Porsche arrived at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1968 on a high. Victory would surely propel it to championship glory …
Following Porsche’s overwhelmingly dominant start to the 1968 World Sports car Championship, one British motorsport magazine suggested that the marque “must be favorite to win the FIA Constructors’ Championship.” After all, having locked out the podium at the season opener in February – the 24 Hours of Daytona – Porsche’s 907 prototype looked to have the measure of the competition.
That’s a relative concept, though. The FIA had overhauled the series’ regulations ahead of the 1968 season, ruling out prototypes with engines larger than 3.0 liters, which resulted in Ferrari calling time on its World Sports car Championship campaign. Due to the late nature of the FIA’s announcement, no other manufacturers were able to field an appropriate car in time for the start of the season. Prototype competition was therefore thin on the ground for 1968.
Porsche’s own 3.0-liter prototype wouldn’t be competitive until the sixth round of the series at the Nurburgring 1000km. When the 908 did eventually arrive, it exploited the new regulations thoroughly, winning a pair of World Sports car Championship races. For the first half of the season. though, Porsche would have to campaign the 907, which had failed to win the championship against the more powerful Ferrari 330 P4s the previous year.
So the 1968 World Sports car Championship had a strange complexion to it. A late rule change meant that not a single manufacturer had a suitable car and only Porsche had chosen to enter a stop-gap solution in the form of the 907. The 270bhp, 2.2-liter flat-eight-powered racer fell short of the potential offered by the regulations, but considering the lack of rivals, that seemingly didn’t matter. On the evidence of the first round of the series, Porsche would easily wrap up its first International Championship for Makes title with an outdated and underpowered car.
Off the back of its first ever 24 Hour race win, Porsche arrived at Florida’s Sebring circuit in March brimming with confidence ahead of the second round of the championship. The circuit was built around a former Air Force base, utilizing the long runway alongside a specially constructed road course to form a 5.4-mile lap. Marked out in places by cones and straw bales, it looked for all the world like a makeshift racing circuit, rough and bumpy in places with a concrete surface. Nonetheless, given Florida’s reliably warm weather, the 12 Hours of Sebring had become recognized as both a fine proving ground for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and Daytona’s sternest rival for the title of America’s
Greatest Motorsport Event.
As it had done at Daytona a month previously, Porsche fielded a strong quartet of 907s at Sebring, albeit in short-tail guise rather than long-tail and with modified brakes. Daytona victors Vic Elford/Jochen Neerspach crewed the number 51 car, with Gerhard Mitter/Rolf Stommelen in car number 48, Jo Siffert Hans Hermann in 49 and Ludovico Scarfiotti/Joe Buzzetta in 50.
What the more attentive observers would have noticed was that – despite apparently having the Group 6 category much to itself – Porsche’s 907 wasn’t the fastest car on the grid at Daytona. The Group 4 Ford GT40 road cars of British firm JW Engineering had the legs on the spindly 907s, powered as they were by brutish S.O-litre V8s; it was only greater reliability that had seen the Porsches prevail.
Sebring was a more intricate circuit than its Florida counterpart, European in character compared to the good ol’ American Daytona Speedway, predominantly an oval loop with a brief infield section. Sebring placed a much greater emphasis on chassis dynamics than outright grunt, suiting the 907s rather more than the GT40s.
Never the less, Porsche’s speed advantage after qualifying looked very modest indeed. The Siffert/Herrmann car had run fastest, but with a time of two minutes 49.4 seconds, it was a scant second faster than the quickest JW Engineering GT40. Third quickest in qualifying was the curious gas turbine Howmet, just 1.2 seconds down on Porsche’s pole sitter. Mitter/Stommelen were fourth, Elford/Neerspach fifth and Scarfiotti/Buzzetta eighth.
Porsche team manager, Huschke Von Hanstein was wary of the pace of the opposition ahead of the race, saying: “Although we are first on the gird, we are by no means quicker than the others. It’s just a question of tenths of a second. The Fords and – I’m glad to say – the turbine car are very dose, I think the Fords will set the pace and we’re going to follow.”
The eponymous John Wyer, meanwhile, was determined that outright speed wouldn’t win this race for his GT40s, saying: “I think for any long distance race it’s really a question of how slowly you can go and still be up there at the end.”
Further competition would come in the form of James Garner’s pair of Lola 170s, powered by hefty Chevrolet V8s. The Lolas and Ford GT40s were eligible to race under the new regulations due to a clause that increased the displacement cap to 5000cc where more than 50 units were built. This was later lowered to 25 units the following year, homologating the high displacement Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512.
In order to help keep the drivers cool during .the Sebring race in conditions that could reach beyond 25’C, Porsche employed a revolutionary cooling system. A block of ice was positioned within a container behind the left head light, with an electric pump driving chilled water though technologically-advanced capillary suits, which were worn by each of the drivers.
On 23 March at 10am, the 67 cars were lined up in chevron fashion, the flag dropped and the drivers ran to their cars in traditional LeMans start style. Few drivers would take the time to buckle up before launching away on to the circuit, choosing instead to fasten themselves in during the opening lap. or simply not bothering at all for the first stint.
Siffert maintained his lead ahead of the pack after the manic start line scramble, with team mate Mitter the only competitor able to keep him in sight. After the opening lap, three Porsches led the way with the GT40s some distance back. The biggest challenge instead came from the number nine Lola 170, which by the second tour had fought its way into second position, demoting the Elford/Neerspach 907.
Just a few laps later, the hard-charging Lola had battled past Siffert to take the lead, initiating something of an implosion for the Porsche outfit and its hopes of Sebring victory. Within 30 minutes, the Scarfiotti/Buzzetta 907 retired with engine failure. A second Porsche engine failure – two in just the first hour – further eroded the team’s hopes of building on its Daytona glory. With the lead and half of its challengers lost, this had all the hallmarks of a disaster with 11 hours still to run.
“I don’t want to accuse anybody,” said a generous Von Hanstien, “but unfortunately both cars were over-revved. If you look at the tachometers, they are both above 10,000rpm, which our engines don’t like too much.”
Although the German was reluctant to say as much, the pair of failures were caused by driver error rather than an inherent mechanical fault. A further shot of hope came shortly after when the Lola pitted from the lead for fuel and a driver change. Although it was a hollow way in which to regain the lead, the Siffert 907 was once again out in front although the Lola quickly rejoined the action on the same lap.
The race, it seemed, was on. While the two remaining 907s continued to run with pace and dependability, however, the charging Lola had been sidelined by a steering arm failure. Porsche’s toughest challenger – a surprise one at that – was no more.
At the mid-point of the race, Siffert/Herrmann led team mates Elford/Neerspach, with a sole GT40 in third position to keep the Porsche crews looking over their shoulders. As the lead 907 lapped at 106mph, the pesky GT40 found a way past to demote the second-placed Porsche to third, before stealing the lead a few laps later from the Siffert/Herrmann 907. Once again, Porsche’s prospects of victory looked to be sliding away.
But then, as the TV commentator exclaimed, there was “a startling development.” Yet another twist in the battle for Sebring success, another turn in Porsche’s fortunes, another change of lead. The front-running GT40 collided with a slower car, as driver Paul Hawkins, still riled from the incident, described: “We went into the lead and we were getting away nicely. I came under the bridge and a Javelin [TransAm car] pulled over to let the little Porsche 911 through. The bloody woman driving this Javelin pulled straight back again, the Porsche hit her and spun. I tried to miss the Porsche, but it hit me. It lost us the lead and put us four laps behind the leader.”
Quite incredibly by today’s standards, and dating this race more than any reference to cars or particular drivers ever could, Hawkins then shared his opinion of women competitors at the 12 Hours of Sebring: “I think someone should have told them that the Sunday school picnic is tomorrow, they’re here a day too early.” In response, the ‘bloody woman driver’ offered: “Oh, that’s not very nice, but I know what he means!”
Long since rejected misogyny aside, the incident handed the lead back to Porsche. The Siffert/Herrmann car ran six laps ahead of the Elford/Neerspach 907 in second with the sun setting, all competition having been sidelined or long since defeated. The remaining Porsches ran at 104mph per lap, the need to sprint now having been overcome.
After 12 hours and more than 1200 miles, near endless twists and turns and enough drama to last a season, Porsche secured its second consecutive victory in the 1968 World Sports car Championship. Siffert and Herrmann won, with Elford and Neerspach finishing a full 13 laps/67 miles behind. “I’m very happy and very tired.” said Siffert, with Herrmann adding: “It’s my second win here. It was more difficult than the race in Daytona.”
So if Porsche’s campaign got off to a dream start and JW Engineering’s was disastrous. how on Earth did Porsche lose the World Sports car Championship to the English outfit by three points? The GT40s came good at the following rounds at Brands Hatch and Monza, where the might of their V8 engines paid dividends. Porsche bit back with victory on the Targa Florio, while the new 908 took its maiden victory at the Nurburgring in May.
JW Engineering took the following two race victories at Spa Francorchamps and Watkins Glen, while Porsche came out on top at the penultimate round at Zeltweg. Given the shorter race distance of the Austrian round, half points were awarded. This turned out to be decisive.
Due to political unrest in France, the 24 Hours of Le Mans had been postponed until late September, The series’ halo event had become the finale, and also the championship decider. Porsche had five race wins to its name while JW Engineering had four. It was deliciously poised. Holding nothing back Porsche fielded four 908s, with privateer teams running a trio of 907s between them for backup. JW Engineering, by contrast, had three GT40s with which to fight for the championship.
The early stages of the race went resoundingly Porsche’s way. In wet conditions, three 908s led after the early laps while one of the GT40s had come a cropper against a barrier. The title was swinging Porsche’s way, until the cracks began to show in the fourth hour. Siffert, once leading the race, retired his 908 with dutch failure. By the evening, the Fords had battled into the lead.
As two of the remaining 908s retired with alternator belt failure, Porsche’s hopes faded fast. One of the two remaining GT40s was sidelined with engine failure, leaving just a single representative of each championship hopeful still in the race.
Clutch trouble did it for the sole remaining 908. The GT40 crossed the line after 24 hours to win the race, and with it the International Championship for Makes.
Porsche had started the championship in spectacular fashion with back-to-back victories at Daytona and Sebring, despite its seemingly inadequate car. The marque won enough races over the course of the year, but given the half points awarded for the Austrian round, it simply won the wrong races.
Time would heal those wounds, however. Ford never won the World Sports car Championship again, while Porsche racked up no fewer than 13 championship victories.