The Porsche 917 – Purpose Built for Le Mans

The "Hippie Car" Porsche 917
the “Hippie Car” at Goodwood – photo by PSParrot from England

The Porsche 917 is my favorite race car of all-time. It was an absolute monster with some of the best racing liveries of all-time. The numbers are staggering. The 917 made anywhere from 520 horsepower to over 1,500 hp depending on the series. It weighs 1,760 lbs, hits 60 mph in 2.5 seconds, and has a top speed of 250 mph. The car was so powerful it exhibited wheel spin at over 200 mph. It came on the heels of the Ford GT 40 for one purpose, to get Porsche’s first win at Le Mans. Porsche accomplished this and more with the 917.

Development

the first version in silver of the Porsche 917
The first version of the Porsche 917 – photo by Brian Snelson from Hockley, Essex, England

In the late 1960s, the FIA changed some regulations to slow speeds at Le Mans, which resulted in fewer race entries. They then reduced the production requirements from 50 cars to 25, lowering the cost of entry. The Group 4 Sports Car category, the precursor to Group B, had a 5-liter maximum engine size and a 1,760 lb minimum weight requirement. Porsche, under the guidance of their Head of Motorsports Ferdinand Piech, developed the Porsche 917 to hit these targets in just ten months. 

They created their first 12-cylinder engine, which was two flat-six engines mated together. Porsche used all sorts of lightweight engineering techniques like the extensive use of magnesium and titanium and even created the gear-shift lever out of birchwood to save weight. This feature appeared again on the Porsche GT released decades later. The car was so compact that the driver sat with their feet ahead of the front axle. In the first version of the Porsche 917, the long-tail version created some rear-lift resulting in a more table short-tail version.

Porsche continued to improve the engine bumping displacement from 4.5 to 4.9 and eventually 5.0 making over 600 hp. They would later add turbos to make over 1,100 hp. Work continued on the suspension, including a new long-tail version that was so stable that the driver could take their hands off the wheel and nearly 250 mph, and the car would still track straight. All this development led to one hell of a race car.

Debut in 1969

a black and white photo of a Porsche 917 at the Nurburgring 1969
a Porsche 917 at the Nurgburgring 1969 – photo by Lothar Spurzem

The Porsche 917 debuted as a prototype in 1969 and saw limited success. Where it did leave a strong impression was the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where it took pole position and beat the lap record by .7 seconds. That’s a pretty impressive feat considering they beat the old record even with the addition of the Ford Chicane. The race didn’t start out well for Porsche. A private 917 entry driven by John Woolfe crashed on the first lap killing him. Despite the fatality, Porsche was able to regain their composure. Vic Elford and Richard Attwood managed to lead nearly 90% of the race in their no. 12 Porsche 917 before gearbox troubles led to their retirement on lap 327. None of the 917’s would finish the race, and Ford would go on to win their fourth in a row.

Enzo Ferrari was so impressed with the performance of the 917 that he sold half his stake in Fiat and used some of the money to build a 12-cylinder Ferrari 512 to compete with Porsche the following year.

The Porsche 917 Dominates 1970

a red and white Porsche 917K
the Porsche 917K that won the 24 Hours of Daytona – photo by Lothar Spurzem

Porsche entered the 1970 season of the World Sportscar Championship with a bang finishing 1-2 with the 917K at the 24 Hours of Daytona. They shattered the mileage record by 190 miles and finished a staggering 48 laps ahead of the Ferrari 512S. Ferrari responded with a victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring with Mario Andretti finishing ahead of Steve McQueen. Porsche returned even stronger at the 1000 km of Brands Hatch finishing 1-2-3. They beat Ferrari on their home turf, taking the victory at the 1000 km of Monza, finishing ahead of three Ferrari 512s.

Brian Redman and Jo Siffert won the 1000 km of Spa again in a Porsche 917K. At the time, it was the quickest ever 1000 km race at Spa clocking in at just over 4 hours and 9 minutes. Jacky Ickx finished second in the Ferrari 512S. Next up was the notorious 24 Hours of Le Mans. Porsche again took pole with Vic Elford, besting Ferrari in his 917L. Elford and Hermann vaulted to the front of the pack alternating the lead throughout in their 917s. Hermann secured the lead once Elford dropped out with engine troubles 18 hours in. Herman would go on to claim victory with the Martini Racing 917 finishing second. A Porsche 908 driven by current Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko finished third.

The Porsche 917 finished 1-2 at the Watkins Glen 6 Hours and closed out the season with another win at the Austrian 1000 km, clinching the championship by nearly 30 points over Ferrari. During this season, the FIA announced that they would cap displacement at 3 liters after the 1971 season, putting an end to the big displacement race cars.

Porsche Continues Their Domination in 1971

a blue red and white Martini Racing 917K
The Martini Racing Porsche 917K – photo by Felix K├Ânig

The Porsche 917 entered the 1971 season, dominating from the start. They began the season with a 1-2 win at the 1000 km of Buenos Aires. At the 24 Hours of Daytona, a 917 won again just ahead of two Ferrari 512s, including one team backed by Roger Penske. The Martini & Rossi Porsche 917 took victory at the 12 Hours of Sebring with two other 917s in 4th and 5th. They finished 3rd at Brands Hatch, but responded with a 1-2 victory at the 1000 km of Monza. Porsche won their home race at the 1000 km of the Nurburgring with a 908 while the 917 finished 6th.

During qualifying for the 1971 24 Hours of Le Mans, Jacki Oliver hit an incredible 246 mph along the Mulsanne Straight. Porsche would again finish 1-2 with the Martini Racing 917K taking the win. The Gulf-liveried JW Engineering Porsche 917K took the victory at the 1000 km of Austria ahead of a pair of Alfa Romeo T33/3s. The JW Engineering Porsches closed the season with a 2-3 behind the Alfa at the Watkins Glen Six Hours. Porsche again took the championship finishing 21 points ahead of Alfa.

The Move to Can-AM

The yellow and blue Penske 917/30
The wild Porsche 917/30 – photo by Lothar Spurzem

Porsche moved on to American Can-Am racing after the World Sportscar Championship limited engine size to 3.0 liters. Here they slapped some turbos on the flat 12-cylinder engine and bumped power up to 850 horsepower. Penske Racing fielded the most successful team snatching 6 out of 9 races with their 917/10. They won the championship 130 to 65 with two other 917 teams finishing 3rd and 4th in the championship.

Things got even crazier for the 1973 season, with Penske turning the power up to 11. They increased displacement to 5.4 liters and boost to 39 psi, pushing power to 1,580 horsepower. Eat your heart out, Bugatti! The 917/30 is still the most powerful racing car ever fielded. They lost the first two races of the season but won the final six, taking the championship with ease. The top four teams in the championship were all fielding Porsche 917s. The Porsche 917 dominated Can-Am racing so much that McLaren left for Formula 1, and people stopped watching. The oil crises accomplished what others could not; it killed the Porsche 917.

Conclusion

the Pink Pig Porsche 917
The Pink Pig Porsche 917 – photo by Morio

The Porsche 917 is one of the most incredible racing cars ever created. Tons of horsepower, awesome liveries, and race wins. It gave Porsche their first of 19 wins at Le Mans. The 917 knocked the Ford GT40 off its pedestal and scared the pants off of Enzo Ferrari. It rarely lost a race and cemented Porsche’s reputation as a serious contender across the racing world.

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