On January 31, 1970, the unmuffled roar of 550-horsepower, 5-liter racing engines shook the air and ground at the 24 Hours of Daytona. This was the first meeting of the Porsche 917 and the Ferrari 512, and the start of what looked to be the sports-car battle of the decade.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t there; I hadn’t yet been born. My first exposure to this Porsche-Ferrari war came in the mid-1980s, when my dad and I sat down in front of the VCR to watch the movie Le Mans, produced by and starring the legendary Steve McQueen. McQueen’s character, Michael Delaney, raced a 917; his nemesis, Erich Stahler, played by Seigfried Rauch, drove a 512. I was riveted by the sound of those 12-cylinder monsters hammering around the track in the French countryside.
Nearly three decades later, I’m sitting on the bare aluminum floor of Stephen Read’s Ferrari 512 M (s/n 1024) with my helmeted head jammed against the roof and my foot pressing accelerator to metal. It feels like a flashback as I’m hit by that same wall of noise, a full-race 5-liter Ferrari V12 erupting into its shrieking, high-rpm song. It’s the sound of Stahler going flat-out down the Mulsanne Straight.
What the movie didn’t inform me, however, is how unbelievably fast the 512 M is. Despite having been a professional racing driver for nearly 15 years, and currently racing a Ferrari 458 GT in the American Le Mans Series with Extreme Speed Motorsports, as the 512’s revs soar I have a fleeting thought that perhaps I shouldn’t explore the engine’s 8,500-rpm redline, because maybe I’m already going fast enough. This roughly 1,800-pound Ferrari belts out more than 600 horsepower, so it’s no surprise it is explosively quick, but words just can’t convey the sensation. The best I can do is to liken the 512 M’s acceleration to free falling on a roller coaster: It leaves you breathless the first time you experience it. Then once the initial shock has passed, just as with the roller coaster, you want more.
THE FERRARI 512 STORY STARTS in the late 1960s, when the Federation Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) began to juggle the rules that governed international sports-car racing in an effort to limit the success of the American interlopers, particularly Ford, in Europe. It didn’t work. Ford GT40s won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, ’67, ’68 and ’69, and Ford clinched the World Championship in ’68.
But the FIA’s 1968 rule that allowed manufacturers to enter the 5-liter “production car” class after building just 25 examples did eventually end the rein of the GT40. In 1969, Porsche unveiled the 917, a far more sophisticated prototype racer with the full might of Weissach behind it. And early the following year, Ferrari arrived at Daytona with five examples of another proper sports-racer, the 512 S.
A few days earlier, on January 20, those five Ferraris had been part of a group of 25 shown en masse to inspectors from the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI), who confirmed that the required number had indeed been built and certified the 512 for competition. It was an impressive feat for Ferrari, which had designed and constructed the cars in just five months despite the simultaneous development of a new flat-12-engined Formula 1 car by the same team of talented engineers, led by Mauro Forghieri. The key to the short time frame was utilizing what Maranello had learned in creating the one-off 612 Can-Am two years earlier.