hot racing tyres in first and second gears, its performance is such that if you see a spot on the road far in the distance, by the time your brain has pondered how long it might take to get there, you’ve arrived. Even so, this is not surreal performance like a 962 on qualifying boost provides, but that’s perhaps as well because the rest of the car feels like its hands are full dealing with what’s on offer.

And no wonder. The 961 is not a purpose-built racing car with full over- and underbody aerodynamics, and it doesn’t have a centre of gravity on a par with a millipede’s belly button. But it does have a ridiculously short wheelbase, an engine located behind the rear wheels and a surfeit of longitudinal over lateral grip.

Hell-bent as I was on making sure this outing did not go the same way as its Le Mans event, I found that while you could settle the 961 into a curve quite neatly, if you started to modulate the throttle you could feel it twitch and squirm in sympathy. I wasn’t so stupid as to attempt to find out what might happen when it got a proper wobble on, and some of its nervousness might have been down to the wet tyres, but it still gave me new respect for Messrs Nierop and co. I imagine a mid-engined, two-wheel-drive 962 with all that lovely downforce would have provided a far more stable and considerably quicker platform from which to while away 24 hours.

The 961 is a fascinating car. Not just because there’s only one in the world, nor for the extraordinary story of its rise, fall and rise. To me it’s a missing link, the bridge that spanned the gap between Porsche’s most technologically advanced road and racing cars. And it did so in an era when to go sports car racing without a Porsche was to accept that, freak occurrences aside, your maximum potential was to be best of the rest.

In truth it feels caught between the two worlds, and I’m not surprised that Porsche dropped it at a time when there were so many more interesting and potentially rewarding projects to pursue. But I’m delighted it’s been saved and that Porsche is happy to share its knowledge of a car that may not have been one of its more successful, but is all the more interesting for that.