Sunday, June 13 marks exactly fifth years since the pairing of Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann piloted their Salzburg Porsche 917K to victory in a rain-hit, chaotic 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was Porsche’s first victory at Le Mans and cemented the 917 as a Le Mans legend. Motorsport Week takes a look at the race.
Porsche had given the 917 its Le Mans debut in the 1969 edition of the race, but the original car was deeply flawed. A severe lack of downforce made the car highly unpredictable and dangerous to drive. One of its privateer entries crashed at Maison Blanche at the opening lap, which cost the life of British driver John Woolf.
Herrmann remembers how treacherous the original car was to drive: “The 917 started out as a very difficult racing car. It was driving us rather than the other way round – until we managed to optimize the aerodynamics and transform it into a winning car.”
Porsche had signed John Wyer Automotive as its factory squad in late 1969, and with the new and improved 917K and arrived at Le Mans as the firm favorites, having won all but one round of the 1970 World Sportscar Championship.
The race also featured a number of regulations changes. Group 5 for so-called Sports Cars was now the top category, with engine capacity limited to five litres. Group 6 now featured prototype cars like the Porsche 908 and Alfa Romeo T33/3. Also new was the introduction of three-man driver crews, and most significantly, the abolition of the classic Le Mans start as drivers would now start the race fully strapped into their cars.
57 cars were entered for the 38th running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After a failed attempt at winning in 1969, Porsche returned to La Sarthe with its sights set on the victory. It brought with it two new variants of the 917: the short-tailed 917K and long-tailed 917LH. The long-tailed version was faster, but the short-tailed car offered greater stability.
Porsche’s works outfit, JWA Gulf, entered three Porsche 917Ks. The #20 machine was driven by Jo Siffert and Brian Redman, while 1968 winner Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen shared the #21. The third Gulf-liveried car, the #22 machine, was driven by David Hobbs. Much to John Wyer’s surprise, Porsche had also backed a second works squad in the form of the Austria-bases Porsche Salzburg team, run by Ferry Porsche’s sister Louise Piëch, mother of Ferdinand Piëch. The team entered the #25 Porsche 917LH for Vic Elford and Kurt Ahrens, while the pairing of Rico Steinemann and Dieter Spoerry and Herrmann and Attwood both shared a 917K.
Two further 917s were entered. The first, the now iconic Psychedelic-liveried 917L entered by the Martini Racing Team, was driven by Gérard Larrousse and Willi Kauhsen. Privateer David Piper shared the final 917 with Dutch driver Gijs van Lennep.
Porsche’s main rivals, Ferrari, arrived at Le Mans with a number of 512s. The works team entered four cars. Jacky Ickx paired with Peter Schetty, Clay Reggazzoni partnered Arturo Merzario and Nino Vaccarella shared a car with Ignazio Giunti. Derek Bell made his Le Mans debut alongside Ronnie Peterson in the fourth works-entered car. Ferrari customer outfits were also well equipped with the 512: Scuderia Filipinetti, the North American Racing Team and Ecurie Francorchamps all entered 512s.
The 917LH, with its high top speed, proved very fast in qualifying and it powered Elford to pole position with a laptime of 03:19:8, ahead of the #6 Ferrari 512 of Nino Vaccarella. Porsche generally outqualified Ferrari, but Attwood and Herrmann started their race on the back foot after brake issues prevented them from qualifying higher than 15th place, which was slower than the quickest of the Group 6 prototypes.
Start of the race: issues come thick and fast
At 4pm local time, Dr. Ferdinand Porsche waved the flag for the 38th edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with Elford taking the start in the polesitting #25 Porsche 917LH. The field had a clean getaway, with Elford leading Porsche colleagues Jo Siffert and Pedro Rodriguez as second-placed Vaccarella dropped to fifth behind team-mate Arturo Merzario.
As it turns out, it would become a race of attrition, with Vaccarella the first victim. The #6 Ferrari 512S made it a grand total of seven laps before its crankshaft snapped, ending the race. After the first round of pitstops, another high-profile retirement followed when the cooling fans on Pedro Rodriguez’ #21 Porsche 917K gave up the ghost.
Up front, meanwhile, the #25 917LH of Elford and #20 917K of Siffert had cleared most of the field and were quickly building up a gap.
Rain had been looming over the Circuit de la Sarthe ever since Friday, and as the afternoon neared its end, it arrived in force. It had immediate consequences when an all-Ferrari shunt cost the Prancing Horse in a major way.
The crash was caused when poor visibility forced Swedish driver Reine Wisell to slow his Scuderia Filipinetti-entered Ferrari 512S near Maison Blanche, when an unsighted Clay Regazzoni crashed his #8 Ferrari 512S into Wisell, followed by the second Filipinetti car driven by Mike Parkes. Derek Bell was able to escape the mayhem, but in doing so over-revved the 512S’ engine an he subsequently retired the following lap.
As dusk fell, the rain worsened. With Jacky Ickx piloting the only remaining top Ferrari, the Belgian quickly made up ground and moved into third as other drivers slowed down in the treacherous conditions. He then moved up to second place when the Porsche 917L of Elford/Ahrens suffered a slow puncture, leaving Siffert and Redman in the lead of the race.
Not too long afterwards, the privateer of Piper/Van Lennep Porsche suffered a terrifying tyre blowout at high speed, likely the result of an earlier brush with the barrier by Piper. Van Lennep managed to avoid crashing, but the car was too heavily damaged to continue.
After midnight, Ickx’ heroic performance came to a tragic and deadly end. An attempt at unlapping himself ended in disaster when the brakes on his #5 Ferrari 512S failed and was launched over a sandbank, after which his car caught fire. Ickx was unharmed, but the crash took the life of track marshal Jacques Argoud.
Attwood and Herrmann move to the front
With Ickx out of the race, Ferrari’s challenge was over. Siffert and Redman were dominating and had built up a lead of multiple laps. That was until Siffert made a mistake while lapping back markers. The Swiss driver missed a gear change and subsequently damaged his Porsche’s engine, retiring after 156 laps.
Siffert’s retirement cycled Attwood and Herrmann into the lead. The pairing had started 15th but were lapping consistently and had managed to stay out of trouble. Larrousse and Kauhsen now held second in their Martini Porsche, ahead of Elford and Ahrens who had made their way back up to second after their earlier puncture. The polesitting pair subsequently moved into second when Larrousse and Kauhsen suffered electrics issues. Third place was now held by the Group 6-entered Martini Porsche 908 of Helmut Marko and Rudi Lins.
The difficult conditions had clearly left their mark on the field as daylight approached over western France. All four factory-entered Ferrari cars were out, as were all three JWA-Gulf Porsches. Over half the field had retired, but there was to be one more high-profile retirement.
After 16 hours of racing, Attwood and Herrmann led Elford and Ahrens, but the challenge by the pole sitting pair came to a bitter end when the engine of the #25 Porsche 917LH gave up the ghost with Elford behind the wheel.
A historic victory
As their rivals retired, Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann kept their nose clean and took a historic win in their #23 Porsche 917K, five laps ahead of Gerard Larrousse and Willi Kauhsen in the #3 Martini Porsche 917LH. The podium was completed by Lins and Marko in their Porsche 908.
Ronnie Bucknum and Sam Posey finished off the podium in the #11 NART Ferrari 512S, with the #12 Ecurie Francorchamps Ferrari 512S fifth
Porsche had dominated the accident-filled race, with twelve of the remaining sixteen cars carrying the German manufacturer’s badge. It took each of the class wins. Marko and Lins won the Prototype class, while the two GT classes were won by the #40 914/6 GT of Ballot-Lena/Chausseil and the #37 911S of Koob/Kremer.
A legacy defined
“It was a race dominated by rain and it felt we had to permanently keep changing the tyres and adapt to the situation at hand. It was not the wear that forced us to change tyres, but the constantly changing weather,” remembers Herrmann about that now legendary victory. “The fact we harmonized so well together as a driving team led us to victory. To compete in a 24-hour endurance race with just two drivers is no mean feat.”
“Le Mans is a race where everything goes right, or it doesn’t. In those days, the 24 Hours was more like an endurance drive than a race,” explains Attwood. “To win Le Mans with Porsche and Hans came fully unexpectedly because our car didn’t have the right set-up for speeds. Hans and I were simply a dream team.”
“The victory gained in significance over the years. Who would have thought that Porsche would become the record title holder at this race,” ‘Dickie’ added. “I was also unaware at the time that I was contending with another personal challenge: I couldn’t eat anything during the race and could only drink milk to stay fit to drive. Because what I didn’t know was I had come down with mumps.”
The race was even more special for Herrmann in one particular way: it was his final race as a professional driver.