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

Total 911 - - Contents - Writ­ten by Johnny Ti­pler Pho­tog­ra­phy cour­tesy Porsche Archive

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

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