In June of 2014, Porsche will return to Le Mans with a newly designed LMP1 racing machine. With 16 overall victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the pinnacle of endurance motor racing, Porsche is the most successful manufacturer in the race’s 90 year history. Their last win, though, was back in 1998 with the 911 GT1, so Porsche has labeled this endeavor as “Our Return” and “Coming Home”. With so much heritage behind it, Porsche’s new LMP1 program is most certainly history in the making.
Sports Car Digest continues its series of photo retrospectives drawn from Porsche’s Le Mans archive. Following the Porsche at Le Mans in the 1950s and Porsche at Le Mans from 1960 to 1968 profiles, the third installment looks at Porsche’s successes at Le Mans from 1969 to 1973.
It was the 15th of June 1969, with less than four hours to the flag. Vic Elford and Richard Attwood were well clear of their pursuers with the new Porsche 917 long tail. Six laps separated the two Britons from the previous year’s victors Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver in the Ford GT40. Regrettably, a faulty clutch put a halt on their charge with the new race car fitted out with a 4.5-litre flat-12 engine. The second pole-setting 917 manned by Rolf Stommelen and Kurt Ahrens ground to a stop after ten hours with clutch damage. But the Porsche fireworks were by no means over. Hans Herrmann and Gerard Larrousse added a dramatic chapter to the history of the race. A defect wheel bearing early on in the race cost the 908 long tail 35 minutes. In a furious pursuit over 20 hours, the Frenchman and the German plowed through the field to lie within striking distance of the leading Ford GT40 of Ickx and Oliver. In a do-or-die finale, the Ford and Porsche swapped places in the lead several times. Herrmann is hesitant to use the superior braking performance of his lightweight Porsche because a light in the cockpit warned of worn brake pads. Ickx won by just 120 metres. Ironically, it turned out that the warning lamp was faulty and the brake pads were in top condition.
In 1970, Dr. Ferry Porsche sent the contenders on their way. Porsche achieved its first overall victory in the company’s history and locked out the entire podium for the first time. And that against formidable competition! Seven Porsche 917 took up the challenge against eleven Ferrari 512, with the swift prototypes fitted with three-litre Formula 1 engines also waiting for their chance. The race went down in automotive history as the “Clash of the Titans”.
After 24 dramatic hours of racing, at times in severe weather, Hans Herrmann and Britain’s Richard Attwood were flagged as the winners after 4,607.811 kilometres or 343 laps with the 917 short tail fielded by Porsche Salzburg. Their car is propelled by a 4.5-litre, 12-cylinder engine producing around 580 hp (427 kW). Following in second place was the 917 long tail driven by Gerard Larrousse and Willi Kauhsen decked out in the psychedelic colours of the seventies. This vehicle went down in history as the “Hippie Car”. Third place was taken by Rudi Lins and Dr. Helmut Marko in a 908/02. Both Porsche won the two prizes for efficiency that were up for grabs that year. The ratio of lap times and fuel consumption were superior to all other contenders of this marathon sprint. Victory of the first Porsche twelve-cylinder in Le Mans was particularly convincing. The best-placed Ferrari in fourth was 30 laps adrift of the winning Porsche — that’s the equivalent of 404 kilometres. The sports cars from Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen became a favourite amongst privateers: 24 Porsche lined up to compete. In addition to the overall win and victory in the prototype category, the cars from Zuffenhausen also clinched first place in both GT classes, with the 914/6 of Guy Chasseuil and Claude Ballot-Lena making an impressive Le Mans debut by scoring sixth overall. The team boss of this car was none other than Auguste “Toto” Veuillet.
During and after the race, footage was shot for the “Le Mans” film that would open in cinemas a year later and is still regarded as the most legendary car movie of our time. Serving as the camera car was the 908/2, with which lead actor Steve McQueen had claimed second place in Sebring. The #49 car competed under the entry of Solar Productions with heavy camera equipment onboard. Sharing driving duties were Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams. The 908/02 covered 282 laps (3,798 km). After the race, spectacular crash scenes were shot with the body parts of the Porsche 917 and the Ferrari 512 mounted on to less-expensive Lola chassis.