Magic numbers

Porsche 917, Ferrari 512, Lola T70 - perhaps as great a concentration of sports car heritage as you could find in a single pit garage. And Motor Sport was at Donington Park to dirve them. Your chauffeur? Dario Franchitti

Porsche 917, Ferrari 512, Lola T70 driven by Dario Franchitti

Time’s passage has a habit of altering perceptions. In the warm light of 21st century Leicestershire, the collage of Porsche 917, Ferrari 512S and Lola T70 is arguably the apotheosis of mechanical charisma.

In the cold light of July 1971’s Motor Sport, however, Andrew Marriott’s Le Mans report suggested otherwise. “Undoubtedly the race has lost much of its old magic,” he wrote.  “In this, the last year of the present five-litre cars, there were few high spots. The casualty rate among the fancied runners was high,  and of the nine Ferrari 512Ms and seven Porsche 917s only two of each marque remained 24 hours later.”

Nine 512s and seven 917s? Time travel can’t come soon enough.

Today that era is infused with a sense of romance that wasn’t necessarily apparent at the time – Motor Sport’s continental correspondent Denis Jenkinson skipped Le Mans in 1971, for the first time in almost 20 years, due to the ‘poor’ quality of the entry – but in the slipstream of the 1960s, and the intense Ford vs Ferrari warfare, perhaps things did seem a little tamer.

Marriott again: “The field was made up with a very large number of Porsche 911s, which proved thoroughly boring to watch and were probably rather boring to drive, except when you had a 512 lapping you on one side and a 917 on the other…”

Whatever the period reality, the 917 and 512 are blessed with timeless grace – as is the car alongside them today, the distinguished Lola T70 Mk3B. The three belong to the same stable and are gathered at Donington Park as part of a test organised by historic racing regular Joe Twyman.

“The owner [who wishes to remain anonymous] wanted to see all three running, because he’d always had in mind a photograph of them grouped together,” Twyman says. “That was the seed, so I made arrangements at Donington Park – one of the attractions being that it runs unsilenced test days [a benefit of being at the end of an airport runway]. You wouldn’t really want anything else for a 512, a 917 and a T70. It was a day for special cars, some of which aren’t normally seen racing.”

Also present were another 917 and a 956 – Le Mans winners, both – a Cologne Capri, a Targa Florio 911 RSR and a Jaguar XJR-9 – but Motor Sport was invited to focus on the three at the top of the list… and not just to photograph them but to take stints at their helms. For that part of the job we recruited triple Indy 500 winner and four-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti, a dedicated student of our sport’s history. While the Scotsman requires little introduction, the cars might – in detail, at least.

The 917 is chassis 026/31, originally a JW Automotive car that David Hobbs and Mike Hailwood raced in Gulf colours at Le Mans in 1970 (where it failed to finish, following an accident). It was subsequently converted into a Spyder and raced by Ernst Kraus and  Jürgen Barth in Interserie events, but preparation specialist Paul Lanzante very recently completed its restoration to original 917K specification.

The Ferrari is 512S chassis 1006, run by North American Racing Team (NART) in 1970 and ’71 and driven by a cast including Pedro Rodríguez, Sam Posey, Ronnie Bucknum and Tony Adamowicz. Bucknum and Adamowicz took it to second place in the 1971 Daytona 24 Hours, but it retired from that summer’s Le Mans (Masten Gregory/George Eaton) when its fuel injection system ingested too much dirt.

As the T70’s emerald hue implies, it’s an ex-David Piper car. Widely raced since first being campaigned in 1969, chassis SL76/150’s alumni include Richard Attwood, Hans Herrmann, Paul Hawkins and Jean-Pierre Beltoise. “It’s thought to be one of the most authentic T70s still racing,” Twyman says. “There are very few out there with their original tubs, but this has original everything.”

Mr Franchitti, kindly step this way…

Lola T70 driven by Dario Franchitti