A Very Brave Little Driver
April 12 this year marks the 50th anniversary of one of the most outstanding displays of wet-weather driving ever seen. Chas Parker recalls the 1970 BOAC 1000 kms.
A blue car pierces its way out of the gloom, slithering, sliding, dancing as if on ice. Water streams off, kicked up in mountainous plumes from the rear tyres. The windscreen wipers fight a losing battle. The engine note rises as the driver applies more power, the car twitches, still barely under control, then surges past in a mist of spray and is gone. It seems inconceivable that it will make it around the lap without mishap, yet the scene is re-enacted time and time again.
The track is Brands Hatch. The year, 1970. The race is the BOAC 1000 kms for Group Five and Six Sports Cars. It is teeming with rain.
The blue car in question, with its distinctive orange stripe running from nose to tail, is the number 10, Gulf-sponsored, Porsche 917K of the J W Automotive Engineering Team. The driver is Pedro Rodriguez and he is putting on one of the greatest displays of wet-weather driving ever seen.
Brian Redman was team-mate to Rodriguez that year, and he remembers the little Mexican with fondness. “Pedro was very volatile,” he says, “but a very nice guy off the track.”
Redman partnered Jo Siffert in the second Gulf 917 throughout the 1970 season, and remembers how the intense on-track rivalry, yet great off-track respect, between the ‘Mexican Bandit’ and the ‘Crazy Swiss’ as they referred to one another, sometimes boiled over.
“The two of them had this great feud going on, and were hitting each other’s cars, several times during the season,” he explains. “Because of this David Yorke, the team manager, kept trying to keep them apart on the track. On two occasions I started the race instead of Jo, just in order to try and prevent him and Pedro knocking each other off! But we all got on very well, out of the cars,” he adds.
The BOAC 1000 kms (or 500 miles as it had been until that year) was held in the spring each year at Brands Hatch and was already regarded as something of a classic. The Kent circuit was enjoying its heyday as probably the most popular track in the country, both for its superb viewing facilities and for the quality of the races that it held. Sports car racing, too, was experiencing a golden age which many people feel has never been surpassed, or even remotely approached.
The 1970 season was set to be a battle between the two sports car giants of the time, Porsche and Ferrari, with their 917 and 512 models respectively. These were the days when Grand Prix drivers regularly raced in endurance events as well as Grandes Epreuves and so spectators were able to relish the sight of the likes of Jacky Ickx, Denny Hulme, Jack Brabham, Jo Siffert and Piers Courage attempting to tame these 4.5-litre monsters.
The entry for this race, which formed the third round of the 1970 Championship of Makes, was divided into four classes: Group Five sports cars, which included the 917s, 512s and Lola T70s, and Group Six prototypes, consisting of Porsche 908s, Matra 650s, an Alfa Romeo T33/3 and assorted Chevron B16s. Each class was in turn split into two based on engine capacity. Both had a class for up to two litres, but above that the Group Five cars enjoyed a maximum of five litres, while the Prototypes were restricted to three.
J W Automotive Engineering, which that year ran the works Porsche team, had entered two 917s: one for Rodriguez and the Finn Leo Kinnunen, which had already won the Daytona 24-hour race, and the other for Siffert and Redman. The Porsche Salzburg team fielded Denny Hulme alongside Vic Elford, and Hans Herrmann with Richard Attwood.
Over in the Ferrari camp, team leader Jacky Ickx was partnered by Jackie Oliver in the number one car, while Chris Amon was sharing his similar 512S with the diminutive Italian, Arturo Merzario. Scuderia Filipinetti ran a privately-entered 512 for Herbert Muller and David Hobbs. Matra brought two of its V12-engined 650 Spyders for the Jack Brabham/Jean-Pierre Beltoise, and Johnny Servoz-Gavin/Henri Pescarolo pairings. From Alfa Romeo the Autodelta team fielded a single car for Andrea de Adamich and Piers Courage.
Ickx had qualified on pole and alongside him on the 3-2-3 grid was his team mate Amon, together with Elford in the Salzburg-entered Porsche. Back in the middle of the third row was Rodriguez in the pale blue and orange JWAE Gulf 917.
Ickx led at the start as the field disappeared into the spray but, by the time they splashed their way back into sight at the end of the first lap, it was the white 917 of Elford that was in the lead. As the tail end of the field completed that lap, a Lola T70 spun in the treacherous conditions and wiped itself out along the Armco barrier, leaving pieces of fibreglass scattered along Top Straight.
On the second lap Ickx regained the lead from Elford and a while later Rodriguez, who had been rapidly making up places, was called in for a dressing down from Nick Syrett, the clerk of the course, not only for passing at high speed under the yellow flag whilst the debris on the Top Straight was being cleared up, but also for narrowly missing Syrett himself as he did so!
After his stop-go penalty Rodriguez, suitably steamed up, put his head down and drove as though he were oblivious to the conditions. Around this time the second JWAE car of Jo Siffert pitted with a puncture and one of the Matras, with Pescarolo at the wheel, blew its engine on Bottom Straight and pulled off at the entrance to Kidney Corner (that's Cooper Straight and Surtees in modern parlance).
Meanwhile Rodriguez was putting on an astonishing display of wet-weather driving. Ickx, so often regarded as the reinmeister, was in the lead but after he pitted with windscreen wiper problems (the last thing needed on a day like that) it was Elford who led from Amon, followed by Rodriguez. Pedro passed the Ferrari under braking for Paddock and then, coming out of Clearways, pulled alongside Elford and splashed his way past the Salzburg 917 into a lead he was never to relinquish.
Brian Redman still marvels at the display put on by Rodriguez that day. “After he was black-flagged for overtaking under the yellow, he came in the pits to be told off and then went storming out. From then on, he produced one of the best races of his career or anybody else’s, sliding the 917 at 120 mph, and went on to win the race.”
As the race progressed, Elford fell further back and the Ferraris paid frequent visits to the pits with recurring wiper problems and wet electrics, something which Jackie Oliver, who was partnering Ickx in the 512S recalls. “I remember the wipers packing up,” he said, “but even without that, the Ferrari was no match for the Porsche that day, not with Pedro driving.”
Rodriguez stayed at the wheel for the maximum three and a half hours that was permitted before handing over to Kinnunen. By this time the rain had stopped but the track was still far from dry.
After a short spell Kinnunen, totally out-classed on this day by his team-mate, handed back to Rodriguez for the remainder of the race. Ickx was making up time by this stage, working his way through the field and setting an unofficial fastest lap in the process (for some reason no official fastest lap was released by the organisers). Redman had had an off at Westfield and was delayed whilst the bodywork on the second Gulf 917 was repaired.
“We were lying in second place,” he recalls, “and I guess I was probably holding up Chris Amon in the factory 512 Ferrari because I suddenly felt a tap from behind. I was sent spinning and hit the banking fairly hard.”
Later in the race the two works Ferraris started suffering fuel feed problems, but the blue and orange number 10 car just kept going. At a quarter to seven that evening Rodriguez took the chequered flag, five laps ahead of the second-placed Elford/Hulme car with Attwood and Herrmann third, the 908 Porsche of Gijs van Lennep and Hubert Laing an excellent fourth, followed by the Amon/Merzario Ferrari and another 908 driven by Gerhard Larousse and Gerhard Koch. Ickx and Oliver were a distant eighth, twenty-two laps behind the winner.
Because of the conditions it had taken Rodriguez six and three-quarter hours to complete the full race distance of 235 laps.
That day, the Mexican drove better than he possibly ever did again. One report of the race described it as a "virtuoso display of wet-weather driving that has rarely been matched".
“He was just phenomenal in the rain,” says Jackie Oliver. “A very brave little driver, with super car control. He would just go through the puddles and the streams of water that were running across the circuit. The conditions that day were very, very dangerous, but he was just a master there.”
At the prize-giving, Rodriguez, a slight figure, looked almost mischievous with an impish grin on his face. It was obvious that he had thoroughly enjoyed himself.
Postscript: As an aside, the Salzburg-entered Porsche 917, driven by Hulme and Elford, was chassis number 917-023, which later that year was victorious at Le Mans in the hands of Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann and is the subject of an excellent book by Ian Wagstaff in the Porter Press Great Cars series.