The Porsche 917 – the greatest racing car of all time?
The stunning race car that helped Porsche win Le Mans and dominate endurance racing
From securing Porsche its debut Le Mans win to speed records and North American victories, this is the story of the 917. One that conquered the world, made history and has been an inspiration for Porsche motorsport ever since – including today’s Porsche 963 race car
The rain fell hard across the legendary Le Sarthe circuit during the 1970 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the storm soaking the track and making driving conditions at this most arduous of events even more challenging. It was amid these dramatic conditions that a future motorsport legend well and truly arrived. There have been many great Porsche racing cars over the years, but none quite like the 917. With British driver Richard Attwood and German teammate, Hans Herrmann, at the wheel of a 917 K – a car that little more than a year previously was a mere sketch on a drawing board in Stuttgart – Porsche secured its first ever win at the greatest of all endurance races. It was a victory that would herald decades of dominance in the sport for Porsche.
Porsche designer, Hans Mezger, with several Porsche 917 racing cars
Legendary Porsche engineer, Hans Mezger, who designed the engine for the 917, alongside many of its greatest ever versions
The beginning of the Porsche 917 legendIn 1968, the governing body of motorsport, the FIA, raised the engine displacement limit from three to five litres for the World Sportscar Championship. It immediately limited the competitiveness of the then Porsche racing car of the time, the 908. However, Ferdinand Piëch, Head of Development for Porsche, saw it as an opportunity. His vision was to create the best racing car ever built, one that would sweep the opposition. And that it would eventually do – and in devastating fashion.In an intensive period of design and build that began in the spring of 1968, the new car took just 10 months to be readied for its public reveal at the 1969 Geneva Motor Show. With a chassis designed by Helmuth Bott and engine developed by Hans Mezger – who in the 1980s designed the Porsche-built TAG Turbo Formula 1 engine for the all-conquering McLaren MP4/2 – 25 cars were made for homologation purposes. Eventually, some 65 examples of the Porsche 917 would go on to be built in total. The race car itself was developed in two versions – the 917 K (for Kurz = ‘short’ in German) and the 917 LH (Langheck = 'long tail'), although it would be the former that would predominate.In its first season the 917 – which was powered by a 4.5-litre flat-12 that produced 588PS – struggled with handling, caused by aerodynamic lift at high speed. It won just one race, the Zeltweg 1000km at Austria’s Österreichring, driven by the Swiss Jo Siffert and German co-pilot, Kurt Ahrens Jr.
Porsche 917 K winning 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans
Richard Attwood, driving the #23 Porsche Salzburg 917 K, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time for Porsche, alongside co-driver Hans Herrmann
Porsche wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans… at lastBut these early teething issues did not deter Porsche. For the following season, the downforce issues were fixed, chiefly by deploying a wedge-shaped tail made of aluminium. This would be the car that took the World Sportscar Championship by storm. After debuting at the 24 Hours of Daytona, the 917 racing cars run by the JW Automotive and Porsche Salzburg teams would go on to win nine out of the 10 races in the 1970 season. While it gained an eye-opening 1-2 finish for the JW Automotive cars in that Daytona opener, the greatest victory of them all was that stunning debut Porsche Le Mans win, courtesy of the Porsche Salzburg team.The #23 917 K of Attwood and Herrmann, dressed in the now unmistakeable red and white Salzburg livery, covered 343 laps (4,607.811km) in the pouring rain at Le Sarthe over the 24 hours. “Le Mans is a race where everything goes right, or it doesn’t. In those days, the 24 Hours was more like an endurance drive than a race,” remembers Richard Attwood, who drove not knowing that he had been diagnosed with mumps, which meant he could only drink milk during the race. “To win Le Mans with Porsche and Hans came fully unexpectedly… Hans and I were simply a dream team.”
Porsche 917 K in iconic blue and white Gulf livery
Porsche 917 K in iconic Gulf livery. This car won at Spa in the 1971 World Sportscar Championship, driven by Mexico’s Pedro Rodríguez and Britain’s Jackie Oliver
By the end of the season, the 4.5-litre engine had been bored out to five litres, capable of hitting 62mph from a standing start in just 2.7 seconds, a figure that would keep even the fastest supercars of today on its toes. The era of Porsche dominance of the world’s racetracks had well and truly arrived.917: a record-breaking Porsche at Le MansOver the ensuing three seasons, the 917 would go on to have an unprecedented run of victories in its many forms. These would include some of the most famous and recognisable Porsche race cars ever made. For the 1971 season, the Porsche Salzburg team was replaced by the Martini racing team as the second Porsche works team (although they had competed alongside the Salzburg outfit at Le Mans in 1970, finishing in second place with France’s Gérard Larrousse and Germany’s Willi Kauhsen driving a 917 LH). The car itself looked somewhat different too, having now ‘grown’ two vertical fins on the tail. The result was an even faster car. Seven races out of the 11-race series were won in 1971. And once again Le Mans was the scene of an outstanding triumph – perhaps the most stunning performance that the revered circuit has ever seen.
Porsche 917/20 ‘Pink Pig’ in front of brick building
There were many different variants of the Porsche 917 in its four years of competition, but few are more recognisable than the 1971 ‘Pink Pig’ 917/20
In its distinctive Martini Racing colours, the #22 car of Dutchman Gijs van Lennep and Austrian Helmut Marko smashed all records on their way to victory. The two drivers averaged 222km/h across the 24 hours of the race, covering a distance of 5,335km – over 700km more than the winning Porsche 917 K the year before. So incredible was this performance, it was a record that would not be beaten until 2010.This was also a race that saw the appearance of further variants of the now all-conquering 917. One was the Martini International 917 LH, with its revised suspension set-up and new bodywork, such as partially enclosed wheel covers. It took pole position in qualifying, but in the race itself it failed to make it to the chequered flag. More famously, another of that year’s Le Mans 917 entrants has gone on to become of the most recognisable Porsche race car liveries of all time.The Martini International ‘Pink Pig’ Porsche 917/20, which featured the names of cuts of meat all over its bodywork, was a unique 917 in many ways. This special one-off had a wider body than its earlier siblings and was designed by engineers with the aim to combine the stability of the 917 K with the low drag of the 917 L. While it would finish a creditable fifth at Le Mans, it would never race again in anger. That standout pink livery, however, is still adored by Porsche fans to this day.
Blue, yellow and red Porsche 917/30 Can-Am race car
Power to burn: the Porsche 917/30 destroyed all the competition as it blasted its way to North America's Can-Am racing series title in 1973
The Can-Am 917/30 gets ready to conquer AmericaWe’ll save the most powerful 917 to last. By 1973, the 917 was coming to the end of its glittering reign as the king of the racetrack. At the end of the 1972 season, such was the domination that the car had on the World Sportscar Championship that the FIA decided to react, banning its five-litre, 12-cylinder engine. But there was to be one more challenge that Porsche wanted to take on. Besides Formula 1 and the World Sportscar Championship, the Can-Am racing series of North America was one of the most keenly contested and well-supported racing car championships of the era.By 1973, North America had grown to be the biggest market for Porsche sports cars. And now there was a perfect opportunity for Porsche to cement its growing reputation in Can-Am racing too. The 917 had already been competing in the series since 1970 – in 1972, it even won the overall title in the form of George Follmer’s Penske Racing 917/10. But Porsche wanted to go bigger and even better. It came in the shape of the 917/30, a car that combined brawn with beauty. It looked like no other 917 seen before.
Porsche 963 LMDh and 917 on track at Daytona
Maintaining a legacy: Porsche 917 in iconic Gulf livery (right) and the very latest Porsche endurance car, the 963 LMDh, at Daytona
The end of an era: the Porsche 917 is retired from racingMuch of the success of the 917/30 can be put down to the input of the man who drove it. American Mark Donohue was not just a talented racing driver but also, as an engineer, helped develop the 917/30 for the Can-Am series. The figures it produced are very bit as mind-blowing today as they were half a century earlier. Powered by a 5.4-litre V12 turbo-charged engine, it produced 1014PS and had a top speed of 385km/h. In contrast to racing at Le Mans, where aerodynamic drag had to be reduced to increase top speed on the long straights, downforce was on the menu for the Can-Am 917/30, helping it transfer all that power from the V12 onto the track surface in as efficient and secure as way as possible. And if that didn’t already intimidate the rest of the field, the muscly, open-top design of its body, in the famous blue and yellow Sunoco livery, also turned heads… very quickly.
Red and white Salzburg liveried Porsche 917 at sunset
The sun may have set four decades ago on the race career of the Porsche 917, but in the time since its legend has grown ever stronger
Inevitably, the 917/30 ate up all the other cars in its path, with Mark Donohue winning six out of eight races in the 1973 Can-Am series on his way to the championship title (the other two races, coincidentally, were won by one of the car’s predecessors, the Porsche 917/10). Sadly, that’s where the road ended for 917 as a competitive entity, as the car’s commanding performance once again led to new regulations for the following Can-Am season. But what a way to sign off for what many believe is the world’s greatest ever racing car. It’s a legacy that continues today in the form of today’s Porsche 963 – a spiritual successor to the 917, and a race car that Porsche sees as its new motorsport hero.
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