Overshadowed By Its Rivals, The Ferrari 512 Still Deserves Your Attention
Photography by Jayson Fong
Featuring dramatic rivalries between drivers, factory teams, privateers and their stunning cars, the late 1960s to early 1970s is arguably one of the greatest ages of sports car racing. This was a time that also saw the introduction of lower, more purposefully built prototypes that would become the predecessors to today’s LMP cars; they set a high standard when it came to on-track performance and spectator entertainment outside of Formula 1. Inspired by this Escuderia Montjuich mirror car (for use in historic racing) of chassis 1002 at the recent Grand Prix de L’age D’or, I decided to take a closer look at the history of one of my favorite early Group 5 cars: the Ferrari 512S/M.
In 1969, it had been four years since Ferrari had seen one of its cars on the top step at Le Mans. Having been locked in a bitter battle with Ford’s GT40 for years now, the Italian team was also seeing its cars also challenged by the competition from Matra and Porsche who had just unveiled their new 917 prototype. Although Porsche’s project proved to be unstable throughout the season (some claiming that its 4.5L flat-12 produced too much power for the frame), its appearance on the track for the 1969 season was enough to prompt Ferrari into selling half of its stock to FIAT to help fund their own prototype and bid for victory at Le Mans.
Managing to develop and build 25 cars in a handful of months, the new Ferrari 512S was officially homologated for racing in 1970. Making use of the 5.0L maximum capacity regulation on prototype engines, Ferrari packed the new car to the brim with a brand-new V12 and 550hp (600hp in later 512M spec), built with experience from its F1 engines. At its first race at Daytona, the 512 immediately saw head to head action with the now tested and proven Porsche 917 and finished on their heels in third. By race two of the World Sportscar Championship in Sebring, the 512 had got the balance right and was first across the line.
However sweet that victory was, the real goal was an outright win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. After several races in the championship that saw the 512 finishing behind the 917, Ferrari lined up eleven 512Ses and Ms (both factory teams and privateers) along La Sarthe’s pit wall compared to just nine Porsche 917s (still, imagine those numbers for 919s and TS050s). However, in a race that saw heavy rain for extended periods of time, the high power of the prototypes made control difficult and for another year, Ferrari would not see victory.
By 1971 after a year of grueling tests against the 917, Ferrari decided to shift its focus to its smaller 3.0L 312P(B) project. With regulations for sports cars providing the smaller cars with a slight advantage and maximum capacity for engines in Group 5 set to change to 3.0L for 1972, the bigger 5.0L Ferrari 512S/M entrants were left to privateers like Escuderia Montjuich to run throughout the season. Never really able to match the factory-backed efforts of Porsche and the 917, the career of the Ferrari 512 retired when the 5.0L class came to an end.
Despite a racing history that rarely saw it ahead of the 917, the Ferrari 512 has been forever joined with its adversary. For many, Steve McQueen’s Le Mans cemented these cars in the motorsport hall of fame even though their records weren’t able to match the Germans. However, experiencing the sight of their raw power and noise in person with this 512M is what truly puts the marvel of these cars into perspective (though of course the film does a pretty good job of that through the screen).
Upon closer inspection with no computers in sight, just an H-pattern gearbox, a handful of gauges, a steering wheel, and a seat, you would have to conclude that this was a pretty serious analog machine—before aero was really figured out, before electronics came into force for engine management, before the modern age, but still able to push well past 200MPH. With that in mind, can we have more of the early Group 5 cars at historic meetings please?