Completing the trifecta

We track down one of the very few drivers who raced the Lola T70, Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 in their heyday

Four years separated the Lola T70, the Porsche 917 and the Ferrari 512 in an era when the same motley band of drivers would traipse around the world racing what would become the sport’s most memorable prototypes. Yet finding a driver who raced all three is a tall order. Many drove two out of the three, but very few completed the set. We can name two, and we’re talking to one. Can he guess his peer?

“Brian [Redman]?” He offers. “Oh no... he drove the 312, didn’t he?”

Correct. The educated man is ‘Hobbo’. David Hobbs is a member of an exclusive club, for he and Jackie Oliver are seemingly the only two men who drove each of these cars in period.

Hobbs’ role in the piece stretches back to the T70’s inception, stepping up from his little giant-killing Lotus Elite to the new and ground-breaking T70 in 1965. He helped to develop the Lola and raced all three variants, the Mk1, 2 and 3, briefly racing the 917 before spending a year in the best of all the 512s, the 512M of Penske and Mark Donohue.

“To compare the three,” he says, “is a bit of a task, quite honestly. The 917 of course had that amazing flat-12 engine, which was pretty awesome. The Ferrari had a beautiful V12, which gave a lot of horsepower, was slippery and responded to changes. But the Lola was the biggest step forward from what had been available before – it was a big advancement  for its time, huge.”

By the time the big two had appeared, the T70 was already showing its age and had fallen from the top tier. When Porsche and Ferrari fought for 1970 and 1971 world championship honours, the Lola was all but nestled away in the history books, cherishing a 1-2 at Daytona in 1969 (thanks to a man who drove two and a half of the three, Mark Donohue).

In the four years from its launch the T70 had gained a roof, longer tail and breadvan stylings, but the 5-litre powerhouses left it breathless. Yet it still made its mark.

“The T70, was way ahead of its time,” Hobbs says. “It was the first monocoque sports car and had nice aero from a slippery point of view, but this was a long way before aero was properly understood. It had big front-end lift, but we didn’t know that at the time and all cars did, really. It was a very, very impressive car.

“I went to a lot of the testing, when John Surtees was driving the prototype at Silverstone because the team I was going to drive for, Harold Young in Long Melford, was going to be one of the first privateers to have one. The lap times were staggering.

The Formula 1 record was about 125mph or thereabouts. John cranked out a lap at 133 or 134mph. It was a huge step up.”

The T70 made its presence similarly felt in competition. In practice for the 1965 Tourist Trophy – moved from Goodwood to Oulton Park and split into two one-hour races – Surtees went almost three seconds quicker than the F1 lap record. Hobbs should have won the race but was awarded second following confusion with the aggregate scoring, despite having only the smaller 289 Ford block compared to the works Lola.

“We should have had a 327 Chevy, the small block, which was significantly more powerful. The Chevy had a good bit of punch, but the 917 and 512 did too. But, as you know, racing cars can develop a lot in five to six years.

“The T70 was the best car I’d driven, but the gearbox in the Lola was the LT500, which was an absolutely foul gearbox to use. It was bloody  awful – to do a decent shift was almost impossible.”

The Porsche’s ’box, a few years later, was little better and cost him a longer spell in the car and ended a long association with Gulf.

“We all assumed that I would carry on in ’70 when they changed to the 917, but the Porsche guys didn’t like me. Mr [Ferdinand] Piëch didn’t. He had the perfect opportunity to turf me out at the test at Daytona when I mis-selected a gear going onto the banking. It blew the engine up, but of course that was a trait of the 917 because it was something of a flexible flier.

“The gearlever back to the gearbox was a long way, and of course the classic one was  Jo Siffert at Le Mans in 1971. He and Brian were leading by a few laps and Jo missed a gear right in front of the pits, Mr Piëch and everyone else.”

IF THE LOLA was the best car he had driven, the Porsche took the mantle of being the fastest. And, having raced the car later in 1970, the main problems had been ironed out. Its deadly attributes had been largely tamed – although not fully.

“It had nothing like the stability of the T70, but it had a lot of horsepower and a lot of torque. There are lurid stories that it would wander side-to-side down the Mulsanne Straight, but I don’t remember it having too many vices. At Le Mans, Gulf ran three cars and John Wyer asked me and Mike [Hailwood] back. We had the 4.5-litre, as did Richard Attwood, but the other factory cars had the 5-litre, so were quite a bit quicker than us. But we soon moved up; if I hadn’t liked the car I wouldn’t have done that.

“At the time I wasn’t really thinking of it in relation to the T70, but it was more aerodynamic because it had more downforce. Towards the end of the T70 we put a bigger spoiler on it, but the 917 was certainly a step up.”

“Next to our Penske 512, the NART car looked like a bucket of bones, with oil leaking from the gearbox”

The Penske-developed Ferrari 512M would soon take the title of fastest and best, if not  the most comfortable. “Mark [Donohue] was lead driver and about three inches shorter than me, so my head touched the roof the whole time. We didn’t have seat inserts or anything like that, so the seat was made for Mark and that was it.”

His 512 stands apart from all others, too, in that Donohue carried across the locked differential from his Trans-Am. “Quite why I don’t know,” admits Hobbs. “It gave a good bit of understeer, especially in low-speed corners, but the car was very, very fast. It was very nice to drive and responded well to any slight chassis or aero change. I know at Daytona before the days of the chicane on the back straight we would arrive at NASCAR 3 doing something like 218mph.”

The locked diff made it as much a Penske  as it was a Ferrari, and makes it hard to compare the Penske car to a NART one.

“Generally speaking, a 512 had no chance against a decent 917. Our car was quicker at every race we went to, so that shows it was our car. Not just a 512. It required a different type of driving – you had to throw it into slower corners to make sure the thing rotated, otherwise it would just push straight on. You got on the power early and used a bit of a powerslide technique to make it work.”

Visually, the standard NART and Penske were diametrically opposed, too, according to Hobbs. “Our 512M was derided when it arrived at Daytona because it was polished to a high degree, even the wheels. Next to ours the NART car looked like a bucket of bones – bits of weld, knackered bodywork, oil leaking out of the gearbox and engine. That was typical Ferrari for the day. Ours was different.”

That was down to Penske’s meticulous attention to detail, which played a massive part in the team’s success. Yet that wasn’t forthcoming for the Ferrari, despite the driving talents of Hobbs and Donohue, and the refining abilities of the latter.

Pole at Daytona was converted into a dominant lead, only for misfortune to intervene. “Vic Elford in a 917 had a tyre blow on the banking and spun down, causing the most horrendous cloud of smoke and dust. Mark, like any normal person, slowed up, and some twerp in a 911, that we’d already lapped about 10 times, ran into him. We put about a thousand yards of tape on the car and still ended up third.”

Sebring went a similar way. Donohue and nemesis Pedro Rodriguez clashed, seemingly unnecessarily. “What I’ve heard since is that it was Mark’s fault,” says Hobbs. “He came in and said Pedro had crashed into him, then swerved and crashed into him again. I just don’t see Pedro doing that. On the other hand, I don’t see Mark doing that either.

“I have spoken to people who saw the incident, because it was way out at the back of Sebring; it was a case of diving inside a tricky corner, Mark stuck his neck out a bit and they touched, then touched again. Why he had this thing against Rodríguez I have no idea, but it cost us the race. We would have won.”

AT LE MANS, handicapped by being a short tail, a blown engine struck the team down. “That was the race that was run at record pace; [Gijs] van Lennep and [Helmut] Marko won at the highest average speed but they had a long stop. I think we might have won that race, but they changed the engine before the race for a brand-new Ferrari. Roger was adamant but Mark and John ‘Woody’ Woodard [chief mechanic] were dead against it. But Roger won out, we changed it and it bloody blew up. I don’t think they could ever get their head around the fact that the Traco engine we had been running was so reliable.

“Then a steering pole broke at Watkins Glen when we were on the pole and leading by miles! That 512 was the fastest; we just had sh**ty luck with it.”

Put simply, from a man who knew them all when they were young, “They were all good cars in their day; the Ferrari was probably the best, just because it was newest, but the T70 was the biggest technical advancement.”