Porsche's place in Formula 1 history


Porsche is too coldly rational for Formula 1; I very much doubt that it has ever loved it. That’s why a marque whose history is so entwined with motorsport has only one World Championship Grand Prix win (as a constructor) to its famous name. Fifty years ago this Sunday, Dan Gurney’s luck turned for the better as he steered the fastidious rather than out-and-out fast Type 804 to victory in the French GP at Rouen.

Yet more memorable – for driver and manufacturer – was his success the following weekend at the non-championship Solitude GP in Porsche’s Stuttgart backyard. More than 300,000 spectators lined this perilous seven-mile road circuit and pandemonium ensued when Dan took the spoils. It’s very likely that many that day returned home with a hat different to that with which they arrived.

Two wins, however, was not the excellence that was expected and represented an insufficient return for Ferry Porsche: the forthcoming 901 road car – to be swiftly ‘upgraded’ to 911 to appease Peugeot – a new factory and more staff were his priorities. At this time, remember, his company was producing 25-30 hand-built cars per day; this Porsche was far removed from today’s global brand. F1, even in 1962, was too expensive for it – the British garagistes, with their bought-in drivetrains and modded off-the-shelf running gear, were reckoned to be spending half as much – while its challenger was too divorced from its road-going product to have much usefulness in either their improvement or promotion. Sports cars, Ferry reasoned wisely, were what Porsche was about. Long-distance racing, with its emphasis on solid engineering, unshakeable reliability and detailed preparation, was much more its cup of coffee.

Of course, that’s another way of saying that it had struggled at the sport’s highest level. Its fussy and quirky air-cooled Type 753 flat-eight was 15-20bhp short of the benchmark, while its tubular spaceframe chassis, even though the need to incorporate a water radiator had been obviated, was a blunt instrument compared to the Lotus 25’s pencil-slim bathtub monocoque. And because Porsche had every intention of becoming a big fish, better then to swim in a smaller pond.

Those two years as an F1 constructor were out of character, a corollary of the category’s renaissance from an F2 chrysalis. Porsche’s bulbous flat-four 718 had met with success in the latter category and was easily beefed up for F1’s switch to 1.5 litres in 1961. Indeed, but for the Ferrari ‘Sharknose’ of an inspired Giancarlo Baghetti at Reims, Gurney would have scored that first win a year earlier than he did. He also finished second in Italy and America. Much, therefore, was expected of the new car.

Gurney, jutting “like a giraffe” from its cockpit, worked wonders to qualify eighth for the Dutch GP in May and was running third in the race when he suffered the first sign of the gearbox problem that would eventually sideline him.

Twitchy Porsche might have withdrawn into its shell there and then but for Gurney’s persuasion. Just one modified V8 was sent to Monaco and he qualified it joint third, aka fifth, only to be eliminated in a first-corner accident not of his making.

The team did skip Spa while revisions were carried out – suspension, gear linkage, brakes – and it arrived at Rouen with renewed hope: Gurney qualified mid-grid, 1.7 seconds slower than the pole-sitting Lotus of Jim Clark.

The latter, however, had no answer in the race to Graham Hill’s BRM P57, which led comfortably until it was clattered by the privateer Cooper of Jack Lewis. Clark assumed the lead for three laps, whereupon his front suspension failed and Hill was restored to his rightful place. Meanwhile Gurney, who had stayed out of trouble and inherited places via the misfortunes of others, was now second. And this pattern continued when Hill’s V8 spluttered to a rough tick-over and no more because of fuel injection bothers, which allowed Gurney to smoothly tick off the remaining 13 laps.

At Solitude, he led from the first lap, outdistanced Clark’s Lotus – on the pole of a 14-car grid despite a tired Coventry Climax V8 – and headed team-mate Jo Bonnier in a 1-2 for the 804s after Clark spun out because of a rain shower.

But Gurney’s greatest Porsche performance did not result in a win. After much testing at the Nürburgring, he secured pole for the German GP. Final practice – the ‘banzai’ session – had been compromised by rain, but Dan was three seconds faster than his nearest rival and was said to have another three in hand from testing. He and his car were in the ballpark basically. This they proved by leading the first two laps before having to give best to Hill’s BRM.

Then the battery broke loose in the Porsche’s cockpit. Adapting manfully to this unexpected, encumbering factor, the Californian chased Hill, the eventual winner, and the Lola of John Surtees in the pouring rain, the trio finishing fewer than five seconds apart after superb demonstrations of car control. Gurney, third, had been at his brilliant best.

Porsche contested two more GPs – a broken crown-wheel when third with 20 laps to go at Monza and a lapped fifth place at Watkins Glen – and that was that. No announcement, just a slipping away.

That French GP win had been a face-saver: we’ve done it; we’ve showed that we can do it; we’re off. The truth was that there was/is only room for one black horse in F1. Although it was absent from Rouen that day – up to its withers in an industrial dispute and also struggling to be competitive – that was always going to be Ferrari’s feisty stallion rather than Ferry’s faithful and strong ‘Boxer.’

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