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John Horsman, one of motor racing’s behind-the-scenes greats, has died at the age of 85, his family has confirmed. The Lancastrian had been battling heart and kidney complications.
His career did more than merely touch one of the real golden ages of sports-car racing, it played a key role in the lasting legend of the 1960s and ’70s.
With JW Automotive he ran and improved the Ford GT40 and Porsche 917 – think of a racer worth their salt with a roof over their head and Horsman ran them: Pedro Rodríguez, Jo Siffert, Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell, Brian Redman, Richard Attwood, Jackie Oliver, Gijs van Lennep. The list goes on.
Horsman is widely credited with taming the untameable: the 917. In 1969 drivers would call it undriveable, some would even break it or hope it broke just to escape its cockpit, but JW Automotive stabilised it to such a degree for 1970 that the factory adopted its changes.
Thanks to his improvements at its tail, no longer would the car wander at more than 200mph at the end of the Mulsanne Straight; no longer would drivers steer with just fingertips.
Blue and orange 917s won everywhere, including seven of the 10 1970 World Sportscar Championship rounds, but, somehow, never took victory at Le Mans.
His GT40s most certainly did.
In 1968, when JW reverted to the original GT40, Lucien Bianchi and Pedro Rodríguez led for some 14 hours to the flag, while a year later Jacky Ickx, partnered by Jackie Oliver, denied Hans Hermann’s Porsche 908 on the very last lap.
It had been a full five years since Horsman first began developing one of the most dominant cars Le Mans has ever seen in the GT40. Yet it was still a winner.
His automotive career began with David Brown, eventually transferring to Aston Martin’s design and experimental department, and even running DP214 to victory at Monza in 1963 shortly after John Wyer had left for Ford.
By the end of the following season, he followed Wyer to the Blue Oval and Ford Advanced Vehicles (FAV), and the pair began reversing the GT40’s fortunes.
JW Automotive formed for 1967 out of the ashes of FAV, first reworking the GT40 into the Mirage M1 before returning to the GT40 for ’68 and ’69.
The Mirage name stuck with the team throughout the 917 years, but when the eighth iteration claimed victory at Le Mans it bore not only its sponsor’s blue and orange but also its name: the Gulf GR8. As a Mirage the following season it claimed second place.
Horsman moved to America in 1983, helping Aussie single-seater champion Bib Stillwell with a historic race team on the side, as the pair worked at Learjet. He remained in Tucson, Arizona, for the remainder of his life.
He is survived by his wife Janet and four daughters.
Images: Motorsport Images