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The Living Legend – Porsche 917
Porsche 917
Car Features

The Living Legend – Porsche 917

Porsche’s 917 is 50. To mark the occasion, we look back at its spectacular racing career, and its troubled beginnings, before getting behind the wheel of a freshly-restored 1100bhp example     

By Richard Meaden

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The Living Legend – Porsche 917

Ace winner. Widow-maker. Film star. Legend. If ever there was a racing car to capture the imagination, it was the Porsche 917. Born of an unflinching aspiration to win the world’s greatest endurance race, conceived by one of the world’s greatest automotive engineers, driven by the fastest talents of the day, immortalised by Hollywood and revered by race fans for half a century, the 917 is the single most fearsome, famous and charismatic competition car the world has ever seen.

Porsche 917 - Literally brutal

In today’s sanitised, safety-conscious times, it’s shocking to learn quite how nasty early 917s were to race. Quotes from those drivers who survived this most deadly of eras are refreshingly pithy, but betray a dark humour akin to that of veterans of the battlefield. And no wonder, given the 917’s first two races of the 1969 World Sportscar Championship were at Spa-Francorchamps and the Nürburgring Nordschleife, two of the world’s most demanding and malevolent circuits. It was around these brutal, tree-lined tracks that Porsche’s drivers would try to get to grips with the ferociously potent but woefully underdeveloped 917 prior to entering that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours.

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Two cars were fielded for Spa, but only one raced, Porsche’s crack duo of Jo Siffert and Brian Redman electing instead to use the tried-and-tested 908 after experiencing hair-raising high-speed instability when testing the 917. That left Gerhard Mitter and Udo Schütz to make the new car’s race debut. After qualifying eighth, and experiencing the same terrifying handling traits, Mitter retired the 917 with engine failure after just one race lap. He’s thought to have over-revved the flat-12 at the start, but few would have blamed him if it was less the result of a missed gear and more an act of self-preservation.

The widow-maker reputation

For the Nürburgring, Porsche enlisted Frank Gardner and David Piper – neither of whom were factory drivers – to campaign the 917 in its first ‘home’ race. Given Porsche put its primary efforts behind half a dozen race-proven 908/2s, the 917’s growing reputation as a widow-maker-in-waiting was clearly not without foundation. Persuasion came in the form of an irresistible quantity of Deutschmarks, but after bringing the car and himself home in one piece at the Nürburgring (in the wake of a 1-2-3-4-5 finish for the 908s…), Gardner declined a similarly lucrative invitation to drive the car at Le Mans, as he explained in an interview with the motorsport writer Nigel Roebuck: ‘The money was great, but I’d had my lesson. I never really wanted to be the quickest bloke in motor racing – I just wanted to be the oldest. And that car was certainly going to interfere with those plans…’

Ultralight racing machine – the Porsche 917

Ferdinand Piëch’s ruthless pursuit of Le Mans-winning power and pace is well documented, as is the 917’s otherworldly performance, but its design stuck to Porsche’s proven principles of a lightweight tubular spaceframe chassis clad in ultra-slippery, low-drag bodywork. Given both Lotus and Lola had embraced the structurally stiffer and more resilient aluminium monocoque in Formula 1 and sportscar racing, in some respects the 917 was rather old-school. Still, Piech preferred evolution to revolution, electing to follow what can best be described as a four-thirds power-to-weight philosophy, even though slotting the monstrous new 4.5-litre flat-12 into the development of the 908’s compact and featherweight frame pushed the driver further forward in the car so that their feet were ahead of the front axle.

The 917’s tubular alloy frame and perilous driving position might have made it more dangerous in the event of a crash, but once its wonky aerodynamics were sorted, the 917 was also irresistibly fast. After an intensive season of development it had been transformed – visually and dynamically – into a car that was ballistically quick and, crucially, super-stable. To a man, the once ashen-faced factory drivers loved it.

Vic Elford, one of the quickest and most versatile drivers of his or any era, drove the 917 in almost all guises. His description of this rapid progression from being virtually undriveable to almost unbeatable is not only emblematic of Porsche’s miraculous engineering turnaround, but reveals the stoicism and courage inherent in Elford and his contemporaries.

Faster than an F1 car in a straight line

‘Until the 917 arrived, probably none of us had ever been over 322kmph,’ he said, ‘but suddenly this monster was doing more than 370, and it was very, very unstable. In the original 917, as you approached the kink [at Le Mans], you couldn’t just snap off the gas pedal – if you did, the rear of the car would come off the ground, and start steering the front. Not very nice. By the following year, though, it was a different car. You’d get up to a bit over 386kmph on Mulsanne. Every lap you’d arrive at the kink at that speed, and OK, it took a few laps before I was brave enough to do it, but finally I was able to take it flat – even at night. Quite seriously, it was much easier to do it flat than to lift off. Wonderful, wonderful car…’

Setting multiple records

And it really was a ‘wonderful, wonderful car’ as its racing record went on to prove. After that dicey debut season, the 917 was dominant at Le Mans in both 1970 and ’71, with cars racing in Kurzheck and Langheck (short and longtail) configurations and sporting the now iconic Gulf colours, the red and white ‘Salzburg’ livery of the 1970 winner, and the spectacular Martini swirls of the 2nd-place machine. The ’71 Le Mans 24 Hours would also see 917s set four records: fastest qualifying lap, fastest race lap, highest top speed (389kmph!) and longest distance covered.

A rule change for the 1972 season outlawed the big-engined prototype class in favour of 3-litre prototypes powered by F1-derived engines. However, the 917 raced on through ’72 and ’73, most famously in monstrous twin-turbocharged 917/10 and 917/30 form in the spectacular ‘no rules’ Can-Am series. With broad, bewinged bodywork and open cockpits, these cars were in complete contrast to the earlier 917s, but dominated in similar fashion. Monstering the typically weird and wonderful array of rival machinery – most notably the once dominant McLarens – team boss Roger Penske and his formidable driver line-up of George Follmer and Mark Donohue proved all but invincible.

Producing more than 1100bhp in that era!

In its final 917/30 iteration the flat-12 displaced 5.4 litres and developed 1580bhp in qualifying trim. The motor was wound back to 1100bhp in race form, but this still gave the 820kg machine a power-to-weight ratio of almost 1400bhp per ton. Unsurprisingly, 917s won both the ’72 and ’73 Can‑Am series before rule changes triggered by the oil crisis saw Porsche officially withdraw from the series in ’74, though Brian Redman made a one-off appearance in a 917/30, qualifying on pole and finishing 2nd.

However, the 917 wasn’t quite finished with the limelight. In 1975 Mark Donohue took a 917/30 to a new closed-course lap record of 356kmph at Talladega. Six years later, Porsche independent Kremer Racing responded to rule changes and entered a heavily updated 917 – the 917 K-81 – into the 1981 Le Mans 24 Hours. Qualifying 18th, it retired after seven hours following a collision with a backmarker. Kremer fielded the K-81 once more, in the Brands Hatch 1000km at the end of the ’81 season, where it proved to have race-leading pace in the hands of Bob Wollek and Henri Pescarolo. Sadly, front suspension failure led to retirement, bringing the Porsche 917’s remarkable career to a close.

But fifty years after its debut, the legend lives on, and one Sunday in April we drove an example…stay tuned!