The first sighting of Porsche’s new 908/03 race car half a century ago caused a sensation. Yes, the 908 Spyder had been in action for a couple of years, but this was something quite out of the ordinary. Smaller, lighter, with the driver seated well forward. The polyurethane bodywork weighed just 12 kilograms, we were told, an astonishing figure, and was said to be so translucent that the drivers’ feet could be seen ahead of the front wheels (although the paintwork obscured this feature).
Ferdinand Piëch, whose brainchild this was, glowed with paternal pride. “Every gram that we save is one less gram to be braked, to carry round the corners, to accelerate out” he told me (and yes, 50 years on, I have a good recollection!).
The chassis was made of aluminium tubes, extensive use was made of titanium and other exotics, and the car was powered by the 3 litre flat-eight air cooled engine developing 350 horsepower. The complete car weighed 545 kilograms, yielding a power-to-weight ratio of 680 bhp per tonne. Special, yes, because the 12-cylinder 917 had virtually the same power:weight. “It was a special little car, like a roller skate” reckoned Vic Elford, part of the first driver team. One of the features of the 908/03 was the placement of the differential behind the gearbox, shortening the wheelbase and improving the polar moment of inertia for faster steering response, but it meant that the engine was moved forward and so, too, was the driver.
Four cars, prepared in secrecy, made their public appearance at the Targa Florio race in Sicily in May 1970, three of them in the blue and orange colours of JW Automotive’s Gulf Racing team, each with a card symbol, a diamond, a club and a spade, a tribute to the markings seen on Ferdinand Porsche’s Austro-Daimler Sascha team in 1922.
Jo Siffert and Brian Redman led the driver team backed by Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen, and rally ace Bjorn Waldegard with Richard Attwood. The fourth car was presented, to John Wyer’s annoyance, in the colours of Porsche Salzburg, described by Piëch as “a customer team” with white bodywork adorned with red colouring across the nose, for Elford and Hans Herrmann. In reality all four were Porsche factory cars, a works team, with Wyer’s crew running an emergency pit at Bivio Polizzi, halfway around the circuit.
It was Siffert who set the fastest practice lap (each driver was allowed just one lap of the 72 kilometre mountain circuit, others being reconnaisance in rental cars!) with Elford second, but Piëch had one surprise up his sleeve, asking Elford to make a comparative lap in a 917 which had been taken to Sicily for show purposes.
“As much as I loved the car I had no desire to race it, but the idea of driving one lap ‘just to see’ intrigued me, so I had no hesitation in saying yes. However by the time I reached Cerda, just eight kilometres from the start, I was already having second thoughts.” The car “leapt from corner to corner, and I did virtually the entire lap using second and third gears.” He drove straight to the paddock, exhausted, but had made the fourth quickest time.
Elford’s race was very short indeed. Soon after Cerda he found a rock in the road, possibly dislodged by a car ahead, swerved to avoid it and clouted a kerb, damaging the front suspension. Siffert and Redman had a fight on their hands, perhaps the Swiss was taking it easy on the opening lap as Gerard Larrousse, in a 908/2, led Siffert and Kinnunen first time past the pits, ahead of Nino Vaccarella driving his heart out in the works Ferrari 512S shared with Ignazio Giunti.
Rodriguez, brilliant everywhere else, did not enjoy himself in Sicily. It was said that he was unwell, but Kinnunen amply made up for this with his pace, and set the fastest lap of the race on his final tour, a record of 36m 36s that was never beaten in the three years that followed. Hans Laine, the young Finn, was among the leaders until the front-right wheel fell off his Wihuri team 908/02 at Campofelice, approaching the 5-mile straight along the Mediterranean seafront. The Porsches lacked downforce, demonstrated as the front of Laine’s car lifted at high speed and stayed up until he reached the final turn to the pit-front, arriving with a shower of sparks from the iron brake disc. The wheel was replaced and Gijs van Lennep continued to finish in fourth position.
The 5-litre Ferrari continued to threaten, but Redman managed to get by as the Italian car took longer to refuel, and then Kinnunen was able to overtake Giunti to take second place. A 1-2 for the Gulf team Porsches, third for the gallant Ferrari team, fourth for Wihuri, and fifth for the third Gulf entry with drivers off the pace.