Porsche 908/3 at the 1970 Targa Florio

With all the talk in F1 being about the championship going down to the wire, and the potential of Alonso being able to overhaul Seb “The Finger” Vettel, it seemed only natural in the Sett to look at  something completely different.

Well, not completely different, partially because I know very little about, for example,  Flamenco Dancing (that’s still got a Spanish theme: Ed) but mainly because motorsport is what flows through a Badger’s veins, and presumably yours too.

So I got to thinking about which championship was tied up earliest in the year, Mansell’s 1992 year sprung initially to mind, but then the 1970 Sports Car Championship came to mind.

Admittedly, this is a manufacturers’ championship, not a driver’s title, but by any standards, Porsche dominated it in style. Then, as now, Ferrari were the main competition (with apologies to any McLaren fans – their car might be quicker, but it’s not still in the title race) and the 512S/512M will go down as one of the greatest sports racing cars of all time.

Unfortunately for Ferrari, the boys at Stuttgart were determined to win, and rolled out not one of the best sports cars of all time, but two. The 917 and the 908/3. With the previous year’s 908/2 as a reliable backup.

And in 1970, they used them to such good effect that they had already wrapped up the Manufacturers’ title before Le Mans. Now, if you know anything about sports car racing, you’ll know that Le Mans is traditionally held round about the second weekend of June. It was in 1970 too. So that’s like having the F1 championship sorted before Canada – which is traditionally (and irritatingly) often held on the same weekend.

Sports Car racing was much bigger in those days, a proper championship that both teams and spectators cared about. And Porsche wanted to win it.

The 917 was one of the great cars of all time. You might prefer it in the powder blue and orange of Gulf and John Wyer’s team, or maybe the red and white of Porsche Austria from Salzburg. Or the barmy psychedelic colour scheme that the Martini team ran at Le Mans. You might prefer the short tail version, or the Langheck (long tail) version. They are all fabulous.

I still love the 908/3 though. A car, essentially an F1 car with covered wheels, built to deal with the twists and turns of the Targa Florio, still 72km (40ish miles) long in it’s later days (they raced over 11 laps) but still each lap is longer than 20 laps of the Monaco circuit. That’s a proper street circuit.

They used the Targa spec 908/3 to good effect at the Nürburgring too. Ferrari did manage to win at Monza to keep the championship alive, but by the end of the Nürburgring race on May 31, Porsche had sealed the title. Admittedly, they had more cars running than Ferrari, but that was part of the game. Teams could buy cars and race them, indeed, manufacturers had to build sufficient cars so that this could happen. And while Ferrari often only claimed to have built the requisite number of cars, Porsche really did…

Porsche 917s at Zuffenhausen. Why didn’t they swap 915 and 916 for the picture?

Two races that year (other than Le Mans, which has its own life in the Steve McQueen film) stand out: Spa and Brands Hatch. And one driver: Pedro Rodriguez.

In 1970, races at Spa were still being held on the long circuit, and I won’t bore you here with tales of the Masta Kink again. All I’ll say is that it was fast. Very fast. Pedro set his fastest lap of the race at 3 min, 16.5 secs, which sounds like a long time. But his average speed was 258 kph (160.5 mph). Blindingly quick in a long distance race. I know JP Montoya went slightly quicker than this over one lap at Monza in qualifying, but I don’t think he did in a race. Please let me know if I’m wrong – and either way, this is a much longer lap and a 30 year older car.

But it’s the Brands Hatch 1000km race that stands out. We hear a lot about driving standards at the moment – ignoring blue or yellow flags, blocking etc but that’s not a new phenomenon. It was a rain-affected race and soon after the start, one of the Lolas spun on the main straight. The yellows came out and the leaders slowed, apart from Pedro, who barely lifted. Out came the black flag (which he ignored for a good few laps, although I’m guessing that vision was not great, and there were no radios) meaning that Pedro had to come in for an interview with the Clerk of the Course. Not a drive-through penalty, not even a stop and go. A stop, get out, and go up to the Clerk of the Course’s office, where you will get a stern telling off and if you’re lucky he’ll let you go back into the race.

Pedro was furious (although he had sensibly nodded contritely whilst in the presence of the CotC) and set off into the spray determined to wring the best out of the car. This is the race for which Pedro Rodriguez will probably be most remembered; partnered with a pay driver, his job was to do most of the driving, and build up a lead that his slower partner would not lose. And he certainly did that. The race was 235 laps long, but no other car managed to complete more than 230. Despite his unwanted interview Pedro managed to lap everybody else five times. Impressive isn’t the word.

Pedro sadly died in 1971 at the wheel of a Ferrari 512, doubly tragic as his younger brother Ricardo had been killed in practice for the 1962 Mexican Grand Prix. How do families cope with that?

We have another Mexican in F1 now, and next year he’ll be in one of the quickest cars there is. If Checo does win a race next year, I hope he remembers Pedro and Ricardo during the driver interviews.

If this has awoken your interest in Sports Car racing, you could do worse than watch Porsche’s film of that year:

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Badger GP's resident F1 historian / ranty old man (his words!) Raced Formula Renault and FF2000, a founding member of Eiger Racing, worked at Virgin Racing/Marussia.