There’s always a place in the history books for cars that win Le Mans. They’re written about for years and years, like the astonishing Porsche 917.
The car won Le Mans overall in 1970 and 1971, but that’s a fraction of the story.
History of The 917:
The original 917 was displayed properly at the Geneva Motor show on March 12th, 1969.
The car was built with a light weight spaceframe that was permanently pressurized with gas to detect cracks in the welding. Clever stuff.
Power came form a 4.5 L flat 12 engine which was essentially two 2.25 L flat sixes combined. It was also air-cooled in proper Porsche fashion.
The massive engine took up a load of space obviously, so the drivers position is fixed so far forward that the drivers feet are actually in front of the front axle.
Materials ranged from balsa wood to different weaves of titanium. It was revolutionary in some places and not so much in others.
The original car was very unstable at high speeds and used most of the road available toward the top end.
In early years, many drivers preferred the 908 LH to the early 917. Even in races the older 908 placed higher and got better times around circuits.
Things began to change after the Le Mans 1969, though.
Racing History of the Porsche 917:
At the 24 Hour of Le Mans in 1969, Porsche 917’s were the fastest cars in practice sessions. But the poor handling of the car and inexperience of a gentleman-driver named John Woolfe resulted in a crash that ended up taking the life of the driver.
The race continued and a couple of 917’s became the victims of engineering faults like oil leaks and broken gear boxes.
By the end of the season, Porsche spent more time developing the 917 and left races to privateers. Interestingly enough, the 917 owned by a private team won the 1000 KM Zeltweg race.
After the poor results in 1970, Porsche signed a deal with Gulf, which would help them with development and be Porsche’s official team.
After hours of development, the chief engineer John Horsman noticed how gnats were being smashed against the car. It revealed a story about the airflow of the car.
The tail of the car was mostly clean. Which meant that airflow wasn’t going over the tail of the car.
After seeing that no air was getting to the tail, Porsche’s race team made a make-shift shorter tail and fixed it to the car. This change produced some much-needed down force on the car which helped plant it into the ground.
This new version of the 917 was called the 917 K.
In addition to the Gulf team, Porsche was also supporting the family-owned Salzburg team as well as the Martini Racing team to really increase their chances of winning.
At the same time, a 917 LH was developed with a longer tail for low drag specifically for the 24 Hour Le Mans. It also featured more down force than the previous car before the short tail was developed.
The LH proved to be unreliable at long distance races but was fantastic in short races.
With that being the case, Porsche now had the short tail 917 for circuit racing and the 917 LH for long circuits like Le Mans.
Porsche went on to win the 1970 Le Mans overall in a rainy finish.
Toward the end of the 1970 racing season, Ferrari built the 512M to compete with the Porsche’s. They were just as fast, but like the early 917’s, they suffered from reliability issues.
By the end of the 1970 racing season, the Porsche’s dominated the championships and most of the races. The John Wyer and Porsche Salzburg racing teams have won every single race except Sebring, which was won by Ferrari.
Porsche’s racing teams used 917K’s and 908’s during the season, and the 917K’s won 7 of the 8 races it was entered in. Quite the ratio.
The 1971 racing season was dominated by Gulf-Wyer and Martini Racing teams and their 917/908’s. The only worthy opponent that season came from the likes of Roger Penske and his heavily modified 512S.
That 512S was built byond the spec of the 512M’s, and had an aviation-inspired refueling system among many other upgrades.
The car was very impressive. It was tuned by a Can-Am specialist (Traco) and was able to deliver over 600 HP.
Unsurprisingly, this care wasn’t backed by Ferrari. I can imagine it was because Ferrari didn’t see the car as a true Ferrari or something…They’re like that.
The car got on pole position for the 24 Hour of Daytona and finished third even with an almost hour-long pit stop after a crash.
Eventually in the season, the Targa Florio, 512M and Alfa Romeo T33/3 put the pressure on Porsche and more research and development was put into play.
The 917’s were modified with wings and other aerodynamic upgrades which gave birth to the famous 917/20 “Pink Pig”. The car was very fast and set great lap times but however, the car was harder on the brakes and crashed during testing when they failed.
The 1971 Le Mans was won by an older 917K and currently has the lap record at Le Mans. The track has been updated thoroughly since then, which explains why it still stands.
Sum It Up:
The Porsche 917 and its variants have really carved their name into racing history. The cars have went through vigorous testing and development and their ups and downs.
These cars are gorgeous and a piece of automotive history. I think that any proper gear head or petrol head (depending where you live) should be able to admire and appreciate.