The Porsche 917 – 1970
[dropcap size=dropcap]F[/dropcap]or the 1970 World Sports Car Championship, Porsche had two factory 917 teams. John Wyer, a veteran team owner, fielded two cars in the iconic Gulf blue and orange sponsorship colors, while Porsche Salzburg, owned by Louise Piech, Ferry Porsche’s sister, was created and also ran two 917s.
The opening race of the season was the Daytona 24 Hours, and the 917s that would contest it looked different than those from 1969. In pre-season testing, the Wyer team made a key discovery that helped to solve the car’s diabolical handling characteristics.
In October 1969 at the Österreichring in Austria, Wyer’s chief engineer John Horsman made an observation “I noted there were hardly any dead gnats on the rear spoilers, which by now had been raised in the near-vertical positions during the course of testing with no discernable effect on the handling.” “This proved to me the airflow was barely touching the rear spoilers. I knew immediately that we had to raise the rear deck and then attach small adjustable spoilers to the trailing edge. It was obvious to me that if the whole rear body surface was in the airstream, it would be able to exert some downforce” John Horsman, Racing in the Rain. A modified tail was put in place, and after a few laps driver Brian Redman declared, “’That’s it – now it’s a racing car’” John Horsman, Racing in the Rain. The 917s headed to Daytona and the start of the 1970 season with the Horsman tail in place.
Unlike 1969, when the speed of the 917 was unmatched, in 1970 Ferrari introduced the 5-liter 512S. With 560hp, the car was capable of over 210mph and would be the 917’s primary competition on high-speed circuits, such as Daytona and LeMans.
The 24 Hours of Daytona would be a battle between Porsche and Ferrari. The two makes shared the front row, with Mario Andretti in a 512S taking the pole. Despite a valiant effort from the five 512Ss entered though, John Wyer’s 917s finished 1-2. The car of Pedro Rodriguez/Leo Kinnunen finished 46 laps ahead of the 917 of Brian Redman/Jo Siffert, completing 724 laps, a distance not exceeded until 1987. Mario Andretti/Jacky Ickx finished third.
Next up was the Sebring 12 Hours, where due to a slower, bumpy layout and historical higher attrition rate, 3-liter cars such as the Alfa Romeo 33, Matra 650 and Ferrari 312P would be more competitive. Four 917s, two by John Wyer and two by Porsche Salzburg, were entered alongside four 512Ss. Ferrari once again took the pole, with a 512S piloted by Mario Andretti/Arturo Merzario. 917s took the next two spots.
Sebring would not go smoothly for Porsche. Vic Elford’s/Kurt Ahren’s Salzburg 917 collided with a backmarker and retired, the second Salzburg 917’s race ended with engine failure due to it being over-revved, and the Siffert/Redman 917 exited with a broken front upright. The final 917 of Pedro Rodriguez/Leo Kinnunen took the lead from Andretti when the 512S had a lengthy pit stop due to a mechanical issue with an hour left. Porsche looked as if it was going to take back-to-back victories, but with 15 minutes to go Rodriguez pitted with a broken suspension. This elevated the Porsche 908 of Steve McQueen (yes, that Steve McQueen) and Peter Revson to the lead. Andretti was charging though and took the lead from the 908, but with 3 minutes left he had to stop for fuel. In the end, Andretti ended up winning by less than 24 seconds.
The circuit moved back to Europe for the next race, the BOAC Brands Hatch 1000km. The race would be remembered for both rain and the dominating performance of Pedro Rodriguez in a Wyer 917. Jacky Ickx/Jackie Oliver won the pole in a 512S, with the Vic Elford/Denny Hulme Porsche Salzburg 917 alongside. As with Sebring, the technical nature of Brands Hatch allowed the 3-liter cars to be competitive with the 917 and 512S.
Race day was rainy, so cars started and remained on wet weather tires. Elford led the first lap, but was then passed by Ickx. An early crash in the final turn brought out local yellow flags, but Rodriguez said he did not see them due to the spray, and failed to slow down. He was black flagged, had to pit, and returned to the track at the back of the field. Thus began one of the greatest wet weather drives ever witnessed. Rodriguez charged to the front, and he and Leo Kinnunen won by 5 laps, with Pedro driving 197 of the 235-lap race. It was a dominant performance by the 917s, with the two Salzburg cars claiming the remaining podium spots.
The 1000km of Monza was the next stop for the championship, and Porsche made a 600hp, 4.9-liter engine available to the 917 teams. Wyer decided to remain with the proven 4.5-liter mount, but Porsche Salzburg used the new engine. A full field of 917s and 512Ss engaged in a classic Monza slip streaming battle. Vic Elford, driving for Porsche Salzburg, thoroughly enjoyed the new engine, “After the almost-fratricidal battles between Jo, Pedro, and me, it was sheer bliss to make use of the extra power and torque and simply drive away from them, setting a new track record of more than 152 mph in the process, faster than the Formula 1 cars’ fastest laps in 1969 and 1970” Vic Elford, Reflection on a Golden Era in Motorsports. Unfortunately, Elford had a tire failure and crashed in the Ascari curves. The closest remaining challenger to the Rodriguez/Kinnunen 917 was the Chris Amon/Arturo Merzario 512S, but it lost time due to a fuel spill and resulting fire during a pit stop. Rodriguez/Kinnunen won at an average speed of over 144mph, with Pedro driving 138 of the 174 laps.
The Targa Florio followed Monza. The Targa was the ultimate road race of the time, a single lap consisting of 44 miles of public roads through the Sicilian mountains and along the coast. The 917 was ill suited for the windy roads of Sicily, so Porsche developed the 908/3. The 908/3 was light and nimble, sharing characteristics with Porsche’s hillclimb car, the 909. Still, a 917 was brought down to Sicily, and Vic Elford was asked to take it out for lap. According to his Reflection on a Golden Era in Motorsports, “The 917 leapt from corner to corner, and I did virtually the entire lap using only second and third gears, top (fourth) gear being reserved for the long seaside straight leading back to the pit area. Crossing the line, I drove directly into the paddock area and was so exhausted, mentally and physically, that I had to wait for the mechanics to lift me out.” The 917 was not entered in the race, and the John Wyer duo of Jo Siffert and Brian Redman were victorious in their 908/3. On a side note, Nino Vaccarella and Ignazio Giunti put in a remarkable performance to finish third in a 512S, which was similarly unsuited for the Targa. Aside from being a race driver and past winner, Vaccarella was a local law professor and therefore very familiar with the circuit.
The 1000km of Spa-Francorchamps was up next, and the long and fast track was ideally suited for the 917. The Wyer cars used a slightly modified tail, known as an upswept valley tail, which created more downforce allowing for higher corner exit speeds. In practice, Pedro Rodriguez set a new track record of almost 158mph in his 917, 20 seconds faster than the fast lap from 1969. The Wyer team swept the front row, with the Rodriguez/Kinnunen taking pole and Siffert/Redman alongside. Heading into Eau Rouge on the first lap, neither Rodriguez nor Siffert wanted to give way. They touched but kept going (see link), and along with the 512S of Jacky Ickx and John Surtees, pulled away from the field. Rodriguez/Kinnunen eventually retired with a mechanical failure, but not before Pedro set a race fast lap of over 160.5mph, 11 seconds faster than the Formula 1 lap record. Redman/Siffert claimed victory by nearly a lap over Ickx/Surtees, with an average speed of 149.4mph.
The Nurburgring 1000km presented the same situation as the Targa Florio, with the 908/3 being better suited than the 917 on the long, twisty track. That said, as in Sicily, Vic Elford took a 917 out for a test run. During his first lap he hit an eagle, putting the car out of commission for the race. Vic Elford and Kurt Ahrens won in their 908/3, beating their sister Porsche Salzburg 908/3 by over 5 minutes. The next stop was LeMans.
Porsche and Ferrari came to LeMans with guns blazing. Porsche entered seven factory 917s, three with Wyer, three with Salzburg (although only two started) and one with the Martini team. The teams had the option of going with the normal K tail or the low downforce long-tailed (LH) configuration. The LH was roughly 25mph faster than the K, hitting 230mph on the Mulsanne straight, but was trickier to drive. Wyer decided to go with the proven K configuration, while Salzburg entered one 917LH, driven by Vic Elford and Kurt Ahrens, and one 917K. The Martini team’s 917 was a LH, driven by Gérard Larrousse and Willi Kauhsen. David Piper’s privateer team entered a 917K. Not to be outdone, Ferrari had 11 512Ss entered. Four came from the factory team, all with a long-tail configuration.
In practice, Elford was the first driver to set a 150mph lap at LeMans and took the pole. The speed of the 917LH was evident, as he said “whenever I wanted to go by another car, even the other 917s or Ferrari 512Ss, I simply waited till after the next corner and then drove serenely past” Vic Elford, Reflection on a Golden Era in Motorsports. A factory 512S, driven by Vaccarella/Giunti, qualified second, followed by Siffert/Redman in a Wyer 917K.
For 1970, drivers no longer sprinted across the track to their cars. Instead, they were already seated with the engines off when the flag fell at 4PM. Vic Elford led away on the start, followed by Jo Siffert (see attached link). The 512Ss kept pace early, but Elford and Siffert then separated themselves from the pack.
As things settled down, the 917s of Elford, Siffert and Rodriguez held down the first three positions. On lap 22, Rodriguez’s car broke a connecting rod and retired. It soon began to rain, which would continue off and on for most of the race. Mike Hailwood, sharing the 3rd Wyer 917K with David Hobbs, declined rain tires during a pit stop. Soon after he exited the pits the rain got harder, and he slid off course and exited the race. The Elford/Ahrens 917LH had a number of problems that dropped it down in the order. This gave the lead to Siffert/Redman, but in the early morning Siffert did not fully engage a gear while passing two lapped cars battling for position. This resulted in the engine being over-revved, causing terminal damage. Thus ended Wyer’s bid to win LeMans in 1970.
The two Salzburg 917s were still running, as was the Martini 917LH. By Sunday morning, Elford/Ahrens had worked their way back up to second and were closing on their sister car, driven by Richard Attwood and Hans Hermann. Engine failure ended the race for Elford/Ahrens though, elevating the Martini 917LH to second. That is how the race would end, with Porsche Salzburg taking the overall victory with Attwood/Hermann in a 917K. None of the 512Ss finished due to a combination of accidents and mechanical failures.
The 1970 24 Hours of LeMans was a seminal moment for Porsche. It claimed victory in arguably the world’s greatest motor race, solidifying itself as an auto racing powerhouse. It beat Ferrari. And it secured the 917’s legacy as one of the greatest race cars.
After LeMans, there were still two races remaining in the 1970 season. Next was the Watkins Glen 6 Hours, in upstate New York. Despite already securing the Manufacturers Championship, Porsche had five 917Ks entered. The Wyer and Salzburg teams had two cars each, while Martini entered one. Ferrari brought two 512Ss. The Wyer Siffert/Redman 917 took the pole, but it was Mario Andretti in a 512S that led the opening lap. Siffert retook the lead on the 3rd lap, and he and Rodriguez in Wyer’s other 917 began pulling away from the field. As at Spa, the two fought hard and made contact, puncturing Siffert’s tire. The lead continued to trade hands, but Rodriguez took it for the final time on lap 211, holding it for the remaining 97 circuits and winning by 44 seconds. Mario Andretti/Ignazio Guinti finished 3rd, 3 laps back.
The day after the 6 Hours was the Can-Am Series event. Can-Am’s rules allowed for unlimited engine size and weight. The World Sports Car Championship cars were invited to compete, and despite being at a power and fuel capacity disadvantage, all of the 917s from the 6 hours, plus a 3rd entry from Wyer, were entered. The 917s performed remarkably, securing five of the top seven finishing spots. Jo Siffert came home second despite having to pit for fuel (the Can-Am cars could go race distance without stopping), and was closing in on Denny Hulme in a McLaren M8D in the final laps. Hulme ended up winning by just four seconds.
The final championship race was the Österreichring 1000km, in Zeltweg, Austria. Four 917Ks were entered, two each from Wyer and Salzburg, while Ferrari entered a single 512M. The M update to the 512 now put it on almost equal footing with the 917. Rodriguez/Kinnunen took the pole, but Jacky Ickx took the lead on the start. Rodriguez exited on the 6th lap with an engine issue. Ickx was in front after the first pit stop but mechanical failure put him out, handing the lead to Helmut Marko in a Salzburg 917. Marko’s car ran out of gas and retired though. The Wyer 917 of Siffert/Redman eventually ended up leading, but lost a cylinder late in the race. Redman was giving up 15 seconds a lap to the second place Alfa Romeo 33/3 driven by Andrea de Adamich and Henri Pescarolo, but the win was secured when the Alfa’s engine failed with two laps left. The remaining Vic Elford/Richard Attwood Salzburg 917 finished fourth, despite having to pit for a punctured oil cooler.
Even though the World Sports Car Championship season was over, the Wyer team contested the non-championship race at Imola with two cars. Rodriguez set the fastest lap in practice, followed by Arturo Merzario in a 512S. Pedro led much of the early race, but uncharacteristically crashed due to cold tires. Redman led from lap 37 on, winning over an Alfa Romeo 33/3.
Imola was the last outing for the 917 in 1970. To say the car fulfilled its expectations would be an understatement. Against formidable competition from the 512, the 917 recorded 5 poles and 7 wins. In the next part of the series, we will look at the 917 in the 1971 season.