Porsche has been a household name in the world of motorsports for quite some time now. When it comes to racing heritage, only the likes of Ferrari and maybe Ford can even come close to the numbers and reputation that Porsche has amassed over the years. While Team Porsche competes in a wide variety of racing programs, their specialty seems to be in the world of endurance racing such as the Le Mans and Daytona 24hr races. There is one car that started that dominance back in 1968 and that happens to be the gorgeous example of the Porsche 917 you see before you.
Back in 1967, the Commission Sportive Internationale (part of the FIA) decided they were going to implement some rule changes to the Group 6 cars of the World Sportscar Championship. At the time they had an unlimited engine capacity which allowed famous cars like the Ford GT40 Mk.IV to have massive engines such as the 7.0L V8. They lowered it drastically to 3.0L which forced manufacturers to hit the drawing board. More importantly in regards to what we’re talking about here, the Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI) also implemented a Group 5 which allowed displacement to reach as high as 5.0L. However, in order to compete in the class manufacturers had to build at least 25 examples to be sold.
This is where the Porsche 917 comes into the picture. Under the leadership of Ferdinand Piëch, Porsche decided to take advantage of the new rules and started working on a new prototype race car based on the 908 in July of 1968. They didn’t have a whole lot of time considering the 24hr of Le Mans was just 9 months away, but that didn’t stop the incredibly talented folks at Porsche from building a car that would quite literally change the game. By April 20th, 1969, Piëch had all 25 examples parked right in front of the Porsche factory. According to reports, the CSI inspectors were noticeably stunned that Porsche was able to put them all together so quickly.
Each car was required to meet “sports car regulations,” which meant each one had to be fitted with two seats, a spare tire, and luggage compartment. Most importantly though, each car had to have the ability to be licensed for street use and that, of course, meant things like a horn, turn signals, and a turn key ignition. That last one is really important because even though prospective buyers knew they were essentially buying a race car, they didn’t want an entire team of engineers handy every time the car needed to be started.
The man responsible for this new design was Hanz Mezger. The 917 was so far ahead of its time and it only took one glance to know that Porsche had high expectations for what the car would be capable of doing. For example, the entire chassis weighed in at only 93lbs (42kg) thanks to space frame technology. Because it was so light, engineers had to make sure it was structurally sound because even the slightest little crack in the wrong place that goes undetected could end up in complete disaster for the car and its driver. How they accomplished this was to permanently pressurize the chassis with gas so that even the minutest of cracks would be immediately detected due to the loss of pressure. It’s quite brilliant when you think about it.
There were quite a few variations of the 917 built during its lifetime with a wide variety of engine options. The most powerful option was the 5.4L flat-12, and thanks to a twin turbo setup it reportedly produced a mind bending 1,580hp. That is more powerful than the current Bugatti Chiron in a car that weighs less than half as much. Granted, the original 917’s “only” had approximately 550hp coming from the 4.5L naturally aspirated flat-12. But still, the car was so light that it quickly became one of the fastest cars on the race track.
Initially, the 917 was almost “too fast.” On average it was 30km/h faster than its competitors, yet it was very difficult to drive. During testing, the talented test and racing driver, Brian Redman, went as far as to say the 917 “did not do well on the race track.” This must’ve been devastating news to Porsche executives that just dumped a whole lot of money and time into the project. It was eventually determined that the “long tail” of the 917 was causing a tremendous amount of lift at high speeds. Unfortunately, the 917 was plagued by these issues during the entire 1969 season and it translated to minimal success. Imagine how frustrating it must’ve been to have the fastest, most powerful car on the track, but yet not be able to utilize that speed and power efficiently.
The start of the 1970 season looked just as grim, especially when Porsche found out that Ferrari, one of their biggest rivals, had come up with a new 5.0L V12 powered race car called the 512 that was built specifically to take down the 917. However, Porsche wasn’t willing to give up because they knew once they worked out the kinks the 917 was going to be unstoppable. So they decided to enlist the help of John Wyer and the rest of the Gulf Racing Team, which eventually became the official Porsche Race Team. Together they were able to come up with a newly designed rear end that would directly address the aerodynamic issues that wreaked havoc during the 1969 season.
Thanks to the brilliant engineering mind of John Horsemann, the team was able to determine that increasing down force at the expense of drag would actually correlate to faster lap times. The 917 was already much faster than the competition so sacrificing a few miles per hour in order to give the drivers more control of the car paid off. They used a smaller wedge shaped tail that was molded with sheets of aluminum taped together. These modifications made all the difference and now the 917k was dominating races left and right. The 917k was so good that it quickly rose to the top and won the World Championship in both 1970 and 1971.
One race that I wanted to point out specifically was the very first race of the 1970 World Supercar Championship. The 917k was so dominant that it not only won the race with first and second place finishes, but it actually won by an astounding 45 laps, which happened to be the largest margin of victory throughout the long history of the legendary race. It was after that race the Porsche 917k earned the title of a true titan in the world of endurance racing. The 917k also went on to win the 24hr of Le Mans for the first time as well, and like I said above eventually the championship title for the 1970 season.
This particular 917k that you see here wears the iconic Gulf Livery with the baby blue and orange stripe that has donned many race cars over the years. It’s the chassis number 015 and it’s been restored to its original glory and can be seen at the Canepa Museum in California.
All Photos Thanks to Canepa