For the 1971 season Roger Penske and his friend Philadelphia exotic car dealer Kirk White acquired a Ferrari 512S (chassis number 1040) from its American owners who had run it in three 1970 CanAm races. Penske then embarked on one of his typical “unfair advantage” programs of modification. The first step was to convert the 512S to “M” specification which produced a more aerodynamic shape as a berlinetta and having lighter weight fiberglass bodywork fitted, including a rear wing. Two engines were sent to Traco Engineering in California to be made more powerful and efficient. One specific modification suggested by Mark Donohue, Penske’s longtime lead driver, was to run much lower oil pressure to reduce the motor’s internal friction. Donahue also made extensive modifications to the chassis to improve its stiffness and changed the suspension pickup points. The overall intention was to make the Ferrari competitive with the Porsche 917s.
The Penske modifications proved very effective for the Penske/Sunoco 512M was the fastest qualifier at both the Daytona 24 Hours and the Sebring 12 Hours. But each race saw collision problems drop the 512M down several places. Here is David Hobbs at Sebring on March 20, 1971 where he and Mark Donohue would finish sixth overall. Their next appearance was at the Le Mans 24 Hours, where the Penske 512M qualified fourth, not able to achieve the high Mulsanne speeds attained by the 917 long tails, and retired with engine failure in the 5th hour. Two subsequent races in the US at Watkins Glen, one with another pole position, resulted in two more failures to finish.
Although Penske had built the best Ferraro 512M, a car that was faster than the Porsche 917s, John Wyer, the greatly experienced team manager for Porsche, remarked at Daytona about the Penske 512M, “I think it’s a marvelous car, a wonderful piece of machinery, but you’ve got to bear in mind that there’s five of us and one of them.” And he was right.
Photo by Bill Fox ©The Klemantaski Collection – http://www.klemcoll.com