The name Porsche is synonymous with the world’s toughest endurance race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, boasting an unbroken run of 66 years. During this time, they have amassed 19 victories. This is Part III of their story…
PART III – 1969 to 1971
The introduction of the Porsche Type 917, was the car that Ferdinand Piëch had planned in his mind, all through the 1960s. It was the ultimate racer with which he would lift the Le Mans 24 Hour trophy, the goal towards which he had been working for the last decade through the incremental creation of the 904, 906, 910, 907 and 908. Referred to as the ‘plastic’ Porsches, an awfully derogatory term for such an important series of race cars, this was Piëch’s contribution to the world of sports car racing.
Were it not for this highly significant series of race cars, we would not have the unequalled record of achievements that Porsche can lay claim to today. For that reason, we have dedicated this chapter of Porsche’s rise to fame at Le Mans, to the contribution made by the Type 917, much maligned at first, but it became the weapon of choice after just one season.
1969 first race at Le Mans
The Porsche 917 was built for Le Mans where its superior top speed would put it in a class of its own in this legendary 24-hour race. In an effort to maximise the car’s top speed, Ferdinand Piëch ensured that the 917 was devoid of any drag-inducing devices, making sure that the airflow over the sleek body was as smooth as possible. But therein lay the car’s problem at first, as the 220mph racer was prone to lift at the front, resulting in significant instability at speed.
Although the 917’s first taste of international competition was the Spa 1000km in early May 1969, the new race car failed to impress, the first dropping out with engine failure while the other works car did not even start. The following event was the Nürburgring 1000km where the sole works 917 entry finished a difficult race in eighth place.
The 917 made a somewhat uncertain entrance at the Le Mans race in 1969, in that it was almost not allowed to race. When the 917 was homologated in April, it had done so with movable flaps at the rear, but what the FIA had approved the ACO was about to disallow. It should be remembered that in these early days, the FIA and the ACO fell in and out of love with regular monotony, and so this was hardly surprising. Despite being homologated with the movable flaps, the ACO dug its feet in and so Porsche threatened to withdraw unless they got their way. In the end a compromise was reached in that the 908s that were racing there en masse, had to have their movable flaps made rigid, in order to let the 917 race.
The works entered two 917s, one each for Vic Elford/Richard Attwood and Rolf Stommelen/Kurt Ahrens. Privateer John Woolfe was to get the first 917 to be sold to a customer, and he was to have Digby Martland co-drive with him. However, Martland was too wary of the new 917 and its reputation, resulting in factory test driver Herbert Linge taking the vacant seat. Woolfe’s enthusiasm proved fatal, as he insisted on starting the race, and with hindsight it would appear that in his eagerness to make a good start, he failed to fasten his seat belt. At Maison Blanche he put a wheel in the dirt and lost control of the vehicle at around 150mph, the vehicle flipped and broke in two and Woolfe was thrown clear. He unfortunately died in the helicopter on the way to the hospital.
For the two works 917s it was a rather different start, as Vic Elford explains, “At the start, we both made a good start, Rolf was off first and I was right behind him. The 917 the door used to open upwards and normally, as we jumped in, we would just let it go and it would slam shut. I did this as I got in and turned the engine on, except the door didn’t shut properly. On the first lap, we were all supposed to have a Commissaire standing beside the car to make sure we all put our seat belts on – what a joke! So, although the seat belt Commissaire was looking, he couldn’t really see into the car, and so we all made a show of it and took off and on the way down the Mulsanne Straight on the first lap I was steering with my knees while I put the belt on, and I am sure I wasn’t alone, everybody was doing the same thing. Then I turned my attention to the door because the door hadn’t closed properly, but the car was a bit of a monster that year so the only time I had anything like a free hand was on the [Mulsanne] Straight, but the air pressure was such that I couldn’t get the door open. So, on the two longer straights, I was steering with one hand and trying to push the door open with my other hand to get it to slam again, but I couldn’t get it open, so after five laps I had to come in and get the mechanics to close the door for me.”
Rolf Stommelen had laid down the benchmark by qualifying the #14 Porsche 917 on pole, with Vic Elford in the #12 car in second place. Elford in fact also posted the fastest race lap, but the 917’s first Le Mans race was to end in disappointment. The #14 car of Stommelen/Ahrens was the first 917 to retire, which it did with clutch trouble after 148 laps. The #12 car continued on its way with the Elford/Attwood proving dominant, leading all the way through the night and up until 11h00 on Sunday. With just hours to go, the lead Porsche let it be known that all was not well under the engine cover, a variety of problems had beset the car which was duly retired with 329 laps completed. While it is uncommon for a new race car to win Le Mans on its first outing, the 917 had announced its intention of winning the coveted trophy.
1970 Le Mans
J.W. Automotive Engineering (JWA) had signed a contract with Ford to run their GT40 programme out of their workshop in Slough, England. The ‘JW’ initials were those of John Wyer who had a reputation for running a slick operation. JWA had produced a Ford winner at Le Mans in 1968 and 1969, also gave Ford the World Championship in 1968.
At the end of 1969, with Ford’s contract with JWA at an end, Ferry Porsche and Ferdinand Piëch signed JWA to run their factory team in 1970 and 1971. This handed the running of the three factory prepared 917s to JWA, but importantly it also meant that by tying up JWA in this way, they could not be signed by an opposing team and thereby prove a threat to Porsche’s team. Porsche would also supply their two top factory contracted drivers, Jo Siffert and Brian Redman, and JWA was given a free hand in selecting the other drivers. That way, Ferry would avoid any conflict between the Porsche factory team and the team run by his sister, Louise Piëch, in Salzburg, Austria. In return, Ferry required JWA to bring the Gulf sponsorship to the table, and it is probably fair to say that there was no opposition to that requirement from any quarter.
JWA wasted no time in getting to the bottom of the 917’s instability problems, in fact it was the JWA engineer John Horsman who developed the car’s raised rear deck during a test session at the Österreichring in late 1969. When the 917 KH (Kurzheck) appeared at the start of the 1970 season resplendent in its Gulf livery, it was a transformed racer.
The 1970 Le Mans entry list showed no less than seven 917s, with three cars being entered by JWA, two by Porsche Salzburg, and one each by Martini International and AAW Racing. Five of these cars were of the Kurzheck format while just two were Langheck. All three of the JWA cars were Kurzheck, but Porsche Salzburg hedged its bets by entering one of each.
In what was an extremely wet race, the tables were turned and JWA experienced a distinctly disappointing race all round with none of its three cars finishing. It would be Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood in the (now) famous #23 red and white 917 KH Salzburg Porsche who lifted the Le Mans trophy, not that it mattered to Ferdinand Piëch because his creation had finally won the big one. A Porsche 917 also finished in second place, the #3 ‘Hippie’ Martini car, with a 908/02 coming home in third, resulting in a Porsche whitewash. Kurt Ahrens was the first driver to break the magical 150mph average lap speed at Le Mans, when in the #25 Salzburg 917 LH, he posted a qualifying time of 3:19.8 seconds at 150.798mph. The small company that had begun production in a sawmill in the Austrian mountains two decades earlier, had come of age.
1971 Le Mans
In the 917’s last year in the World Championship, no fewer than 33 of the 49 starters were Porsche products. This statistic speaks volumes for the formidable force the Stuttgart manufacturer had become, with twenty of those 33 Porsches listed in the GT category, the other thirteen being prototypes. It was perhaps inevitable that a 917 would post the fastest qualifying time in 1971, but the manner in which Pedro Rodriguez annihilated the previous record was extraordinary. The pole time set by Rodriguez was 3:13.9 seconds at 155.386mph, an amazing 5mph faster than that set by Ahrens in 1970. Vic Elford’s speed through the trap on the Mulsanne Straight was a mighty 241.25mph, a record that stood for many years.
1971 was also the year of the ‘Sau’, or the ‘Pig’. The distinctive #23 pink 917/20 driven by Willi Kauhsen and Reinhold Joest is not best remembered for its attractive looks, but it was in fact an extremely aerodynamically efficient shape. Unfortunately though, the car was involved in an accident and was forced to retire with 180 laps completed.
JWA would once again be denied the honour of lifting the trophy at Le Mans for Porsche, as the #22 Martini 917 KH of Marko/Van Lennep would do that for Porsche. The #19 JWA 917 LH driven by Richard Attwood/Herbert Mueller finished two laps down in second place.
A lap record for eternity
Jackie Oliver recalls how they broke the lap record in the Gulf Porsche 917 LH during the test session and the actual race at the 1971 Le Mans 24-Hour:
“I remember the aerodynamics during that period were very basic. The long-term aim was to make it more slippery, but there was concern that the rear wing was going to disturb the balance of the car.”
Oliver was the only Porsche driver present at the April test session and as Porsche were still developing the car, they discussed the aerodynamic imbalance of the new Langheck body at speed. Not having any telemetry in those days, Oliver asked the Porsche engineers, “Where do you think the imbalance is going to happen?” to which they replied, “Well, as we start to approach 180-220 miles per hour, that sort of area.” Jackie Oliver’s reply probably had them a bit worried when he suggested, “What I will do is, I will weave across the road to see whether the front wheels would still keep their adhesion [at that speed].”
After two laps, he returned to the pits and reported that the car had remained stable and was very well balanced. “In fact, I took the Mulsanne kink flat on the last flying lap,” he added. And all the engineers went, “Wow!” Oliver laughed.
They started to go for times following that positive result as Oliver recalls, “The White House curves are where all the time came from, apart from the car’s terminal velocity, we were flat, really flat. And of course, I just annihilated the lap record. The car had so much flipping energy.” Oliver’s flying lap was recorded at 3:13.6 seconds.
When the teams returned to Le Mans for the race in June, Pedro Rodriguez set the fastest qualifying time in the #18 Gulf 917 LH of 3:13.9 minutes for a lap speed of 155.386mph (250.069km/h). During the race itself, it was Jackie Oliver’s turn to set a lap record of 3:18.4 minutes for a race lap speed of 151.862mph (244.397km/h). These lap times still stand today, and with the introduction of the two kinks down the Mulsanne straight, it is unlikely they will be bettered.
The 917 era at Le Mans had come and gone, but what a legacy it had left, winning the 24-hour race twice in three attempts. Of course, the 917 would go on to achieve even greater prominence in the European Interserie, where it dominated for many years, and with the 917/30 in the Can-Am series in the USA. Race cars seldom compete for more than a season or two at most before they are superseded by newer technology, but the 917 in its various guises, was still doing duty in 1975. In fact, the 917 was resurrected in 1981 when the Kremer Brothers entered a fully updated 917 in the Le Mans 24 Hour race, but it unfortunately retired with engine trouble.
The ‘plastic’ Porsche era which started in 1964 with the 904, culminated in 1971 with the all-conquering 917. Such outrageous, innovative and totally dominating race car engineering could only have come from Porsche, and the world of motorsport was all the richer for having witnessed this phenomenon.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche