A few weeks ago I went to the Wilmslow Porsche dealership. They’d lured us in with an evening of reminiscences with Porsche racing driver, Richard Attwood, who drove for the first Porsche team to win the Le Mans 24 hour race in 1970.
Richard Attwood (centre in blue)
I’m sure that the presence of an extensive array of shiny new and shiny older cars was no coincidence. Purchases were made, future sales lined up, and the provision of excellent pies for the assembled crowd was well worth it to the dealership.
Just looking ... shiny cars (especially this yellow Porsche GT3) and an attentive audience at Porsche Wilmslow
However, for me this was a nicely informal opportunity to listen to the first hand, driving seat, account of not just driving those first race winning vehicles for Porsche, but also all the thrills and spills that went into that performance.
We heard about Richard’s start in motor racing, encouraged by his dad who set up one of the largest car dealerships in the country, and how he worked his way up the ladder of car types, teams and formulas, racing in increasingly high performance vehicles. Before joining Porsche, he drove for Ford, racing the iconic Ford GT.
When Porsche contracted him as a driver, he thinks he impressed them by not giving up when mechanicals took his planned vehicle out of action - swapping cars in one of his earlier outings just to give them a good run for their money.
In 1969 Porsche was going all out for the Le Mans win, developing its 917 for the race. The first hand account of its engineering and power tempered by a blunt assessment of its lousy handling was interesting and slightly shocking (things like ‘downforce’ were unheard of in this era of early aerodynamics). Hearing first hand how one of the 1969 drivers had spun the car on his practice lap and refused to start the race was sobering, particularly as a privateer entry, John Woolfe, was subsequently killed in a crash on his first lap in his own 917. This tragic start had us on tenterhooks - hearing how Attwood and his co-driver managed to lead for much of the race and the relief (rather than disappointment) when their car’s gearbox blew up with only two hours to go.
The 1970 race was planned to not make the mistakes of 1969 - Attwood opted for the smaller engine, stabler and more robust version of the 917 - 917K. On the start line he wondered whether he’d made a mistake - the other teams had evolved and developed bigger and stronger cars and his thinking was that only mistakes and mechanicals on their part would give him the advantage. In the event Attwood, his team mate Hans Herrmann and the 917K put in a steady and flawless performance. Porsche took all of the top three spots and put their mark on Le Mans.
Richard Attwood (right) with co driver Hans Herrmann (left) and the winning Porsche 917 KH Coupé #23 (photo Porsche AG)
There was something touching and raw about this firsthand story. It may have been glamorous but it was also prosaic. Groggy drivers being cajoled out of sleep in the middle of the night to take over laps (and how a leaky floor that allowed a good dousing by puddle spray would really wake them up) or engineers lugging gearboxes trackside in a bid to nurse the car to the finish.
The crux between calculation, precision, adrenaline and speed seemed very clear and very close. Even though it was decades ago, you could hear the human emotions and catch a whiff of the gasoline trackside.
This year the cycle has come full circle. A final Le Mans win in 2017 allows Porsche to keep the trophy it first won in 1970, after winning three consecutive years. And next? Porsche has nothing left to prove in high octane racing and bows out of Le Mans with this last victory. The future is Formula E.
By Beate Kubitz at 9 Dec 2017, 00:00 AM