The word unique is a much-overused word today, as it is applied, it seems, to just about anything that is produced in small numbers, or even just to enhance a claim about something unusual. In fact, the word unique should really only be applied to something when it is: the only one of its kind; unlike anything else; existing as the only one or as the sole example. So, when we describe the Porsche 718 W-RS Spyder as a unique racing car, it really is just that, one of a kind.
In 1961, a new design of racer was produced that would be able to accommodate Porsche’s new 8-cylinder that was undergoing testing. Two 718 Coupes and one Spyder were produced, the latter being built from the start with a 4-inch longer chassis to take the 8-cylinder engine. The 718 RS Spyder, being chassis #047, was given the prefix “W” as it was intended to run in the World Sports Car Championship. As it happened, the 8-cylinder engine had not completed its test program, and so when all three race cars were ready for action, they all received the proven 4-cylinder 4-cam Fuhrmann engine.
The 1961 racing season
The Porsche 718 debuted at the Le Mans test weekend on 8-9 April 1961, marking a decade since Porsche first raced in the French endurance classic. For the first time, the April test was extended to two days which made it worthwhile for many more teams to participate in the test sessions.
Following the Le Mans test weekend, Huschke von Hanstein took five Porsches to Sicily for the Targa Florio on 30 April, of which three were 718s. Once again, two were the coupe bodied cars while the #047 Spyder was driven by Dan Gurney and Jo Bonnier, the latter being credited with setting the quickest lap in practice. The results were encouraging with two of the 718s finishing second (chassis #047 driven by Gurney and Bonnier) and third (chassis #043 driven by Herrmann and Barth). The third 718 Coupe (chassis #044) driven by Stirling Moss and Graham Hill was well in the lead with five miles (8 km) to go when the crown wheel gave in, and it was forced to retire.
The next event was the 1000 km race at the Nürburgring on 28 May, just a month later. Here Gurney and Bonnier were once again in chassis #047, still powered by a 1679 cc Fuhrmann 4-cam engine. Despite being Germany’s premier racing event, Porsche was destined not to shine there this time. The Herrmann/Barth car managed just two laps before retiring with a badly misfiring engine, while the Moss/Hill car dropped out after 21 laps which was less than half distance. Also with a misbehaving engine that required a lengthy pit stop, Gurney and Bonnier managed to salvage tenth place overall.
Porsche arrived at Le Mans with three of their new 718 cars, each powered by a different size engine. The American pairing of Masten Gregory and Bob Holbert were entrusted with the #33 Porsche 718 W-RS Spyder (chassis #047), while Hans Herrmann and Edgar Barth were in the #32 Porsche 718 Coupe (chassis #045). The familiar pairing of Jo Bonnier and Dan Gurney were in the #30 Porsche 718 Coupe (chassis #046), but theirs was not to be a happy race.
The #33 Gregory/Holbert 718 W-RS Spyder (chassis #047) was fitted with a 1967 cc version of the 4-cam engine. The Herrmann/Barth #32 Porsche 718 Coupe (chassis #045) was powered by a 1606 cc version of the Fuhrmann engine while Bonnier/Gurney in the #30 Porsche 718 Coupe (chassis #046) had a 1679 cc version of this engine. All three 718s above were driven through a 4-speed ‘box and they were all fitted with drum brakes. Although disc brakes were available for these cars for this race, it was decided that the rate of wear of the pads was too high, and so they opted for drum brakes as their rate of wear was a known factor.
Realistically Porsche could not expect to win the Le Mans 24 Hours overall with the 718, but they were always in the hunt should things go unexpectedly wrong for the big names. However, as the race progressed, the #33 Gregory/Holbert 718 W-RS Spyder (chassis #047) moved up steadily through the field from a position in the high teens, until they crossed the finish line in fifth place overall and first in the Sports 2000 class. Herrmann/Barth in the #32 Porsche 718 Coupe (chassis #045) finished just two places further back in seventh place overall. Jo Bonnier and Dan Gurney in the #30 Porsche 718 Coupe (chassis #046) retired around noon on Sunday with a broken crankshaft.
The top-finishing Porsche of Gregory/Holbert shattered the distance record for its class, but this was to be the last Le Mans race for the factory using the trusty 4-cylinder, 4-cam engine. Although they would have wanted a better result, with three potent Ferraris and a Maserati ahead of the fifth-placed #33 Porsche, the team could hold its head high all the way home to Stuttgart.
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