Porsche 917: 40 years old today
With all the regulatory leaps, shuffles, sidesteps and retreats taken on by Formula One and Motorsport in general, it is interesting to reflect on the incredible achievements and performance of the totemic Porsche 917, which is approaching its fortieth birthday this year. For balls-out speed, nothing has surpassed it. And as we think you’ll agree, its looks are pretty devastating too.
Porsche fired the starting shot for Project 917 in June 1968, after the international motor sports authority announced a class of ‘homologated sports cars’ with up to five litres engine capacity and a minimum weight of 800kg. Under the supervision of Ferdinand Piëch, the stipulated 25 units of the new racing car model were completed by April 1969 so that the 917 could begin its racing career in the same year. After it initially dropped out of its first three races due to technical problems, the 917 success story began in August 1969 with victory at a 1,000-kilometre race at the Österreichring driven by Jo Siffert and Kurt Ahrens.
The engine configuration of the 917 was just as unusual as the different body styles the car was presented in. Behind the driver’s seat lay an air-cooled, twelve-cylinder engine with horizontal cylinders, whose crankshaft designated it as a 180-degree V engine. The 520 hp engine had an initial cubic capacity of 4.5 litres. The tubular frame was made of aluminium, the car body out of glass fibre reinforced synthetics.
Porsche engineers developed different body styles to best meet the different demands of different race track configurations. The so-called short-tail ‘Kurz’ model (pictured above) was designed for heavily twisting circuits in which a high tyre contact pressure was necessary for fast cornering. The long-tail ‘Langheck’ model was designed for fast race tracks and an ultimate high top speed. These were followed by the open 917 Spyders, which were used in the CanAm and Interseries races (both ‘Langheck’ and ‘Spyder’ versions are pictured below).
Both the 1970 and 1971 seasons were dominated by the 917 model so that the Racing Series World Championship went to Porsche again with eight out of ten race victories. And once more, a Porsche 917 was victorious at the Le Mans 24-Hour race – this time with Gijs van Lennep and Dr Helmut Marko, who set a world record with an average speed of 138mph (222 km/h) and 3,313 miles (5,335km) driven, a record that still stands today.
A 917 long-tail coupe model set a further record in 1971. On the Mulsanne straight, which is part of the route in the Le Mans 24-Hour race, the sports car with the start number 21 recorded the highest speed of 240mph (387 km/h). Another Le Mans race car achieved major recognition. The Porsche 917/20 was a mix between the short-tail and the long-tail models and was notable for its broad proportions. Although the pink coloured racecar, nicknamed ‘the Pig’, dropped out halfway through the race, its unusual paint colour made it one of the most famous Porsche models ever.
The point is, as the spectacle of the F1 circus fires up for 2009, that technological advances in both the cars themselves and the communication of the spectacle might be making things more accessible to a global audience – but it’s not necessarily making the cars go any faster.
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