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Porsche 917 turns 50 years in 2019

1969 Porsche 917 LH poses outside the workshops in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen
1969 Porsche 917 LH poses outside the workshops in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen © Porsche Werkfoto

The world has become obsessed with anniversaries or facts that you can leverage, in order to bring your message across. And that is also true to some extent about this account of a legendary race car, but in 2019 the Porsche 917 turns 50 years, and that is a significant age in anyone’s book.
Without any question, the crown of long distance racing in the world of international motorsport, has always been the annual French classic, 24 Heures du Mans, run on the famous circuit in the city of Le Mans, in the Sarthe district of north west France. Although they had achieved many class wins over the years, overall victory for Porsche at this classic French race was, by 1968, still as elusive as ever.

Porsche set about manufacturing 25 running cars with energy and purpose
In an effort to meet the initial CSI inspection deadline of 20 March 1969, Porsche set about manufacturing 25 running cars with energy and purpose © Porsche Werkfoto

Throughout the 1960s, the battle for Le Mans honours was played out between Ford and Ferrari, as both of these manufacturers had the motorsport budgets to produce very advanced and powerful race cars, and thereby dominated this period. Porsche on the other hand, fielded cars with much smaller engines, but as had always been the Stuttgart manufacturer’s racing policy, what they lacked in brute power, they made up for with lightweight construction and aerodynamic designs. This strategy ensured that Porsche cars were more often than not more nimble and competitive on the tight and twisty circuits, but they could not match the straight-line speed of the big guns at Le Mans.
In 1968 for instance, the Gulf Ford GT40 took the honours at Le Mans, chased across the line by two Porsches (the #66 907 LH and the #33 908 LH), bringing victory closer than ever for the Stuttgart manufacturer. A bigger engined Porsche racer was clearly needed, but this would necessitate the development of a much larger engine, and much to Porsche’s relief, this opportunity would present itself sooner than they expected.
The Commission Sportive Internationale, or CSI (the competition arm of the FIA), announced that the World Championship for Manufacturers would be contested in the Group 6 category by 3.0-litre prototype cars during the four-year period from 1968 through 1971. The CSI held the view that few manufacturers would be in a position to immediately take up the challenge, and so they continued to allow the participation of 5.0-litre sports cars in the Group 4 Sport category. As a result, the Group 4 class accommodated the remnants from the 1968 season while the new Group 6 covered newly designed and built cars up to the recently imposed 3.0-litre class limit. However, in 1968, only two cars were realistically built in sufficient numbers to be homologated in Group 4 (in 1968, fifty units were required to be built), those being the Lola T70 and Ford GT40, both of which were powered by 400 bhp-plus engines, but this was too much even for the Porsche 908 to compete with at Le Mans.

This is what a production line for manufacturing 25 prototype race cars looks like
This is what a production line for manufacturing 25 prototype race cars looks like © Porsche Werkfoto

The required production of fifty units was regarded as too high by many of those wanting to compete, and so the quantity was reduced to half the original requirement. Even at 25 units, the CSI felt that no manufacturer would be able to produce that number of newly designed and developed race cars in the time left before the start of the ’69 season. But they hadn’t reckoned on the determination of Ferdinand Piëch, Head of Research and Development at Porsche at this time.
Ferdinand Piëch had been considering taking the 8-cylinder 908 to the next logical step, which would be to develop a 12-cylinder engine. But developing a high-performance engine of this capacity and performance capability takes time, and Piëch did not have the time nor the resources to spend developing a 12-cylinder engine from scratch for the ’69 season. In order to shorten the development lead time, he gave the instruction to Hans Mezger to design a twin-cam 6-cylinder engine based on the 911 2.25-litre engine, this being half of the eventual 917’s 4.5-litre engine capacity. The power developed by the 6-cylinder engine would be at least half of the 500-plus bhp that Piëch anticipated was needed to win Le Mans.

Line-up of 25 Porsche 917 prototype race cars
This is the view that greeted the CSI inspection team on 20 March 1969 – line-up of 25 Porsche 917 prototype race cars © Porsche Werkfoto

The Porsche 917 was launched at the Geneva Motor Show in March 1969, powered by a 4.5-litre 12-cylinder engine. Piëch was fortunate in that he had the basic 908 chassis to build from, together with truck-loads of motor racing experience to draw from. A Herculean effort by the race department ensured that the new racer was designed, developed and built by 20 March 1969, in time for the CSI inspection. Although this was not what the CSI had anticipated, it was within the rules to do so, and 25 Porsche 917s were lined up waiting for the inspection team when they arrived. Not all 25 cars were in running order though, and the CSI, stunned by Piëch’s audacity and the ability of Porsche to do this, ordered a further inspection a month later where all the cars had to be in full working order. This time Ferdinand Piëch was ready for the inspection team, as all 25 cars were in running order and the new race car passed the inspection.

The #6 Ford GT of Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver is chased by the #12 Porsche 917 LH of Vic Elford and Richard Attwood
Le Mans 24 Hours, 14-15 June 1969: The #6 Ford GT of Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver is chased by the #12 Porsche 917 LH of Vic Elford and Richard Attwood. The Porsche was leading the race up until three hours from the end of the race, when it was forced to retire with a leaking gearbox © Porsche Werkfoto

But the 917 had not yet passed its last hurdle, as very few drivers wanted to get behind the wheel of the new race car due to its instability at speed. A few drivers experienced this first hand at speed, and in the car’s Le Mans debut in 1969, John Woolfe, a privateer, was killed on the first lap of the race in his 917. But later that year, the 917 did win its first race, the Österreichring 1000 km on 10 August, with Jo Siffert and Kurt Ahrens driving.
It was only after Porsche signed a deal whereby John Wyer would effectively run the official works team in 1970, that the 917 was subjected to further aerodynamic tests by Wyer and his team. John Horsman found the solution to the car’s high-speed instability problems, and this turned out to be principally a lack of downforce at the rear. In an attempt to create as slippery a shape as possible, the 917 initially lacked stability at the rear as there was insufficient downforce with which to keep the car firmly planted on the track.

This test vehicle, recently returned from pre-season testing at Daytona in November 1969
This test vehicle, recently returned from pre-season testing at Daytona in November 1969, is put through a battery of tests in the wind tunnel at the Stuttgart Technical College Research and Development Centre © Porsche Werkfoto

In the Championship for Manufacturers in 1970, the Porsche 917 won the Daytona 24 Hours at the beginning of the year, it then won at Brands Hatch, Monza, Spa, Le Mans 24 Hour, Watkins Glen and also the final race at the Österreichring. There was simply no other car that could touch the 917 for performance and reliability that year. In this list of victories, it is almost too easy to say it won seven of the ten rounds that year, but in the middle of that tally is the most important victory of them all, the Le Mans 24 Hours. The 917 had finally won the jewel in the crown of the motorsport calendar, but it was not the John Wyer Gulf 917 that achieved this win, it was the now famous #23 red 917 of Salzburg Porsche driven by Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood. This team was run out of the Austrian Porsche dealership owned by Ferry’s sister, Louise Piëch, much to the annoyance of John Wyer.

Porsche Austria’s winning #23 car was fitted with the smaller 4.5-litre engine
Le Mans 24 Hours, 13-14 June 1970: Porsche Austria’s winning #23 car, fitted with the smaller 4.5-litre engine, was driven by Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood © Porsche Werkfoto

In 1971, the Porsche 917 again won seven of the eleven rounds of the Championship for Manufacturers, repeating the model’s 1-2 result at the Le Mans 24 Hours. The Porsche 917 was built to contest the Championship for Manufacturers in 1969, 1970 and 1971, and while its first year was less than glorious, the following two years saw total domination by this phenomenal race car. In the European Interserie, the 917 had the series pretty much to itself, as the racer was just so much stronger than anything the competition could come up with.

The #21 Porsche 917 LH of Gerard Larrousse/Vic Elford was given a revised aerodynamic package for ’71
Le Mans 24 Hours, 12-13 June 1971: The #21 Porsche 917 LH of Gerard Larrousse/Vic Elford was given a revised aerodynamic package for ’71. A shorter nose resulted in a more concave upper nose with wider fenders and a slightly lower fender line. The car retired after just four hours with cooling problems © Porsche Werkfoto

The #19 Porsche 917 K of Richard Attwood and Herbert Müller finished second overall
Le Mans 24 Hours, 12-13 June 1971: The #19 Porsche 917 K of Richard Attwood and Herbert Müller finished second overall © Porsche Werkfoto

Can-Am 1972/1973

It was though, in the American Can-Am series where the 917 had not yet made its mark, as this was the domain of the big-engined McLarens and Lolas, but Porsche’s day would come in that arena too. There is no doubt when the 917 concept was first penned, that some thought was given to the American Can-Am series, but the real reason behind the 917’s development was the Championship for Manufacturers. But with the 1971 season coming to a close, the company’s attention was already focussed on the Can-Am series and when the 1972 season’s races kicked off, it became patently obvious that Porsche had been very busy through the winter of ’71.
In the 1972 Can-Am season, the turbocharged Porsche 917/10 won six of the nine races in that year’s series, finishing second in two of the remaining three races. In 1973, the Porsche 917/10 and 917/30 won all eight rounds of the Can-Am Championship, finishing with a 1-2 result in six of those races. To say that the 917 was dominant in those two years of the Can-Am is somewhat of an understatement.

Mark Donohue takes his #6 Penske Porsche 917/30 into the lead during the final Can-Am race of the '73 season
Los Angeles GP, Riverside, 28 October 1973: Mark Donohue takes his #6 Penske Porsche 917/30 into the lead during the final Can-Am race of the season, and in fact the last Can-Am race that any Porsche would compete in. Donohue would of course win this race © Porsche Werkfoto

While the CSI, and the FIA by default, had left a loophole in the rules to attract bigger grids in the Championship for Manufacturers, they did not foresee what the likes of a determined and capable manufacturer such as Porsche could produce. While Ferrari created its own 917 rival, the 512 S/M, the Italian manufacturer was somewhat behind the curve as they too were taken by surprise at Porsche’s ability to come up with a world-beater as quickly as they did. Eventually both Porsche and Ferrari would fully exploit the loophole left by the rule-makers, but in the process, these two manufacturers produced some of the most exciting race cars in the history of the sport.

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