Few fans of endurance racing who attended the 24 Hours of Daytona in 1971 were aware they were witnessing the end of an era. Some would later say that the 1971 World Manufacturer’s Championship (previously known as the World Sportscar Championship or WSC) series would be the zenith for that series, although it would drag on until its demise in 1992.
Blame for the slow death of this race series can be laid at the feet of the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) and their independent competition committee known as the Commission Sportive International (CSI).
The FIA and CSI were known for frequent rules changes many of which defied logic and common sense. In the late 1960’s the Ford – Ferrari Wars produced some magnificent machines like the 7-liter Ford GT40 Mk. IV prototype and the 4-liter Ferrari V12 prototype. These cars began to dominate the WSC series and the competition between the two kept driving up the costs of racing, as well as the speeds. Cars were driving at unheard of speeds at places like Le Mans but safety features were slow to catch up. As a result there were numerous bad accidents with the resultant injury and death.
In an attempt to get speeds down and costs under control the FIA mandated that for four years, starting in 1968, the limited production prototype race cars would be limited to no more than 3-liters in engine size and cars in the sports car category would be limited to 5-liters. This rules change effectively killed the big Ford and Ferrari prototypes.
Unfortunately many of the race constructors were unable or unwilling to develop and build the required 50 cars needed for homologation under the new rules. As a result the FIA faced the very real possibility of seriously diminished entry lists at their premier endurance events. No cars, no race fans. No race fans, no gate receipts. As they say, “Money talks and u-know-what walks.”
So, it was back to the drawing board for FIA and they rescinded the 50-car requirement and instead said all you need to produce is 25 cars for homologation. This change was supposed to entice more car manufacturers to build and enter cars in the series. Good for competition, no?
Seeing a loop hole in these new rules, the folks at Porsche jumped in with both feet. They took their venerable and well-tested 908 and upgraded it to produce a 5-liter car for the sports car category. That category was originally meant for production sports cars with two seats and a spare tire.
Using the 908 platform, with the minimal sports car requirements, they developed a 5-liter car they hoped will beat any of the new 3-liter prototypes and claim an overall win at the Holy Grail of racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans. They called their new car the 917 an in just 10 months the new 917 made its racing debut on May 11, 1969, at Spa in Belgium.
The new 917 “sports car” was incredibly fast but also incredibly unstable and dangerous at high speeds. It was so unstable that Porsche had problems getting drivers willing to drive the car in events. Some flat refused instead demanding they drive the old 908LH.
This stability problem wasn’t resolved until Porsche partnered up with John Wyer and his automotive group. Porsche would continue to develop engines but J.W. Automotive would enter and race the cars. They were the ones who eventually solved the aerodynamic problems and created the 917 body style we know and love today.
No doubt when Enzo Ferrari was told what the early 917 could do, he knew that this was a serious threat to Ferrari’s chances of winning any more World Sportscar Championships. So Enzo, now flush with needed capital from selling half his stock to Fiat, shut down development on the 312P program to concentrate on creating a car that could equal or beat the new 917. In a remarkable nine months the Ferrari 512S made its racing debut at the 1970 24 Hours of Daytona.
Author’s Note: When Porsche’s Dr. Ferdinand Piech brought in the FIA homologation inspectors to try and get the 917 certified he had only 18 completed cars and the parts for the remaining 25 on the factory floor. The inspectors gave a thumbs down on certification saying that all 25 cars had to be assembled and ready to drive. Yet, one year later Enzo Ferrari had only 17 cars assembled with five of them already in Daytona for the 24 hour race. Despite only having 17 cars fully assembled the FIA inspectors granted homologation for the 512. This homologation came when the Daytona race was already seven hours old. Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately the six month lead that Porsche had in development and testing was too much of a handicap for Ferrari. Porsche won nine of the last twelve endurance races (as of January 1971) and the manufacturer’s title in 1969 and 1970. During the 1970 season the FIA, trying to close that loophole that allowed the birth of the 917 & 512, changed the rules again. They mandated that “all” Group 5 sportscars (917’s, 512’s and so on) would be limited to a maximum of 3-liters for the 1972 season. This would effectively retire those wonderful cars from any more FIA events after only 2 ½ years. The series name was also changed from the World Sportscar Championship to the World Championship of Makes.
Since 1971 was going to be the last year for the 5-liter sports cars, Enzo Ferrari felt he didn’t have the resources to support a 512 factory effort in the 1971 season. He would leave it up to private entries like Luigi Chinetti and his North American Racing Team (N.A.R.T.) and Roger Penske to represent Maranello while Ferrari continued to develop his 3-liter car for the 1972 season.
Porsche took the opposite view. They continued to help J.W. Automotive and their other defacto factory team (Martini International Racing Team) and didn’t even consider developing a 3-liter engine for the 1972 season. Instead they quietly decided to withdraw from the World Championship of Makes and enter their 917 cars in the very popular American Can-Am Championship.
So, in January of 1971, at Daytona there were technically no factory teams. We have the Porsche factory-supported Gulf and Martini Porsches, the Ferrari-supported NART and Penske Ferraris as the main competition. Alfa and Matra were absent from this event, Matra mostly because of the horrendous and embarrassing accident that occurred at Buenos Aires earlier in the month that took the life of Ferrari favorite, Ignazio Giunti.
Giunti was driving the new factory Ferrari 312PB when he plowed into the Matra 660 of Jean-Pierre Beltoise. Beltoise had run out of gas a quarter mile from the pits. For some unknown reason he decided to push the car (a disqualifying offense) to his pit. At one point he was literally in the middle of the track. At that particular moment Beltoise looked over his shoulder and saw two cars coming toward him and barely got clear of his car when Giunti, his view blocked by the slower car in front of him, tried to pass and struck the Matra. The impact at full speed and resulting fire gave Giunti little chance of survival.
After the race Enzo Ferrari announced, that in honor of Giunti’s memory, they would not race any factory cars at the Daytona event which was the first points race of the season. Some automotive writers scoffed at this saying that Porsche humiliated Ferrari in 1970 and Enzo was just looking for an excuse not to be beaten again.
The 917 Porsches were a known quantity since they had been regular winners the past season but the dark blue and yellow Penske/Kirk F. White/Sunoco Ferrari 512M was something new and a remarkable piece of fabrication by the Penske boys back in Philadelphia.
Penske literally took a Ferrari 512S and rebuilt it from the ground up adding on the more aerodynamic “M” body. The new body made it look more like a 917 than a 512 and for all intents and purposes, it was a brand new car. Again, the FIA didn’t see it that way and approved the new body without much fuss. Enzo must have known someone who knew someone at FIA.
Added to the aerodynamic improvements Penske got TRACO to boost engine power by 35 horses to an impressive 640 hp. With a new wiring configuration plus a whole host of other improvements the car could have been a serious contender for the 1971 manufacturer’s championship if the Ferrari factory had adopted the Penske improvements or contracted with Penske to build a version of the 512M.
While a J.W. Automotive Gulf 917 had won Daytona the previous year John Wyer was no lover of this particular race. According to Wyer, “The (Daytona) race should be shorter than 24 hours so we could have a motor race instead of having to conserve cars.” Having spent several cold January nights on the track as a corner worker doing the midnight shift I wouldn’t disagree with that point of view. Shorter might be better.
The 61-year-old Englishman also vented his feelings concerning the changing nature of racing back in 1971, saying, “Racing…is still a sport but includes more business.” Ironically it was his wildly successful cars that contributed to the evolution of endurance racing into what it is today…big business.
Lost in all the hub bub about 917’s and 512’s in 1971 were the cars that made up almost two-thirds of the 65 cars that were supposed to fill up the starting grid. They were the touring and grand touring cars, many of which were entered by weekend racers who might enter one or two big events a year like Daytona and Sebring. Many of these privateers raced on limited budgets with many camping out in the infield and cooking their meals over an hibachi.
Unfortunately quite a few of these small-time racers got shafted that year at Daytona when the FIA trimmed the starting field from the previously announced 65 cars to 48.
Cars that qualified slower than 93 miles per hour over the 3.81 mile course were judged as too slow and withdrawn from the race (no idea if their entry fee was refunded.) The rationale behind this unexpected last-minute decision was the speed differential that could reach over 100 mph between the fastest and slowest cars.
This danger was especially acute at night on the high banks where line of site is shortened by the curve of the banks plus a closing speed that left little chance for evasion. As they told the slower drivers at the driver’s meeting, “Stay in your lane on the high banks. You don’t want to get a Porsche (917) enema.”