In 1971 the first ever Starbucks coffee house was opened in Seattle, Washington. That same year, the fourth manned landing on the moon took place with Apollo 15, and Disney World, Orlando, Florida was opened. It was also fifty years ago this year that Porsche 917-053, the #22 Martini Kurzheck race car, shot across the start/finish line at Le Mans to notch up Porsche’s second consecutive win in this great race.
This was a rather special and important Porsche 917, because it had a magnesium chassis, and two upright tail fins. It was the third of only three cars to carry a magnesium chassis. The big advantage of the magnesium chassis was of course weight, this being 42 kg lighter than the aluminium chassis used by the other 917s. According to Walter Näher, in his superb book, Porsche 917: Archive and Works Catalogue 1968-1975, pointed out that neither of the two drivers, Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep, knew that they had a very special car under them.
The chassis was ready by 21 May 1971, and the car’s build was completed on 5 June. Although it was intended for the Le Mans car to be fitted with a 5-litre engine, it was decided in the end to fit the tried and tested 4.9-litre engine to this car. Interestingly, chassis 917-053 was given a larger 55-litre oil tank which pushed the otherwise underweight 917-053 up to its 800 kg weight requirement. Porsche 917-053 departed for Le Mans on 7 June.
Le Mans 1971
An indication of the potential pace of the race in June was declared by Jackie Oliver in the #18 JW Gulf Porsche 917 LH at the Le Mans test weekend. Oliver posted a 3:13.6 in April, which translated into a speed of 155 mph (250 km/h) making him the first driver to break the 250 km/h mark. Jackie Oliver set the fastest time down the Mulsanne Straight by any car or driver to date, when he was clocked at 386 km/h!
The starting grid was dominated by the Porsche 917s, with the #18 John Wyer 917 LH (#043) of Rodriguez/Oliver on pole with a qualifying time of 3:13.9. In second place on the grid was the #21 Martini 917 LH (#042) of Larrousse/Elford with the #17 John Wyer 917 LH (#045) of Siffert/Bell in third place. Fourth place was held by the #11 Luigi Chinetti Ferrari 512 M (#1004) of Donohue/Hobbs. The Hans-Dieter Dechent run #22 Martini 917 K was driven by Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep and was placed fifth on starting grid. In sixth place was the #15 Juncadella Ferrari 512 M (#1002) of Nino Vaccarella/Jose Juncadella.
The rolling start was used for the first time at Le Mans in ’71 and because the cars would be passing the pits already at racing speeds (and not from a standing start positioned along the pit apron), a guard rail was erected along the length of the pits. This offered the officials, pit crews and media some protection during the hectic starting period. This new starting procedure would require the cars to do a full lap behind the pace car, a Porsche 911, in a two-by-two formation. The field was brought back to the start/finish line on the pit straight, where they were waved away for the start by none other than actor Steve McQueen.
Two Ferraris were immediately in trouble which saw three Porsches and the #15 Ferrari heading the field with little trouble from anyone else. Rodriguez ran well clear of the field, with Larrousse in second place and Siffert in third. At the second round of pit stops, Rodriguez had trouble refuelling which saw the lead pass to Siffert but the positions were reversed later when the Siffert/Bell car had some electrical problems and dropped back to fourth ahead of a hard charging Donohue/Hobbs Ferrari. The Marko/van Lennep #22 Martini Porsche was down still in fifth place. But the #22 Marko/van Lennep car didn’t have an altogether trouble free run, as the alternator V-belt came adrift in the fifth hour, dropping them down to ninth place.
With six hours of the race run, the JW team manager David Yorke could not have been happier with his cars running in a 1-2-3 formation. The #18 Gulf 917 LH driven by Rodriguez/Oliver led from the #17 917 LH of Siffert/Bell in second place. The third JW Porsche of Attwood/Müller, the #19 car which also had a Kurzheck body, which had started back in eleventh place on the grid, had been steadily making its way up the leaderboard. Unfortunately, after some problems, the engine cooling fan on the #21 Martini Larrousse/Elford car became airborne in the ninth hour, landing somewhere in the trees during the night.
As darkness fell, the Sunoco Ferrari was withdrawn with engine problems (this was a new engine supplied for the race by the Ferrari factory). At this time the three leading Porsches were in a class of their own well ahead of the field with the Juncadella Ferrari in fourth and the #22 Porsche in fifth.
As the night hours wore on the rate of attrition was excessive, and after 11 hours, the Siffert/Bell car lost more than an hour with a seized rear hub carrier. Four hours later, the lead Porsche (Rodriguez/Oliver) suffered the same fate, it was felt this was caused by excessive heat because of the faired in rear wheels. When the news came through that the now leading Porsche of Attwood/Müller, promoted from third place, had lost top gear. This situation promoted the Juncadella Ferrari into the lead at around the 04h00 mark, but this lead lasted less than an hour when it suffered a broken gearbox.
The #18 JW Porsche 917 LH driven by Rodriguez/Oliver began to climb back up the leaderboard following its repair, and rose as high as second. However, the rapid progress made by Rodriguez as he scythed his way through the field was shot-lived, as an oil pipe burst spraying the Mexican with hot oil. Even though he was able to make it back to the pits, sufficient damage had been done to the engine, making retirement all but inevitable.
János Wimpffen, in his substantial and extremely useful two-volume series, Time and Two Seats, said that, “The speed of the race continued at a record pace throughout the 24 hours and despite this (or more likely, because of it), the mechanical carnage among the leaders went on throughout the night.” That pretty much sums up the situation at the sharp end of the grid, and it wasn’t so much a case of the ‘rabbit and the hare’ with the steady runners winning out in the end, because the pace was relentless even after the fastest cars had succumbed.
As from the sixth hour, the #22 Martini 917 K driven by Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep, rose up steadily through the field improving from seventh place after six hours, to fifth place and after ten hours it was up in fourth place. By the halfway mark it was up in second place and in the thirteenth hour it moved into the lead, a position that it did not relinquish.
With the faster longtail Porsches all out of the picture, and the top Ferraris retired, the #22 Porsche had only to deal with the threat of a lone Matra, but the French threat evaporated on Sunday morning. With ten hours remaining, the #19 Porsche moved from third place up to second, which is where it stayed until the finish.
Just after 04h00 on Sunday morning, halfway through the race, the #22 Martini Porsche found itself up in second place after the retirement of the Larrousse/Elford Porsche, the Siffert/Bell Porsche was having problems as was the Rodriguez/Oliver Porsche. The Donohue/Hobbs Ferrari had retired early, and the Vaccarella/Juncadella Ferrari retired in the 14th hour. With the retirement of the #15 Ferrari, the #22 Porsche moved up from second place to lead the race after 13 hours, with a healthy lead of seven laps over the #19 Gulf 917 K of Attwood/Müller. A seven-lap lead can be seen as a really healthy margin leading to complacency, but being a professional racing team, they opted to manage their pace over the remaining hours.
During the hours of Sunday morning, the #19 Gulf 917 K of Attwood/Müller passed the lone Matra and set off after the lead Porsche. The #19 Gulf 917 K did in fact eat into that seven-lap margin, and when the chequered flag fell at 16h00 on Sunday, the gap had been reduced to just two laps. But that gap was managed continuously by the Martini team, and with Marko and van Lennep driving to team orders, they remained in charge, but importantly, didn’t place undue stress on the car.
When the chequered flag was waved at 16h00 on Sunday afternoon, the #22 Martini Porsche 917 K entered the history books, giving Porsche its second consecutive Le Mans 24 Hour win. Just two laps back was the #19 JW Porsche 917 K of Attwood/Müller which was a massive 29 laps ahead of the third-placed #12 Ferrari 512 M of Sam Posey/Tony Adamowicz. The winning Porsche was 42 laps ahead of the fourth-placed #16 Ferrari 512 M of Chris Craft/David Weir. To be fair, the third and fourth placed Ferraris had a catalogue of repairs throughout the race, but hats off to the two teams for getting through to the end.
Even though the winning Porsche held such a commanding lead, far from throttling back and taking it easy, the #22 Martini Porsche kept up a fierce pace. In the end, it was the first race car to break the 5000 km barrier (3315 miles or 5335 km) in the 24-hour race, completing 397 laps at an average speed of 138 mph (222 km/h). The 1971 race was the fastest to date in the history of this great race, a record that stood for the next 39 years when, in 2010, it was eventually beaten by the Audi R15 TDI plus.
Although the Martini team’s main hope for a win lay with the extremely fast Porsche 917 LH of Larrousse/Elford, the #21 car eventually retired with an overheating engine. But the Martini sponsorship was repaid in full that year, when the #22 Marko/van Lennep Porsche claimed victory.
The competition life of Porsche 917-053 was extremely short, as it only ever competed in the 1971 Le Mans 24 Hour race, completing just 229 km in practice and then the race itself.
The 1971 race, the 39th Le Mans 24 Hours, signalled the end of the 5-litre Group 5 race cars as it was still called back then. The Group 5 Sportscar and Group 6 Prototype classes in 1971 were combined into a new all-inclusive Group 5 class for sports prototypes, which included cars up to a naturally aspirated 3-litre capacity, or 2142 cc for turbocharged cars.
After this race, Porsche 917-053 was retired to the Porsche Museum, where it is regularly on display. In one sense, Porsche did not need that many works 917s beyond 1971 as the car would not be eligible to race in the World Championship of Makes. Development of the turbocharged 917/10 was already underway, and this model would be eligible for the European Interserie and the Can-Am series in America. In both of these series, the 917 would be totally dominant, but that is a story for another day.
The John Wyer racing team would endure the most tragic end to the 1971 season. Two weeks after Le Mans, Pedro Rodriguez would win the next round of the World Championship at the Österreichring. However, he was killed just two weeks later driving a Ferrari 512 at Germany’s Norisring in a non-championship sports car race. Then, in October, Jo Siffert was killed at Brands Hatch when his BRM crashed, rolled and caught fire, trapping him under the burning car. Rodriguez and Siffert had given their all, entertaining spectators around the world in the Porsche 917 with their incredible, no holds barred driving styles. But with the demise of the magnificent 917, and in the space of just four months, two of the greatest sports car drivers the world has ever known, were also gone. It was indeed the era of an era.
|Porsche 917: Archive and Works Catalogue 1968-1975||Walter Näher, Delius, Klasing & Co||2014|
|Le Mans 24 Hours 1970-79||Quentin Spurring, EVRO Publishing||2017|
|Time and Two Seats||János Wimpffen, Motorsport Research Group||1999|
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Archives and Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale