Is the Porsche 917 the greatest race car ever?

 

Porsche has many legendary racers in its stable.   Does one of them have what it takes to be named the greatest race car ever?

Porsche is one of the most iconic automotive brands in the world having a rich heritage in motorsports going back to the 1950s. While there are many notable race-cars in Porsche’s rich racing heritage, there is one that model that stands above the rest, the Porsche 917.  In fact, when Motor Racing magazine asked racing experts are asked to name the greatest race car, they named the Porsche 917 the greatest race car ever.

Just what is it that leads many to name the Porsche 917 the greatest race car ever?

Developed to race in a class of cars with smaller engines than the Ford GT40, the 917 gave Porsche its first overall win at the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans in both 1970 and 1971. However, it did not start out that way. Porsche was persistent working through the issues to come up with a winning formula.

Origin of the Porsche 917

The Porsche 917 was borne out of the need to reduce the speeds generated at the time at Le Man and other fast racecourses. Dominated by unlimited capacity racers such as the 7.0 Ford GT40, the Federation International de l’automobile (FIA), the International racing governing body announced a new class of racing for sports cars with engines having a maximum capacity of 5 liters and weighed at least 1,760 pounds.

With an initial homologation target of 25 vehicles to incentivize manufacturers to participate, Porsche responded by announcing that they were going to take participate in the series. Their entry was the Porsche 917 that was to focus on the 1969 season.

Prior to this time, Porsche was rebuilding race cars with a new chassis after every first or second race, selling the used race cars to customers. By opting to participate in the Group 4 class, Porsche committed to design and build 25 examples of the 917.

Based on the Porsche 908, the Porsche 917 was developed in 10 months. It was unveiled to the motoring public at the Geneva Motor Show on March 12, 1969. The show car was painted white with a green nose and a black No. 917 and priced at the equivalent cost of 10 Porsche 911s.

Development of the Porsche 917

The Porsche 917 was designed by chief engineer Hans Mezger under the guidance of Ferdinand Piech and Helmuth Bott, lead engineer of the legendary 911. It was built around a very light space frame weighing less than 100 pounds that was permanently pressurized to detect leaks in the welded structure.

Power of the initial run of 917s was from a new 4.5-liter air-cooled engine that was a combination of 2 2.25 liter flat 6 engines that saw use in previous racing cars and would go onto power the iconic 911. Code-named the “Type 912”, the engine had a 180 degree flat-12 cylinder layout, twin camshafts driven from centrally mounted gears and twin spark plugs fed through two distributors (). The engine was topped with a horizontally mounted cooling fan.

Power was put to the ground through a longitudinally-mounted gearbox designed to hold four or five gear sets. The original 4.5-liter engine produced 520 horsepower, could go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 2.5 seconds and had a top speed of close to 250 miles per hour.  The Type 912 engine was a first for Porsche in several respects. It was the company’s first 12-cylinder engine. It was also made of several exotic metals such as titanium and magnesium as well as other exotic alloys.

Versions of the Porsche 917

During its run, there were 11 different versions of the 917 created. They are as follows:

1969 917
Designed to run in the World Sportscar Championship, this is the original 917. It had the 4.5 liter Type 912 Boxer engine.

1969 917 PA (Porsche-Audi)
This was an open-topped short-tailed version of the 917 designed to run in the Can-Am championship. In 1970, it was built with an experimental 6.6-liter flat-16 producing 740 bhp. It never raced with this engine configuration.

1970 917K (Short-tail)
The aerodynamics of the 1969 917 were a problem at speed. Three days of testing with customer team John Wyer Engineering solved the problem. The result of these changes were the 1970 917K (Kurzheck, German for “short-tail).

1970 917L
Stability at speed is of paramount importance on high-speed tracks such as Le Mans. Long-tail configurations tend to work best in these types of environments. The 1970 917L was purpose-built for Le Mans.

1971 917K
The 1971 917K was developed from the 1970 917K and is identified by a vertical fin on each tail. A magnesium-framed version of the 1971 917K won Le Mans that year.

1971 917 LH
The 1971 917LH was further developed from the 1970 917L and was made to compete in only one race: the 1971 Le Mans 24 Hours. Changes were made not only to the tail but the nose as well. Three 1971 917LHs were entered into that year’s Le Mans.

1971 917 Interserie Spyder
Three were built for the German Interserie championship, 2 were converted from two Porsche 917Pas and one from a crashed 917K. They were very successful winning the 1971 Interserie championship

1971 917/10
Derived from the 917PA, this vehicle was run in the North American Can-Am championship.

1971 917/20
Also known as the “Pink Pig” for its unique pink color and meat cuts livery, this vehicle was used a research and development testbed of aerodynamic concepts. It raced in the 1971 Le Mans where it was retired after a big accident.

1972 917/10
Because of a change in Can-Am regulations, this version was rendered obsolete for the series. Displacement was increased to 5.0 liters and twin turbochargers were added, giving the car a huge boost in horsepower.

1973 917/30
The 1973 917/30 is perhaps the most powerful race car to have ever existed. It had a twin-turbocharged 5.4 liter Type 912 engine that put out between 1100 and 1580 horsepower, depending upon boost. It also had new bodywork. These cars so dominated Can-Am that it killed the popularity of the series.

Between 1969 and 1971, a total of 43 naturally aspirated cars (36 K, 5 LB, and 2 Spyders) and 16 Turbo (13 917/10 and 3 917/30) cars were built, for a total of 59 917s) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Porsche_917).

Is the Porsche 917 the greatest race car ever?

The first racing season for the 917 was 1969 where it debuted at the 1969 1000KM Spa. The 917 started the race but did not finish because the team switched to the 908 as a result of bad weather.

In the 1969 1000KM Nurburgring, the 917 was the fastest car in practice but its set up was not well suited to the twisty track of the Nurburgring. As a result, the team opted for the trusty 908s and a 917 finished in 8th place. At its third and final race of the 1969 season, the 917 logged its first win at the 1000KM Zeltweg.

The 1970 racing season for the 917 started focused on development. Once the kinks were ironed out, the 917 went onto to win races at Daytona, Brands Hatch, Spa, Monza, the Nurburgring, the Targa Florio, and Watkins Glen, and the Osterreichring. However, the big win came at Le Mans in the form of a first and second-place finish with a 917K and 917LH, respectively. The 917 won 9 of the 10 races that year to win the World Championship of Makes trophy.

1971 was equally successful for the 917, successfully defending its world trophy by winning 8 of its 10 races, including the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In that race, it set a record of 240 miles per hour on the Mulsanne straight, a record that stands to this day.

The Porsche 917 so dominated the previous two years that the FIA changed the rules rendering the vehicle unable to compete. Porsche responded by bringing the 917 to North America, entering it in the Sports Car Club of America’s Canadian American Challenge Cup or Can-Am. Having fewer regulations than FIA, Porsche modified the engine to produce between 1,100 and 1,580 bhp, depending upon boost. As would be expected, the 917 went on to dominate Can-Am as well.

While the Porsche 917 got off to a slow start, it has gone down in history as one of the most significant racing cars in history. When 50 motorsports experts from Britain’s Motor Sport Magazine were asked to name the “greatest racing car in history”, they cited the Porsche 917.

Conclusion

Porsche is one of the top automotive brands in the World.  It has a racing pedigree that is second to none.  The Porsche 917 is largely responsible for putting the manufacturer on the map in terms of sports car racing.

The initial launch of the 917 was plagued with problems.  Once the issues were addressed, the 917 went on to win the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1970 and 1971 in addition to several other important races.

The legacy of the legendary Porsche 917 has had a huge impact in creating the company that Porsche is today.

What are your thoughts on the Porsche 917?  Is it deserving of its reputation as one of the greatest racing cars in history?  Let us know in your comments below.

Here is a great period piece from John Wyer about the Porsche 917.

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