There is a certain magic at work in sports, a quality that attaches itself almost at random to certain events, adding mystery, anticipation, vibration and often even delirium to them. Usually it attaches itself to—or perhaps grows from—a specific individual while bypassing other individuals who may have much the same talent or success in the sport. Joe Namath has it, Daryle Lamonica does not; Arnold Palmer has it, Billy Casper does not; Muhammad Ali has it, Joe Frazier does not. In endurance racing it is the magic of machines, and here Ferrari has it, but watch out, Liebchen, Porsche is looking up. Last weekend the German firm blitzed some of the fanciest opposition in years to finish one-two in the 24 Hours of Daytona.
But to the 35,000 speed freaks who descended on Bill France's Daytona International Speedway, it hardly seemed to matter who won the season's first world manufacturers' championship race. They seemed entirely content that Ferrari was back after a two-year sabbatical. All through race week you could feel the vibrations building, for Ferrari was dead serious: 10 cars worth, four of them the new, five-liter 512S model. A broad-shouldered, closed-cockpit car with a guttural voice several octaves lower—and thus more mysteriously masculine—than any other entry, the 512 snapped and snarled its way around the sinuous 3.81-mile course like some animated excerpt from a medieval bestiary. Downshifting into corners or lining it out at 200 mph through the speedway's backstretch, the 512 made sharp, threatening noises that sounded like claims to Italy's old gas-powered territorial imperative. At a loss for a nickname, the drivers dubbed it "the Mule."
Yes, Ferrari was serious: its list of drivers read like a Who's Who of speed. There were Dan Gurney, Jackie Ickx, Nino Vaccarella, the massive, graying Mike Parkes teamed with young Sam Posey and, of course, Mario Andretti, hero of Indy's Brickyard. Gurney's 512 wore a lumpy little bonnet atop the cockpit to permit his black bonedome ample room, and the man himself—all 6'2" of him—seemed in a continuous grouch. His mechanics called him "Mr. Grimsby" behind his back, but Gurney had cause for grimness. His car, and all the other 512s, for that matter, were having trouble breathing—fuel pump problems.
Gurney and his co-driver, Chuck Parsons, wanted to junk the Italian-made Marelli fuel pumps that were causing the trouble and "go down the block for a couple of Stewart-Warners." E Basta! Ees not possible. Instead, the Ferrari mechanics punched a few breathing holes in the fuel lines and, presto, the problem seemed to be solved.
On qualifying day, running through a chilly drizzle, Ferrari won the pole. Andretti's car turned the course in 1:51.6 for a record qualifying speed of 122.903 mph and all four of the five-liter Ferraris qualified in the top 10. The pole, of course, is only an indication of potential speed in a 24-hour race. "What's 100 yards in a race of 2,500 miles?" asked Andretti. Indeed, 11½ miles is the closest a runner-up ever came to a winner at Daytona—that was when Parkes and the late Ludovico Scarfiotti came in behind Chris Amon in 1967.
For all the Ferrari mystique, there was still a race to be run. Franco Lini, the sapient Italian motor journalist who served as Ferrari's team manager during the 1967 Daytona (and brought his cars home one-two-three), knows something about attrition. "Big cars maybe no finish," declared Franco in his delightful English. "Winner, she be three-liter car."
True, there were some mighty quick little cars in the running. Matra, the French aerospace firm, had two of its blue-and-green Matra-Simca 650 Spyders qualified in the top 15. On the truck trek down from New York, the cars got loose and chewed up one another's fiber-glass bodies. The quick stripping of a spare car flown in from Argentina got them back in shape. During trials these open-cockpit cars, all curves and ululation, looked quicker through the infield Esses than the Ferraris. What's more, Matra had enlisted the services of Jack Brabham, three times the world Grand Prix champion. With the game,-quick Frenchman Jean-Pierre Beltoise in the other car, Matra was a real contender for the first time in its three years of endurance racing. "The key to winning long-distance races is metallurgy," Franco Lini said in his eloquent Italian. "And who knows better about metallurgy than an aerospace company?"
Porsche was twisting a different key. The defending world champion and odds-on favorite to repeat this year, Porsche's problem has been a lack of soul. Perhaps with that in mind, the Porsche people this year injected England's John Wyer (SI, Jan. 26) into their equation. The cool, rumpled, superbly human Wyer happens to be the best team manager in the business as well as a hell of a guy. In keeping with his understated ways, Wyer did not arrive at Daytona until qualifying day; he really-didn't have to get there earlier because his subordinate, David Yorke, is the second-best team manager in the business and a purgatory of a guy. When Wyer emerged from the London fog and alighted at the speedway, Porsche finally had panache, somewhat cool and dewy, but panache nonetheless.
Wyer asserts that the only way to concentrate fully enough on distance racing to produce a winner is to concentrate on the minimum number of cars. Where Porsche last year had as many as six machines entered in a given race, Wyer this year pared the number to three—one of them a training car that would preserve the strength of his main force while permitting his drivers plenty of road time in practice.
Standing in the Porsche pits you could feel the difference. Last year Porsche's cars were a corpselike white; this year they wore Gulf Oil's affluent hues, as blue and mild as the Cotswold sky cut through by a band of sunset orange.
There were other, more subtle changes. Where last year the Porsche-works team lined up all its tires and wrenches and micrometers in perfect order this year the tools of the trade were heaped casually hither and yon. One grease monkey actually kicked a wrench out from under a Porsche tire as the car moved into the track, at which Molly Putz, the traditional German Hausfrau and order-lover, must have rolled over in her grave.
So there was the Wyer bunch: the new Porsches (three closed-cockpit 4.5-liter 917s) driven by competents like Vic Elford and Kurt Ahrens, Jo Siffert and Brian Redman, Finnish rallyist Leo Kinnunen and Mexico's Pedro Rodriguez. Pedro Rodriguez in a Porsche? Yes, speed freaks, the man who drove Ferraris for all those years had turned his coat, but he was the same cool, young-old Pedro who always told you, through the corners and the straights and the shunts, that he could do it.
The rain of qualifying day gave way to a bright, breezy race day with temperatures in the 40s, causing spectators to huddle deep within their gaudy jackets but pleasing the drivers immensely. There would be little of the near-suffocation in the cockpits that marked last year's Daytona, and the cool air was good for speed. Right off the green flag, which fell at 3 o'clock Saturday afternoon, it was clear that this would be a flat-out race—at least as far as the quick cars could last. Jo Siffert's Porsche jumped into the lead on the first lap, with Rodriguez and Andretti close on his pipes. The single Lola in the race—a red monster driven by George Eaton of Canada—was the first contender to fail. It smoked badly on the first seven laps and then retired.
As the sun sloped down toward the pine slashings west of the speedway, Siffert's Porsche blew a tire, which in turn tore up his brake mechanism. This cost a precious nine minutes in the pits and gave Rodriguez' Porsche the lead, which he held all through the night. Andretti still was in there, but as darkness fell it became clear that Mario's taillights weren't working. The race officials black-flagged him into the pits, and during a quick stop the fault was remedied.
The blazing pace continued through the night. At the 200-lap mark, nearly nine hours into the race, the leader's speed was averaging over 119 mph—fully 6½ mph faster than at the same time last year. Hot as the cars ran, it was frigid for the watchers in the infield. "It's now 40 below," read a sign. "If you don't believe it, you're drunk." Many were.
Minor but time-consuming electrical problems vexed the Matras—first a distributor in the Beltoise car, then toward dawn the starting motor in Brabham's machine. Still, with the race three-quarters run, the French cars held fifth and 14th places and could not be counted out just yet.
When the sun rose on the noisy oval a shaft of light illuminated a procession of five Ferraris in series as they whipped past the pits. It was like a touch of mechanical Michelangelo, and the Italian mechanics must have felt that someone was on their side. But by midmorning Andretti's rear suspension had cracked and the Italians began scrambling wildly for a welding torch. That evened out the bad luck dogging the Porsche driven by Siffert, which had developed clutch problems. For a moment John Wyer gave up on the car and had it wheeled behind the pit wall. Then he stiffened up, changed his mind and had the clutch replaced. Some of that pluck must have communicated itself the length of the pits, for down at the far end the Ferrari welders completed the job in jig time, and Andretti's 512 was soon back on the course, turning 120-mph laps in his second-place position some 60 miles behind Rodriguez' Porsche.
But by the 650th lap—with nearly two hours left to run—Siffert was running on the same lap with Andretti. And in 10 more laps Siffert got past him. In the meantime, Matra was melting. The Beltoise car was running in 10th place when the ignition system finally cashed in; Brabham's Matra just managed to hold on to the end, finishing in 10th place. Maybe it was simply a case of mind over Matra—and Ferrari. Wyer's mind.
To be sure, the Englishman had another scare or two. With an hour left the duel for second place intensified as Siffert pitted for five minutes and 50 seconds with a recurrence of the electrical problem. During the halt Andretti chewed away at the margin between them. In the pits and on the PA the false impression grew that Mario had taken second place, and six minutes from the end when Siffert whipped past the Ferrari on the backstretch, cheers rose over the engine roar.
Meanwhile, Rodriguez was establishing a new Daytona record: by the end of 678 laps Pedro had eclipsed the mark of 2,580.75 miles set in 1966 by Lloyd Ruby and the late Ken Miles in a Ford Mark II. By the time he took the checkered flag Pedro had covered 2,757.44 miles—or the distance between Daytona Beach and a point well seaward of Catalina Island off Los Angeles. The average speed of 114.866 mph was more than seven mph faster than any earlier finish and Rodriguez was nearly 200 miles ahead of his teammate, Siffert, who ultimately beat Andretti by three laps in the best driving performance of the race.
The victory was truly a cosmopolitan conglomerate: Wyer from England, the car from Stuttgart, the drivers from Mexico and Finland. A blond, beardless rally driver of 26 who looks at least 10 years younger, Kinnunen also drove two seasons of Formula III racing in Scandinavia and won the Finnish championship. Both drivers are signed to run for Wyer in all 11 championship races. For Rodriguez, who had won Daytona twice before at shorter distances, it was his first ride in a Porsche, though he had driven for Wyer before, winning Le Mans in 1968 in a Ford GT40.
The new combination—a sort of cosmo-car team—could well be the beginning of a dynasty. The winning drivers had a total of 20 minutes' sleep between them but looked fit at the finish. Kinnunen was just a bit red-eyed from dust—or maybe it was from driving through all that Ferrari mystique.