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Titan of Road Racing: Porsche 917

Titan of Road Racing: Porsche 917

In road racing, many names carry an extensive amount of passion; names such as Ferrari, Jaguar, and Porsche are a few of the most iconic names the world of motor sport has ever seen. Porsche, however, is one name that truly has spanned generations of racers and fans alike, and has come to symbolize a state of dominance in the world of road racing. Having started racing in the early 1950s with the small 550 Spyder, Porsche would continue to build momentum and strength into the early 1960s with cars like the 904 and the 908, that when combined with the top up-and-coming drivers of the day, won at a variety of racing circuits the world over. It would not be until the end of the 1960s that Porsche would build a car that was to become renowned as a true world beater; a car that would come to be a legend in its own time as much as it is now, some 40 years later. That car was the Porsche 917.

The FIA set the stage for the birth of the 917, by changing the rules governing sports car racing for the 1968 season to oust the ever dominant Ford regime that had taken hold of the 24 Hours of Le Mans race with an iron grasp. Matra was on the rise, and the FIA being heavily French influenced saw the need to put rules in place to assist the new French marque into the ever challenging ranks of world sports car racing. While prototypes would be capped with a 3.0 liter engine displacement, the rules for Group 5 and 6 Sports Cars also were altered with a homologation requirement of 25 units needed to be granted permission to enter these sporting groups.

The FIA figured that no manufacturer would go to the great expense to build 25 five liter sports prototypes. They were terribly wrong. Porsche built the 25 examples needed to meet the homologation requirements. Under the guidance of Porsche’s racing manager, Rico Steinemann, the 917 program began to gain momentum. Helmut Flegl was brought in early to over see the aerodynamics. Initially, aerodynamics would prove to be a problem for the 917, but Porsche quickly brought in Peter Falk, John Horseman, and Tony Lapine to assist Flegl in this department.

While the body was being sculpted, Porsche constructed a lightweight tubular space frame made of aluminum. The bodywork was constructed of lightweight fiber glass, with two tail configurations. The 917L, “L” standing for “Langheck”, was the long tail variant used for courses with longer straights that required the ultimate in aerodynamic assistance for top speed; and the 917K, the “K” indicating the short tail variant. Flegel comments “You should remember… the 917 was designed from the beginning as a long tail which had a tail you could remove. But the short tail was never really tested in the wind tunnel…the aerodynamics were just wrong. It had tremendous rear lift!”

The real centerpiece of the 917, no matter what tail configuration was in use at the time, was the incredibly massive flat 12 naturally aspirated engine. This was the most massive engine that Porsche had ever constructed up to that point in time. The engine came in two types, the Type 912/00 and the Type 912/10. The Type 912/00 displaced 4.5 liters, and with 10.5:1 compression and Bosch mechanical fuel injection, produced 580 horsepower at 8400 RPM and 362 pound feet of torque at 6800 RPM. The Type 912/10 was a bit larger at 4.9 liters of displacement, producing 600 horsepower, with a whopping 405 pound feet of torque at 6400 RPM.

Driving the 917 was an experience that’s best described as being from another world. “The car was a monster” described Vic Elford; one of Porsche’s top racing drivers. “Nobody had ever built a car that would go even remotely close to those speeds”, Elford added. To complicate things even more, word came down from the Porsche accounting division that the company did not have the funds available to sustain a full factory racing program from 1970 forward. So Rico Steinemann recruited the J.W. Automotive organization as a “customer” team to field the new 917 for the 1970 season. Drivers Jo Siffert and Brian Redman were retained by Porsche as factory drivers, but “loaned’ to John Wyer’s Gulf team for piloting duties in the 917. J.W. Automotive retained the driving services of Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen. Porsche felt confident in their selection of J.W. Automotive as their “customer” team. J.W. Automotive received virtually full factory backing however, despite their independent team status. Porsche also selected Porsche Konstruktionen Salzburg to field 917s for the 1970 season. This team was linked to Porsche through family ties and also received full factory support including the use of factory mechanics.

Rolf Stommelen tested the new beast from Stuttgart at the Le Mans test of 1969. At this point the 917 had suspension-activated flaps to help assist the car’s handling. Even with the flaps in use, Stommelen reportedly had his hands full, especially on the long Mulsanne Straight. Despite Rolf’s testing reports, Porsche entered two 917Ls in the 1969 French classic and John Woolfe Racing was entered with one 917 as a customer effort. Many involved saw this latter entry as a mistake on Porsche’s part, because so many in the 917 program felt the car just wasn’t ready yet to be placed into customer hands in 1969. These people were right as the John Woolfe Racing entry ended in tragedy with a fatal accident that took the team owner’s life on the opening lap of the 1969 race.

Porsche’s new 917 was not off to a glorious start at the most prestigious motor race for sports cars the world over. Troubles would follow the factory Porsche 917Ls resulting in retirements for both cars that summer weekend. The Vic Elford/Richard Attwood entry would succumb to clutch and gearbox problems while leading the race during the 21st hour. The number 14 entry piloted by Rolf Stommelen and Kurt Ahrens retired a little earlier in the race with oiling issues. One thing was established quite firmly, and that was that there was no doubt that the 917 was fast, Vic Elford being clocked at 220 mph down the Mulsanne Straight. In comparison to the Porsche 908 that took 2nd position that year, the 917 enjoyed a 20 mph advantage in top speed. But 1969 was simply a development year, with 1970 and 1971 being the years the program was targeting to dominate the world sports car series overall.

For the 1970 season customer teams, with varying degrees of factory support, would carry the Porsche banner as Porsche could not sustain the finances to run a full factory effort and continue to build and develop new racing cars. J.W. Automotive of England and Porsche Salzburg were the factory’s main teams, and other teams would continue to emerge throughout the next two seasons, fielding what was seen as the must have weapon to win, the Porsche 917. Ferrari did not let this challenge go unrivaled however, and debuted the Ferrari 512S, a new V-12 naturally aspirated prototype to ensure the lads from Stuttgart and their selected teams did not have an easy go of it.

The combination of the 917 and the experienced J.W. Automotive team started 1970 strong, with a 1-2 victory at the Daytona 24 Hours race in Florida. John Wyer had made a name for himself in racing for always having the best prepared cars on the grid. Wyer was also a master race strategist, having won Le Mans in 1959 with Aston Martin, and again with the GT40 in 1969. Wyer also secured the best talent for duties in the cockpit, and for 1970 his driver line up consisted of Jo Siffert, Brian Redman, Pedro Rodriguez, and Leo Kinnunen. The number 2 car of Rodriguez and Kinnunen winning in Daytona was merely the tip of the iceberg for what was to come throughout the 1970 season. Porsche’s engineers had spent much time re-working the aerodynamics of the 917 models for the 1970 season, and the 1-2 finish at Daytona was proof that the engineering team at Stuttgart was getting things right.

Monza hosted a round of the world sports car championship in late April of 1970. No less than seven 917s would be entered for the event. While the Siffert/Redman car of J.W. Automotive took pole position for the event, they would come home 12th. The 917s of Gesipa Racing and AAW would finish 10th and 11th respectively, while the Rodriguez/Kinnunen Gulf Wyer 917K ultimately won the race. Also on the entry list at Monza was a 917K of David Piper Racing, which was piloted by team owner David Piper and American Tony Adamowicz. Adamowicz is the only American driver to have driven both the 917K and its rival the Ferrari 512S and 512M. Tony comments, “The 917K was a different kind of race car than that of its competitor Ferrari 512S or M. It was a much more flexible chassis than the Ferrari. They had a lot more torque and power coming out of the turns. The Ferraris had good power and it was available at higher rpms and sounded more fierce than the 917K.”

Le Mans 1970 was an incredible race that saw Porsche 917s defeat the Ferrari 512S entries. The Porsche Salzburg 917K entry of Attwood/Herrman would win the event overall, with the Martini Racing 917L of Larrouse/Kauhsen taking second place. Vic Elford piloted a 917L for Porsche Salzburg for the 1970 event, and though the entry retired late in the race due to engine trouble, Vic still managed to post some incredible speeds with the long tail 917. Vic remembers, “I went flat out, through the kink, at night, in the rain, at 245 mph.” Gulf Wyer and Porsche Salzburg would go on to dominate the 1970 racing season, earning Porsche the World Championship for Manufacturers for 1970.

The 1971 season for the FIA World Championship saw Porsche 917s continue their dominance, with J.W. Automotive 917Ks finishing 1-2 at the opening round held in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The next round was at Daytona, and the battle was on as Ferrari’s North American Race Team (NART) led by Luigi Chinetti showed up with Ferrari’s new Ferrari 512M, as did Roger Penske’s team. The 512M made its debut late in the 1970 season as an answer to the issues that Maranello was having with the 512S. Ferrari got the 512 series much better with the M (meaning “modificata” or “modified”) by putting lessons learned from the 330, 512S, and the 612 Can Am project all into one model. The result was the 512M, and this was the only car that could rival the dominant Porsche 917s in the realm of international racing.

Daytona’s 1971 24 Hour event saw an epic battle take place between two of the world’s greatest sports car manufacturers. The NART 512M dropped out roughly half way through the event, leaving the Penske 512M of Mark Donohue and David Hobbs fighting for the lead with the Gulf Wyer 917K of Jackie Oliver and Pedro Rodriguez, and the older Ferrari 512S being driven by Ronnie Bucknum and Tony Adamowicz. The win would eventually go to the 917 of the Gulf Wyer team after 24 hours of racing, second place was taken by the NART 512S of Bucknum and Adamowicz, with third going to the Penske 512M of Donohue and Hobbs.

Sebring would see the Martini Racing 917K take the win, followed by another 917K 1-2 knock out at both Monza and Spa by the Gulf Wyer organization. Le Mans for 1971 was shaping up to be a repeat of the Daytona event with seven Ferrari 512S and M models on the roster to take the fight to the mighty 917s from Stuttgart. Eight 917s of both long tail and short tail variants would rise to meet the challenge brought by Italy’s finest in what was going to be the last big shoot out before the FIA rules mandated to go into effect for the 1972 season would kill off the big-bore 5.0 liter thunder fests that were occurring on the world’s grandest race circuits by capping displacement throughout all the prototype classes at 3.0 liters. When the dust settled at the famed Le Sarthe circuit that year, two 917Ks emerged on the top two rungs of the podium followed by two Ferrari 512Ms some 30 laps behind. The win went to Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep driving one of the Martini Racing squad’s 917K models. Second place, and a lap down was the Gulf Wyer entry piloted by Attwood and Muller, with third going to the NART 512M driven by the all American driver line up of Sam Posey and Tony Adamowicz.

The 917 would see one more victory on the international scene in 1971, at Zeltweg, Austria. There, a J.W. Automotive 917K piloted by Pedro Rodriguez and Richard Attwood would take the checkered flag one final time in FIA sanctioned competition. The following, and final, round of the series was the Watkins Glen 6 Hour event held at the scenic upstate New York circuit which also played host to the U.S. Grand Prix. This event would see the orange and blue Gulf cars defeated by the Autodelta Alfa Romeo T33/3 of de Adamich and Peterson. Despite the results from Watkins Glen, Porsche would take the International Championship for Makes title again in 1971.

The FIA created the Porsche 917 by absolute accident with their rule changes in 1968. The 917 went on to not only win, but dominate world sports car racing during its brief three year career with some of the most legendary names in motor sport piloting the German beast. In many ways, had it not been for the exploits of many of these drivers at the wheel of the Porsche 917, their careers would have taken very different paths. Tony Adamowicz piloted a 917K again at a non-points race in South Africa late in 1971. He finished 4th in the David Piper Racing 917K that weekend at Kyalami and also set the fastest race lap in the Lucky Strike sponsored car. Tony comments: “I believe that Porsche won the World Endurance Championship for two reasons…more available cars, and the 917K being suspension compliant over bumps and in all types of weather. This made the car easier to drive in the rain than the Ferrari which was more stiffly sprung. So if you set up the Ferrari in the dry conditions, and it started raining, it was tough to drive. Since the 917K frame was aluminum, and in one case magnesium, the frame flexed even on the straight away undulations. The 917K was more compliant.”