The loan ranger

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Two top-line racers without a ride in the 1973 Sebring 12 Hours persuaded a privateer to lend them his Porsche 911 RSR. It led to a remarkable victory. Now we test this very special car

Years ago I drove down to Dorset to interview famed Porsche racer Nick Faure, the man who once found himself applying so much opposite lock he forgot which way the front wheels were pointing. In desperation, he let go of the steering wheel and in that instant discovered the secret of recovering a rear-engined Porsche from an apparently unrecoverable position. 

Over the years Faure raced every kind of 911 from the 2.7 RS right up to 934s, 935s and even a Kremer K3. But when I asked him to name his favourite, he did not pause for thought. “Oh, it’s the RSR, no doubt about that. The most beautiful car to drive, so much nicer and easier to balance than the later turbocharged cars. You could do anything in an RSR.” And he did, including in 1975 helping drive a private RSR from 30th on the grid at Le Mans to sixth at the flag, beaten only by one other RSR and four prototypes. Even since that conversation I’ve wanted to drive one.

But there are RSRs and there are RSRs, and to me, three stand out. The first is the car that won the Daytona 24 Hours in 1973, outlasting all the whizz-bang Matra and Mirage prototypes to come home a barely believable 22 laps ahead of the second-placed Ferrari – despite the car being a completely unproven commodity racing over any distance, let alone 24 hours. Sadly it was returned to Weissach and broken up. The third is the car that won the Targa Florio that year, this time being there to cash and collect when the factory Ferraris and Alfas failed. Happily, that car still exists.

The second, and only because its victory came between Daytona and the Targa, is this car. In March 1973 it won the Sebring 12 Hours, the race that, along with Daytona and Le Mans, makes up the triple crown of endurance racing. And as anyone who has done all three will tell you, such is the nature of the Sebring track that surviving 12 hours there is just as big an achievement as making it through 24 at Daytona, Le Mans or anywhere else. 

That weekend’s drivers were Peter Gregg and Hurley Haywood, who had won Daytona just six weeks earlier, plus a certain Dave Helmick. At the time Haywood and Gregg were superstars of the US sports car racing scene. Gregg would go on to win Daytona four times before ending his own life in 1980, but Haywood would go on to become America’s greatest endurance racer, his record including five wins at Daytona and three at Le Mans.
As for Helmick, well, his was a walk-on part, of which more in a minute. For now, and as the startlingly yellow RSR warms up in the Donington Park pitlane, a brief reminder of what this car actually is.

***

Like those greatest racing Porsches, the 917 and 956, the catalyst that resulted in the RSR was a rule change. When prototypes with engines of greater than three litres were outlawed from sports car racing from 1972, Porsche found itself with nothing to race. By 1973 the 908, which would continue to work wonders in private hands for years to come, was already five seasons old and all that remained was the good old 911, a car already past its 10th birthday. Nevertheless Porsche figured that a Group 4 version built to production GT specification might help sell street 911s, particularly if its 2.8-litre engine proved capable of beating the 4.4-litre Ferrari Daytonas and 7-litre Corvettes that would make up its closest competition. In the event, and as we have seen already, the result was often good enough to win outright.

To turn the existing RS into an RSR was a mammoth job. Porsche wanted a 3-litre version of its venerable flat-six engine, but that would come only later (when switching crankcase material from magnesium to stronger aluminium allowed less space between the bores). For now 2808cc was as far as it could go. The biggest possible valves, hot cams, twin-plug heads and compression raised from 8.5 to 10.5:1 raised power from 210bhp at 6300rpm to 305bhp at 8000rpm.

To control the extra urge the RSR got a widened track and massive tyres, while Porsche also threw away the torsion-bar suspension for proper coil-over units, dropped the ride height, changed the geometry, fitted race springs and roll bars and, to slow it all down, fitted the 917’s braking system. Extensive wind tunnel testing even coaxed a body whose basic design created significant lift into generating a small amount of downforce.

It was in this form that two cars were sent to Daytona in 1973 as a suck-it-and-see exercise. In testing, no RSR had lasted more than 18 hours without breaking. Porsche was so unsure of their ability even to finish let alone do well it didn’t even enter as a works team, but instead gave one to Brumos, its Florida dealership run by Gregg, and the other to Roger Penske for his Can-Am dream team of Mark Donohue and George Follmer. But it was not the RSRs that broke, but the faster, more fragile prototypes. By midnight the Porsches were first and second and, when Penske’s car finally succumbed to the expected engine failure, it left the Brumos car far out in the lead to run to the flag in a race troubled only by a late windscreen change. But because it had gone further, faster and for longer than had any RSR in testing, Porsche wanted it back to examine in forensic detail.

“Were it not for Dave Helmick we’d have been short of a ride,” recalls the now 68-year-old Haywood. “When we discovered our car wasn’t coming back, Weissach told Peter and me about this car in private ownership that while not in Brumos colours [white, with red and blue stripes] was essentially the same specification as our Daytona car. So we went to Sebring, met with Dave, checked the car out and discovered it was every bit as good as the car we’d had at Daytona.” So they just had to persuade Helmick to let them have it. “He was pretty happy really, when he saw how quick and competitive Peter and I were. In the end we agreed he’d do a single stint, which was about an hour, and Peter and I would do the rest.”

Some 72 cars started the Sebring 12 Hours on a hot, sunny weekend towards the end of March 1973. Being run to IMSA rules meant there were no prototypes, but if Haywood and Gregg thought that meant it would be a cakewalk, they were soon to be disabused of that notion. As well as other Porsches, their RSR was up against no fewer than 18 Corvettes with engines two and half times the size of that in the back of the RSR. Despite probably the best driver line-up on the grid, Haywood and Gregg could manage just fourth place in qualifying, behind three of the ’Vettes, the quickest of which was six seconds faster around the 5.2-mile airfield track.

“We knew the best Corvettes would have the edge on us in qualifying trim,” says Hurley, “but Peter and I agreed not to get drawn into that contest. We were going to play to our car’s strengths, run our own race, ignore everyone else and bet on Porsche engineering to make sure we were still around at the end, because we knew many others would not be.” And he was right: of those 72, 39 finished but just 24 travelled far enough to be classified.

So the Chevrolets duly thundered off and then, one by one, broke. By half-distance all three Corvettes that had outpaced the RSR in qualifying were safely back in their pit garages with terminal mechanical maladies.

“After that we were able to control the race quite easily. I can remember another 911 getting quite close to us in the early evening [almost certainly the RS of Michael Keyser and Milt Minter that came second], but we had enough of a cushion and sufficient spare pace up our sleeves to be quite comfortable.” Despite the need for another windscreen change, they crossed the line with a lap in hand over the RS and seven over the fastest surviving Corvette.

Haywood had a ball. “I loved driving Sebring. It’s a track like no other. You’d always get an eclectic mix of cars on a circuit so bumpy you seemed to spend half of any given lap in the air. We did well there because Porsche built a car that was not only quick but was able to take everything the track could throw at it. But we also managed it well, to the extent we’d take strange lines through many bends just to avoid the worst of the bumps.”

And the RSR? “I have very happy memories of it there. The car was very active, it did everything from the back end, it was really very mobile and great fun to drive. There’s a picture of me on the podium and you can see the blisters on my hands from all the manhandling
I had to do with it. Porsche had built a fine racing car, it made good power and responded wonderfully to everything you did with it.”

Nick Faure, for one, would agree.

The Sebring RSR raced on in the US in ’73 and ’74, ending up with a new owner and upgraded to full wide-bodied 3-litre RSR specification. It was sold as such to an American collector in 1976 and left wearing Porsche 917/20 ‘Pink Pig’ livery until in 2001 it was acquired by a new owner, who determined to return it to its original Sebring specification. The car finally came to the UK in 2004 when it was sold to its current owner, who gave it a full mechanical restoration to original 2.8 RSR specification so that today the car is almost exactly as it was when Haywood first clapped eyes on it 43 years ago.

***

if you compare the RSR at Sebring then and at Donington now and, a couple of Festival of Speed stickers aside, you would struggle to tell the difference. I love all the RSR details, from the big ones like those huge nine and 11in Fuchs alloys to the tiny ones, like the 10,000rpm tachometer with no redline. I have driven an RSR before, but only slowly and on the road. As I strap myself in I can feel myself shivering with excitement. The owner is there and, save an instruction to enjoy myself, makes no other commands. I have to ask how many revs to use. We settle at 7500rpm, just 500 short of peak power. Enough, in other words.

The interior of this winner of one of the world’s three greatest endurance races would be instantly familiar to anyone who has sat in any kind of early 911. Calibrations and a spare Stack tacho aside, the dials are the same and in the same place. It has a street-standard RS wheel and the usual splatter of switchgear. 

But when it starts you hear the difference at once. The song is the same, but the increase in volume and richness compared to a normal early air-cooled flat-six is akin to an entire orchestra playing music originally written for a string quartet.

***

Oddly enough, as you nose out onto the circuit and start to try to understand this car, it feels far closer to a street machine than I had expected and, indeed, its full race specification suggests. It steers like a normal 911, perhaps a little heavier-helmed on street-legal Michelin TB15 track-day tyres, but that delicious feel is as clear as ever. It’s only when you stop driving it like a road car and start driving it like the racer it is that its character changes entirely.

Even by Porsche standards, the engine is a masterpiece. Its flat-six motors from this era were all quite peaky, so you’d expect one as highly tuned as this to have an even narrower operating range, but that’s not what transpires. Even at 4000rpm, halfway around the permitted sweep of the dial, it’s fully on song, squatting the rear of the car down onto the Tarmac, nose sniffing the air in time-honoured 911 style. And it’s quick – not dramatically, uncontainably quick because you’d need a 934 or 935 for that – but more than sufficiently rapid not only to stretch your mouth to your ears, but also to make sure you focus your attention very firmly on your braking points. This is, after all, an old 911 and the slow in, fast out rules still apply.

Or so it seems. At first I must say I am a touch unsettled by the car’s handling. First fast time down the Craner Curves it wobbles a little as the track turns to the right beyond the exit of Redgate and again through the transition into the next left-hander. The car is worth millions and I don’t really want to be scaring myself in it. But after a few laps it is clear there’s nothing inherently wrong with the car, its high-speed behaviour merely the result of quite a soft street set-up and the TB15s which while little used, are rather old. 

Armed and emboldened by this knowledge, the rest of my time in the car is the stuff of dreams. In the medium-speed and slower corners that make up the rest of the lap, it is the most neutral old 911 I’ve driven on a track, resisting the usual understeer you expect, yet still blessed with other-worldly traction and able to take power comically early in the corner. And once it does start to slide, there is no reason to back out of it, but unwind the requisite amount of lock, add a little in the other direction if needed, keep the throttles wide open and listen to that 12-plug motor howl its approval.

With the Targa Florio winner, this is one of the two most important racing 911s there is, a car whose picture I have looked at for decades without once ever dreaming I might see it, let alone drive it as hard as I liked. It does not disappoint. Sometimes time is too short to reveal a car’s soul in the course of a necessarily brief track test. If you can emerge with even a glimpse of what they’d be like to race, you can call it a result. The RSR is not like this: I can see exactly why Hurley Haywood and Nick Faure loved the RSR for it is, in truth, nothing less than the most rewarding iteration of the greatest sports car ever invented. A few laps of Donington are a joy, so several hours at Sebring must have been heaven on earth.

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