Victory for a 917 Porsche
Zeltweg, Austria, August 10th.
After less than two years’ work the new racing circuit in the foothills overlooking Zeltweg was opened with a small sports-car race, before the 1,000-kilometre race, and this acted as a test-run for the circuit and the organisation. After struggling manfully for a number of years with a rather poor circuit on the Zeltweg airfield the local branch of the Austrian Automobile Club were more than pleased to put on a 1,000-kilometre race on their brand new 5.911-kilometre circuit. Carved out of virgin farm land and forest, the Osterreichring is a fine example of what can be done when enough finance is raised to build a circuit from scratch. It has many climbs and descents and all the curves are fast ones, some of them completely blind, and lap speeds are over 120 m.p.h. The only criticism one might make of the layout is that it lacks any sharp corners and some of the curves lack character, but set in undulating countryside with a back-cloth of pine trees and mountains the overall effect is extremely pleasant and agreeable.
The Austrians have been calling their premier motor race the Austrian Grand Prix, whether it was for Formula One or sports cars, so this was officially the Seventh Austrian G.P., though a better title would have been the Austrian 1,000 Kilometres, and it was the last round in the 1969 Sports-Prototype Championship. Some idea of the esteem in which the Austrian organisers are held by the racing world can be judged by the excellent entry they received for this first long-distance race on the new circuit. Official works entries came from Alfa Romeo, Matra, Gulf-Mirage, and a veritable armada of Porsches from the Stuttgart factory, although none were official works entries. Maintaining their official policy of having withdrawn from racing for the rest of this season, Porsche team personnel, technical staff, works mechanics and team drivers were at Zeltweg in force, racing under the entries of private owners. The Austrian branch of Porsche entered three 908 Spyder models, all with the latest more-streamlined bodywork, one of them having the short Manx-type tail and the other two the longer tail that extends beyond the gearbox and covers all the mechanism. The factory people also had two 917 coupés, without the long tails but retaining the suspension-controlled spoiler flaps. One car was under the entry of Karl von Wendt and the other under that of David Piper Racing, these two having options to buy the cars at a later date. Works drivers Siffert, Redman, Attwood, Ahrens, Larousse, Lins, von Wendt and Kauhsen were spread amongst the five cars during practice, the final driver/car combinations being decided the night before the race.
Autodelta were out in force, with three 3-litre V8 cars the latest, Tipo 33-3 models, with Casoni/Zeccoli, de Adamich/Vaccarella and Giunti/Galli driving them. Matra sent a 650 Spyder V12-cylinder car for Servoz-Gavin/Rodriguez and the Gulf team had their open cockpit Mirage with Cosworth V8 Grand Prix engine, the drivers being Ickx/Oliver. There should have been one works 3-litre Alpine-Renault, but it was withdrawn at the last moment. Most of the European private teams were entered as well as numerous regular long-distance racing private entries. Piper was sharing his green Lola-Chevrolet V8 with B.M.W. driver Quester; Bonnier and Muller were driving the red Filipinetti Lola-Chevrolet V8; Pilate and Slotemaket had the Belgian V.D.S. team 2½-litre Alfa Romeo 33; there were three privately owned Snyder 908 Porsches, Neuhaus and Fröhlich with one sponsored by the Gesipa rivet manufacturer, Koch and Dechent with the German B.G. Racing team car, and Masten Gregory and Brostrom with one loaned from the factory while their own was being repaired. Nearly every Porsche 910 built was entered, a few early 906 models, and the Chevrons of J.C.B. Ltd and TOR Shipping Line, while four 911 Porsches made up the GT category.
Practice on Friday and Saturday took place from 2 p.m. to 5.15 p.m. each day, and the first part of each session was untimed, allowing plenty of opportunity to experiment before the serious business began. Only a handful of drivers had competed at the inaugural meeting two weeks before, so practice saw quite a lot of drivers finding their limit the hard way, by spinning off, though no serious damage was done. Siffert dented the back of one of the long-tailed 908 Spyders, Muller crumpled both left side corners of the Filipinetti Lola, and an old 906 Porsche was very crumpled around the rear end. On Saturday afternoon Oliver in the Mirage and Ahrens in a 917 collided nose with tail and there was quite a lot of straightening out to be done that night. The time-keepers made no attempt to differentiate between the pairs of drivers, merely giving the times for each car; and Siffert seemed to try all the works cars in turn, while Ahrens also did considerable practice, especially with the von Wendt-entered 917. Ickx was undoubtedly the fastest driver, getting the Mirage-Cosworth V8 round in 1 min. 47.46 sec., and no-one else broke 1 min. 48 sec., although Siffert, Bonnier, Rodriguez and Giunti were all in that bracket. In spite of trying all the Porsches Siffert wound up with the fourth fastest overall, credited to the von Wendt-entered 917 Porsche. The Porsche team manager announced that Siffert/Ahrens would drive the von Wendt 917, Attwood/Redman the Piper-entered 917, von Wendt/Kauhsen the newest long-tailed Spyder 908 with small vertical rudders on the tail, and Lins/Larousse the Manx-tailed 908.
The starting area of the new circuit is not as wide as it might have been, and the cars were lined up in rows of two, Ickx (Mirage) and Bonnier (Lola) on the front row, followed by Servoz-Gavin (Matra) and Siffert (Porsche 917), Giunti (Alfa Romeo) and Attwood (Porsche 917), Gregory (Porsche 908) and de Adamich (Alfa Romeo), Piper (Lola) and Koch (Porsche 908), and the rest of the total of 36 starters. The race distance was 170 laps and at midday the one and only Fangio dropped the Austrian flag and sent the field on their way. As expected, the opening sequence became a battle between lckx and Siffert, the enormous power advantage of the 917 Porsche being offset by the fact that it is still a handful on corners and keeps the driver very busy, whereas the Mirage was far superior on handling, though more than 100 b.h.p. down on the Porsche. Although Ickx led at the start, Siffert got by within four laps and then did his utmost to shake off the blue and orange Mirage, but to no avail, for lckx kept right behind the 917 with the green flashes over the front wings, and these two out-stripped the rest of the runners. In the opening laps Casoni spun off with one of the 3-litre Alfa Romeos, causing much alarm among the lesser lights at the back of the field and the Chevrons of Enever and Edwards collided, the former in the yellow J.C.B. Ltd. car suffering only a crack in the fibreglass tail, but the latter in the TOR Lines Racing car crumpled the front, which ultimately caused its retirement. Gregory was in fine form with the old borrowed Porsche 908 and was a secure third, and Bonnier was leading Giunti and Servoz-Gavin. Behind them Koch (908), Attwood (917), de Adamich (Alfa Romeo) and Lins (908) were having a great scrap amongst themselves.
For 25 laps Siffert and Ickx ran more or less nose-to-tail, in and out of the slower cars, often passing one on each side of someone who was not looking in his mirror, or going between two cars that were busily having a private race of their own. It was all good long-distance-racing manoeuvres of the sort that keeps the top drivers right on their toes. Siffert lapped the other 917, which must have depressed Attwood, and Bonnier, Servoz-Gavin; Koch and Giunti were now scrapping for fourth place, while Gregory was secure in third place, but worried by an increasing vibration as if the wheels were going out of balance. Further down the field the Austrian driver Marko, in a 910 Porsche, was holding on to Pilate in the Belgian 2½-litre Alfa Romeo, which was a creditable effort, and Lins caught and passed de Adamich. Ickx had never been more than a few feet behind the 917 and he now got by and had a turn at leading, while Gregory was forced to call at the pits as the vibrations were getting worse. All four wheels were changed and this cured the trouble, but lost him nearly four laps, and put him at the back of the field, which left Bonnier in third place. Koch got by the Matra to take fourth place, but not for long as all his oil pressure faded and he was forced out. The first signs of the thirst of the 917 Porsches was seen when Attwood was called in after he had done 35 laps, and only three laps later Siffert was in for petrol, while Giunti’s Alfa Romeo 3-litre was equally thirsty. Redman took over from Attwood, Ahrens from Siffert and Galli from Giunti, and Ickx now had a long lead of nearly a lap over Bonnier. Refuelling was being done with open churns and funnels so it was a fairly long business, but it was equally bad for everyone. It was 41 laps gone before Ickx brought the Mirage in for fuel and for Oliver to take over, and by that time he had lapped the second-place Lola, but during the stop the Lola went by to get back on the same lap. The 908 Porsches did not have to start refuelling until after 42 laps, but apart from Gregory they were not being driven quickly enough to take advantage of the better fuel consumption. Bonnier’s Lola and the Matra both ran 43 laps on their original full tanks, five laps more than the 917 Porsche, and this was significant, for they were not all that much down on speed. The Matra refuelling was quicker than most and Rodriguez took it back into the race in second position behind the Mirage, the Gulf team not having wasted any time.
With 50 laps run the first refuelling stops were all done and the reshuffle that inevitably happens was sorted out, so that Oliver now led in the Mirage, followed by Rodriguez in the Matra, Muller in the Swiss Lola, Ahrens in the 917 Porsche, Galli in the first of the 3-litre Alfa Romeos, followed by Larousse (908 Porsche), Vaccarella (Alfa Romeo) and Redman (917 Porsche). Ahrens was going great guns in the 917, the stocky little German appearing quite confident with the car, and he gained a steady two seconds a lap on Oliver, passing the Mirage with ease to get on the same lap and then disappearing ahead in hot pursuit of the Matra which was in second place. Redman was also going very fast in the other 917 Porsche and regaining places lost through slow pit work and Attwood’s slow opening drive. By 73 laps Ahrens had caught the Matra and moved up into second place, but refuelling stops were due once more and Redman was the first 917 to come in, closely followed by the two 3-litre Alfa Romeos. The Porsche team left Ahrens in the 917 for only 30 laps before calling him in for petrol and letting Siffert take over again. During the stop Oliver went by in the Mirage, which put him a lap ahead and Rodriquez went by in the Mirage, which put him a lap ahead and Rodriguez went by to retake second place. Siffert left the pits as if at a drag-meeting but he was now a whole lap behind Oliver and Rodriquez, though they still had to stop, and behind the Lola driver by Muller. The Mirage had nearly a whole lap lead over the Matra, and nearly one-and-a-half over the 917, while the Lola was between the Matra and the Porsche.
At 85 laps, which was 500 kilometres or half-distance, the order was Mirage, Matra, Lola, Porsche 917, followed by the other 917, the Lins/Larousse 908 and the two Autodelta Alfa Romeos, while Marko and Gerin were leading the 2-litre class. One lap later the order changed for Oliver was called in for petrol and for Ickx to take over, which let the Matra go into the lead and Siffert go by to be on the same lap as the Mirage. Ickx was soon away and the Matra lead was short-lived for it stopped for petrol next lap and the Mirage was leading once more. Servoz-Gavin took over the French car and was back in the race before Siffert appeared so the first three were Ickx/Oliver, Servoz-Gavin/Rodriguez and Siffert/Ahrens, all on the same lap. The Swiss Lola had lost its third place when it stopped for petrol and a driver change and Bonnier re-joined the race just behind Siffert on the road. Siffert was losing a second a lap to the Mirage, and was 1 min. 18 sec. behind, so it now seemed to be all over, for the Mirage had 54 seconds lead over the Matra which was second and it was pulling away. Bonnier was in great form, the Lola cornering so much better than the 917 Porsche that he was able not only to keep pace, but actually overtake, thus putting himself on the same lap as Siffert. At 99 laps with the race apparently a certainty for the Mirage, Ickx made an unexpected pit-stop; the steering column had broken away from its mounting and as nothing could be done the car had to be withdrawn, leaving the Matra now in the lead, 27 seconds ahead of Siffert, with the Porsche gaining all the time. The Matra held the lead for a bare five laps before Servoz-Gavin spun off the track. He missed a gear-change and while fumbling about he inadvertently switched off the ignition. Without thinking he hurriedly switched it on again in the middle of the corner and the sudden resumption of power had him spinning off the road before he even thought about it, and the car was wrecked against the barriers, so Siffert suddenly found himself back in the lead, with Bonnier nearly a lap behind. Gregory had now moved up into third place, for while the wheels had been changed during his early pit-stop the petrol tanks had been filled so he had been regaining ground rapidly while the others had routine refuelling stops. The Giunti/Galli Alfa Romeo was now in fourth place by reason of consistent and well-balanced driving, the two young Italians being very evenly matched, and it was followed by Attwood in the second 917 and the Lins/Larousse 908 Porsche. The Gregory/Brostrom Porsche did not keep its third place for long as it came in for fuel, completely out of step with the other leading cars, so suddenly lost a number of places, but had every chance of regaining them when the others refuelled.
With 52 laps still to go Siffert stopped for petrol and the left front tyre was changed, indicative of the understeer wear properties of the circuit, and Ahrens took over. It was a long stop, delayed further by the engine being reluctant to start without the help of mechanics squirting neat petrol down the fuel-injection intakes, by which time Bonnier had gone by into the lead, but he was also due in for petrol. By the time Ahrens was back in the running the 917 was 1 min. 26 sec. behind the Lola, but less than 10 laps passed before Bonnier was in for petrol and to hand over to Muller. While the Lola was stationary the 917 went by the pits and was nearly halfway round the lap when Muller set off. There were now 40 laps left to run and the Porsche led the Lola by 50 seconds, but the Porsche team now realised that the Lola could go through to the end without stopping, whereas they would have to call in their car once more for petrol. Urgently they signalled the information to Ahrens, urging him to gain as much distance over Muller as possible. For him it was a very nebulous challenge, for he could only try as hard as he could and watch the gap increasing on the pit signals, which is much harder than seeing your adversary and gaining visible ground on him. However, he responded nobly and the gap increased steadily, the Porsche pit signalling him the gap on every lap, it rose to 66 sec., then 76 sec, 88 sec., 90 sec. and ever onwards. It finally reached 100 seconds and he was lapping at 1 min. 55 sec. so the pits gave him a green signal, indicating “OK—hold it”. Meanwhile Bonnier had found out that the 917 was due for another petrol stop and his pit were urging Muller to keep the pressure on, but the little Swiss could not rise to the situation. He was not happy on the very fast blind curves, and his practice accident had detuned him a bit, so nothing could be done.
Meanwhile the Alfa Romeo challenge had expired completely for de Adamich had crashed badly when the brakes failed, but he was unhurt, and the Giunti/Galli had fallen out with engine trouble. The Porsche pit was lull of tension, for while 100 seconds lead was enough for refuelling, this had to include slowing down and rejoining the race, leaving nothing in reserve for a re-occurrence of bad starting or similar problems. Thanks to Redman’s fast driving, lapping consistently at 1 min. 50 sec., the second 917 Porsche was now in third place, ahead of the Gregory/Brostrom 908 and the similar car of Lins/Larousse. In the leading 917 Porsche Ahrens was doing a fine job of work and he finally got the Lola in his sights, having made up a full lap, and without hesitating he went by the Lola to lead by a whole lap. With only 14 laps to run Porsche signalled him to come in, Siffert being ready to take over. The tension was great, for the slightest slip could throw the race away, and it was ironical to think of the whole computerised and electronically controlled Porsche team, with the pits knee-deep in engineers and mechanics being brought into such a state of nervous twitch by two private drivers controlled by two mechanics, Bonnier’s wife and a friend!
Ahrens came rushing in, petrol slopped into the great funnel, Siffert clambered in, the engine fired instantly and he was away in the sort of clutch-start that only Siffert can make. The whole Porsche empire gave a great sigh of relief and next time round they were able to tell Siffert he had 52 seconds lead and all was well. He merely had to reel off the remaining laps to give Porsche another victory and the first for the fantastic 917 12-Cylinder car. The second 917 was firmly its third place for the Gregory/Brostrom 908 had to make a stop for petrol with only 11 laps to go, which dropped it to fourth place overall. Even so, this was a very fine effort on the part of the “boy from Kansas” and the Swedish owner, for after their tyre trouble, caused by the tyres “creeping” on the rims, probably under heavy braking, their position seemed hopeless. As expected it was a Porsche victory, but not an easy one, and apart from the Lola, Porsches filled the first 12 places, the private-owners demonstrating that even an ex-works Porsche is a very race-worthy car. With 917 Porsche cars in first and third places the Stuttgart firm went home feeling that they were on a sound programme for the future.—D. S. J.
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