Sports Car Racing
Though the 1970s began and ended with Porsche domination, the decade’s endurance racing provided a wide range of cars and drivers at an equally varied number of venues.
The decade began with Porsche’s 917 in control despite Ferrari’s best efforts with the 512 and later the F1 based 312PB. With a change of rules in 1972 Ferrari assumed control, Porsche’s now obsolete 908 outpaced. In 1973 Ferrari lost the championship to Matra and withdrew permanently from sports car racing leaving Matra fending off the rest in 1974 only for the French team to disband at the end of the season.
With the 1973-74 energy crisis receding, Porsche regained lost ground. Surprising diversity came courtesy of assorted Cosworth powered machines, most notably the John Wyer Gulf, Autodelta Alfa Romeo and Alpine-Renault amongst others. Nevertheless Porsche’s 936 and myriad 935 variations won more individual races than any other manufacturer post 1975 despite Alfa Romeo winning the 1975 and 1977 campaigns.
During the second half of the decade the championship became fragmented into Group 6 (World Sports Car Championship) and Group 5 (World Manufacturers’ Championship) with mutually exclusive races. This survived for two seasons (1976/77) before being abandoned and Group 6 returned to rejoin the other categories in 1979 although by now it was virtually moribund.
Sadly the Targa Florio and the original Spa-Francochamps circuit both finally capitulated to the diktats of safety during this decade although the lightly sanitised 14.2 mile Nürburgring remained, for now. Additionally two of the great endurance classics, Sebring and Le Mans, fell foul of the regulatory regime for differing reasons and were run as maverick events outside of the championship. Both survived intact and indeed Le Mans prospered, often attracting the best and most varied entries of the season.
This decade saw the gradual eclipse of championship sports car/prototype racing by the rise and rise of F1 although a renaissance occurred during the mid-1980s, but that is a story for another day.
The 1960s began with Ferrari omnipotent in the larger (3 litre) class under the ridiculous Appendix C high screen regulations with only Maserati’s customer driven ‘birdcage’ machines capable of beating them plus a few old Aston Martin DBR1s that delivered occasional results.
Jaguar’s prototype E2A had looked promising but this Briggs Cunningham entry for Le Mans 1960 was only used once in Europe and never properly developed. Thereafter customer teams campaigned the production E type and its all alloy ‘lightweight’ successor for GT racing that was mainly successful in British national racing with exception.
Aston Martin and Maserati briefly rejoined the fray in 1962 when the 3 litre capacity limit was rescinded but were no match for Maranello. Instead the main opposition to the Prancing Horse came from Porsche. GT racing had also become a Ferrari fiefdom until the advent of the Shelby Daytona Cobras. It was not until 1964 that Ferrari faced a serious challenger to their endurance racing hegemony with the arrival of the Ford GT40. Over time these Ford V8 engined devices gradually evolved into race winners whilst Chevrolet powered Chaparrals proved both rapid and innovative. Ultimately Maranello’s exotic 4 litre V12s were finally overwhelmed at Le Mans in 1966/67 and elsewhere.
In 1968 the 3 litre capacity limit returned for the so called pure racers whilst the GT prototypes were allowed up to 5 litres. Ferrari withdrew and the main beneficiaries of this were Porsche and Matra but the new regulations delivered such as the beautiful but disastrous Ford P68 and oddities like the gas turbine powered Howmet. JWA meanwhile went on developing the now obsolete GT40 and managed to win Le Mans in the last two years of the decade. Ferrari reappeared in 1969 but Porsche were too consistent and reliable although Sebring fell to a Lola T70 and JWA managed to win Sebring as well as Le Mans.
However the future was Porsche and their fearsome 917 won the last race of the championship at Österreichring, a forewarning of what was to come.
Sports Car Racing in Camera 1960-69 Volume 2 includes evocative monochrome/colour images including some of the consequences, a reminder of the risks that attended the era.
During 1961/62/63 Jaguar and Aston Martin made half hearted, under financed efforts to challenge Ferrari, mainly in the GT class, without much success. Ditto Maserati who produced the ‘birdcage’ Tipo 60 and 61 4 cylinder cars for their customers that proved briefly successful in Europe and much more so in the USA but its reign was brief. In 1962 the 4 litre V8 powered 151 was launched but it was Ferrari that largely dominated the sports prototype and GT categories up to 1965 including winning at Le Mans, their final victory here. Thereafter Maranello had to concede victory to Ford occasionally until 1968 when they withdrew.
Ford’s GT40 was launched in 1964 but unreliability and other issues stopped Ford winning any of the classic European races until the 1966 Le Mans with their 7 litre MkII, repeating the victory in 1967 with the new J car after which they withdrew from racing. Meanwhile JWA had re-engineered their GT40s into the Mirage which won the Spa 1000 km, their only championship victory. Carroll Shelby’s Cobras were rather more successful in the GT class but the team was disbanded at the end of 1965 after they had won their championship. Jim Hall’s Chaparrals won a handful of races in 1965/66/67 before returning to the American scene. In 1968 the new Group 4 (up to 5 litres) and Group 6 (up to 3 litres) categories were imposed that allowed JWA to win the championship with their improved GT40s much to Porsche’s angst whose new 908 was in the Group 6 class.
In 1969 they won all the rounds bar Daytona, Sebring and famously Le Mans where the JWA GT40 of Ickx/Redman beat them. Ferrari’s reappearance with an F1 based 312P looked promising but it failed to win any races, whilst the first of the savagely fast and scary 917s led at Le Mans before retiring but won the final round of the championship at Zeltweg in 1969, the first of many future triumphs.
Following WW2 the 1950s was a decade that began with the survivors of a pre-war Europe both in regard to machinery and often the drivers.
Sports Car Racing in Camera 1950-59 offers a look at the quickly evolving scene that started with lightly modified assorted production sports cars and a cast of modified late 1930s GP based Talbot Lagos, Alfa Romeos and the early V12 Ferraris. It ended with Aston Martin as champions (although Ferrari had been and were overall to be the most successful and versatile competitors for many more years in the big car class, Porsche usually controlling the under 2 litre category and even winning outright on occasion).
In between Jaguar won 5 Le Mans with their C and D types, Mercedes Benz dominated most of the races they entered in 1952 and 1955 and Maserati enjoyed success at every level but ultimately withdrew after running out of money in 1957/58. Their new ‘birdcage’ racers, which debuted in 1959, were customer cars and enjoyed most success in America but really belong in the early 1960s.
This era suffered the tragedies of Le Mans 1955 and the 1957 Mille Miglia but it was above all else the swan song of the archetypal large capacity front engine sports racing car and the ethos that accompanied it, never to be repeated.