The Porsche 917
Part 1: “The Undriveable Monster”
Porsche is an auto racing powerhouse, with a distinguished history in sports car racing. While making iconic racers since the late 1940s, such as the 356, 550, 911 and 908, targeting an overall victory at the sport’s most important event, the 24 Hours of LeMans, had not been a focus. That all changed in 1969 when Porsche launched a car that would change racing forever….the 917. This is the first in a multi-part series that will look at the history and successes of this iconic car.
In the mid-1960s, a war began at LeMans. Ferrari was dominant at the time, but Henry Ford II became determined to dethrone them. Thus began an arms race between the two companies, which saw the development of the Ford GT-40 and the Ferrari P330. The Commission Sportive Internationale became concerned with the high speeds these cars were achieving, and put regulations in place for 1968 that would limit engine capacity in the prototype class to 3 litres. There was a catch though. The commission was concerned with the impact of the rule on car count, so until 1972 up to 5-litre cars could compete, assuming 25 models were manufactured. Porsche saw this is an opportunity, and decided to launch and all out assault on LeMans with the 917.
Unveiled in March 1969 at the Geneva auto show, the 917 was revolutionary. A tubular aluminum frame and fiberglass body housed an air-cooled, 12-cylinder, 4.5 litre engine generating 520hp. Soon after, Porsche lined up 25 models outside its factory for the FIA (sport’s regulator body) to review. Whether all the cars worked continues to be a source of debate, but irrespective, the 917 was now eligible for competition.
The 917 debuted at Spa in May, and it became immediately clear that the car was a work in progress. While capable of tremendous speed, to say it was a handful to drive would be an understatement. Jo Siffert and Vic Elford were the first to take the car out on the wet track, and according to Vic Elford’s Reflection on a Golden Era in Motorsports, “’Thanks, but no thanks. Not yet, anyway.’” “On the downhill approach to the Masta curves, where we were braking from more than 200 mph for the very fast ess bend, Jo and I both found that the car was very unstable and that it needed every inch of the road to slow down.” Driving duties for the race fell to Gerhard Mitter and Udo Schütz, but the car exited almost immediately as Gerhard missed a shift and bent a valve. The next race was at the Nurburgring, where the car finished 8th overall. Nurburgring served a “test session” for the following race, LeMans.
For the 24 Hours of LeMans, there were three 917s entered. Two were from the Porsche factory team, driven by Vic Elford/Richard Atwood and Rolf Stommelen/Kurt Ahrens, Jr. The third car was privately entered by John Woolfe, who was teamed with Porsche factory driver, Herbert Linge. The 917s were fitted with movable horizontal wings on each side of the rear bodywork, providing cornering stability by forcing the rear end into the track. Despite these wings, the car was still extremely challenging to drive. Soon after the start, John Woolfe lost control at White House and was killed.
The factory 917s soldiered on, hitting speeds of 225mph on the Mulsanne Straight, almost 25mph faster than had previously been seen. None of the competitors could keep up, and through careful driving, Elford and Atwood were dominating at the 21-hour mark, when the clutch burnt out and the car was retired (the Stommelen/Ahrens, Jr. car exited earlier in the race). Despite missing the win, LeMans showed the 917’s potential. A new era of sports car racing had been ushered in. This was not lost on the crowd as Vic Elford cites in Reflection on a Golden Era in Motorsports, “The entire grandstand facing the pits rose and gave us, and our 917, a standing ovation as it was pushed sadly away by the mechanics.”
In the next part in our series, we will look at the 1970 and 1971 seasons, when the 917 fulfilled its potential.