Catching Up With: Racing Legend Richard Attwood
Le Mans, Porsche 917, Steve McQueen and his best race ever
Richard Attwood was born on April 4, 1940 in Wolverhampton, England. He carries a storied professional racing past that includes driving a Porsche 917K to victory with Hans Herrmann at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1970, giving the German company their first overall win at the famed Circuit de la Sarthe. He was also involved with the early stages of Ford's GT40 program and raced for multiple Formula 1 and Formula 2 teams in the 1960s. Attwood continues his work with Porsche and has been called the 'British Hurley Haywood' in regards to his involvement and rich history with the company. We sat down with him at the Porsche Experience Center (PEC) at Silverstone in England, where at the age of 76 he also works as a driving consultant.
How did you originally become involved in the world of cars?
My father had dealerships. Right after WW II, he went to all the manufacturers. He got Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Jaguar, Daimler, Aston Martin, Lagonda, Standard, Triumph, Vauxhaul, etc. — every dealership he wanted, really. His timing was perfect to do that.
What about automobile racing?
My first year of serious racing was with a Triumph TR3 in 1960. It was a demo from my father's dealership. It wasn't quick enough, so I wanted to make it faster. My father didn't want to go that route so he got me a Formula Junior. I didn't even know what a Formula Junior was! So, I did the single-seater thing. I won the Monte Carlo Formula Junior race in 1963 in a Lola Mk5a. It was a support race for the Formula 1 Grand Prix, so it was in front of everyone who had to do with motorsports at the time. That launched my career, really. I was awarded Grovewood Award for the most promising driver by the Guild of Motoring Writers after that season, the first time it was awarded.
It's clear you were a fan of Monaco given your impressive F1 and F2 finishes. What is it about Monaco and Richard Attwood?
Yes, it was a good circuit for me. It was the precision, I think. I liked the proximity of everything and if you made a mistake you'd be out — no chance for errors. I fell in love with it the first time I went, in 1962 in a Cooper. I had trouble with the car and I was so frustrated when I didn't do well. So I was fired up and ready to go for 1963. And it worked out for me.
It's been 50 years since Ford's fantastic finish at Le Mans in 1966. Tell me a bit about your early involvement with the program in 1964.
I didn't do a lot of work testing the GT40, just some racing. The program was doomed to failure at the beginning. None of the cars finished any of the races early on. The engines were wrong. It was an Indy engine, originally used in the Lotus 29 in 1963. It was 4.2 liters and it didn't like the torque reversals of circuit racing. That was one of the main reasons why it didn't work. The following year, they changed engines, but I wasn't so involved that year as I was full-time in Grand Prix racing.
You developed and raced the Porsche 917. You won Le Mans in a 917. What stands out as the highlights of the car itself and the experience in the iconic automobile?
That first long tail 917 was really bad aerodynamically. The 908 long tail and that first 917 looked exactly the same. The 908's maximum speed was around 195 mph. When we first drove the 4.5-liter 917, it went 235 mph at Le Mans. That early 917 was so bad. Watching a driver in a 917 use all the road at speed, you'd think the driver was warming up the tires. No, the driver was just trying to keep the car on the road.
To explain how bad it was, there were three cars entered in 1969. One car did half a lap and driver John Wolfe died because he didn't understand as much as we did about driving cars like that — difficult cars. Once they sorted the 917, a really bad car became a really good car due to a change of bodywork. But Piech's ambition for Le Mans was to make the fastest car on the straight. He couldn't have cared less about anything else, even probably the lap time! To give you an example of how much I hated that early 917, we were 6 laps in the lead at Le Mans in 1969 and the car broke with just 3 hours to go. I wasn't a happy man. People think, that's ridiculous, you won Le Mans in a 917! But I hadn't won Le Mans in 1969 and I couldn't have given a shit about Le Mans because that car was ready to kill you. It really was.
But did it get to a point where you enjoyed the 917?
No. Not at all. Well, not in the 1969 Le Mans race, and that's the only race I did in that long-tail 917. The next race I did was at Zeltweg. It was a high-speed track but we ran the shorter tail. So it wasn't the same problem. So, I drove the long tail 917 once and the first time I drove a 917 was to qualify for Le Mans 1969. I had never driven it before. Only about 7-8 years ago, I learned that Vic Elford nominated me to drive with him. It wasn't Porsche's idea for me to drive that car. It was Vic Elford — I could have bloody throttled him! I don't need to be a hero, I don't.
Talk to me about your time working on the film "Le Mans" with Steve McQueen.
Filming is an overrated pastime. The number of takes is just ridiculous and the cost is just stupid. If the sunlight is just a little bit wrong or something else is wrong, then they don't do it. There were many days where I didn't do anything. I was still paid. The film was originally on a budget of $1 million, but it went to $6 or $7 million because it took so long. The directors were changed at least three times, script writers probably more than that. I didn't realize this until not that long ago but for the first 43 minutes of that film, not a word is said. That explains a little bit about the lack of script.
This was going to be McQueen's film. It was to be the film of all films and he was going to be part of it. He was so enthusiastic about it. We did a shot through the Mulsanne corner. He was in one of the cars, a 917, along with a Ferrari 512. So we did a sequence through that corner a few times. In one of the shots, he missed a gear and blew the 917's engine. They wanted to claim insurance on it, obviously, because it was so expensive. The Porsche factory didn't have any rebuilt engines, only new engines. So the cost was even more. The insurance company ultimately wanted to know the details. They told the insurance company that, quite simply, a driver came out of a corner and missed a gear. "OK, fair enough," said the insurance company. "But who was driving the car?" they asked. Of course, they told them it was McQueen. The insurance company said that he's not driving again. It wasn't the engine issue, although it might have been some of it. He was the character in the film and, with him dead, that's not good is it? So, they stopped him from driving. That really hit him hard. He really didn't have the same drive anymore. It was a shame.
In 1971, you retired from racing. Why?
A combination of factors. The 5.0-liter formula in sports cars was finishing, so I thought it would be more difficult to get a drive. I got married and wanted to have kids. And racing was a dangerous game in those days. I said to my father — because he had asked me the same question at the end of 1963 — that I'd join him in the car business. In 1963, I said that I had gone too far in racing and I have to carry on. He realized that. Also, in 1971, I thought that I had gotten so far in racing and I was still in one piece. I then immersed myself in the business. I did nothing with motoring magazines and had nothing to do with racing. But 1971 was my declining year. I only did half a dozen races. Actually, I did quite well in those races but I wasn't the same driver anymore because I wasn't in the car every week. You get out of practice.
What stands out as that one magnificent car, magnificent circuit and magnificent team combination that was simply magic?
Monaco Grand Prix 1968 when I finished 2nd is obviously a highlight but the car was never going to win the race because I was up against a Cosworth DFV-powered car. The BRM had a V-12 sports car engine in it, because the H16 engine had failed. But I did what I could with what I had at that race. That race was probably the one. But I think I drove as well or better in other races and finished nowhere! Some of my best drives were not recorded as such!
Photography by Stuart Price