“Don’t lean against the door in a turn — it will come open and you will fall out!” That warning from Achim Stejskal, director of the Porsche Museum back in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen, becomes urgent as we enter the second turn.
As the 550 Spyder glides through the bend, Hans Herrmann accelerates onto the front straight at Losail International Circuit just north of Doha, the capital city of Qatar. Losail, seen from the air, resembles a right hand attempting to make the Vulcan greeting salute from a Star Trek episode, palm outward. The first right hairpin curls around the thumb and the second turn, a left-hander, doubles back toward the distant index finger.
With no seatbelts in the car — its perfect restoration is period-correct — my fingers claw at anything they can find to avoid that door. Herrmann, of course, has the steering wheel to hold onto, which he twists and turns precisely, almost delicately, relying on muscle memory accumulated during thousands of hours spent testing and racing these cars a half century ago.
Herrmann is 82 now, yet he still has an agility about him. His face is a bit softer, a bit rounder than in his former racing days, and his multi-layer Porsche Motorsports driving suit hugs him. He’s driving Porsche AG’s Fletcher Aviation-sponsored Spyder 550-04, a car in which he finished third overall and won the 1500-cc class at the Carrera Panamericana in 1954.
Today, we’re a world away from Mexico. The track is wet, this despite the fact that locals say it only rains 19 days a year in Qatar. The 550 dances into turns but squats and digs in from the apexes out. It’s as sure-footed as its driver is self-assured. If you are allowed just one ride in a 550 Spyder in this lifetime, you want it to be in this car with this man at the wheel.
The circuit at Losail is as flat as Qatar, meaning flat. The second from last corner is a 180° right-hand opening onto a straight that sets you up for the circuit’s fastest bend before the long start-finish straight. As we sweep through, we’re close to 160 km/h. Herrmann is grinning, his hands steady on the wheel, as Ernst Fuhrmann’s Carrera four howls. Arcing through this bend at nearly full speed, we can see the grandstands in the distance. Herrmann keeps his foot to the floor through Losail’s last fast corner.
The bark behind our heads, from Fuhrmann’s insistent four-cam flat four, makes conversation impossible. The car throbs with its pulse. As Herrmann lifts off the accelerator, it’s as though the car takes a breath before its grunt and growl resume. When he raced these cars in Italy, Porsche fitted a windscreen to protect driver and riding mechanic. But this is a Carrera car, run without a passenger, so it has the correct, narrow protection in front of Herrmann alone — leaving the full force of 120-, 160-, 180-km/h wind working to peel the helmet off my head.