June 14, 1970, on this day, for the first time in History, a Porsche received the checkered flag in front of everybody else in Le Mans. The brand debuted at this legendary race track with a class-victory (1,100 cc) in 1951, but it took almost 20 years for the team to achieve an overall victory.
From 1964 until 1969, the battle between Ford and Ferrari overshadowed the performance of the other competitors but Porsche was always among the favorites. Ford had officially retired from Sportscar competition in 1968 and by 1970, there wasn’t a single GT 40 among the participants in Le Mans (remembering the Ford GT 40 had swept Le Mans in 1966, 67, 68, and 69). Now, the favorites were Porsche and Ferrari, but, obviously, there were some other brands fighting for the victory.
Let’s take a look at the fastest prototypes:
The Stuttgart team brought to Le Mans nine Porsche 917 and most of them were the improved version called “K” (K stands kurzheck or short-tail). The 917 wasn’t exactly new, the car was ready for the 1969 season but it was beaten by the outdated Ford GT40 at Le Mans in the same year. For 1970, the Porsche Team had an obligation to win. The cars were distributed between the official factory teams and private racers. The “K” cars were not only prettier than the original 917, they also have better stability and better aerodynamic. The heart of the beast was a naturally aspirated, 5.0 L, Flat 12, air-cooled engine, capable to produce 620 HP. The total weight of the car is 1764 lbs | 800.137 kg. The fastest 917s were clocked at the Mulsanne straight at 350 plus Km/h.
For the 1970 Sportscar championship, Ferrari had the all-new 512s and for Le Mans, they brought 11 of them. At this time, FIAT was already the owner of more than half of the company and that means money was not a problem. Just like Porsche, some of the cars would be racing under the official factory support and others would be driven by private teams. The 512s was a very similar car to the Porsche 917, it was equipped with a V12, liquid-cooled engine, basically the same 3.0 L engine used on the Ferrari Formula 1 cars but with displacement increased to 5.0 L and “detuned” in favor of the reliability but still able to crank up 550 horses. The 512s also had a similar performance to the Porsche 917, with max speed around 340 km/h.
Alfa – Romeo.
The most Italian of all Italian brands, Alfa-Romeo, with a tighter budget than Porsche and Ferrari, brought only four cars to Le Mans. The newest version of the T33 proved to be an excellent race car, powered by a 3-liter, all-aluminum V8, developing 400 HP. The “longtail” version gave it a bump of 25 km/h (15 mph), pushing the car to a top speed of 300Km/h
Matra – Simca
Matra was facing some financial difficulties in 1970 and was decided to withdraw from the championship and focus exclusively to win Le Mans. The French team enrolled three cars, one brand new MS660, and two older version MS650. Extremely proud of their roots, Matra gave the new car to two French drivers, Henri Pescarolo and Jean Pierre Beltoise. Both models were equipped with a Formula-one 3 L, V12 engine, detuned back to 420 HP. The MS660 had an enormous potential and the next version, the MS670 dominated the Sportscar racing scene for the next few years, winning the championship in 1973 and 1975 and also scoring victories in Le Mans for three years in a row, 1972, 1973, and 1974.
Bellow the “Prototypes” there were the “GT” classes for production cars, divided by engine size: bigger than 3,000cc and smaller than 3,000cc, both categories were dominated by a massive number of Porsches 911 and 914. Among the “unusual” cars the most noticeable were the Chevrolet Corvettes equipped with 7L Big Block V8, cranking up 560 HP. The Corvettes were clocked at the Mulsane straight at 300 plus Km/h, but they have a hard time keeping up with the Porsches on tight corners.
Holywood Goes to Le Mans.
The 1970 edition of Le Mans became famous for a variety of reasons and one of them was the presence of Solar Productions Comp. owned by the American actor (and notorious gearhead) Steve McQueen. They were at Le Mans with the purpose to record real, on track, race footage to be used in the future movie “Le Mans”. McQueen bought a Porsche 908/2 and installed three 35mm cameras on it, one in front (as seen on the picture) and two in the rear.
The camera car was entered as a regular competitor and McQueen wanted to be one of the drivers, after all, he was an accomplished race driver (he finished second on the 1970 edition of the 12 Hours of Sebring) but his insurance company prohibited him to compete again. During the race, the Solar’s Porsche had to stop at the pits more frequently than the other competitors in order to replace the movie rolls in the cameras. To make matters even worse, the car was plagued by a faulty starter. At the end of the race, the camera Porsche failed to qualify but the team had gathered several hours of footage to be used in the movie.
- Note of the editor: If you are a true car guy and haven’t seen this movie yet, do yourself a favor and rent it ASAP; but here is a friendly advice: “Le Mans” was a box office flop when it was released in 1971, basically because it has no plot; the movie is just a huge collection of stunning footage (both real and staged) of the Golden Era of Sportscar Racing.
In 1970, the traditional start in Le Mans, when drivers run from across the track toward their cars, was abolished and the “static start” was adopted, with drivers already buckled up in their cars at the dropping of the green flag.
As it was confirmed during practice, the performance of the Porsche 917 and the Ferrari 512 were pretty similar and for the first couple of laps, the cars were clocking lap times very close to each other.
The race had barely started and bad luck struck for both teams: after only 7 laps, Vaccarella pulled his Ferrari at the pits with a broken crankshaft and after 23 laps, Pedro Rodrigues also had to quit the race when the cooling fan of his Porsche failed. Both drivers were fast and experienced and real contenders for the trophy.
It always rains in Le Mans. *(a quote from the movie “Ford vs Ferrari”)
When the race started, the weather was overcast but fine, even if there was rain and possible thunderstorms on the forecast, all the cars began with “slick” tires. At 5:30 the rain came and suddenly the hell broke loose. Remembering, we are talking about powerful and lightweight cars, with no electronic driving assistance whatsoever, no ABS, no traction-control, nothing, and that can be a deadly combination on a wet race track.
On a quick succession of accidents, Ferrari lost four prototypes, Porsche one and Alfa-Romeo one, thank God nobody was seriously hurt.
As night falls the situation did not improve, at this time there were only three surviving cars from the top 10 qualifiers. Around 10 PM all three Matra-Simca had to retire with the same problem: compression leaking through the piston rings.
By midnight, the rain was pouring heavily and a couple more cars were involved in accidents. The Team Gulf-Oil Porsche #20 driven by Siffert and Redman was leading the race and another Porsche 917 driven by Elford and Ahrens in second and a distant Ferrari driven by Jack Ickx in third. Every driver was slowing down at this point, thanks to the horrible weather conditions, but the Ferrari driver saw it as an opportunity to close the gap. Ickx started to “drop the hammer”, imposing an insane pace. He was a very talented driver indeed (had won Le Mans in 1969 driving a Ford GT40) and he was using every bit of his skills to drive fast at night and in the pouring rain. After a few laps he was in fact getting dangerously close to the leaders, when Ahrens had to stop to change a flat tire, Jack Ickx assumed the second position and now he had a clear path to hunt down the leading Porsche driven by Jo Siffert.
Ickx (who was also the official driver for the Ferrari Formula-One Team) closed the gap at 1:45 AM, and during the fight to take over the first position, the rear brakes of his #5 Ferrari failed and the chasing came to a tragic end: he lost control of the car, hit a sandbank, was launched airborne and burst into flames when it hit the ground, killing a track marshal who was nearby.
All four 512 prototypes from the official Scuderia Ferrari were out of the race and Jo Siffert, driving the remaining Gulf Oil Team Porsche 917 was leading with a comfortable 10 laps lead over the second place.
After so many hours of constant pressure and battling the elements, it’s normal for the drivers to succumb to tiredness and that was exactly what happened with Siffert. At 2:00 AM, he missed a gear change, crossing the RPM red-line and irreversibly damaging the engine.
The Austrian Porsche-Salzburg Racing Team car # 23, driven by Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood jumped as the race leader. Not too bad for a car that started at 15th position.
In second place was taken by the Martini Racing Team “Long-Tail” Porsche 917, wearing the amazing psychedelic livery, driven by Elford/Ahrens. The car was affectionately called “Hippie Car” by the fans.
In third position came the Martini Racing Team Porsche 908 driven by Lins/Marko. The car was also first in its class (prototypes under 3L).
The race hasn’t reached the 12 hours point and it seemed no other team could take the trophy from Porsche. For the remaining last half of the competition, the first 3 cars didn’t change their positions, and at the end, the German cars finished Le Mans in a fantastic 1-2-3 victory. Porsche lost in one class only: the GT production above 3L, won by the Big Block Corvette #2 from the French Team “Greder”.
The best qualified Ferrari came in fourth position, the 512s #11 driven by Posey/Bucknum, from the “North American Racing Team”.
The victory at Le Mans in 1970 was just part of the Porsche’s amazing performance during that year; the cars from Stuttgart won 9 out 10 races of the season.
The race was a turning point in Sportscar racing, Ferrari started to focus more on the official Formula-One Team, to the point of completely quitting the Sports Prototype in 1974. The Italians would never overall win at Le Mans again while Porsche became the most successful manufacturer at this legendary race track, with 19 overall victories.
Recently, they won in 2015, 2016, and 2017 with its hybrid 919. Porsche also retains the longest winning streak with 7 consecutive victories from 1981 to 1987. It doesn’t seem that Porsche will abandon competition as advertisement tool any time soon and that means they have no intentions to let any other brand take this record away.