The introduction of the Type 904 heralded a new direction for Porsche’s race cars. Gone were the aluminium-bodied racers, as the 904 spearheaded a generation of GRP-bodied Porsches that culminated in the World Manufacturers’ Championship title, and that all-important Le Mans 24 Hour crown. This is Part II of the Porsche at Le Mans story…
Porsche at Le Mans 1964 – June 20/21
For Porsche, the 1964 motor racing season represented a watershed, insofar as its race cars were concerned. Aimed at the FIA 2.0-litre Grand Touring category, 1964 saw the introduction of the Porsche 904 Carrera GTS, the first of the so-called ‘plastic’ Porsches. The FIA stipulated that 100 examples of the 904 were required in order to meet homologation requirements, which meant that a roadgoing version would also be needed as Porsche thought it unlikely that they would sell that quantity of full blown racers.
An extremely sleek and strong race car, the 904 was intended to be powered by the new 2.0-litre six-cylinder boxer engine as fitted in the new 911. However, development of the engine in early 1963 was not sufficiently advanced that it could endure the demands of the track, and so the 904 was modified to accept the tried and tested 4-cam, 4-cylinder Type 587/3 1966cc Fuhrmann engine. In time, the 904 would in fact be powered by not only the 4-cylinder Fuhrmann engine, but also the 6-cylinder 911 engine, as well as the Type 771 2.0-litre flat eight-cylinder unit.
The 904’s chassis was fabricated from pressed steel sections while the glass reinforced plastic (GRP) body, which was a first for the Stuttgart manufacturer, was bonded and riveted to the chassis creating an immensely strong but lightweight shell. The 904 had a low drag co-efficient of just 0.33 thanks to the car’s low and streamlined shape. This construction method permitted inexpensive repairs to be made to the 904, as the body moulds could be easily modified if needed.
In 1964 seven 904s were entered at Le Mans which were made up of five 2.0-litre GTS cars and two 8-cylinder 904/8 cars. It would be the tried and tested 2.0-litre models that lasted the distance as the bigger engined cars had not had the same running time and were thus still unproven. Robert Buchet and Guy Ligier brought their #34 904 GTS home in seventh place, while the #33 904 GTS of Ben Pon and Henk van Zalinge were one place further back in eighth. Three more 4-cylinder 904s finished in tenth, eleventh and twelfth places, proving the model’s reliability.
Porsche at Le Mans 1965 – June 19/20
The following year, Ferrari entered a total of ten cars in both the prototype and GT classes, while Ford entered no less than eleven cars spread across the same classes. However, this did not help the American and Italian stables who steadily lost cars as the race progressed, all of which allowed the Porsches to make their way up the field. The German factory pairing of Herbert Linge and Peter Nöcker drove a solid race to bring their Porsche 904/6 home in fourth place overall, just twelve laps down on the winning prototype Ferrari 250LM. Although the Porsches were not without their own problems, a fourth and fifth place finish was an extremely good result.
Porsche at Le Mans 1966 – June 18/19
The 1966 Le Mans race saw an even more determined pair of combatants contending the title, as Ford and Ferrari squared up to each other once again. The armada of Ford entrants consisted of eight 7.0-litre Mk II Ford coupes supported by a flotilla of five 4.7-litre GT40s. In the other corner, Ferrari fielded three works 330/P3s and no less than eleven factory-supported Ferraris of differing description. Together, these two manufacturers accounted for twenty-seven cars, almost half of the field of 55 starters.
1966 saw the launch of the new 906 which was introduced immediately in both short tail (KH) and long tail (LH) form. Powered by the 6-cylinder 911 engine, the potential top speed of the 906 down the Mulsanne straight was significantly higher than the 904. The 906 was a clear shift away from any form of hybrid road/race format, as the newcomer was a thoroughbred racer, and showed clearly the direction Porsche’s future race car styling would take.
Porsche, whose battle was perhaps not for top honours, as they could not realistically hope to dislodge the likes of Ford and Ferrari, were there to pick up the positions vacated by the big names during the 24-hour battle. Porsche fielded seven cars, six being the new 906 variant, of which five were entered by the factory and one by French Porsche importer Auguste Veuillet. A single privateer 911 made up the Stuttgart total, which, in near-standard trim, would finish strongly in 14th place. Three of the five works 906s were of the long tail variety, a new aerodynamic development that we would come to see more of on future Porsche prototypes. The three 906 LHs finished in perfect numerical order, the #30, #31 and #32 finishing in fourth, fifth and sixth places. A fourth 906 fitted with a standard KH body finished in seventh place, while the remaining 906 posted a NRF as it retired just before the end of the race.
Porsche at Le Mans 1967 – June 10/11
As had become a tradition with Porsche, the 1967 season brought another new race car. Breaking the numerical sequence of model numbers, the newcomer was the 910 (not the 907) and featured several innovations over the 906. The two cars looked very similar but the 910 was 100kg lighter than the 906, although both cars would be powered by same the 6-cylinder and 8-cylinder engines over the next couple of seasons.
The 910’s career got off to a flying start with class wins in the first four races of the season, Daytona, Sebring, as well as the Monza and Spa 1000 km events. But the 910’s greatest achievements were undoubtedly a 1-2-3 finish at the 1967 Targa Florio and the 1-2-3-4 clean sweep at the Nürburgring 1000km. However, the 910 would not enjoy the limelight for long as a factory racer, as hot on its heels came the Porsche 907, introduced mid-way through the 1967 season, and just in time for the Le Mans 24 Hour race.
Albeit race tuned, the 907 was powered by the same 1991cc 6-cylinder engine that went into the 911. Porsche entered two works 907s, two 910s and a single 906 for the 1967 Le Mans race, with encouraging results. The #41 907 finished in fifth place while its sister car, the #40 907 posted a DNF. Similarly, with the works 910s, the #38 car finished sixth with its sister car, the #39 910 also posting a DNF. The works 906 came home in seventh place with the privately entered 906 one place further back in eighth place, giving Porsche a 5-6-7-8 formation finish.
Porsche at Le Mans 1968 – September 28/29
The 1968 season saw the arrival of yet another new race car from the Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen race department. The 3.0-litre 8-cylinder Porsche 908 debuted at the Monza 1000km, but it finished a rather unflattering nineteenth, while the trusty 907 had been reliably picking up first and second places since the beginning of the season. At the Nürburgring 1000km in May, the 908 took the chequered flag ahead of a 907, and that was followed up in August when in convincing style, a pair of 908s grabbed the two top spots at the Austrian Sports Car Grand Prix, five laps ahead of the third-placed Ford GT40.
Due to the worker’s strikes in France around the time of the regular date in June, the Le Mans 24 Hour race was pushed out to 28/29 September. This later date improved the chances of the prototypes versus the sports cars, as the new prototypes could benefit from further development during the season. But the September date meant a change in the rules as the longer hours of darkness would place additional strain on the electrical system with the cars having to run longer with lights on. As a result, a battery change was permitted during the race.
Another consequence of the September date, meant that Le Mans was the last round on the 1968 World Manufacturers’ Championship calendar. This saw the race for the title that year go right down to the wire with Ford and Porsche on equal points at the start of the race. Le Mans 1968 was perhaps not the roaring success for the 908 that Porsche had hoped for, as the four 3.0-litre prototypes proved troublesome with the sole surviving 908 eventually finishing in third place, a lap down on the similar engined, but older, 907.
Despite a year of mixed results in ‘68, Ferdinand Piëch needed no further proof to show that his plans to produce a Le Mans winning race car were not just on track, but also a distinct reality. Although he was disappointed at not having taken victory, the rest of the motor sport world was given a front row seat as to Porsche’s intentions and capabilities. The 1968 Le Mans result showed that the prototype Porsche 908 with its (relatively) small 3.0-litre 8-cylinder engine was capable of keeping up with the best in the world. The future looked bright for Porsche.
Porsche at Le Mans 1969 – June 14/15
If the 917 was a history maker, then the 904, 906, 910, 907 and 908 were all instrumental in the development of this awesome racer, as incrementally they all played their part in bringing Porsche to this point. Piëch’s dogged determination to lift the Le Mans 24-Hour trophy undoubtedly drove him to develop the ultimate racing machine.
History will show that the 917 was one of the single most important and successful sports racers of its time, and although it did not have an easy birth with many drivers refusing to get behind the wheel, the handling and stability problems were soon sorted out. The Porsche 917 has in fact gone down in the record books as one of the all-time greats and it is thanks to the determination of a visionary engineer that it came about at all.
The 1969 World Manufacturers’ Championship had already been decided by the time the Le Mans 24 Hour race came around, with Porsche having secured outright victories in the first five races of the year. These were: Brands Hatch (1-2-3), Monza (1-2), Targa Florio (1-2-3-4), Spa (1-3-4) and Nürburgring (1-2-3-4-5), all with the 908! What a year! But for Porsche the prize of Le Mans still eluded them.
There were three 917s on the grid for the Le Mans race, two works cars and one privateer entry. Present in a ‘supporting’ role was a squad of four works 908s, but Porsche had confidence in its new 917, especially after Rolf Stommelen set the fastest qualifying time and Vic Elford put the other works 917 in second place on the starting grid. Sadly, John Woolfe, in a privately entered 917 was killed on the opening lap when his car overturned and burst into flames. The two works 917s were indeed the cars to beat as they romped away, and Elford proceeded to set the fastest race lap.
Fortunately for the spectators, this race could not have provided a more exciting finale, as the two main players, Porsche and Ford, fought it out tooth and nail for the whole race. Unfortunately, the first of the works 917s bowed out before half distance in the race, but the Elford/Attwood car sailed on until lap 327 when a clutch problem caused its retirement.
This brought the 908 of Hans Herrmann/Gerard Larrousse into direct conflict with the Ford GT40 of Jacky Ickx/Jackie Oliver resulting in the most closely fought contest over the closing laps of this great endurance race. In the end, Ickx brought the Ford GT40 across the line 100 yards ahead of the 908, the closest finish the race had ever seen before, or since.
Next time…we will look at the Porsche 917’s rise to prominence, which warrants a chapter on its own.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto