#TheUnfairAdvantage – The Penske Ferrari 512M.

What is so special about that 1971 Ferrari 512M ? The livery maybe or the fact that it sports a funny rear wing like no other one ? Well, it’s a lot more. Actually, this particular car is somehow special because of Penske and Mark Donohue having been involved in the whole thing. It’s in my opinion one if not the best 512M and maybe because the Americans sort of masterminded the whole package.

Chassis #1040 originally started life as a normal Ferrari 512S back in 1970. The car had a little career in that form and was raced by Jim Adams for the Hollywood Sports Cars team in the CanAm Challenge. Nothing pretty much exciting as it only did 3 races and was then sold to Kirk F. White, a used-Ferrari dealer in Philadelphia. That’s actually where the story starts.

Kirk F. White was a second-hand Ferrari dealer as said and he thought about making himself a big name in racing as well as a little bit of money if possible. Once he had bought that particular Ferrari, Kirk approached Roger Penske and asked for his team and Mark Donohue to run and race the car. First, they were not really bothered but after some thoughts, they decided to go for it, the car was provided for free so maybe that helped the decision process, who knows.

So basically and from the decision point, they took delivery of the car at their shops and no, they were not impressed at all by the car or its construction. As usual and as a good and talented engineer, Mark Donohue took the car to the skidpad in order to properly evaluate the chassis and nature of the car. Then they took it to a local airport in order to test the aerodynamics and get accurate figures on lift, drag, etc…

All in all, it needed a proper rebalance and setup to correct the chassis and its natural nature to understeer, springs and bars were trialled and changed to do so. Then and after the aerodynamics being tested, the car had a bit more work done on the suspension geometry in order to counter-balance the tremendous amount of front-end lift during acceleration. Having ran the car a lot by then, Mark also had a word on the engine, there was peak power but no proper torque, no good to him. Injection was weak, oiling and dry-sump system seemed bad as well… More work was to be done and a total overhaul of the car would have to be achieved for 1971.

Having heard of the 512M evolution being on the way for the next season, Roger Penske sent a guy to South Africa in order to get the new thing pictured and back to the shop, they started modifying the car, themselves, in order to put all that together. The front and rear bodywork were the only part of the design sourced from Ferrari directly, the whole central structure, doors, windshield, fuel tank structure, plumbing and wiring had been achieved in house. Again, when they received those two  bodywork parts, they thought about how heavy and how badly finished they were and so they decided to make their own moulds and own production in order to have them made stronger but lighter as well as adding their own bit, that particular rear aluminium wing.

Then came the need for the team to source the “racing package”, the spare engine, gearbox and all components needed to face the proper racing weekends and drama that could happen there. Roger and Mark flew over to Europe and Modena, Italy in order to meet with the Ferrari factory and buy the needed parts. After two days there, they had made their list but well, all in all, they were not used to the Ferrari rates. So they had to cut back and only buy the really needed parts. Roger Penske having placed two orders for two 20 000$ Ferrari Daytona, it sort of helped in getting a deal for some extra free parts such as a gearbox.

Anyway, they were back to America and putting the car back together but parts were taking time to get over there, finally they did arrive but the original engine wasn’t sent back for a rebuild as planned. Mark had thought that as shipping and delivery was so long, it would be better to achieve it here in America. So the new and old 5.0L V12s were sent to Chevy specialist and long time Penske partner, Traco. And I’m sure you think, what can a push-rod specialist achieve on an Italian V12 ?!

Well, pretty much anything. The new engine was opened and looked at in terms of parts, design and tolerances by Traco. Then, they took it to another shop, Champion because it wouldn’t fit on their own dyno and there, they started developing that Italian motor. Injection, fuel mixture, oil pressure and timing were beefed up in order to have it better suited to Donohue’s needs and research he had done. The old engine was rebuilt according to the new one but injection being different, they only achieved 600HP peak power on that one while the new one was about 630HP.

Finally, the car got back together and the new engine unit was fitted two weeks before the 1971 Daytona 24 Hours and of course, first thing was to go testing. Installation laps were achieved, the car felt very good and the team looked strong for their next challenge..! More testing was done in order to get the exact gear-ratios, wing angles and chassis height for the race. What came out of all this was suspension problems. Springs were collapsing under the banking stress so the rear-suspension pickup points were reworked and new springs were designed to cope with the high roll center nature of the car. As the car was now all good, it went back to the shop to be checked, painted, pin stripped and polished for the big weekend.

David Hobbs was to be Mark’s co-driver, an up-and-coming young driver who was also planned for the Penske Indy effort that year, Ferrari wasn’t very happy with that but Penske and Donohue didn’t really care..

From qualifying, the Penske ran 512M looked very strong, the John Wyer Porsche were their sole competition, not a single Ferrari could match their time, oil pressure and fuel system problems were hampering their effort but Penske and Donohue had their “unfair advantage” there as they had reworked all that already..! Basically, no one could match Mark Donohue’s time. He qualified the Ferrari on pole with a 1.42.420 while Vic Elford only managed a 1.43.630 aboard his Martini Racing Porsche 917…

During the race, the team looked strong but only for the beginning. Their dry-break refueling system was something the Europeans didn’t know about and again, an “unfair advantage” that permitted the team to pit and refuel in half the time the others could do it, another edge on their competitors. The Penske car was battling with Pedro Rodriguez 917 for the lead and it all looked set for a “Penske versus the factory” scenario. Unfortunately, little by little, bits were starting to fall apart, fuel pump belt failure, alternator failure, fuel pickup going wrong… The car was falling back but still, they could make up a lot of the lost time in the pits once back on track.

At midnight, disaster struck when Vic Elford blew a tire and spun on the banking, the following cars all spun as well to try and avoid the car, it resulted in a lot of smoke and dust… While coming up the fourth turn while following a Porsche 911, the yellow light and flags came out and Donohue tryed his best to avoid a collision as well but the 911 didn’t see him coming. All in all, they touched and spun together, Donohue avoiding the collision with all the other cars but the 911 ending up with the 917…

When daylight came, shit happened again while trying to avoid a spinning car, Donohue went into the grass and locked-up the brakes only to hit a guardrail hard on the left-side and breaking both front and rear suspension on that side. Still he managed to get the car back to the pits and Roger asked to give it a try so the team started fixing it with parts from another 512 that had already dropped out. The frame was actually okay which made it easier and well, the racer’s tape was there put to its full use with the team fixing all the bodywork with it ! It took few hours to do so but well, they went out again and limped to the finish in a distant third…

Well, that isn’t the end of the American, Penske and Kirk F. White effort as they raced at the Sebring 12 Hours only to finish 6th after another poor race and crash by Mark.. But they also went to the Le Mans 24 Hours where they suffered an engine failure as well as during the Watkins Glen World Championship race and later CanAm round suffering two DNFs again. A poor showing for such a fantastic story. Still the car is one of the best example of Mark Donohue’s understanding of racing and his “unfair advantage” as the car did perform better than the factory on all tracks it visited with no support at all from Modena as well as bearing a Traco developed engine.

Package again, testing and a little bit of this and that, the unfair advantage..

Cheers,  Louis.

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