Porsche 917 - Legendary Race Car With An Amazing Career
Porsche 917 is one of those legendary race cars with performance and speed that command respect even today. It was dangerously quick and also reliable enough to give Porsche overall victories at Le Mans in 1970 and 1971.
However, the start of the glorious 917 story was not very promising. In the late sixties, after the period of Ford GT40 domination, FIA changed the rules limiting the engines to 5 liters displacement and lowering the production limit for homologation from 50 to 25 cars. Porsche, which raced the Le Mans with 908, started to develop a successor according to these rules.
So, in 1969, at Geneva Motor Show, Porsche AG presented the new 917 race car and soon built 25 samples for homologation purposes. The price of the new racer was astronomical 140.000 Deutsche Marks which was the price of 10 new Porsche 911s.
Rough start for an ambitious project
As soon as the first cars started testing and racing, Porsche realized they had big problems on their hands. It was aerodynamics, or better to say, the lack of it.
The 917 was capable of great speed but the downforce and stability were so poor that the drivers didn’t want to race the cars fearing that they would crash. The car showed potential but during the 1969 season it was haunted by stability and mechanical problems.
Aerodynamics was the key
However, for 1970 season Porsche teamed up with John Wyer’s Gulf team and redesigned the back end of the car. They made two versions, a long tail version named 917L (“Langheck“) which was used on tracks with long straits and higher top speed like Le Mans, and the short tail version named 917K (“Kurzheck“) which was designed for shorter circuits. With these modifications, 917 finally had good stability at high speeds.
Potent boxer 12 cylinder engine
The heart of the beast was a very interesting 4,5 (later 4,9) liter 12 cylinder engine. Contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t a boxer motor but a 180 degree angled V12 which cranked out up to 600 bhp. The typical Porsche cooling system was used with a fan above the engine.
The car was so powerful and fast that it achieved 396 km/h on Mulsanne straight during the 1971 Le Mans testing. Porsche easily won Le Mans in 1970 and 1971 and destroyed the competition throughout these two seasons.
The 917 was so fast and dominant that other manufactures (Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Matra) started to protest. Under the pressure, FIA changed the rules for the 1972 season and the glorious 917 became obsolete. However, this was not the end of 917 and Porsche realized that if it cannot race in FIA World Sportscar Championship it can race in American Can Am series, and from 1972 until 1975, many 917 variants dominated that series. The Can AM spec cars were different than the 917 from 1969/71 and featured the turbocharged engines with monstrous levels of power (1100-1500 bhp).
The 917 was famous not just because of its fantastic race results but as an integral part of the famous Steve McQueen’s movie “Le Mans“ which is, in my humble opinion, one of the best racing movies ever.