911 hero: Gérard Larrousse
A hero from the late-1960s and early 1970s, Gérard Larrousse is still racing Porsche in his 80s. Total 911 reflects on his remarkable career
Johnny Tipler grabs a chat with the French racing maverick to reflect on his remarkable career
When you’ve won Le Mans, the Nürburgring 1,000kms, the Targa Florio and the Corsican Rally, there’s not a lot left to prove. Gérard Larrousse did all that and more between 1969 and 1975, and then spent the next decade running Renault’s F1 operation. He speaks good English with a native French accent, but is slightly deaf from driving a V12 Matra MS650 Le Mans car around France in the 1971 Tour Auto.
Gérard lives with his wife Michelle in an apartment overlooking Marseille’s Borely race course, with views to the Mediterranean beyond. Born in 1940, he began rallying in 1961. Between 1964 and 1965 he performed his national service while building a reputation in French club racing, with good results in a Renault Dauphine and R8 Gordini, including victory in the Critérium des Cévennes rally. Done with the military, he committed himself to five years of motorsport. Having semi-retired as a driver in 1975, he has never quite given up: at 2018’s Le Mans Classic he drove his legendary 1970 2.5 911 ST, resplendent in yellow with red swirls, moving inexorably through the field from 16th to 5th. Talk about reliving the halcyon days!
Had you done any competition driving before you started rallying?
I was 21, which is kind of old today, but I was still a student studying business management in Paris. I come from Lyon, near the Alps, and people there are very keen on rallying. Friends said to me, “Come on, you are a good driver so why not try it.” So I really started from zero because I never went to a racing school like Winfield, or even tried kart racing.
What was your first important drive?
In 1966 I was fortunate to get my first factory steering wheel; it was an NSU TT 1200, run by the French importer. Not very powerful, but very light, and rear-engined. I won some big rallies, so I was contacted by Alpine and drove two years for them, 1967 and 1968 [and won the French Rally Championship].
And then came the Porsche contract?
At the end of 1968 I had a proposition from Porsche to drive four or five rallies. I thought, ‘OK, Porsche is proposing some rallying, but I know that they have a lot of racing cars, so maybe I will have a chance to do circuit racing,’ and that’s exactly what happened.
Your first action for Porsche was in a 911 with navigator Jean-claude Perramond in the 1969 Monte Carlo Rally, and you finished 2nd to Björn Waldegård.
Björn was going much faster than me on snow; he was really brilliant. When I came to Porsche I immediately got on with competitions manager Rico Steinemann. He said, “Gérard, if you want
to drive in France and you have sponsors, we can prepare a car for you in the factory. We give you the car and a couple of mechanics and then you devise your own programme.” They gave me the 911R, which I drove on the Lyon-charbonnières and Neige-et-glace. That was a very light car: 850kg with a double-camshaft six-cylinder engine revving to 9,000rpm. I won the Tour de France [class win, 3rd overall] and Tour of Corsica against all the Alpines. It was like a private team with a factory car.
Your first major road race for Porsche was the 1969 Targa Florio.
One day Steinemann called and said, “Ah, Gérard, you are a rally driver so you can drive the Targa Florio for us with the 908.” I said, “You think I can drive a 908?” and he said, “Of course.” We had a test drive in Sicily to learn the Targa Florio course – this was the first time I’d driven a proper racing car for them. My wife Michelle and I stayed for one month in Céfalu and it was fantastic, driving a 908-2 Spyder on the open road. The potholes, the sheep, goats and donkeys I did not mind too much, but a large dog was one hazard too many.
I braked, but the 908 passed under the dog and caught his legs. He went up in the air and landed inside the cockpit, falling on my left arm. I pushed him into the footwell, stopped the car, undid my safety belts and got out to look at the damage. But I could not get back in again as he was still alive and trying to bite me. I saw some people coming; you think you are alone, but you never are in places like Sicily. I was a little bit afraid as I thought they wouldn’t be happy because I’d hit someone’s dog. But they said, “No problem.” They got their pitchforks and forced the dog out of the car. I drove back to the café where we were based and there was plenty of blood in the car and on my overalls. It was terrible!
Soon after that was the Le Mans 24 Hours which produced one of the closest finishes of all time: you and Hans Herrmann in a
908 longtail Coupe finished 2nd after a long battle with Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver in the Ford GT40.
I was a very young driver, and Herrmann was an old driver, so Rico put us together just for fun. After 20 hours we were the only works car still going and it began to look like we could win. Everything changed; people’s attention and attitude was completely different. They could see Mr Bott and Mr Porsche looking at the car, and we were like children.
They said, “Drive as fast as you can, now.” It was very hard going because it was drizzling and there was a bit of fog. I had a fight with another Porsche driver, Udo Schütz, driving the same type of car as me, a 908 longtail. After I passed him he was pushing very hard to get back at me, and he made a mistake and finished in the guardrail at Hunaudières, and the car burned. It was a dreadful night, although he was alright. This was the 908 Coupe, though. Did you prefer the Coupe or the Spyder?
I preferred the Spyder because I drove many races in it. We had just started the Martini Racing Team, and in 1970 I drove a lot of races with Hans-dieter Dechent who brought in Martini as a sponsor, and he took Gijs van Lennep, Helmut Marko and me, and we were driving everywhere with the 908.
That year I drove the maximum number of races, 42 in total, many of those in the 908/2 Spyder and the 908 Coupe, which was more difficult because it was lighter. When they [908 Coupes] came to Le Mans the first time they were fitted with aerodynamic devices on the back that were meant to adjust the stability at high speed. The Le Mans technical people said, “No, you can’t start the race with those movable wings on the rear.” So we had to fix them so they wouldn’t move. It was fickle, yet it was very fast, lapping at 330kph. There wasn’t so much power, but a very good top speed [by comparison, during practice Stommelen’s longtail 917 hit 360kph – 224mph – on the Mulsanne Straight]. But when Herrmann had his fight with Jacky Ickx in the GT40 we couldn’t win because our brakes were not good enough. The car was fast, but not as powerful as the GT40. Jacky had a great opportunity to catch Hans in a straight line, and then pass him on the brakes. After that it was impossible to pass again, so we finished about 100-metres behind.
The following year, 1970, you came 2nd at Le Mans once more, this time with Willi Kauhsen in the famous ‘psychedelic’ 917.
Though entered by the Martini Racing Team this was really a works car, like the Porsche Konstruktionen longtail of Vic [Elford] and Ahrens, but ignition problems because of rain meant we were slower than Herrmann and Attwood’s winning 917, although we were quicker in practice. Later in the season I won the Coupe du Salon at Montlhéry in a 908/2, and a week later at the same track I finished 3rd in the Paris 1,000kms driving the 908/2 with Claude Ballot-lena.
For 1971 you were paired with Vic Elford in the Martini Racing Team’s 917.
The season started at Daytona, but there were some problems with the car and I did not drive there. But then with Vic we won the Sebring 12 Hours. That’s a big memory for me. And after that we drove together all year. We scored another victory at the Nürburgring 1,000kms in the 908/3, and for a while at Le Mans we were running 2nd in the longtail 917.
What were the shortcomings of the 917? What were the inherent problems?
The 917 was very expensive to maintain, and results suffered accordingly. The team hadn’t enough money to keep it in good shape over the whole season. In fact, it was delivering less and less performance as the year rolled on, and races at the end of the year were very difficult. The problem wasn’t just the flat-12 engine; the chassis was also fragile and troublesome. Some 917 tubeframes were aluminium, some magnesium, and if you had cracks in the chassis the car wouldn’t handle… it was moving around the whole time. So they put air inside the chassis tubes and if the pressure was falling it meant there was a crack somewhere. The chassis had a valve, like a tyre inner tube, and they were putting a lot of pressure in to see if it was okay or not.
Though Porsche won the 1971 World Championship for Makes there was intense rivalry between drivers in the independent Gulf-jw Automotive squad and the works Martini Racing Team.
There were a lot of fights within the JW team between Siffert and Rodríguez, and with Vic in the Martini car. The John Wyer team was separate from Porsche, and they were modifying their cars, and the engineers from Porsche were not too happy about that. There was a fight between them and John Horsman, who was engineering the JW cars. At Le Mans especially there was a
big fight between the Gulf cars and the factory Martini cars.
At the end of 1971 the 917 programme finished and your works Porsche contract wasn’t renewed. What happened after that?
I had a year with Jo Bonnier in the Lola T280, but it was not so good because of money. The cars went well and we won a lot of races, but after Bonnier was killed at Le Mans that was the end of the team.
The following year you drove for Matra, which was cresting a wave in sports prototypes and Formula 1.
It fulfilled an ambition because Matra was the best French team of that period, and I’d already won the Tour de France with Matra in 1971. That car was so good. It was prepared especially for the road, suspension was set a little bit higher and softer than for a racing car, and everything was like a prototype inside, but the handling was fantastic. It was really enjoyable to drive. The noise of the 12 cylinders was incredible echoing off a cliff – that’s why I’m deaf! Sometimes we had ear defenders, sometimes not.
Then you drove the 1972 Monte Carlo Rally with Jean-claude Perramond in the Écurie Shell 911S, finishing 2nd after a battle with Sandro Munari’s Lancia Fulvia.
The team was Björn [Waldegård] and me, but with a private service crew, and the sponsor was a cooking pot manufacturer. I missed a tyre change in the Ardèche and took a minute extra on the road because I could not drive hard any more as there were no spikes left. Otherwise I would have won.
You won Le Mans in 1973 and 1974 driving the 3.0-litre Matra-simca MS670B with Henri Pescarolo. How did the Matra compare with the Porsche cars?
The Matra was a better chassis, because Matra was making a lot of aircraft and missiles and they incorporated aircraft technology. The monocoque chassis was really strong compared to the 908 and 917 chassis, which was tubular and therefore old technology. The Matra’s handling was easier and more efficient, and it was a nice engine, but much more like an F1 engine without torque.
The 908 flat eight was a very good engine, not very powerful but a lot of torque and very easy to drive. I loved the 917 of course, which was so nice and so powerful, but I didn’t drive a Porsche again until the 1999 Tour Auto [the revived Tour de France]. I drove a 2.2-litre 911 prepared for Jürgen Barth, but he couldn’t do it, so asked me to do it instead. That was fun.
Meanwhile you won the 1974 Targa Florio in a Lancia Stratos, and in 1975 won six races on six consecutive weekends in Alpinerenault sports cars and Formula 2. You became Renault competitions manager in 1976, launching the RS01, the first-ever turbocharged F1 car and harbinger of a new mega-horsepower era. You also masterminded Renault’s 1978 Le Mans victory. In 1985 you joined Ligier F1, setting up your own Larrousse F1 team in 1987, calling time in 1994. What’s your take on F1 today? I spent 22 years in Formula 1, and that was enough. It was already dominated by politics back then; now it is another world. The sport doesn’t belong to the participants any more; I can’t understand it, and I don’t want to. I am very lucky because I am still alive, because in those days everybody was in danger. I lost a lot of friends.
I’m proud to have known that period of the sport, which was about real racing cars, the 917, 908, and big, big risks. Now it is completely different. I don’t criticise it, you know, but I wouldn’t want to be involved. I follow all the Grands Prix, but I don’t want to know too much about the politics.
Do you still have your 993?
No, I sold it, and I regret having sold it because it was such a nice car, and very easy to use every day. Now I have a 911 R [991 R], but I don’t use it so much because in Marseilles it is very difficult to go out in the car: first you have to go out of the town, then when you go on the small roads you have those little bumps all the way for slowing down the cars, and you are obliged to push the button to lift the front of the car. And the 911 R is so fast that when I do drive it I find I am going too fast, and it’s very dangerous on an open road so I have to hold back. On the other hand, the 993 was a good compromise. It was a Porsche you could drive around in Marseilles and it didn’t attract too much attention. It was easy to drive, very strong and a little bit higher ride height, so no problems with the road surface like the 911 R has. But the 911 R is my pension; they’re worth a lot of money now, this one maybe a little bit more because it is mine! My son is a complete Porsche fan so he wants me to keep it.
ABOVE Winning the Tour De France in the 911R BELOW Tasting success at the Nürburgring 1000km