John Horsman, The Man Behind The Orange And The Blue
Famed engineer credited with turning the Porsche 917 into a winner dead at 85by Michael Fira, on LISTEN 26:00
The last two outright Le Mans wins scored by the Blue Oval were scored by John Wyer’s team, the same team that brought together Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell for their first victory as a duo at Circuit de la Sarthe.
Linking all these three victories, beyond the team, is one emblematic engineer, John Horsman, who in a long and storied career also helped Porsche dominate the world of sports car racing with the 917. Let’s take a look back at Horsman’s career and his intrinsic association with those gorgeous orange and powder blue machines.
Wyer and Horsman, a partnership for the ages
An honor graduate in Mechanical Sciences at Cambridge University, Lancashire native John Horsman joined David Brown Industries in the late ’50s before moving on to become Project Engineer over at Aston Martin’s Design and Experimental Department under the supervision of Managing Director John Wyer.
With the department working in close collaboration with the racing side of things, Aston Martin campaigning the 3.0-liter DBR1 sports car at the time, Horsman got a taste for all things motorsport while still in his 20s.
By 1961, Horsman had witnessed Aston Martin’s greatest day in the sun as Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby won the 24 Hours of Le Mans outright and were followed home by another DBR1 driven by Jack Fairman and Stirling Moss. Wyer, who was the one to bring Horsman to Aston Martin, offered him the opportunity to become his assistant and, from then on, the two became a package for many years. Their first move was from Aston Martin to Ford, working in the offshoot Advanced Vehicles workshop in Slough to develop what would become the Ford GT40 alongside Eric Broadley. Wyer was handpicked for the GT program at the suggestion of Shelby who always regarded him as the best team boss he’d ever encountered in racing.
While Ford Advanced Vehicles was later removed from the leadership of the GT program that would be handed over to Shelby American by 1965, Horsman and Wyer stuck together and established John Wyer Automotive Engineering (JWA) with backing from John Willment. As it happened, JWA’s headquarters would also be in Slough, inside the old FAV premises. The first JWA product would be the Spa 1,000-kilometer-winning (and Kyalami 9-hour-winning) Mirage-Ford M1 which debuted in 1967. This was, essentially, a modified Ford GT40 Mk. I with a revised tail and roof/pillar section. The car’s career was short as it ran in the top prototype class for bespoke sports cars that were effectively outlawed come the end of 1967.
By the time the Mirage had debuted, a partnership was already in place between Grady Davis' Gulf Oil company and JWA and the M1s were the first sports cars to feature the now-iconic livery of an orange stripe over the powder blue bodywork.
An earlier version of this emblematic color scheme first appeared when Dr. Dick Thompson and rising star Jacky Ickx drove Davis’ very own GT40 in the 1967 24 Hours of Le Mans. Enthralled by the results, Davis decided to get involved in motor racing further and followed Thompson and Ickx to JWA.
As Director and Chief Engineer on the Mirage project, Horsman was directly responsible with the development of each of the Mirages as well as the other cars run by JWA during the late ’60s and ’70s, although he would be quick to dismiss the title of ’designer’. "Designers designed the cars, I made them better," he said.
The M1 was followed by the less successful M2, a BRM-powered coupe that was replaced in 1969 by the M3, basically the same car but without a roof. While these prototypes ran in the three-liter division, JWA also entered thoroughly improved GT40s in the big-engined sports car ranks where the Gulf machines usually outgunned each and every Lola entry.
The World Title and Le Mans Glory With the GT40
Between 1964 and 1967, no Ford GT40 managed as much as finish the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The winning cars from ’66 and ’67 were of American origin having been built to a new specification than the so-called Mark I GT40s. There were many differences between the Mk. II and Mk. IV cars and the Mk. I, so many, in fact, that they ran in different classes: the American machines ran as "prototypes" because only a handful of them were ever built while the Mk. I ran as a "sports car" (others refer to it as a "grand tourer" but I refrain from using that phrase which, to me, can only describe a two-door sporty coupe such as a Corvette or an Aston Martin).
At the end of 1967, only these "sports cars" were allowed to soldier on in international long-distance racing while "prototypes" could be powered by engines no bigger than 3.0-liters to reduce the speeds.
Both Ford and Ferrari were livid upon hearing the news and decided to quit on the spot.
Thus, the stage was set for Porsche to take over the reins in the World Championship - or so the folks over in Germany thought since newcomers Matra and Alpine would need some time to catch up. But there was one piece of the puzzle that Zuffenhausen forgot to take into consideration and it was the veteran GT40 that, alongside Lola’s T70 Mk. III, would provide a stout opposition to the lithe German 907s, 908s, and 910s.
The 908 was Porsche’s main weapon in 1968 but, having been introduced in 1967 at Le Mans, it was new and plagued with a variety of problems. While none became apparent during the opening round of the season, the Daytona 24 Hours, that Porsche won effortlessly mimicking Ferrari’s 1-2-3 finish from the previous year, mechanical gremlins hindered Porsche from then on.
With the German opposition often struggling to hold itself together, the Gulf Fords romped away to score an impressive five wins including Watkins Glen, Monza, Spa, and Brands Hatch on the weekend that we lost Jim Clark to the sport. The brilliant Scotsman ought to have driven for Alan Mann in the Briton’s newly built 3.0-liter Ford prototype, a gorgeous piece of kit that looked much better than it went, but he instead traveled to Germany to partake in an F2 race as part of Firestone’s sponsorship deal with Team Lotus.
There was, also, one more win in store for JWA and the Blue Oval in 1968 and it took place on the grandest stage of all, the temporary road course in the La Sarthe valley that hosts the 24 Hours of Le Mans since 1923. Prompted by numerous strikes, the ACO moved 1968’s edition of the race to a September date and it was then, in early Autumn, that Ford scored its third outright win on the trot, bashing the tiny Ferrari presence consisting of a hodgepodge of 275 LMs and 275 GTBs. The impromptu duo of Lucien Bianchi (filling in for an injured Brian Redman) and Pedro Rodriguez (himself filling Jacky Ickx’s boots after the Belgian too got sidelined due to a crash in F1) delivered the goods after a rainy showdown ahead of Porsche.
Porsche never likes to lose and, on the odd occasion when that does occur, the suits in Stuttgart take a good strong look at the guys that executed a better season than they themselves did. It was after such a close analysis that Porsche, now well on its way to developing the fearsome 917, decided to appoint John Wyer himself to head the Porsche works effort in 1970 and 1971.
1969 provided a much closer fight between Ford and Porsche with the Germans rolling out a formidable car in the 908/2 and a soon-to-be-formidable car in the 917. Journeymen David Piper and Frank Gardner were showered in Deutschmarks to drive the 917 in its first race - ironically at the Nordschleife - and promptly decided to not do it anytime soon (although Piper ended up buying one of the 25 cars made and even went as far as racing it on the Daunting Fuji track in Japan).
At Le Mans, the 917 dashed well past 220 mph on the seemingly endless Mulsanne Straight, British all-round legend Vic Elford remarking he was frightened seeing team-mate Rolf Stommeln pass him at full chat in another 917.
After dominating qualifying, the 917s faded one after the other with the only privately entered example going out in a fiery crash on lap one, the unfortunate incident claiming the life of its owner, John Woolfe. But death was part of the game and everyone piled on with the Fords 1-2 at the front and Porsche’s 908s giving chase. There was no serious opposition from the Lola contingent as the best-prepared car of the lot, Roger Penske’s Daytona-winning Mk. III-B, got stolen and quickly dismantled right after the 12 Hours of Sebring.
The ’69 edition of the race remains a cult classic as it ended with a head-to-head duel between the Porsche of Hans Herrmann and Ford’s Jacky Ickx, the latter fooling Herrmann into thinking he’d run out of gas during the last lap only to leapfrog ahead with mere corners to spare and win by 75 meters. What’s not as well known is the fate of the other JWA GT40, the No. 7 David Hobbs/Mike Hailwood example that’d led during the early stages, at one point enjoying a one-lap advantage over the No. 6 Jacky Ickx/Jackie Oliver car.
"Of course, the lap lead was due to Hobbs getting away (beltless) very well and catching up with Ickx, who was held up at the crash site," recounts Horsman referring to the lap one inferno. It all went south, as Horsman explained, due to a mishap by tire supplier Firestone that "knew full well where not to put the wheel weights for our cars but sadly one got through, on to the #7 car, and the misplaced weight sawed through the rear brake caliper cross-over tube with each wheel revolution, resulting in Hobbs arriving at Mulsanne corner with no brakes! Slow return to pits plus replacement of tube put them a lap behind Ickx [who’d started the race by walking to the car to protest the dangerous ’Le Mans-style’ start], otherwise, they would have won."
The taming of the 917
Ferdinand Piech conceived the 917 to be Porsche's sports car to the 908 prototypes. It was designed to take in a 4.5-liter flat-12 good for about 500 ponies and 25 examples were built to homologate it.
Future arch-rival Ferrari went the way of a prototype for ’69 that became useless the following year and because of this, the 512S was a rushed project, jigsawed together to make it to the 1970 edition of the 24 Hours of Daytona. By then, the 917 had won its first race in the original short-tail specification in Austria and then went through a testing program that resulted in the 917 short-tail we know and love.
Despite there being a consensus among pundits that the 917 is among the rawest and most unforgiving racing cars of its era, Piech’s original iteration was a lot scarier, be it in short or long-tail guise. "Nothing about the car was consistent, that was the thing," Frank Gardner remembered. "It never did the same thing twice. Just when you thought you had it worked out, it’d pull another trick. You were just so crossed up in the thing that you didn’t know which way was straight ahead in the finish."
The transformation is largely attributed to some clever observations made by Horsman who was present when Porsche ran a test of the 917 on the track of its maiden win, Zeltweg (today’s Red Bull Ring). "I noted there were hardly any dead gnats on the rear spoilers,” Horsman wrote in his biography, Racing in the Rain. "Since they are very small and light, I knew the gnats would flow over the bodywork exactly as the air flowed, and similar to the smoke from wands used in wind tunnels."
"I knew immediately that we had to raise the rear deck and then attach small adjustable spoilers to the trailing edge. It was obvious to me that if the whole rear body surface was in the airstream, it would be able to exert some downforce," Horsman added. Porsche’s mechanics agreed to try the idea out and manufactured some metal parts on the spot to bolt to the 917’s existing tail to make it taller. "Brian stayed out, lapping a little faster each time around,” wrote Horsman. "At the end of [seven] laps, he came in and said, ‘That’s it — now it’s a racing car!’"
Over the next 24 months, JWA’s 917s won 12 races out of the 21 contested as part of the World Championship and Porsche clinched two Manufacturer’s titles as a result, with Driver’s Champion Pedro Rodriguez’s stellar drives at Brands Hatch in 1970 and at Zeltweg in 1971 becoming a part of sports car racing folklore. No Gulf-sponsored 917 won Le Mans but Horsman surely enjoyed the fact that in both 1970 and 1971 it was a short-tail 917 that won and, of course, those were Porsche’s first two wins out of 19 (thus far).
The return of the Mirage
Ferrari won only once with its Mauro Forgheri-penned 512S after a heroic drive by Mario Andretti at Sebring, the 1979 F1 World Driver’s Champion famously pushing to avoid being beaten to the flag by "a movie star" (Steve McQueen, who finished second thanks to Peter Revson’s ironman effort). Towards the tail end of ’71, the 512S became the 512M and it seemed like the Scuderia had the measure of Porsche following a pair of victories at Zeltweg and Kyalami but Maranello decided to once again shake things up.
For 1971, a new 3.0-liter prototype car was developed as Ferrari caught word that the big 5.0-liter sports cars would be banned completely come the end of the season, the FISA realizing that it was 1967 all over again. The new car, dubbed '312PB' was essentially an F1 312B with some added bodywork and it proved fast from the get-go.
By doing what Porsche had done in 1969 and kicking things off one year early, Ferrari would go on to dominate the entirety of 1972, only missing Le Mans that ’Il Commendatore’ decided to forgo. Among those playing second fiddle to Ferrari were Lola, Porsche (but only privateers), Matra-Simca, Alfa Romeo, and Mirage.
The latter, of course, was the same company last seen in racing circles in 1969. But Horsman prepared a brand-new car for 1972, still designed by Len Bailey like the older 3.0-liter prototypes, but now developed under the Gulf Research Racing banner that Horsman led as Managing Director with Grady Davis as President and Wyer as a non-executive consultant. Wyer, dejected by Porsche’s decision to go ahead and hire Roger Penske to do the Can-Am series, decided he wanted to slow things down a bit and took a step back.
The Mirage M6 relied just like its predecessor, on Ford DFV power, despite Cosworth’s Keith Duckworth view that a DFV is not fit for endurance racing purposes. Indeed, previous 3.0-liter prototypes to use the otherwise hugely successful unit struggled in long-distance racing, most notably Alan Mann’s F3L that Gardner touted as "a terrifying thing to drive" and the worst car he ever got behind the wheel of, only "bettered" in this unflattering list by its replacement, the open-top P69 version, "a device all of its own."
The initial plan, however, was different. The M6 was supposed to be powered by a Harry Weslake-designed V-12 badged as a Ford unit after funding was agreed upon from Ford U.K. via Walter Hayes, the same man without whom the DFV would’ve never gotten in the middle of an F1 car. Weslake was already familiar with the Gulf Racing operation as the ’68-’69 GT40s ran Weslake cylinder heads and the first V-12 was ready by early 1972 when it was taken out for a spin around Goodwood to be pitted against the DFV V-8.
Building a car from scratch was strenuous on Horsman’s Gulf Research Racing outfit that was forced to miss the first two rounds of the 1972 World Championship at Buenos Aires and Daytona. The first M6, chassis #601, arrived in Florida in mid-March 1972 with the DFV in the middle as Weslake was busy building the V-12s. "Maurice Gomm [and Len Bailey] did the chassis, the engine was from Cosworth, the gearbox from Hewland, and FKS did the bodywork," said Horsman of the M6 which had only done a mildly successful shakedown prior to its voyage to America.
With merely 25 laps of Silverstone under its belt, the Mirage M6 was never expected to go the distance, especially because this was Sebring, a track famous for breaking cars into bits. Indeed, it only took 250 agonizing miles for the Derek Bell/Gijs van Lennep car to finally be parked with differential woes. "The car wasn’t dramatic enough, didn’t have enough flair," remarked Bell who was fresh out of a season racing the Gulf 917.
The first time the M6 saw the checkered flag was at Brands Hatch, round number 4 of the championship, but the car wasn’t classified as it’d lost too much time in the pits with issues. The team skipped Monza but was back in action at Spa-Francorchamps where Bell and van Lennep missed the podium narrowly but all was not well in the Gulf camp.
The DFV, while bolted directly to the rear bulkhead, was enveloped by a steel tube frame offering extra rigidity. Sadly, in the early days of the program, this wasn’t enough and the notorious torsional vibrations from the engine would literally cause the wing or other ancillaries to fail. That the DFV was a vibrating mess in a sports car was something Horsman & Co. knew since the same sort of problems had been encountered with the M3 but Bailey couldn’t come up with a chassis able to fully cope with those vibrations despite it being conceived with the V-8 in mind, not the planned V-12.
"[That vibration] was horrible. You knew it was beating the hell out of the car," remembered Derek Bell. "At the Nürburgring, the foam fill-in of my seat slipped from underneath me and left me braced directly against the chassis." Howden Ganley, who joined the team in 1973, notes that "when I first tested the Mirage my legs became affected by the vibration and I couldn’t drive it late in the day. It was incredible."
In spite of all that, the Nurburgring 1,000-kilometer race offered fans the rare occasion to see Ferrari hard at work to get the victory as the Mirage stuck with the Tim Schenken/Ronnie Peterson 312PB nearly all the way, before the DFV went out in a cloud of smoke with two laps to go. By then, the first V-12 had been pitted against the DFV at Goodwood and the results were promising with the heavier engine producing a linear torque curve and more predictable power delivery and even the extra pounds didn’t seem to hinder it as the two M6s were within 0.5 seconds of each other at the day’s end.
Horsman’s V-12 dreams would, however, vanish within a year but, at the very least, he was left with a good handling car. "The drivers loved the handling of the M6 on the whole. The only complaint they had was the high-speed turn-in wasn’t precise enough - there was a slight delay before the car responded."
One of those drivers was John Watson and, years later, he didn’t quite agree with his former boss. "The Mirage felt like a heavy single-seater – not bad, but not good," is how he described the M6. Still, it was good enough to finish third in the final round of the season at Watkins Glen, at least partly making amends for a very poor showing at Le Mans earlier in the year.
"The Cosworth had a single water pump which fed both sides of the block, the left bank via a cast-in transfer passage. After a number of hours running, cylinders 5, 6, 7, and 8 seized in one car as a result of running at over 10,000 rpm all down Mulsanne. There was insufficient water flow from the single pump," said Horsman who added that the problem was fixed by welding another water pump on the other side of the engine but the solution wasn’t available until ’74.
Then there was the gearbox, Hewland’s DG300 letting the team down at Daytona in ’73 after Bell put the M6 on pole two seconds clear off the Matra. "Nobody had used [the DG300] at those speeds and oil was centrifuging away on the banking," but Hewland later fixed it although the team always went with ZF at Le Mans because, as Horsman put it, "we had trouble with dogs chipping at the corners."
Vallelunga hosted round two of the 1973 season and there Matra showed up with a new cylinder head and swept the competition. The Mirage spent the remainder of the season trying to hold itself together while looking at the tails of the MS670B and the 312PB. There was one breakthrough, however, at Spa where a superb 1-2 breathed some hope into the project. "The car was fantastic at Spa. It was an inherent understeerer, but in the quick stuff you could turn in early and it was fine," said Ganley.
For Le Mans, Gulf also prepared, besides the Weslake V-12, a new coupe-bodied M6 that was supposedly legal and was a lot more slippery than the open-top version that "was really a short circuit car."
But the V-12 wasn’t good. As Gurney had experienced first hand in F1, Weslake wasn’t consistent with his engines meaning the second and third engine he shipped to Gulf wasn’t up to the standards of the team and following the Le Mans weekend the partnership effectively ended.
Over the following months, Gulf’s engineers worked to make the car beefier and make it less understeery by extending its nose which, in turn, added downforce. "At Vallelunga, I went over to chat with the Matra boys and, when they weren’t looking, picked up a nose-cone. It was much lighter than ours. Our car had to be built strongly to survive the DFV’s vibrations [and] there wasn’t much lightweight technology in the UK at that time, [otherwise] we could have done with hacking 200 pounds off." Matra, of course, used its aerospace background to full extent as well as the abundance of money coming straight from the French government.
In 1974, the Mirage GR7 was introduced and, while more reliability was extracted from the package, the car was still a while away from being a bona fide race winner, especially in the face of Matra's MS670C and the Alfa T33/TT12.
A bunch of podium finishes at Brands Hatch, Spa, Paul Ricard, and Kyalami were the highlights as well as a fourth-place finish at Le Mans proving the DFV wasn’t a lost cause in round-the-clock racing.
It all came together the following year when, due to the oil crisis, the grid shrunk and a comprehensively revised GR7, named GR8, won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in the hands of masses Bell and Ickx. Against a field of underfunded privateers (such as Joest Racing with a Porsche and Alain De Cadenet with his modified Lola T380) and one trailblazing French factory team (Ligier with its JS2 GT/Prototype), the Mirages went on to finish first and third, a result made possible by three things: the extra water pump bolted to the DFV, the revised ZF transmission with a reduced input shaft diameter to absorb the DFV’s buzz, and the frame around the engine.
"A similar frame on the GR8 saved us at Le Mans in ’75, when an engine bearer broke on one side on the winning Ickx/Bell car and on both sides on the Schuppan/Jaussaud car. The engine, transmission, and suspension were only held on by the frame - without it, the cars would have broken in half."
Privateer Mirages and Porsches
The Mirage GR8 remained a force to be reckoned with at Le Mans where it finished second two times on the trot in the following two years, first with the same DFV engine and then with Renault turbo power. By then, however, Gulf Oils had pulled out of the partnership and Mirage and all of its assets were bought by entrepreneur Harley Cluxton III who raced the cars under his Grand Touring Cars banner. Horsman’s services were retained by Cluxton who gathered enough sponsorship money to develop the first full-blown Mirage Group 6 car, the M9 (the GR8 had been renamed ’M8’ after GTC’s takeover).
While the final iterations of the Mirage weren’t as successful (the team took a hiatus after a double DNF at Le Mans in ’79), Cluxton returned with the M12 in 1982 for Mario and Michael Andretti to drive in the first year of Group C. The Tiga-built prototype featuring an aluminum honeycomb monocoque chassis and a Cosworth 3.9-liter DFL engine qualified ninth overall but was disqualified with only 20 minutes to go before the start of the race when ACO’s stewards literally pushed the car off the grid after it was deemed that the oil cooler was illegal.
While the scandal that ensued meant Cluxton would never bring back the Mirage name to Circuit de la Sarthe, the unique M12 got bought by Conte Racing and was campaigned Stateside in 1983 with a best finish of seventh at Miami. Horsman, meanwhile, linked up with former driver Vern Schuppan and was his engineer during the Australian’s Indycar foray and later when Schuppan established his own team running Porsche 962s in Japan and the World Sportscar Championship. Under Horsman’s watch, Team Schuppan won the 1989 Fuji 1,000-kilometer JSPC race and went on to finish third overall at Daytona in 1992.