Tour de france porsche 911 On track with Gérard Larrousse himself. Gerard Larrousse 911 call this retirement? This former works Porsche 911 is back in the hands of its former works driver Gérard Larrousse. Octane joins both on a test day Words Richard Heseltine. Photography Rémi Dargegen.
Contact seems inevitable. Gérard Larrousse doesn’t lift for anything, least of all a pheasant. His right foot remains buried as our feathered friend runs left and then right and then left again. ‘Oh look, lunch,’ he shouts, straining to be heard over a screaming flat-six. We miss it by millimetres, our hero’s smile never slackening as he asks: ‘How about one more lap?’ Oh, go on, it would be rude not to.
Larrousse is in his element. The rally champion turned sports car ace is clearly enjoying himself, having been reunited with the Porsche he last saw on the final day of the 1970 Tour de France Automobile – the same event in which he and wingman Maurice Gélin placed third after an epic drive. This ex-works 911 has covered only a few miles since its impeccable restoration by Historika, and the sometime Grand Prix team principal is having a ball running it in.
‘THE FRENCHMAN INSISTS HE IS DONE WITH COMPETITIVE DRIVING, BUT WE REMAIN SCEPTICAL’
‘I think this is the best 911 I ever drove,’ he adds, threatening to push his loafer through the bulkhead. The one-sided conversation then ebbs as he decides to do one more tour of our makeshift circuit, this time without consulting the ballast in the passenger seat.
Scroll forward half an hour and the effortlessly friendly Frenchman remains all smiles, despite the wind-chill factor. The former RAF Bentwaters site in Suffolk – in winter – is not the ideal place for a pensioner to be standing around for hours on end, but Larrousse stops short of retreating indoors. Instead, he confers with the car’s owner, Historika chief Kevin Morfett, and the mechanics; in fact just about anyone who shows an interest. He hasn’t lost his passion for motor sport and fast cars, that’s for sure.
Which is to be expected, given that he was a permanent fixture in the pitlane for more than three decades. ‘Growing up, I was keen on everything to do with cars and motorcycles, but there was no family interest,’ Larrousse says. ‘My father had a silk business in Lyon and cars were mere transportation. I started competing locally in the early ’60s; small rallies, that sort of thing. I turned professional towards the end of 1966 after military service. I became a works driver for NSU and then had two years with the factory Alpine team. In 1969, I joined Porsche and had three wonderful seasons competing in rallies and races.’
Aboard 911s, Larrousse won the 1969 Tour de Corse, and finished second three times on the Monte Carlo (1969, ’70, ’72), but he truly showcased his virtuosity as an all-rounder on the ’69 Tour de France Automobile. He and codriver Maurice Gélin won the gruelling ten-day marathon at a canter, with only Corvette ace Henri Greder getting close in the early running.
‘It was a very long event,’ Larrousse recalls. ‘In many ways, it was a mix of rally and racing and you had to be good at both. Very few drivers were. Apart from Vic Elford, who opened the door for me to get the drive with Porsche, there were few of us used to such intense competition. There were lots of road sections, too, so you covered many, many kilometres. There was little time to sleep.’
Left, from top After life with Larrousse, the 911 went into privateer hands, seen here in the Brands Hatch 1000km in 1974; Larrousse pores over the 911’s history file, including parc fermé shots of his fabled entry in the 1970 Tour de France. Above and right Larrousse, back behind the wheel of the ultra-lightweight 911ST that took him to victory on the 1970 Tour de France; 250bhp 2.4-litre flat-six on special Weber carburettors still wears its factory glassfibre shrouds.
‘LARROUSSE MOVED ON, CLAIMING SCALPS FOR PORSCHE AT THE 1971 SEBRING 12 HOURS AND NÜRBURGRING 1000KM’
The following year Larrousse was armed with the car you see here. News had reached Germany that Matra was planning to run a brace of MS650 sports-prototypes, but Porsche stopped short of fielding similar weaponry. Porsche concluded that the Matras would shake themselves apart on the bumpy road sections, long before they had gone the distance in the many races and hillclimbs that comprised the event. So it erred on the side of caution.
Larrousse and Gélin were equipped with one of seven 911STs made in 1970, one that was lighter than its siblings. According to factory records, and anecdotal evidence from competition department mechanics, the 2395cc, 250bhp 911 tipped the scales at 800kg. Nevertheless, Larrousse wasn’t happy to learn this. It was still too heavy. So he promised each spannerman a bottle of champagne for every kilogram they could shed from the already thin-skinned machine.
Those mechanics ended up with enough bubbly to induce sore heads as they somehow managed to discard a further 10kg.
Nevertheless, they would have collected even more had they not forgotten to remove ten litres of fuel prior to the final weigh-in… Larrousse laughs at the memory, and admits that he was never satisfied. ‘I was a racing driver so of course I wasn’t! I pushed them to make the car lighter, and they did. It was very fast – much faster than other 911s I drove around that time, but it was also very easy to drive.’
Not that the 1970 event wasn’t without intrigue. The fact that the Matras were allowed to run amid a field of race-prepared GTs and Touring Cars was met with consternation from rival teams. The MS650s were nominally road-legal, but were clearly full-house competition tools with only token nods to highway code adherence. And by ‘adherence’, we mean registration numbers and spotlights but, tellingly, nothing in the way of silencing. What’s more, lead drivers Jean-Pierre Beltoise and Henri Pescarolo weren’t even in France as the meeting got underway in Bandol. They were competing in the Canadian Grand Prix. No matter, the rules were hastily rewritten to allow other drivers to start in their place, so Beltoise and ‘Pesca’ joined the action at the Pau circuit on day three.
While Porsche’s closest competitors in its class didn’t seriously pressure the Larrousse/ Gélin 911 at any point, the team’s belief that the rule-bending Matras would wilt proved unfounded. For starters, the road sections had been resurfaced in the run-up to the event. But, just in case they did struggle, a specially adapted Citroën DS with a rubber-reinforced nose was apparently on hand to push them along, presumably when nobody was looking…
But they didn’t miss a beat, with Beltoise leading Pescarolo home. Nevertheless, Larrousse had hounded them all the way, with only a broken clutch on the final morning threatening to end play. ‘You ask me for my memories of the event, but I remember little because everything went so well other than that one little problem. When things go badly in a race, you remember! I merely recall the car being reliable and a pleasure to drive. It was well balanced and had an excellent power-to-weight ratio. Of course, I became a Matra driver later [famously winning the 1973-74 Le Mans 24 Hours], and have a lot of respect for the marque, so I won’t comment too much on them being allowed to use actual racing cars. Porsche could have done the same, but nobody thought the Matras could last, yet they did. I had no problem with them, even if they weren’t strictly in the spirit of the Tour de France Automobile.’
Larrousse then falls silent, clearly lost in contemplation, before adding: ‘You know what I do remember? It was on the last day. I had to make clutchless gearchanges, but that was no problem as it wasn’t the first time I’d had to do that. We were going to finish third. The last control was on the motorway going from Cannes to Nice. A good friend of mine had driven down from Marseilles to find me. He told me I had to go Paris immediately as my wife had gone into labour. I was about to become a father! I didn’t go to the prizegiving. Instead, I went to the airport but I was so tired that I fell asleep and missed my flight.’
And that was that. Larrousse moved on, claiming major scalps for Porsche such as the 1971 Sebring 12 Hours and Nürburgring 1000km enduros alongside his great friend Vic Elford, and continued to compete in a variety of categories to 1975. He subsequently headed Renault’s competition arm, overseeing victory in the 1978 Le Mans 24 Hours with the Alpine A442B before masterminding the firm’s return to Formula 1. He remained with La Régie for nine years, ushering in the mid-engined Renault 5 Turbo rally weapon along the way, prior to a brief stint at Ligier. He rounded out his frontline motor sport career running a Grand Prix team of his own, although the perennially underfunded Larrousse squad rarely escaped the midfield mire. ‘It was a mission impossible, I think. Creating my own team was probably a stupid thing to have done, but I had to try,’ he says with the most Gallic of shrugs.
‘EACH SPANNERMAN WAS PROMISED A BOTTLE OF CHAMPAGNE FOR EVERY KILOGRAM THEY COULD SHED FROM THIS ALREADY THIN-SKINNED MACHINE’
The 911ST, meanwhile, continued to prove its worth in competition for the rest of the decade, albeit in the hands of ‘gentleman drivers’. The works team sold the car to a South American privateer who competed in only one race before selling it to his friend, Avis Lamidis, a Greek coffee importer.
The striking psychedelic livery was still in place as late as 1974 when the car made an unexpected appearance at Thruxton, by when it had been upgraded at the factory to 2.8 RSR-spec. The 911 was trailered back from Stuttgart by Sharp Racing principal Wayne Hardman, almost missing its British circuit debut after a blow-out near the Hampshire venue. Time being of the essence, Hardman unloaded the slick-shod racer and drove it on the hard shoulder, past cars queuing to get in.
‘Brave Dave’ Purley was on hand to steer the car in the ModSports race but, having missed practice, he was obliged to start at the back of the grid. Nevertheless, the sometime Grand Prix driver proceeded to break the class lap record as he tore through the field. He was only just pipped for outright victory by Nick Faure in AFN’s new 3.0 RSR.
Faure and John De Stefano raced 1127 later that season, by which time it had been given a quick blow-over in green and yellow. The car’s Greek owner, competing under the pseudonym ‘Asterisk’, then teamed up with Raymond Touroul to race the Porsche in that year’s Brands Hatch 1000km round of the World Manufacturers’ Championship, only for a broken driveshaft to end play. The car was then sold to single-seater star turned tarmac rally specialist Brian Nelson, who campaigned it with great success in Ireland and elsewhere to 1980. It gained 3.0 RSR-style body panels and was converted to right-hand drive, with the original bulkhead remaining intact. It had also taken on the identity of a K-registration 911T to avoid the crippling import taxes inflicted on competition hardware…
For Morfett, buying the car ten years ago represented the end of an Ahab-like obsession. ‘I first heard about 1127 30-odd years ago,’ he says. ‘I’d heard rumours from various people that there was a factory car with special features still rallying in Ireland and the Isle of Man. This was a time well before the arrival of internet, so it was a laborious and time-consuming job trying to track down previous owners by letter. I thought I had finally found the current owner, only to be told he had sold the car a few weeks previously. The trail then went cold for many years until I picked up a specialist Porsche magazine. Inside, there was an article referring to a lady who owned an old race car which she believed had been raced by Larrousse.
‘From the photos, I could see that the engine was factory-built with special Weber 46 carbs and other competition parts such as a race oil thermostat valve, factory glassfibre engine shrouds and so on. I contacted the lady, who lived near Burton-on-Trent, and arranged to view the car. It was presented with later 3.0 RS arches and bumpers and had a 2.8 RSR engine and gearbox. It was quite clear that the ’shell was a works thin-gauge item with distinctive strengthening and other telltale signs exclusive to the factory ST cars. Incredibly, it still had its original 100-litre plastic fuel tank and the leather competition spare-wheel straps. After negotiating the purchase, I began the painstakingly slow and precise process of disassembling it while taking hundreds of photos as we stripped each item.’
There was a problem, however. Several masterworks insisted that chassis 0949 was the 1970 TdF car, rather than 1127. Worse still, more than one replica of 0949 existed. It was only after dedicated research and extensive fossicking by Porsche’s own archivists, which included the discovery of a missing file, that the truth was revealed: 1127 was indeed the ex- Larrousse ’70 TdF car. The factory’s assistance also extended to sourcing rare components. ‘I was adamant that I wanted all original period parts for the restoration and it took several years to collect the new/old-stock glassfibre front and rear arch panels and doors,’ Morfett says. ‘I was helped a lot by Porsche’s archive department, which managed to track down an engine case that had been built by the works as a spare prior to the 1970 Tour. I found a guy in Germany who had an amazing collection of period Porsche race seats, including those from the Larrousse car.
It also helped that 1127 had never been involved in a major accident. It was rusty in a few places, but the core of the car was good.’
And the most difficult part of the restoration? ‘Getting the paint and livery done correctly required a lot of effort. The psychedelic livery was laid out using vinyl but then we found an amazing signwriting company that painted the logos just as they had been done in period. The two weeks in the run-up to the car’s postrestoration debut at the 2016 Salon Privé concours were tense. There were quite a few sleepless nights getting it finished, but it was worth the effort as we won our class.’
This is no trailer queen, though. Expect to see 1127 return trackside at some point in the near future. Monsieur Larrousse may even take the wheel on the Tour de France retrospective. Somehow, we doubt it will require much effort from Morfett to persuade him. The instantly likable Frenchman insists that he is done with competitive driving, but, given the way he’s steering the car on its bumpstops as we leave, we remain sceptical. His ear-to-ear grin speaks volumes.
THANKS TO Historika, www.historika.co.uk.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1970 Porsche 911ST
Engine 2395cc rear-mounted, air-cooled flat-six, OHC per bank, two Weber 46 IDA carburettors
Power 250bhp @ 7800rpm
Transmission Five-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: MacPherson struts, coil springs, gas-pressurised telescopic dampers, anti-roll bar. Rear: semi-trailing arms, torsion bars, gas-pressurised dampers, anti-roll bar
Performance Top speed 150mph. 0-60mph 5.0sec (est)