x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Hans Herrmann, genial grandfather with his foot still on the gas

The German endurance driver Hans Herrmann proves the need for speed doesn't dissipate with age as he gives Neil Vorano a ride in the car that won him the Carrera Panamericana challenge 57 years ago.

A 1954 Porsche 550 Spyder driven by Hans Herrmann.
A 1954 Porsche 550 Spyder driven by Hans Herrmann.

The car fires up with a throaty growl, the vibration resonating through the cramped cockpit. I'm sitting shoulder to shoulder with the driver, trying to heed the advice of a technician telling me not to lean against the passenger door. ("It will open in the turns," he had said in a dry German accent with not a hint of urgency.) Which is even more important given the fact that this race car has no seat belts to keep me in the tiny bucket. And, there is no roof or even windscreen to protect the passenger.

But I'm more excited than I am frightened (I never was one for sensibilities). Because the car I'm in at the Losail track in Doha is a classic Porsche 550 Spyder from 1954, and the man at the wheel probably knows its characteristics more than anyone in the world.

That would come from experience. Because that driver is Hans Herrmann, the very same man that drove it to a class win at the Carrerra Panamericana endurance race in Mexico in 1954. Yes, 57 years ago.

Herrmann is now 83, a stout, ruddy and genial man with sparkle and energy and a tummy that pushes slightly out of his Porsche race overalls. He looks and acts like your typical, loveable grandfather type, but he's probably lived a far more exciting life.

Herrmann certainly has had an illustrious career, not only with Porsche but also with Daimler-Benz, Abarth, Maserati and BRM. He's raced sports cars and even had a stint in Formula One. But it's his endurance racing that he will be remembered for the most.

He finished first in class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans the year before his Panamericana win. He's raced - and won - at the Mille Miglia (back when it was a real cross-country race, not the classic-car parade it is today), the 24 Hours of Daytona and various other endurance races around the world.

But his two most notable accomplishments were tied with Porsche. In 1968, he got the German brand's first overall win at the Daytona race; then, in 1970, teamed with Richard Attwood, he took his Porsche 917 to the German marque's first overall victory at the storied Le Mans race.

He's also survived a few spectacular crashes, including being tossed out of his cartwheeling car and sliding down the track at the 1959 German Grand Prix. In a racing era that was renowned for its danger as much as its glory, it's a miracle that Herrmann is standing in front of me today.

"In the past, races were very dangerous. Every year there were at least two or three fatal accidents," he tells me through an interpreter. "In the 1960s, there were 25 drivers dead [that he knew]. And also many spectators.

"But it was that time, you didn't think about that. You accepted it."

Ultimately, this danger was the key factor in his retirement. According to his biography on the Porsche website, before the 1970 Le Mans race, he had promised his wife that, should he win, he would retire. His young son had also given him a note before the race that read: "Drive slowly, Papa."

I'm trying not to think about that danger as we leave the pits, quickly gaining speed as we near the first turn. Herrmann doesn't seem to be holding back anything.

He's braking hard, then using the throttle to help steer the little car through the tight turn. He guns it on the apex and the Spyder shoots forward.

Porsche had a few cars out for the event, all coming from the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. There was a 917/30 CanAm racer, with all of its 1,200hp glory; sadly, it was sidelined with a hidden glitch. Jackie Ickx, the legendary driver, gave rides in his 1984 911 Paris-Dakar winner, though he must have been told to hold back a bit on the off-road route ("I'm sorry," he apologised after a rather tame go over man-made hills and rocky flats. "That will give you just a little taste.") There was a 936 Le Mans racer that Ickx won in, and a lovely 911 GT1 that contested the 1998 Le Mans.

But by far the most beautiful of all the cars was the 550 Spyder. It's a tiny racer that comes up to a man's knees, with sumptuous curves that can only be made by a skilled artisan hand-beating body panels to perfection. Inside is all painted metal save for the tiny red seats and simple, chrome-bezelled gauges, with a wide, wooden steering wheel and a long gear shifter on the floor.

After Herrmann won the Panamericana in 1954, the car was sold and went through various owners before Porsche bought it back. It was restored about 25 years ago. Today, it is in good shape, but it looks like it is used; proper for a race car. The carburetors show leakage around the seals and it's overall not as clean as it was off the factory floor. But who would want that anyway?

Herrmann hammers the throttle as the track straightens. At just 550kg, the motor's 120hp is more than enough to give this car some grunt, and the German has it up to 160kph before braking for the next turn. At that speed, my eyes are watering and my helmet is lifting off of my head, held on only by the strap under my chin. I realise that Herrmann is wearing only sunglasses, and wonder if he can see properly, because I sure can't.

Herrmann drives the car at media and promotional events for Porsche; his racing days are long over. But that doesn't mean he doesn't still feel that wanton lust for speed. "It's not the same as when I was young, of course," Herrmann tells me later about driving the car. "But I still want to feel the limits of the car; that's natural. And, if someone is sitting next to me, I want them to feel the limit."

I'm glad he's not driving the way he used to race; in his day, the German was known for taking risks, and earned the knickname "Hans im Glück" (Hans in Luck). Famously, during the 1954 Mille Miglia, he ducked his tiny car under the dropped barriers at a railway crossing, just missing the oncoming train on his way to victory.

We continue on around the tight Losail track, the little engine screaming. Herrmann is expertly rowing through the gears and following a proper racing line; taking such speed in such a tiny car is thrilling.

For Herrmann, it's not just the thrill of the drive, but the bond he has with such a special car.

"Ja ja, lot's of fun," he continues. "All the memories come back when I'm driving, and it's a very good feeling. This car is very close to me."

Our lap eventually comes to an end. As we enter the pit lane, Herrmann switches off the car and we roll into the pitbox. "You have a good time, ja?" he asks with a jolly laugh as we come to a stop. I can't help but smile as I tell him yes, then shake his hand, thanking him for the ride.

It was obvious that he had a good time, too.