Porsche 917 engineering lynchpin John Horsman dies at 85

Image by Ranier Schlegelmilch/Motorsport Network

Porsche 917 engineering lynchpin John Horsman dies at 85

Le Mans/WEC

Porsche 917 engineering lynchpin John Horsman dies at 85


Le Mans and World Championship-winning team manager John Horsman has died at 85 years old.

John Horsman was offered a graduate apprenticeship with Aston Martin Lagonda by managing director, John Wyer in 1958, a career decision that would start the clock on an astonishing run of success in sportscar racing.

His initial position was with  David Brown Industries, which made tractors and gearboxes for Aston Martin (Brown having bought the sportscar company in 1947) before moving to Aston Martin’s Design and Experimental Department as a project engineer.

In 1961, Horsman became assistant to John Wyer and in 1964 he followed Wyer to Ford Advanced Vehicles Ltd., where he was responsible for the construction and preparation of the program that produced Ford’s legendary GT40.

After two Le Mans wins in 1966 and 1967, the Ford factory GT40 race program ended, however, it spawned J. W. Automotive Engineering and Horsman became executive director and chief engineer of the company, which then went on to win Le Mans in 1968 and 1969 with their Ford GT40s in the blue and orange colors of the Gulf Oil Company.

Horsman was subsequently responsible for the development, construction and race preparation of all of JWAE’s products: the Mirage M1, M2, M3, M6, the Ford GT40s and the Porsche 917s.

Through the combined efforts of John Wyer, team manager David Yorke, and Horsman, the team added to its back-to-back Le Mans 24 Hours victories with the coveted World Sports Car Championships in 1968, 1970 and 1971.

For 1970, JWAE was tasked with campaigning the works 917s for the Porsche factory.

The original 917 was renowned not just for its speed, but also for evil handling. Horsman would later say that his proudest accomplishment was his solution to the 917’s handling issues, changing its bodywork and, most notably, shortening its tail (all of which is chronicled in in his 2006 book Racing in the Rain). Those changes led to Porsche wins in the World Championship of Makes in both 1970 and 1971.

While mostly known for his sportscar exploits, Horsman also had a hand in Vern Schuppan’s third place at Indy in 1981. Image by IMS

In 1972 Horsman became managing director of the Gulf Research Racing Company, an outgrowth of JWAE headquartered in Slough, just outside London. From here were built the Gulf Research series of cars – essentially developments of the Mirage.

The GR7 emerged in 1974 and was followed by the GR8, which took first and third place at Le Mans in 1975, both cars using F1 Ford Cosworth DFV engines that were detuned to meet the fuel efficiency regulations and which, remarkably, lasted the equivalent of more than a dozen Grands Prix in a single run on their way to victory.

After Gulf Research Racing closed its doors, Horsman moved to Scottsdale, Arizona in 1976, and joined the GTC company. Its GR8 – now renamed Mirage – finished second at Le Mans in 1976 and again in 1977, the latter occasion with Renault power instead of the original Ford engines.

The GTC Mirage program continued for two more years and then Horsman was reunited with his friend Vern Schuppan to run the Australian racer’s McLaren IndyCar team on its way to third place at the 1981 Indianapolis 500. He also returned to Le Mans four more times as part of Vern Schuppan’s team.

The all-star driver line-up that competed in his cars includes Jacky Ickx, Brian Redman, Pedro Rodriguez, Jo Siffert, Derek Bell, Jackie Oliver, Mike Hailwood, David Hobbs, Vern Schuppan, John Watson, James Hunt, and Richard Attwood.

The team excelled everywhere and was particularly adept in wet conditions, where competitors struggled to match their pace. Some records achieved by Horsman’s team still stand, more than 40 years later.

Horsman was also immensely proud of the fact that, in a period when sportscar racing was notoriously dangerous, no driver was ever lost in one of his cars.

He was very specific about his role in motorsport. He didn’t design, he developed: “Designers designed the cars, I made them better,” he said.