The Porsche 917 was destined to conquer Le Mans. At the time when Porsche entered Le Mans as the first german car maker, it was clear. The germans are here to stay. Their first taste of the 24-hour race was with 356, which at the time was also Porsche’s first ever road car. In the following years, they will build more cars and sometimes they will be designed intentionally to tackle the World Manufacturer’s Title.
After FIA announced a class of “homologated sports cars” Porsche fired up a new project – the 917. The new regulations for the 1969 season set the minimum weight to 800 kg and up to 5 litres cubic capacity for the engine. A new one had to be developed just after Porsche finally produced a bigger engine – the 3-Liter flat-8 for the 908 for 1968 season. The new Porsche 917 had a larger 4.5-liter 12-cylinder engine with horizontal cylinders. Unlike the 908’s boxer crankshaft, the 917’s engine used a shorter crank similar to those used in “V” engines in order to reduce the motor’s footprint.908 for 1968 season. The new Porsche 917 had a larger 4.5-liter 12-cylinder engine with horizontal cylinders. Unlike the 908’s boxer crankshaft, the 917’s engine used a shorter crank similar to those used in “V” engines in order to reduce the motor’s footprint.
One engine, Two Cars
The racing engineers of Porsche decided to develop two body shapes designed to achieve better results for shorter, twister road tracks or more opened tracks with fast and long straights. The 917K had a shorter tail or Kurzheck in German, where the K comes. Porsche 917 LH with the longer tail was explicitly designed for the Le Mans race. They were unbeatable at the straights as it was proven in the night testing just before the 1971 start. Jackie Oliver drove down at the L´Hunnadieres straight with 396 km/h.
Other Porsche 917 specifications were also produced. So-called Spyders will later compete in the CanAm and Interseries up to 1975.
1969: A Year of Practice
The racing debut of the 917 happened at the 1000 km of Spa. Jo Siffert, leading Porsche driver at the moment, went to the track but declared to the engineering team ”This car is not only unstable, but it is frankly dangerous “ The Porsche 917 did not behave well in quick curves, and neither in a straight line. “Seppi” Siffert was the only pilot who had the option to choose – chose to race the 908 Long Tail that had been already tested and approved. Just two 917 entered the race, and while setting the fastest time in qualifications beating the Lolas, both cars did not finish.
1969 continued further as a year of testing. Many blamed the aluminium frame, which had difficulties handling the big engine. The weight of the structure was only 47 kg/104 lb at the time when 917s were capable of 0 to 124 mph (200km/h) in 5.3 seconds.
917s were the fastest at Le Mans later that year and set the quickest lap time during the race with Vic Elford and Richard Attwood setting the quickest lap, but had to retire from the leading position because of the clutch failure.
The only private 917 entered the race in this year was driven by the English driver John Woolfe. Unfortunately, he crashed in the first lap and was thrown out of the car and lost his life. This accident was one of the main reasons for changing the traditional LM-style start where the drivers had to run across the race track, enter the cars, start the engines, fasten seat belts and drive away. In reality, almost every driver took off without the seatbelt on, and the fastening was done during the first laps.
1970: A Triple Podium
For the following season, Porsche agreed to collaborate with John Wyer Engineering. The American JW team became factory team. It was a tremendous season for Porsche, not only dominating tracks all over the world but also becoming a successful business case. All cars from the previous year followed the 1970 specs featuring new 4.9 and 5.0 litre engines. The less big capacity engine turned to be unreliable at longer distances. That season the plastic cover above the engine was removed, new aerodynamic changes were made to generate downforce instead of unintended lift for the 917K, and two Long-tails are for the Le Mans start.
Almost half of the cars at the starting grid were 917s. Wyer was surprised to discover that another team was carefully preparing for the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans with close support from Porsche. As in 1969, the Porsche Salzburg team was under the control of members of the Porsche family. The Martini Racing team also gained support from Porsche AG. Porsche wanted to win this time.
Two 917 LHs were entered for the 1970 race. One with the 4.9-litre and one with the 4.5-litre engine. The 4.9-litre LH was designed to win the race and started from pole position. Unfortunately, the engine didn’t last for 24 hours and dropped an inlet valve after 225 laps. The other Martini Racing 917 LH 4.5 finished second driven by Gérard Larrousse/Willy Kauhsen. Because of the car’s livery, it was nicknamed as a hippie-Porsche and as a psychedelic-Porsche. Interestingly this isn’t the only psychedelic 917. A short-tail version 917K was also made for the Watkins Glen 6 Hours. The livery was designed by Latvian Anatole ‘Tony’ Lapine, who was the head designer at Porsche. He will later design the livery of the 71’ Pink Pig as well.
The moment has come. A Porsche 917 won under the heavy rainfall, led by Hans Herrmann-Richard Attwood, members of the Porsche Salzburg team. Their short-tail #23 at 917K model painted in red and white stripes obtained the first victory for the marque in the most critical test of the Championship.
Porsche not only won at Le Mans that year but also helped Steve McQueen to film a legendary motorsport picture. The movie Le Mans was filmed on location, at the circuit between June and November 1970, including scenes from the actual race in mid-June. McQueen intended to race a short Porsche 917 together with Jackie Stewart, but the #26 entry was not accepted. Instead, he was depicted as starting the race in the blue #20 Gulf Porsche 917K driven by Jo Siffert and Brian Redman.
917K finished the campaign winning 7 of 8 events it was entered. The Wyer cars were unbeatable. Still have some of their 25 vehicles remaining unsold, Ferrari offered them to customers at a bargain price. Such a decision was hardly imagined a couple of years ago. The engineering superiority was evidently on Porsche’s side. In 1970 Ferrari tried numerous changes to its cars, but none of them brought any substantial results. For Porsche, the original production series of 25 917s could not satisfy demand. Over 50 chassis were built in total. An underdog for 20 years, Porsche had turned itself into the new leader of sports car racing with the 917.
New competition arrived for the new season. Along the Alfa Romeo T33/3 which won Brands Hatch, Roger Penske was one of many that bought a used 512S chassis from Ferrari. Interestingly he had some modifications on his mind. The blue and yellow Sunoco sponsored Ferrari was tuned for long races, received new aerodynamic wing at the back and an engine overhaul by a Can-Am V8 specialist Traco. It was capable at more than 600 hp. Sadly for Penske, the team did not receive any help from Ferrari themselves and although they recorded good lap times and high speed at 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring it just wasn’t good enough to be a serious contender for the 917 racing armada.
917s for the season has been further developed with vertical fins for stability at high-speed cornering. The new frame was also refined. Made from magnesium the chassis was lighter, yet extraordinarily flammable and dangerous in the instance of fire.
A concept car was specially developed for Le Mans. The Porsche 917/20 also known as the Pink Pig or The Trufflehunter of Zuffenhausen (“Der Trüffeljäger von Zuffenhausen”) had to test new aerodynamics and parts for the Can-Am series. The body of the car was much wider with a tail somewhere in between the K and LH versions. They wanted to achieve the smaller drag and the top speed of the original Long-tail (“Langheck”). Surprisingly the 917/20 made through the qualifying with the 7th best time but didn’t see the finish flag.
At Le Mans, once again it was not the LH that won. It was the White-Blue Martini Racing 917 K with Gijs van Lennemp and Dr Helmut Marko at the wheel. Their win also set a new average speed record of 222 km/h and 5,335 km driven, a record that still stands today, but there have been some changes to the circuit since 1971.
“We race because it’s our tradition and has been since my father was involved in it. But also because, in my opinion, there is a lot of experience we can gain from racing. Our Engineer’s performance is driven by racing and the need to achieve targets quickly for success.”
All the specs: