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Dan Gurney, who scored Porsche’s only F1 wins as a manufacturer, dies at 86

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Article by Damon Lowney
Photos courtesy Porsche

Dan Gurney, the man whom Porsche owes its only victory in Formula 1 as a manufacturer and the inventor of the “Gurney Flap,” passed away January 14, 2018, at the age of 86.

Gurney was known for being a great driver in several forms of motorsport, including Formula 1, sports car, NASCAR, and IndyCar racing. He was a driver first and foremost, playing the part from his first race in 1955 in a Triumph TR2 to his last start behind the wheel of a Plymouth Barricuda in 1970, according to RacingSportsCars.com. His greatest contribution in motorsport is inarguably the “Gurney Flap,” consisting of a simple spoiler hastily attached perpendicular to the rear wing of his Eagle 72 IndyCar at the 1971 Indy 500, but we’ll focus most of this article on his time with Porsche.

Gurney’s first taste of Porsche was during 1956, according to RacingSportsCars.com, when he drove a Porsche 356 to various levels of success over seven races, mostly organized by the California Sports Car Club and one by the Los Angles Region Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). His first class win, coincidentally, was in a Porsche 356 1600 Super in San Diego. It wasn’t until 1961 when Gurney had his first big break driving for the Porsche factory.

That year Gurney was recruited by Porsche’s racing director, Huschke von Hanstein, to race in both the automaker’s sports car and Formula programs, which were making the jump from four-cylinder, four-cam Carrera engines to 1.5-liter (Type 753) and 2.0-liter (Type 771) flat eights, respectively. The engines would be used in Porsche’s Type 804 Formula 1 car and the 718 coupes and 718 W-RS Spyder to varying degrees of success. It was a time of change at Porsche, when its previously successful four-cylinder engines were outdated and the automaker was exploring new ways to make its cars faster.


Above: Stirling Moss drives a Porsche 718/2 Formula 2 at the Zeltweg GP in 1960. Porsche won the F2 constructer's championship that year. The 718/2 used here is representative of the car Gurney drove in F1 in 1961.

Porsche’s first foray into Formula 1 racing was not as successful as its previous sports car efforts and only lasted for the 1961 and 1962 seasons. In 1961, with the 718/2 Grand Prix cars still using the four-cam four, a Porsche team never achieved a win. The automaker’s best showings were with Hans Herrmann driving to a 2nd-place finish at Germany’s Solitude GP (Gurney was 5th) and Gurney’s 2nd-place finish at the Syracuse GP in Sicily. Experimentation with the new 787 GP car, which used fuel-injected flat fours at the Dutch GP at Zandvoort, was not successful, and the cars were purported to have tricky on-the-limit handling, according to Excellence was Expected. Porsche switched back to the earlier 718/2s for the rest of the season to focus development on the new Type 753 flat eight.

Despite the setbacks throughout the season — broken shift linkages, vapor lock in the fuel-injected fours, tricky handling, etc. — Gurney was able to claim 3rd in the championship, tied with the legendary Stirling Moss. What stands out among Gurney’s efforts was his ability to extract the performance needed to be competitive in Porsche’s decidedly uncompetitive F1 cars. That driving spirit and mastery of car control served him well the next year.


Above: Gurney drives the flat-eight-powered Type 804 Grand Prix car at The Solitude GP, where he won Porsche's second and last race as a manufacturer.

In 1962, Gurney drove the Porsche 804 GP car fitted with the Type 753 flat eight at its first race at Zandvoort. However, Porsche would only allow the 804s to race if Gurney or his teammate, Jo Bonnier, were able to surpass the 1961 qualifying record at the track during test sessions. Gurney beat the time by a second, but by all accounts the new 804 was still outgunned by the competition, according to Excellence was Expected. During the race, he was as high as 3rd, until the shift linkage broke and forced him to retire the car.

Porsche had another ultimatum: The automaker would only enter another GP race if the 804 could complete 15 laps at the Nürburging. Gurney’s test of 15 laps was successful, and he set a lap record of 8:44.4 along the way.


Above: Gurney (left) and Bonnier placed first and second at the Solitude GP in 1962 driving Porsche 804s.

At the French GP, Porsche showed up with two 804s due to the success of the Nüburgring test. Gurney was in 6th place for the first half of the race, but then competitors ahead of him dropped out due to accidents and mechanical failures, allowing him to take the lead, which he held until the end of the race. This was Porsche’s and Gurney’s first win in Formula 1. Gurney also won the next race, the Solitude GP — though it didn’t count towards the championship. This was Porsche’s last win as a manufacturer in F1.

At the Nürburgring GP, for which Porsche had prepared with the 15-lap test, Gurney managed a 3rd-place finish just a handful of seconds behind the race winner.

Alongside Porsche’s F1 effort, Gurney also raced the automaker’s sports cars during 1961 and 1962. In 1961, Gurney placed second overall in a 718 RS 61 at the Targa Flroio, good for a class win.


Above: Porsche 718 W-RS Spyder (front) in 1963, the year after Gurney's last race with the car.

As in F1, the four-cam fours were showing their age and paved the way for a new powerplant, states Excellence was Expected. Development of the flat-eight GP car went virtually hand-in-hand with development of flat-eight sports cars, though the latter received a 2.0-liter version of the flat eight called the Type 771. The 718 W-RS Spyder that Gurney raced, usually with Bonnier as co-driver, did not achieve the results Porsche had hoped for. Gurney’s best finish in that car was 3rd at the Puerto Rico GP. The only other sports car race he finished in a Porsche was 7th place at the 12 Hours of Sebring in a 356 Carrera GTL Abarth, which was good for a class win. Mechanical failures at the Targa Florio (W-RS), Nürburgring 1000km (in which he raced an eight-cylinder 718 coupe), and the 24 Hours of Le Mans (also in a coupe) prevented him from finishing any more races in a Porsche that season.


Above: Gurney in 1962.

After racing at Porsche, Gurney continued his driving career for nearly a decade, winning at Le Mans, NASCAR races, and more F1 races — including a win at the 1967 Belgium GP, for which he designed and built the car. In 1965, he became team owner of All American Racers, which designed and built its own race cars and won with them in various series including Formula 1, CART/IndyCar, and more.

For a more general overview of Gurney’s life, head over to Car and Driver’s obituary.

Sources: Excellence was Expected by Karl Ludvigsen, All American Racers, RacingSportsCars.com, Porsche

(UPDATE: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated Gurney won the Indy 500 as a driver. He won the race as team owner of All American Racers.)

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