When Ford almost beat Ferrari and other great Nine Hour exploits

21 November 2019 - 16:13
By Stuart Johnston
A Ford Mirage (a reworked GT40) leads a Ferrari P3 and a P4 through Kyalami’s Crowthorne bend in 1968. Picture: GARY KEGEL
A Ford Mirage (a reworked GT40) leads a Ferrari P3 and a P4 through Kyalami’s Crowthorne bend in 1968. Picture: GARY KEGEL

Just as a big-budget movie about the Ford vs Ferrari battles at Le Mans in the 1960s is being released, a major international endurance race is about to be re-enacted at Kyalami. This weekend the Nine Hour returns to Kyalami after an absence of 37 years.

In 1965, seven months before Ford finally conquered the Ferrari dominance at Le Mans, it oh-so-nearly happened at Kyalami. With less than 10 minutes to go, after eight hours and 50 minutes of gruelling racing in the November highveld heat, a Ford GT was in the lead. A highly skilled privateer from England, Peter Sutcliffe, and Grand Prix driver Innes Ireland were about to score a memorable victory and earn the Ford Motor Company some of the respect it so badly craved.

But alas, in those days the Ford GT (it was not yet generally called a GT40) still ran spoke wheels, and cruelly those spokes on the left front wheel had started breaking up. Sutcliffe was forced to slow to a crawl, and with four minutes to go, the Ferrari P2 driven by Richard Attwood and David Piper roared past into the lead to record yet another Ferrari victory. The Ford finished second.

It was Piper’s fourth straight Nine Hour win. In 1962 he had shipped his beautiful front-engined Ferrari GTO to Cape Town, driven the car up to Johannesburg, and recorded his first win, with SA ace Bruce Johnstone the codriver that year. Piper had to borrow tyres from a local road-going Ferrari owner to complete the event.

As a youngster listening to that 1965 Ford-Ferrari battle on the radio in nearby Pretoria, I knew I had to be at the trackside, and in the 1966 event I was. Memories of that race include a beautiful Ferrari 250 LM (the rear-engined car) bursting into flames at Leeuwkop corner and a Volvo rolling at the same bend. Volvos, incidentally, were phenomenal at the Nine Hour, and their exploits there led the 122S being considered the “thinking man’s” performance car in SA.

This weekend the Kyalami Nine Hour will be revived after 37 years. Picture: SUPPLIED
This weekend the Kyalami Nine Hour will be revived after 37 years. Picture: SUPPLIED

Also at that ’66 event, I was amazed to see a pair of somewhat-under-the-weather racegoers trying to scale the wire fence of the grandstand enclosure, opposite the pits. When a policeman asked them where they thought they were going, one of them replied, “I’m going to Kyalami.” It had slipped his addled mind that he had been there for most of the day and night, as there was just an hour left for the race to run. Yeah, drinking stories at the old Nine Hour are probably more prolific than recounts of the actual races.

I was a Kyalami addict from that day on and the next year, 1967, I was on hand to see Ford score its first victory, when Jacky Ickx won in the so-called  Ford Mirage, essentially a GT40 with a larger 5.7l V8 and slightly altered roofline, run in the famous JW Automotive Gulf blue and orange colours for the first time. Ickx would go on to score a memorable Le Mans victory in a GT40 in 1969, when he and Hans Hermann (in a Porsche 908) passed each other a number of times for the lead on the final lap.

A unique feature of the Kyalami Nine Hour was that the entries mixed superquick Le Mans-level prototype racers with humble saloons drawn from our local racing series. So, for instance, in 1968 you again had a JW Mirage heading the entry, joined by three Lola T70s, Piper’s Ferrari P3, Paul Hawkins’ Ferrari P4, a brace of beautiful Alfa Romeo 33s, a number of Porsche 907s and 906s and a Ferrari Dino. At the tail end of the 34-car grid you had cars such as the Mini Cooper S, Alfa Romeo GT Sprints and a 1,500cc Cortina GT.

It was great for us spectators to see Ferraris and the like roaring past the smaller saloons having their own dice, but the concentration levels for drivers of both the faster prototypes and the (relatively) slow saloons must have been immense. You were talking about the difference between a Ferrari P4 that could reach about 270km/h down the long Kyalami main straight, vs a Mini Cooper S that would be hard-pressed to sustain a maximum of 170km/h.

While Volvos made a huge impression in the early Nine Hours, it was the great Renault R8 Gordini that had the biggest impact of perhaps any car in the Nine Hour’s history, in 1969. Those French racing blue Gordinis were already crowd favourites, giant killers with a 1,300cc engine that could see off big 3.0l Capris and Alfa Romeo twin-cam exotics in many a street race.

During the 1969 race, my mates and I were camped in a tent for the main race and next to us were two enthusiasts with their girlfriends and their road-going Renault Gordinis. I don’t know whether the girls or the cars received more prerace attention, but during the race the Gordini was the hands-down winner.

Thanks to a huge cloudburst that turned the track into a water skiing venue for close to two hours, the potent Porsche 917, Ferrari P4, Ford GT40s and Lolas were reduced to a crawl. It was astonishing to see the 1,300cc Renault saloon driven by Scamp Porter and Geoff Mortimer pass these cars on the straight for lap after lap in a cloud of spray.

The secret was that the prototype cars’ huge tyres acted like water wings on the track, while the Gordini’s skinny wheels cut a path straight through to the tarmac. The results of that 1969 read: 1. Porsche 917. 2. Lola T70. 3. Porsche 908. 4. Renault R8 Gordini.

Behind the Gordini, in case you think this might have been a fluke, were a Chevron B8, a Chevron B16, a Porsche 906 and a Porsche 908. All full-on racers with Le Mans-like credentials.

There’s a good chance that we might again see a cloudburst around 5pm on Saturday November 23 for the Kyalami Nine Hour. This year we will have an international field comprising about 30 cars, and again there will be a good smattering of SA drivers. Porsche, Bentley, Ferrari, Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Honda, Aston Martin — all the great names in racing will be there for this final round of the 2019 Intercontinental GT Challenge.

The Kyalami Nine Hour forms part of the 2019 Intercontinental GT Challenge powered by Pirelli, which includes the Liqui-Moly Bathurst 12 Hour, California 8 Hours, Total 24 Hours of Spa and Suzuka 10 Hours.

The international motorsport event takes place on November 22-23, and will be family-oriented with live music, DJs, food stalls and a children’s zone. Tickets are priced from R200 and can be bought at www.kyalami9hour.com.