David Hobbs recalls the 1971 near-misses in Penske/Sunoco Ferrari 512M


NBC Sports Group Formula One analyst David Hobbs’ driving career featured him driving some seriously iconic cars.

Among them, despite a lack of results in the three marquee endurance races of Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans, was the Penske/Sunoco Ferrari 512M Hobbs shared with Mark Donohue during the 1971 international season. The car is featured as part of Ferrari North America’s 60-year celebration this year.

“That car… that Sunoco car, in spite of itself, has become an iconic Ferrari,” Hobbs recalled, in a conversation with MotorSportsTalk. “And it’s one of the most well known Ferraris, even though we never actually won anything, which is the bizarre thing.”

They quite easily could or should have but, motor racing being motor racing, things happened to the blue and yellow Ferrari well outside their control.

Starting at Daytona with the first 24-hour campaign of the season, Hobbs and Donohue stuck the new car on pole. Hobbs praised Penske’s work in building the piece of machinery nearly from scratch.

“Roger completely rebuilt it and turned into a stunning piece of equipment. It was beautifully finished, and the Europeans were amused by the highly polished wheels and tires.”

We let Hobbs tell the rest of the story from there.

“Well of course we put it well and truly on pole in front of the Gulf (Porsche) 917s. We led the race handily, until Mark was driving in the middle of the night, and Vic Elford spun the 917 at NASCAR 3. Some 911 we’d lapped about 1,000 times ran into Mark and came into the scene of chaos. But we strapped about 10,000 pounds of tape on it and came third.”

Staying in Florida, things didn’t improve for the 12 Hours of Sebring. The pair led at Sebring before Donohue contacted Pedro Rodriguez on the back portion of the 5.5-mile circuit. A tire had become unraveled, damaged the oil tank, and the pair finished 10th.

Le Mans? Same story of frustration and unfinished business.

“Generally speaking the engines were very reliable. But then we went to Le Mans, and it was a tosser, as we didn’t have a long tail,” Hobbs says. “The 917s had the long tail, so they were quicker down the straight. By 7 p.m., we were up to third. I’d driven a very satisfying late afternoon early stint. They tried to get me to the four-hour (driving) limit. But then double stinting, and the engine let go. I’m not 100% sure, but they may have changed engine night before the race.”

The fourth and final race of frustration for this particular car saw more mechanical issues strike at Watkins Glen.

“The final race was the Watkins Glen six-hour, and then Mark would drive it Sunday in the Can-Am,” Hobbs says. “We were comfortably on the pole. Then Mark drove into the distance, and I never drove. The steering post broke on top of the upright.

“We had a fantastic chance winning at least two of three, Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans. We certainly should have won Daytona and Sebring.”

Hobbs recalled the bygone era where not only were the cars lacking in aero but seriously cool in appearance, but where they only ran with two drivers.

“We didn’t know any better! And it was just the way you did things,” he says. “The car was fairly quick. There were no ground effects, so they didn’t generate the G-forces the modern cars do.

“The new cars have massive downforce and having three guys, you’re usually six hours in-between stints. The most we had was four, and your max nap time was two and a half, maybe three hours at a stretch.”

Despite the lack of results, the car still holds a special place in Hobbs’ car honor roll.

A video from Petrolicious from the car’s outing at Mont-Tremblant this summer, with Hobbs’ voice, is linked here.