Porsche’s F1 victory

Porsche and motorsport success go hand-in-hand, but its F1 career as a constructor was both short-lived and short on success. Story: Andrew Frankel. Photography: Porsche Archive.

The One & Only

Porsche’s F1 Win As an engine manufacturer Porsche is a multiple Formula One World Champion, but as a constructor it has only tasted the victory champagne once. Andrew Frankel tells the tale.

As with many good car stories, the story of the Porsche 804 and how it became the company’s first and, to date, only World Championship Grand Prix winner, starts with an engine.

Porsche F1 victory 1

Porsche’s F1 victory

The year is 1959 and Porsche is already aware than the little flat-four motor used by all its racing cars is running out of puff, even in its brilliant but fearsomely complex four-cam form. Moreover, it is also now public knowledge that in an attempt to reduce the number of fatalities, from 1961 Formula 1 cars would compete to current Formula 2 rules, which meant unsupercharged engines of no more than 1.5 litres. Unlike Formula 1, Formula 2 is a code about which Porsche knows a very great deal having turned its RSK sports car into the 718/2 F2 car, a car that would, in 1960, meet with considerable success, even with the old engine.

But Porsche knew Ferrari had a V6 for the new rules and suspects others wouldn’t be happy for long with just four cylinders either. It was right: both BRM and Coventry Climax were working on V8 motors for the new regulations. Porsche’s decision to build its engine in an unprecedented air-cooled flat-eight configuration may seem perverse and overly ambitious. In fact, it was quite the reverse: an engine born of pure pragmatism. Porsche knew air-cooling and it worked, and it also knew flat-formation engines and the very low centres of gravity they brought. The number of cylinders is based on pure maths: any fewer and the engine would lack power, any more would make it needlessly heavy and complex. Porsche being Porsche also had its eyes set on a world beyond F1, and needed an engine that would be powerful and reliable in sports car racing and, it at least envisioned, possibly in a road car too. So the Type 753 engine was designed, built, put on a test bed and fired up. The engineers could barely believe what the dyno was telling them: their state of the art, flat-eight could scarcely pull the skin off a cup of cold custard. Its power was so far below what was needed to compete even in the early days of the new Formula that some have said the only reason Ferry Porsche didn’t kill it there and then was that the motor’s existence was already public knowledge and the loss of face would have been unacceptable. Certainly there was no chance of it greeting the dawn of the new formula and racing in 1961.

Instead the 718 was kept in service and as others struggled to debug new cars, the tried and tested old soldier did rather well. Dan Gurney scored three second-place finishes, at Reims being beaten by Giancarlo Baghetti’s brand-new Ferrari by 0.1sec. By the end of the season Porsche lay third in the constructors championship, as did Gurney in the driver’s title race. Not a bad effort for an old car with an underpowered, four-cylinder engine.

But Porsche knew neither car nor engine would cut the mustard in 1962. Climax already had its V8 in a Cooper and for the next year would supply both Lola and, most ominously, Lotus. BRM’s V8 was looking rather good too. Indeed, of all the major teams, Ferrari alone stuck with six cylinders and having walked to both titles in 1961, were run off the road all season as a result. Porsche’s choice was simply to make the flat-eight work and design an entirely new car to run it in, or withdraw.

Plan B never looked a likely option and so work on the car that would become known as the 804 began. Engine aside, it was traditional in design – too traditional by the standards of what it would face as it turns out. The chassis was a simple spaceframe no different in concept to that used by every Porsche racing car since the 550A had delivered Porsche’s first serious competition success in winning the 1956 Targa Florio. The suspension abandoned the 718’s weird trailing arm configuration in favour of a proper double wishbone layout at each corner, though even now Porsche could not quite bring itself to give up on a torsion bar springing medium. Also Porsche finally entered the modern era in the braking department, using its own design of disc brake for the first time on a brand-new racing car. The body would follow conventional wisdom and was made of as light a grade of aluminium as Porsche thought it could survive.

Engine aside, it seemed a good job. The car was light – just a few pounds over the minimum weight limit straight out-of-the-box – and had a notably low frontal area too. Better still, in Jo Bonnier, Porsche had a proven race winner who’d already provided BRM with its maiden race win. As for Gurney, he was the only driver Jim Clark ever feared, which tells you all you need to know.

Finally there was even good news emanating from the dyno rigs where the engine had been tickled, cajoled and kicked into producing if not world-beating power, then at least enough to hope the car would not be disgraced on its debut. As the cars went out to qualify for the season-opening Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort in May 1962, Gurney and Bonnier did so with a little less than 180hp behind their backs, compared to perhaps 190hp offered by the best Climax engine; a deficit but not an unbridgeable one. Or so Porsche must have hoped.

But if Porsche had also hoped that the first proper F1 race contested by its first proper F1 car would continue the exceptional work of the F2- based 718/2, it was in for a rude awakening. In qualifying, the brilliant Gurney qualified a full second faster than the pole time for the previous year, but such was the pace of progress under still new regulations this placed him a yawning 2.2-seconds off the fastest lap of the wildly improved field. He ended up eighth, with every car ahead powered by a BRM or Climax V8. Poor Jo Bonnier couldn’t get within 4.5-seconds of John Surtees’ pole time in his Lola.

The race hardly went any better, with Gurney failing to trouble the front-runners and retiring shortly after halfway when the linkage to his six-speed gearbox failed, Bonnier trailing around to finish dead last, five laps behind the winner Graham Hill and, humiliatingly, a lap down on the Dutch nobleman Carel Godin de Beaufort in his privately entered 718/2.

If anything, Monaco was worse. Reputedly against Ferry Porsche’s better judgement, a single 804 was entered for Gurney. Once again, had the car been available the year before, he’d have been in a class of one, his qualifying lap of 1min 36.4sec being 2.7-seconds faster than Stirling Moss had managed in 1961. But in 1962 it was merely good enough for fifth, an improvement over Zandvoort for sure, especially as he was now just one second off Jim Clark’s pole time, but even at that rate, he’d still be over a lap down by the end of the 100-lap race.

In fact he didn’t make it past the pits even once, as Ritchie Ginther’s BRM, its throttles stuck wide open, went piling into the back of the Porsche at the very first corner.

Ferry Porsche had seen enough. He withdrew the team from the next race at Spa where the circuit’s massively high speeds would not have suited the slightly underpowered flat-eight (Clark won averaging a barely imaginable 132mph for the duration of the entire race in a spindly-tyred car with a 1.5-litre engine and not a turbo or supercharger in sight), and told them not to return until the 804 was right.

No stone was left unturned. The chassis frames were modified to allow Gurney and Bonnier a more reclined driving position, both to lower the centre of gravity and improve aerodynamics, while a removable steering wheel was fitted to facilitate a quicker exit should it be needed. The upper wishbones were now braced with radius rods from their centres to their mounting points on the chassis frame and a rear anti-roll bar was fitted. Mindful of Gurney’s failure at Zandvoort, there was a new gear linkage too. As for the engine, it had spent hours on the bench looking not just for more power but also a less spiky torque delivery.

Finally the cars went to the Nürburgring and tested, tested, and tested. Eventually Gurney completed a trouble-free full race distance on the fearsome old circuit, smashing the lap record in the process. It seemed that, at last, the 804 was ready.

And so to Rouen for the French Grand Prix which, thanks to the Monaco disaster, was effectively the 804’s second-ever run in anger. It is commonly held that, so far as scary Grand Prix circuits go, none can compare to the unholy trinity of the Spa, the Nürburgring and Monza as they were in those days. But that’s only because everyone has forgotten about Rouen. For sure it wasn’t a very long lap compared to the monsters above, but it did contain the most frightening section of road ever considered for use in racing. The curves after the pits leading steeply downhill to the cobbled Nouveau Monde hairpin were so frightening that even in an F2 car, the only way David Purley could keep his foot down through there was literally to scream into his helmet on every lap. That’s the same David Purley of the Parachute Regiment who was awarded the George Medal for walking into a fire to try and save Roger Williamson’s life at Zandvoort in 1973.

In first practice on Thursday morning the improvements to the 804 were clear to see; Gurney lapping just 0.6-seconds slower than the fastest car. But perhaps because he thereafter spent valuable track time driving Bonnier’s car as Porsche tried to figure out why it was so much slower, he failed to improve on Friday, leaving him sixth on the grid, now fully 1.7-seconds off the pace. This would suggest the team had actually made little or no progress, but Gurney was confident the car would show better in the race itself.

But the essential truth was that between Gurney and any chance of victory lay Graham Hill, Jim Clark, John Surtees, Jack Brabham and Bruce McLaren, all bar one of whom (Surtees) had already won in F1 and all bar another (McLaren) was an extant or future world champion. Gurney, by contrast, had yet to win a single race in F1.

Even so, miracles can happen and that day in France, one did. For ten laps these six followed each other line astern around Rouen with Gurney at the back, breaking themselves away from the chasing pack. Then McLaren pulled up at his pits suffering from gear selection problems as did Jack Brabham whose rear suspension had broken. McLaren would rejoin and eventually recover to finish fourth, Brabham would not. Two down, three to go.

Surtees was next to pit with a sick car – fuel starvation it was thought – and while he too would make the finish, he was also out of the running. So now Gurney lay third, with Graham Hill’s BRM waltzing off into the distance being chased in vain by Jim Clark’s ill-handling Lotus.

But on only lap 12 of a 54-lap race, Gurney was already over half a minute behind the leader. More worrying was the fact that, as the race wore on, Bonnier was having trouble selecting gears, an issue that would eventually put him out of the race as it had for Gurney at Zandvoort.

At half distance nothing but the gaps between the front three had changed, save the fact that they’d all now lapped every other car in the race. Then the entire complexion of the race changed. Hill tangled with a back marker and while his BRM survived the encounter, it let Clark through into the lead. But by this stage Clark’s car was handling so badly Hill was able to catch and pass him without trouble, prompting Clark to realise there really must be something seriously wrong with his car. On a track where lives had been lost in perfectly healthy cars, it was no a place to be racing a Lotus with, as it turned out, broken front suspension.

This left Gurney in second place, rocketing around Rouen in a reliable Porsche but powerless to do anything about Hill who had only to cruise around until the end of the race to win. But that’s not what happened. With 12 laps to go, Hill stopped at the hairpin, a broken bolt in his fuel injection system having shut the engine down. Gurney now led the French Grand Prix.

And that was that, with an unassailable lead, the pit held out a board telling Dan to cool his pace, which the dutiful American did. Twelve laps later, both he and Porsche had won their first Grand Prix. One week later they did it again, at the beautiful Solitude circuit outside Stuttgart where Gurney beat opposition including Jim Clark to win in front of an estimated 350,000 adoring local fans. Sadly for the record books, however, the race was not accorded World Championship status.

After that the light of the 804 slowly faded. Any chance of a decent result in the British Grand Prix was lost to mechanical maladies, but at the Nürburgring where the 804 had done so well in testing, hopes were high. They were higher still when Gurney recorded the one and only pole position of the 804’s career but in the actual race, third was the best he could manage, albeit a scant four seconds off the lead. At Monza more unreliability slowed good early pace for both cars while at Watkins Glen Gurney’s car was good enough only for fifth, Bonnier no better than 12th out of 13 finishers.

And that was that. Porsche elected not to go to South Africa to contest the final race of the season and so the company’s career as an Formula 1 race car constructor was over, even if no-one was actually saying so at the time. It is true that Porsche never had the fastest car in F1 – even that Nürburgring pole time being surely more due to the guts and determination of Gurney than the inherent speed of his car. Indeed, relative to how Porsche usually performs when it tackles a new Formula (witness CanAm or Group C), to call the project a failure would be more unkind than unfair. Fact is, that while a Porsche did indeed win a World Championship Formula 1 race, it did so without overtaking a single car.

Does that make it any less of a win? Not to me. It’s a hoary old racing adage to say that to finish first, first you must finish. But it got that way because it’s true. What no-one will ever be able to take away from either Porsche or Dan Gurney is that day, 8 July 1962, was their day – the day in which at the very highest level you can reach in racing, they beat the best in the world.

Gurney’s victory at Rouen may have come about because others failed to finish, but a win is a win. And to date, it’s Porsche’s only F1 World Championship victory.

To be competitive Porsche had to run an extensive test programme and still it wasn’t the quickest car on the grid. Here it is at Hockenheim for one of the many tests it completed and, right, about to head out on to the Nürbrugring’s south loop.

Jo Bonnier finished seventh at Zandvort in 1962 Below: Dan Gurney on his way to victory in the French Grand Prix.

Miracles can happen and that day in France, one did…

How useful was this post?

Click on a star to rate it!

Average rating 5 / 5. Vote count: 1

No votes so far! Be the first to rate this post.