On 4 April this year, Richard Attwood will celebrate his 80th birthday, but speaking to him just a few months back about his win at Kyalami in ’69, you would not have thought as much. Attwood still oozes with enthusiasm and he will tell you just what happened and when it happened. I have interviewed Richard Attwood on numerous occasions, and he is always quick with a smile and keen to get on with the interview.
Richard Attwood began his motor racing career back in 1960 when he regularly drove a Triumph TR3 and a Lotus Elite. His big break came in 1963 when he piloted a Lola Mk. 6 GT at Le Mans, and although that race ended prematurely with an accident, he would drive Cobras and the Ford GT40 over the next two years. He got his first taste of Ferrari in 1965 when he drove a 365 P2 to victory with David Piper in the Kyalami 9 Hour that year. Attwood was then behind the wheel of various Ferraris and GT40s through the ’65 and ’66 seasons, winning the Kyalami 9 Hour again with Piper in ’66. He scored a third-place finish in the Spa 1000 Kilometres in 1967 driving a Ferrari 412 P and then won the Wills Trophy in a Ferrari 250LM in July of that year.
Attwood’s driving career in a Porsche seat began on 20 August 1967, when he finished second overall with William Bradley in the Zeltweg 500 Kilometres driving Bradley’s Porsche 906 Carrera 6. He continued driving Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Ford prototypes through the first half of the following season, but as from July onwards, he had several outings in Porsche 908s.
As from 1969 Attwood was contracted by Porsche to drive in the World Sportscar Championship, and from then on, he was retained under contract as a works driver. He raced in the World Championship for Makes in a Porsche 908/02, and came second at both Brands Hatch and Watkins Glen together with Vic Elford. In the season finale at Zeltweg, he finished third with Brian Redman in the 917. Although not a championship race, the Kyalami 9 Hours was a regular favourite with many of the top drivers as it allowed them to race in summer conditions in the south while the northern hemisphere endured the winter months. Richard Attwood partnered with David Piper to win this in the 917.
Together with Hans Herrmann, he took part in the Nürburgring 1,000 km driving a Porsche 908/03 in 1970, finishing in second place. Many folk forget that Attwood almost pulled off consecutive wins at Le Mans when he, together with Herbert Müller, finished second in the #19 Gulf Porsche 917 K in 1971, two laps down on the winner. Attwood and Pedro Rodriguez racked up another victory in the 1000 Kilometre race at the Österreichring in the Gulf Porsche 917 K.
History will show us that Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann gave Porsche their first win in the 1970 Le Mans 24 Hours, when the famous #23 red/white Porsche 917 K took the chequered flag. But it was not as simple as it might seem at first glance, as Attwood was not keen on the 917 in the early days. He takes up the story:
“Brian [Redman] and Jo [Siffert] did not want to drive the car, everybody did not want to drive the car because they knew it was not right. Gerhard Mitter and Udo Schütz had the first race with it at Spa [1000 km] earlier that year and it must have been horrendous at Spa, and for the race it was raining which of course made it just about impossible.
“The next time it raced was at the Nürburgring where again none of the factory drivers would drive it there because they knew they could win the race quite easily in a 908, so what was the point in driving something different. The factory realised that and they got Frank Gardner and David Piper to drive it there, and that’s the first time it finished a race. But it was on a different type of circuit and it was the short tail version of the car anyway, so it did not have quite the same aerodynamic problem as the long tail. The next time it ran was at Le Mans [in 1969] and that’s when I drove it.
“Elford started the race, he did a double stint and then I did a double stint. And after that double stint I was deaf, totally deaf because the exhaust exited under the door on either side. I got massive neck ache because of the huge G-force from acceleration, I had never driven a car which such power before. In the end, I was resting my head on the bulkhead at the back. I was in such discomfort and that was after the first two hours and eventually the car broke with three hours to go. I can tell you, I was happy to get out of that car because I was still alive. It was a truly frightening, frightening car. It’s an absolute fact that when I got out of the car it was a relief, it was the worst racing experience I have ever had in my life.
“The factory rung me in February time and they said what car would you like to take to Le Mans? And I said, well a 917 would be handy and they said, no seriously. What would you like? So, I said I want short tail and the small engine because the gearbox had broken in the other four, so I did not want a big engine because that would put more stress on the gearbox. But in fact, they had strengthened the gearbox anyway and so now instead of a 5-speed box it was now a 4-speed box and that’s where the ratio choice was so restricted because we only had three gears, because we couldn’t use first gear. So that’s why we were so slow in practice.
“And it was just a race of attrition, much of it through driver error, but it was very wet. After 10 hours we were in the lead which was totally ridiculous, and from there on we had to defend that lead to the end with a lot of rain, which was really nerve racking. It was a question of not making mistakes but we still had to drive with total concentration in those conditions, and that was the difficult part of the race.
“I thought I would have a better chance with the 4.5-litre engine but that was a mistake. I still say that was an error of mine, because I took the decision in February, while by June the new engine was bullet-proof which I thought maybe it wouldn’t be, but I did not know that. But of course it was good, and the gearbox had been strengthened as it was now a 4-speed ‘box because they had made the gears wider and stronger, so we would have been far better off with a 5-litre. But the car was perfect and it just ran the race.
“However, the car still won almost by default in a way, but it won because everybody else made mistakes. We didn’t win it, everybody lost it, that’s what happened.”
Richard Attwood retired from active motor racing at the end of the season at the age of just 31 years. His last podium finish was in 1971 together with Derek Bell in the 917 K at the season finale of the World Sportscar Championship in Watkins Glen, where he finished in third place. But when you are a professional racing driver, it is hard to resist the call, and Attwood came out of retirement to drive a Porsche 928 in the 1984 Daytona 24 Hours, where he finished in 15th place. He made three further appearances driving the Nimrod Aston Martin that year.
Today, Richard Attwood still accompanies the Porsche Museum to its driving events at renowned classic car meets all over the world. Among other things, he can be seen at the Festival of Speed in Goodwood, the Sound Night (Stuttgart), the Silverstone Classic as well as at various historic motorsports events.
All at PORSCHE ROAD & RACE would like to take this opportunity of which Richard Attwood a very happy 80th birthday on 4 April…!!
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto and Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale