Almost every motorsport fan is familiar with the striking blue and orange corporate colours of oil company Gulf. They adorned legendary machinery such as the Le Mans-winning Ford GT40s and Mirages, the Daytona and Sebring-winning Porsche 917 (that also became a film star in Gulf colours!) and the Porsche 908/3 that scored a commanding 1-2 at the 1970 Targa Florio. Half a century later, GPX Racing is bringing back the iconic Gulf colours to Sicily with its Porsche 911 GT3 R, entered for the COPPA FLORIO 12H Sicily.
It is the dream of every marketing department: corporate colours that are so striking that the connection with a specific brand is made immediately, even without seeing the actual brand name being mentioned: Coca Cola red; the blue, red and yellow of Red Bull; Ikea’s blue and yellow; McDonald’s red and yellow. And these are just a few examples.
In motor racing, the pale blue and orange colours of oil company Gulf stand out. Race cars in these colours won the endurance racing classics at Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring, played a major role in Steve McQueen’s world-famous motor racing-themed film Le Mans and also won the Targa Florio. The word ‘iconic’ is often misused these days, but it is certainly justified for the blue and orange corporate colours of oil company Gulf as a livery for race cars.
The history of the famous Gulf colours in motor racing started with a British team. JW Automotive, run by John Willment and John Wyer, was one of the most successful outfits in the burgeoning sports car scene of the second half of the 1960s and the first half of the 1970s. Having worked with David Brown at Aston Martin, where he masterminded the British marque’s legendary overall win at Le Mans in 1959, Wyer knew a thing or two about how to run a successful racing operation. Having established his own team together with Willment, he scored much-publicised Le Mans wins with the Ford GT40 with Lucien Bianchi/Pedro Rodriguez in 1968 and Jacky Ickx/Jackie Oliver in 1969. Both times, the winning cars sported the Gulf-coloured livery as Wyer had a long-term sponsorship deal with the oil company.
As Ford’s competition programme with the GT40 came to an end while Porsche was looking for an outfit to run part of its 917 race programme, JW Automotive became a Porsche works team in 1970 and the 917 was decorated in the blue and orange colours. In fact, it was also thanks to the input from the British team during a test session at the Österreichring in October 1969 that the initial handling problems of the 917 could be cured: JW engineer John Horsman came up with the solution to make the car’s tail longer to generate aerodynamic downforce and all of a sudden, the full potential of the car could be used. The rest, as they say, is history: in the following two seasons in sports car racing, the 917 won (almost) everything that could be won – and became a film star on top of that.
Meanwhile, Porsche had come to the conclusion that the 917 wasn’t ideally suited for the Nürburgring 1000km and the Targa Florio, two rounds of the World Championship for Makes the Stuttgart-based brand had firmly set its eyes on. Both the race in the Eifel and the Sicilian event were held at twisty tracks, the infamous Green Hell and the challenging Piccolo Madonie road circuit. Especially for these events, Porsche decided to build a special car, the open-top prototype that was the 908/3.
Having got its first season as a Porsche works team off to a good start already with victories at Daytona, a rain-soaked Brands Hatch and Monza, JW Automotive was listed as the official entrant for a pair of Porsche 908/3s for the Targa Florio on 3 May. However, as the British team neither had experience with the event nor with the brand-new car, Porsche’s competition department, led by technical genius Ferdinand Piëch, ran the operation for the two Gulf-liveried machines with JW’s usual driver pairings, Jo Siffert/Brian Redman (starting number 12) and Leo Kinnunen/Pedro Rodriguez (#40). A third car (#36) in blue and orange had Björn Waldegård and Richard Attwood as its drivers.
For easier identification of the three cars in Gulf colours that looked nearly identical, and to enhance communication to each of the different teams by means of pit boards, Porsche used playing card symbols: Diamond for the Siffert/Redman car, Club for the Kinnunen/Rodriquez entry and Spade for the Waldegård/Attwood 908/3. A fourth car ran in the red-and-white Porsche Salzburg colours for Vic Elford and Hans Herrmann and indeed had Heart as its symbol.
The competition debut of the 908/3 in Gulf colours was a successful one. Siffert already showed the potential by posting a fastest time of 34m 10s in practice, an average of almost 126.5kph. Of course, the loyal Sicilian fans rooted for their local hero, Nino Vaccarella, who was paired with Ignazio Giunti in a works-Ferrari 512S. American Masten Gregory and Dutchman Toine Hezemans were also considered as serious contenders with their Autodelta Alfa Romeo Tipo 33/3.
On race day, the track was muddy following rain during the night. Conditions were tricky, as two former winners, Vic Elford and Umberto Maglioli, soon found out – both retired in the early stages. The 908/3, meanwhile proved to be ideally suited for the event. After four laps, the Porsches held a commanding 1-2 with Kinnunen leading from Siffert. Pit stops with driver changes temporarily mixed up the order, but eventually, Siffert and Redman were in the lead and drove victory home, followed by Kinnunen and Rodriguez rounding out the fantastic result for the Gulf-coloured Porsches in the Targa Florio. Waldegård and Attwood finished 5th.
One year later, the 1971 Targa Florio was less successful, to say the least: both Gulf-Porsches with Brian Redman/Jo Siffert and Pedro Rodriguez/Herbert Müller retired after accidents. But it is the memory of the success upon its debut that lasts, a success that plays a major role in the history of the Gulf Porsches. One of the 908/3s in Gulf colours is still owned by the Porsche Museum while another one, raced in the 1971 Nürburgring 1000kms by Jo Siffert and Derek Bell, sits in pride of place in the famous ROFGO collection of Gulf-liveried race cars in the UK.
A new chapter could be added to the success story of Gulf-liveried Porsches in Sicily as UAE-based team, GPX Racing, has entered a bespoke Porsche 911 GT3 R for the COPPA FLORIO 12H Sicily. The team, the winner of the Spa 24 Hours in 2020, is running in Gulf colours as well, so the blue and orange returns to the Mediterranean island. 50 years on, the legend continues!