Porsche’s First Le Mans Win

Celebrating Le Mans, 1970

The 24 Hours was never more dangerous than in the days of the Porsche 917, which took its first win there more than 50 years ago, driven by Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann in atrocious conditions

“I saw the start of the 1970 race because Hans did the first stint. I couldn’t believe the driving tactics of everyone. They were trying to win it on the first lap; it was like a Grand Prix!”

Richard Attwood, recently turned 80 years old, is describing an event 50 years ago – over the phone thanks to the lockdown – and yet his disbelief is still clear. Deprived of the chance to mark the true 50th anniversary of his win, and Porsche’s first overall victory,

at Le Mans, he’s keen to explain his feelings about the 24 Hours, the 917 and the race he’s best known for. And really, that starts nearly two years earlier when, knowing his sports car prowess and previous Le Mans experience, Porsche called him up.

“The reason the Porsche drive came was because they were looking for drivers for 1969. In ’68 they took me and one or two other guys in their latest cars to the Watkins Glen Six-Hour race. I was in a 908, and there was a Japanese guy called Tetsu Ikuzawa. Porsche were after drivers from different countries to spread the word of the brand.

“Huschke von Hanstein [Porsche PR director and racing manager] was doing the driver research, and obviously I did what they wanted me to do, and that’s why I was offered the drives for the following year. But I also had a chance to go with the John Wyer team in the GT40s, which were by then quite aged. I realised that when you drive for Porsche you have a really good chance of finishing, which is why I signed with them. And that’s how the Porsche story started for me.

“They were out for the championship, they weren’t just out for Le Mans. The first race was Daytona [1969], and they started there with five brand-new 908 long-tails – the 917 hadn’t been invented yet. I was told before I started that for every race there would be brand-new cars; in fact they didn’t do that in the end, but these cars were new, they’d never run, and in qualifying they were full of glassfibre bits flying around. You had to wear goggles!

“In fact, Porsche did fall flat on that, because they had a gear, one of the camshaft gears I think, that they’d tried to make out of a lighter-weight material when it wanted steel, and these eventually all failed. At Daytona, I drove three different cars because of it. I was very keen to learn about Porsches because I’d hardly done any testing, but all the other drivers, who were factory drivers from the year before or the year before that, weren’t interested because they knew they weren’t going to win, so they just went back to the hotel. But I was keen to carry on driving.

“When I saw the 917 at the Geneva show in March, I thought ‘blimey’! It looked a beast. I didn’t do any testing on the 917 – that was done mostly by German drivers, because they were right on the doorstep. I think that’s why Porsche went to the 1969 Le Mans really quite confident that the car was fully sorted.

“The first time I drove the 917 was in qualifying there, and I realised that the car was a right bloody handful, just horrendous. Before the race we all had a meeting about it, and the factory realised that in fact there was a bit more of a problem than they’d anticipated.

“Years later I learnt from one of the factory drivers about the testing they did then; they did it on an airfield, and any landing strip I know of goes about two-and-a-half miles before you have to turn around and go the other way. So you have to start and stop, and I’m positive they weren’t getting to the top speeds that we were getting on the Mulsanne Straight. If they’d gone testing at Monza, they’d have found out more about the aerodynamics and high-speed stability – but they didn’t…”

Between that testing and the Le Mans 24 Hours in June 1969, the 917 had competed in two races – at Spa in the pouring rain, and at the Nürburgring, for which the factory drivers insisted on driving the proven 908 Spyder, leaving privateers David Piper and Frank Gardner to try out a short-tail version of the 917. Sure enough a 908 won, with Richard and Hans Tanner second – also in a 908.

But back to Le Mans 1969…

“In the race it was the same as it was in qualifying. There’s a kink down the end of

the Mulsanne Straight as you get towards Mulsanne Corner. With any car I’ve ever driven before or after, taking that flat has been no problem at all. With this car it was a massive problem. We had to reduce speed; we had to try to lean the car to the left-hand side to get it to go around the corner at all.

“Just to explain what I’m talking about, John Woolfe had a co-driver called Digby Martland, who was a good peddler in British racing and whom John had chosen to drive with him in the 917 at the ’69 Le Mans. To qualify, we had to do three or four laps in the dry. Digby did his regulatory number of laps, and on the last lap he tried it a little bit faster through that kink and completely lost control because the car wouldn’t go round. He didn’t hit anything, and he spun for probably 500 metres. Nothing came off the car, so he drove back to the pits and he got out of the car and he went home. That’s how terrifying the 917 was to drive.

“Herbert Linge was chosen to drive with John Woolfe instead – and the factory tried to tell John to let Herbert start the race because he knew more about the car. Yet John didn’t want to; he’d got his family there, who’d gone over especially to see him start, and that’s what he did. But [on the first lap] he went to turn into White House and the car didn’t want to turn, and that was it. [John Woolfe crashed heavily and died in the helicopter on the way to the hospital]. With the power he had, he’d have been overtaking cars and probably got carried away in the moment. That tells you how the 917 was in 1969.”

Of course the race continued, despite the fatal accident. Yet it didn’t get any easier for Richard in the number 12 Porsche 917, despite pulling ahead of his rivals and team-mates.

“In the beginning of the race Vic Elford started, and he did two stints and then I did a double stint. After that, I was as deaf as a post. I had a blinding headache and, because of the power, I was already resting my helmet on the rear bulkhead. In other words, I was already in a lot of pain. If it had rained I would have come in – well either that or I’d be dead. I don’t know how sensible I’d have been.

“So it was three hours to go in the race, and we were in the lead by six laps or something crazy – and the car breaks. I was so happy to get out of it; you’ll never know the relief that I was still alive. It was a horrendous experience.”

That was 1969, and Porsche’s dreams of Le Mans domination were crushed, beaten by the aged GT40. As has been well documented over the years, the race was then on to find out what was wrong with the 917, with both Porsche and John Wyer experimenting with the aerodynamics.

“The engineers at Porsche were amazing, because nobody really knew anything about aerodynamics,” explains Richard. “I mean, Formula 1 had those ridiculous wings on stalks at the time, so that just shows you how basic it was in those early days. Porsche couldn’t be blamed, but they still couldn’t comprehend it; they did believe the drivers, but they didn’t believe the drivers…

“Once the problem had been proven to be totally down to aerodynamics, the 917 became a really good car. People ask me what was the best and the worst car, and really it was the same car – the 917.

“I was asked in February 1970 what configuration of 917 I wanted [for the 1970 Le Mans] and, because the gearbox had broken the year before, I wanted the smaller 4.5-litre engine so as not to stress the transmission as much. But in fact they’d changed the gearbox [from a five-speed to a stronger four-speed] so actually the 5-litre might have been the right choice.

“As well as choosing the configuration of the car, I’d chosen Hans Herrmann as co-driver because I wanted to have a good chance of finishing. Hans was the oldest guy by a long way, and I’d driven with him before. He wasn’t ultra fast and he wasn’t out to try to make a name for himself on the team – he was already established, and that’s why I chose him.”

In fact, even then, Hans Herrmann was something of a legend – the German equivalent of Stirling Moss. He’d been part of the Mercedes-Benz works team in the 1950s, driving in Formula 1 as well as the Mille Miglia, Targa Florio and Carrera Panamericana. From 1953 he drove at Le Mans 14 times, always in Porsches, including the 1970 event. Unknown to Richard, Hans had promised his wife that he would retire from racing if he won at Le Mans in 1970 – a promise he honoured.

Although John Wyer’s team was the official Porsche entry, with the short-tail 917K, to Wyer’s surprise there was a second works-supported team. Porsche Salzburg had three cars – two long-tail 917Ls, and Richard and Hans in the red and white, number 23 917K. Martini Racing also famously fielded the ‘hippie’ 917L with factory support, and David Piper entered a 917K as a privateer.

“Our 1970 car was chalk and cheese,” continues Richard. “It was a doddle in comparison to the ’69 car. I could have driven that car for 48 hours. It was fantastic – instability didn’t come into it. It was still powerful and it had no real downforce, especially compared with today’s cars, which have huge downforce. That’s why the top speeds of today’s cars down the straight are no faster than they were when we were doing it. But that 917 was lovely to drive.

“All the same, after qualifying [in 15th place] I told my wife we’d have no chance in this race because we were too slow. With the four-speed ’box we were forbidden from using first gear other than to start, so Mulsanne and Arnage Corners were taken in second gear. The lack of torque over the 5-litre engine meant we were slow everywhere.”

The race started at 4.00pm in dry conditions. As Richard said at the beginning of this piece, the competitors got off to a flying start, with Hans Herrmann starting in the number 23 car.

“I think everyone thought that if you were in a Ferrari or Porsche, then you had a chance to win it because there wasn’t that much speed difference between the 512s and the 917s. There would be a lot of intra-team competition; drivers have got egos, they want to be the fastest, and they will prove they’re the fastest. It became what in those days Le Mans really wasn’t – it became a race rather than an endurance type of thing.

“Some people might have imagined that we were just holding back waiting for others to drop out, but we weren’t at all. We were doing our bit as best we could.”

At around 5.30pm the rain started, and by 8.00pm it was torrential – and it didn’t stop until the morning. It became a race of attrition, in probably the worst conditions of any Le Mans before or since, and suddenly that suited the smaller-engined 917 and the experienced duo of Richard and Hans.

“After only ten hours we were in the lead. When I came in and was given that information, I couldn’t believe it. I had seen a lot of cars drop out, but to be in the lead was just insane, and so the difficulty or pressure then is to not make any stupid mistake as other people had done.

It would have been so easy to do, because it rained so much in the second half of that race.

“Today they wouldn’t have run the race like that, they’d have stopped it. But, of course, in those days whether you’ve got death or fire or whatever on the track, you just carry on.

“You’re not really that conscious of these things. If the rain starts then it rarely starts as a whoosh, you know? It starts in a gentle way, so you get acclimatised as it’s happening and you adjust your driving as you go.

“I did have one slide unexpectedly coming out of the Esses. That could have put us out of the race, but that was just one of those things; it might have rained just a little bit more, there’s a puddle there that wasn’t there before… The correction was made in a split second and the problem was overcome. If you’re saying, ‘ooh was that a slip?’ then you’ve gone [laughs].

“The biggest fright we had was that water was getting into the electrics. The car was misfiring everywhere, and the more rain that got in there, the more it was misfiring [initially losing the car two places, soon recovered]. The concern was that the rain would eventually drown us and that would be the end of that, so I was trying to keep the engine warmer by using the revs a little bit more to heat the engine to get rid of the moisture.

“So for the last 14 hours we had to protect the lead, but also we had to finish the race. Maybe what I did prevented the engine from stopping, but maybe it didn’t make any difference, it still wouldn’t have stopped – but at the time, you just don’t know that.

“Another thing was that during the race I couldn’t eat anything with any taste. I survived mostly on milk, which was bland, and as soon as I had any taste in the food it went straight to my glands; my glands were really painful.”

Despite this, Richard and Hans hung onto the lead, as more cars dropped out, even in the last few hours. They crossed the finishing line after 343 laps, five laps ahead of the Gérard Larrousse and Willi Kauhsen hippie 917L, with the 908/02 of Rudi Lins and Helmut Marko finishing third.

“When we won, yes, there was the euphoria of winning; it was a big race, and it was part of the World Championship,” says Richard. “But I felt terrible, completely out of it. They had a celebration that year for the winners on the back of a lorry, which they’ve never done before or since, and I was getting bloody cold on the back of that wagon. I was thinking more about that than having won the race.

“I went to a celebration dinner after the race with my wife, and I couldn’t stay awake. I thought I was a wimp, I couldn’t understand it. I literally could not stay awake, so after about 20 minutes we went back to the hotel. I didn’t know what was wrong with me until I got back home on the Tuesday and I went to the doctor – and he told me I’d had mumps. By then I was getting over it, but I’d had no idea. That’s why I was so worn out.”

After the disappointment in 1969, the team at Porsche were ecstatic. Of the 16 cars running at the end, 12 were Porsches, and the brand had won all four classes that had finishers.

The third-placed 908 claimed the Index of Performance and the Martini 917 won the Index of Thermal Efficiency.

Richard stuck with Porsche. He took part in the filming of Steve McQueen’s Le Mans movie (which he says was mostly “boring”, with all the hanging around), and narrowly missed a second win at Le Mans in 1971, again in a 917.

But the 5-litre sports car formula that Richard loved was finishing at the end of the 1971 season. He’d promised his father he’d help with the family garage business, which he’d opted out of when his racing career had started to take off, and in 1969 he’d married and he wanted a family. And then there was the safety issue…

“We’d had a fairly good innings during a really dangerous era. It was always there, and the cars were still dangerous as hell compared with the cars of today.” I suggest that 1971 was a particularly bad year, with the death of the much-loved Jo Siffert, but Richard disagrees:

“It was always a bad year. It was never any different – and afterwards it wasn’t any different, because the cars didn’t become any safer for a long time and the tracks didn’t, either. If Jackie Stewart hadn’t started doing what he did back in 1966-’67 it would’ve taken even longer. He wasn’t supported by anyone on the safety thing, but he was right and we were all wrong.

“Of course, the circuits are much safer now, too. You don’t go into trees as much, which is not the most comfortable way to crash.

“If I was going to have a big off, I would have preferred to have done it in a GT40 because it had a steel monocoque chassis, which was really strong. A 917 by comparison was not, and if you went off in a 917 you’d make sure you went off backwards, let the engine take it – although it’s still going to be you. In fact, no – a big accident in a 917 should not have been considered really, because the cars were made in a way that was for lightness, performance and speed, not for safety. Current professional drivers say, ‘we can’t believe you drove that’, and they can’t, they really can’t imagine it.”

Richard retired to run the family business that had financed his early years in racing, from the very first event in a Standard Ten at Goodwood in 1958, through the seasons in a Triumph TR3A and Formula Junior, until he made the big time after a convincing victory at Monaco in the 1963 Grand Prix support race.

From there he had been through Formula 1, the Tasman Series, the Ford GT development programme and Le Mans driving for Lola, Ford, Maranello Concessionaires and David Piper, before joining the Porsche team.

And it was Le Mans he returned to when the racing itch needed one last scratch. He joined the Aston Martin Nimrod team for the 1984 24 Hours, learning how to deal with levels of downforce and grip that he’d never experienced before, only for the race to end for them when the leading Nimrod crashed heavily, with Richard’s car (while John Sheldon was at the wheel) hitting the debris and also crashing.

Since then Richard has appeared with the famous red and white Salzburg Porsche 917 at Historics events, reluctantly taking the plaudits for one of the greatest-ever Le Mans wins,

“Looking back, winning Le Mans in 1970 was a real highlight of my career,” he admits. “Le Mans was a race that either comes to you or doesn’t. It’s a fickle thing, really – but it’s the greatest sports car race in the world.”

For an online celebration of Richard’s win, visit www.lemans70.com.