30 Jan 2013

A Green Porsche 917 – An Icon, A Legend, A Cause of So Much Trouble

James Parker writes about the case involving Mark Hales, David Piper and a Porsche 917

These past couple of weeks in the motoring community have been fuelled with turmoil as one story has dominated all the headlines for petrol heads across the country, and it all surrounds one of the most famous pieces of automotive history to grace the racing track. During the 70s, to witness a Porsche 917 at full tilt around Le Mans was a sight to behold, it was a sensational racing car, that possessed more power than God himself, and helped catapult Porsche into a legendary icon. Unfortunately however, like many classic legends, they were rather fragile beasts to handle, and as a result you have to count yourself incredibly lucky to see one running in the flesh today – they are rarer than hen’s teeth.

This brutal beast from the deepest depths of Stuttgart has not got any easier to handle as they have aged, and as a result the price tag has generously risen to quite a considerable margin in today’s money – the cars are gold mines for investors and therefore rarely see the kind of action they were designed for nowadays.  A very sad state of affairs for everyone who has not been lucky enough it witness it in person, or has petrol running through their veins – me included.  Now, of course, in 2009 at a serene Cadwell Park, Mark Hales wanted to change all that, to give an insight into this wonderful animal -  borrowing a David Piper owned 917, pitting it directly with the Nick Mason owned Ferrari 512 S for numerous publications, all for the huge benefit of us, the classic car lovers across the country.

I want to first point out before I move on, I do not personally know either Mark Hales or David Piper.  I do not know the complete ins and outs of the controversial case surrounding the story, and therefore will not try and decrypt the events that happened on that day. But what I will do, is offer my opinion on the facts that have been given - why perhaps I do feel slightly sorry for Mark, and how this could set a dangerous precedent for the future regarding tests of this magnitude.

So where do we start? Well I thought it would be appropriate to look back at the situation that arose that day back in 2009, and what we could perhaps learn from it. For the test, Mark had entered into an agreement with David regarding the use of the iconic green 917 - one of a verbal nature that explicitly stated to get this priviledge, you are under a “bend it you mend it” policy.  It is considered the norm, surprisingly to some, and it epitomises the gentlemanly type agreement that is not seen in many other types of business. For example you will not see many formal papers or contracts flying around the Goodwood Revival.  The machines are trusted with exceptional professionals and therefore a mutual trust does need to be present.

This was apparently the case with Mark and David, and let’s be honest Mr Hales is not the young kid on the block who has zero experience. He is a thoroughbred racing driver, having competed in the BTCC during the 80’s and then looked to apply his impeccable driving talent to a journalistic career – something he has done incredibly well, alongside competing in numerous classic car races such as the Spa 6 hours.

This made Mark the ideal man to get behind the wheel of the green beast and give a unique insight to driving something almost all of us on the planet will never get to experience. But on that day something went very, very wrong. Whilst lapping the Cadwell Park circuit, Mark went to apparently change gear from 2nd to 3rd.  After he had completed the change the gear “popped out” and of course, when driving at full tilt, the engine immediately chewed itself to bits leading to no more 917.

This does present a couple of questions from either side of the fence, one being why was no rev limiter installed to the car? And secondly why was no insurance valid on Mark’s side of the deal?

The first question is of great intrigue to me, and one I am completely confused about. Let’s be frank here, a 40 year old Porsche 917 is never going to be the epitome of reliability in this day and age.  It is almost a living, breathing extension of the driver, and therefore needs to be nurtured and looked after. But that does not mean it cannot be restricted to garages and museums.  Proper steps can be ascertained in order to ensure the car does not blow a piston ring the moment you rev it above 5k, and one of the most obvious decisions would be to fit a rev limiter.  One was not fitted to the green 917 which Mark tested and therefore leaving components exposed to the brutal incident we saw. I am sure David Piper knows how fragile his racing car is, so why was a rev limiter not fitted?  Had it been fitted before the test there is a stark possibility that even in the event of a popped gear, the engine would have not been allowed to rev above a “safe” limit.

Secondly there comes the point of insurance, the ability to cover your most prized possessions in the event of the unthinkable. When it comes to insuring a Motorsport relic for the day it gets slightly complicated. The price you would pay to get the privilege of cover on something like a 917 is astronomical (as you would think) and therefore the majority of journalists are not in the position to splash out that kind of capital.  If every high-performance piece of machinery had to be insured before a test, the Motoring Journalist industry would be completely dead, and therefore medians need to be met, as they supposedly were with a verbal agreement between both Mark and David.

I can understand if Mark had indeed smashed the car into one of the many banks surrounding the Cadwell Park circuit, he would be immediately liable for the damage he caused, it would be down to driver error and therefore no excuse for blame to be passed to his door.  But mechanically related issues are a lot harder to lay blame on, as we know reliability is a grey area for a machine like the Porsche.

Considering David has just sold the 917 for over £1 million you would think the cost of an engine rebuild (£40,000) would be covered by Piper as part of the verbal agreement given the temperament of such a car? After all, owning a car of that type there will always be a huge risk of it eating itself at the first opportunity. Of course this has not been the case and Mark has been forced to pay £110,000 (court costs included) in compensation and, with it, be forced to declare bankruptcy - according to reports.

It is a deeply harrowing situation, but what does it mean for the future of tests like this?

The situation with David and Mark is one of complete isolation.  There have been no other cases of this magnitude before and therefore this is new territory for everyone within the motoring market. This is the dilemma that now faces a lot of car journalists when testing machines like this - is it possible to even step into a classic racing legend like this without having the formal papers thrown at you?  I know a lot of people would have taken Piper’s actions as one of common sense and Mark should never have stepped into the car if he did not have the financial means to overcome any eventuality. But that is not the point of motoring journalism is it? As stated above, if all followed that rule we would simply not have a credible motoring journalism market for us all at home to enjoy.

Owners that are lucky enough to possess such fantastic and brilliant cars will inevitably be petrolheads in their own right. They live to see the cars being showcased and “shown off” somewhat.  Letting a professional go out there and do things with the car it was designed to do must provide a huge sense of pride to the owner, and therefore I think the market will overcome this controversy and the stain of this story slowly disintegrate until it cannot be seen no longer. Trust in these individuals is vital between an occasion like this, and picking the right people to do business with is perhaps just as important as the cars you drive, something unfortunately Mark has found out with David.

Whilst the case is something I simply cannot comment on, being just a car enthusiast and fan of Mark’s work, I do feel incredibly sorry for him. He was working towards giving us people at home something we could really love, a test that eclipses nearly all others, and in doing so has paid the ultimate price in that. I think we all as readers, petrol heads and the motoring community should all rally together to help a man that was simply just trying to do his job.  A man that has, in my opinion, been treated incredibly unfairly.

To help, Track and Driver Magazine, whom Mark is associated with, have set up a fund towards Mr Hales with the hope the motoring community will contribute to help him out of this desperate situation, you can find that right here: http://www.trackdriver.com/mark_hales_appeal.php

About James Parker - Hardcore Petrolhead having had a long passion for cars and Motorsport which stretches back some 15 years ago when I first started watching BTCC and Formula 1. Currently a proud Alfa Romeo owner, who is Head of Business Development at Motorsport Merchandise website www.grandprixmerchandise.co.uk I also am senior editor of theGPM blog dedicated to big Motorsport talking points.