Back in the glory days of the Roman Empire, the alignment of the planets was considered to be critical to planning any major event. When the planets got together in line then the outlook was generally considered bleak, ask Julius Caesar, he was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44BC by a gang of friends and admirers when they thought that the position of Mars made him especially weak.
However sometimes the alignment is benign especially when combined with the law of unintended consequences. Back in mid 1967 it was announced by the sport’s governing body, the CSI, that unlimited displacement engined prototypes would be banned and a limit of 3 litres would be imposed. Dark conspiracy theories were talked of as this was a way of getting shot of Ford before they dominated everything with their amazing MKIVs. It also was a means of encouraging some French teams like Matra and Renault, both with 3 litre engined projects under development and the CSI was based in……..Paris! And of course Le Mans is in……..France! So we were going to have smaller, slower cars but as with most governing bodies of any sport they failed to spot the loopholes in their own regulations.
Others did not. For 1969 it was possible for a manufacturer to build 25 closed prototypes with an engine displacement of 5 litres and run under Group 5 rules. Still no one would go to that level of effort and cost would they? No one except Porsche and Ferrari. The result is that we were lucky enough to see the birth of the Ferrari 512 and more importantly, the Porsche 917, the most iconic sportscar of all time. Few, if any, cars in history have inspired the fans in the way that a 917, and in particular, a Gulf livered 917 has.
The planets really had the alignment situation under control as back then the coolest guy around, Steve McQueen, a real speed freak, decided to make a film about Le Mans and these fantastic cars. The dialogue is hopeless, the love interest never takes her raincoat off, which is odd in the baking June heat and the last lap takes about 15 minutes at top speed. Who cares? The film nearly bankrupted Steve but it immortalised the Gulf Porsches.
So it was entirely logical for the Festival of Speed this year to pay homage to 40 years of the 917. Of course the CSI had its revenge on Porsche and after 1971 the car was finally outlawed. Except like the great work of automotive art that it is, the 917 developed another phase, another legend. The ultimate 917 was the turbocharged 917/30 which was featured on SpeedHunters last year.
Actually type Porsche 917 into our search box and see what pops out.
Back to the Festival and we are going to have a look at the 917s that ran up the Hill last weekend. And being kinda wild we start with the 917/30 that Mark Donohue drove to win the Can-Am Championship in 1973. At Goodwood it was driven up the Hill by five time Le Mans victor, Derek Bell and in the second shot by Lord March himself.
As to the car well this is what I wrote last year:
The Porsche 917/30 (aka TurboPanzer) was quite simply the most awesome racing machine of its time, perhaps of all time. The engine was increased in capacity to 5.4 litres, giving a healthy 1100bhp in race trim, with up to 1300bhp available for qualifying. The chassis was lightened and the bodywork extended with particular attention being paid to aerodynamics, giving a marked increase in top speed. Performance figures quoted at the time make illuminating reading: 0-60 mph in 1.9 seconds, 0-100 mph in 3.9 seconds, 0-200 mph in 10.9 seconds, and a top speed of 257 mph…………………………..The massive horsepower on tap did not faze Penske’s lead driver, as Donohue put it “If you can make black marks on a straight from the time you turn out of a corner until the braking point of the next turn, then you have enough horsepower.
From the end of the line to another piece of wonderment, this Porsche 917K is chassis 013. Built in 1970 it finished fourth at the Sebring 12 Hours but then was sold to Solar, Steve McQueen’s production comapny that was making the Le Mans film during that year. It was then involved in huge accident while David Piper was at the wheel while travelling flat out between Arnage and Maison Blanche. The car ended up over the barriers and was cut in two. David Piper somehow survived but lost part of his lower leg in the crash. This was a case of Life imitating Art……it was a very dangerous time to be racing at the top level.
But still they did it…………as Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) puts it……………
“A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it….it’s life. Anything that happens before or after……is just waiting.”
The car was rebuilt by Porsche and then went on in 1971 to score wins in the 1000k races at Monza and Monjuich Park, the Daytona 24 Hours and most famously, the Zeltweg 1000k. Pedro Rodriguez was perhaps the driver most synonymous with the 917, giving many performances behind the wheel that have entered the Folklore of motorsport. Austria that day was one of his greatest drives, made all the more poignant by it being his last in a 917. He was killed two weeks later in Germany at the Norisring, at the time it was hard to believe that he was really gone. Going up to Silverstone the following week for the British Grand Prix I felt a huge gap on the grid with the abscence of the little Mexican.
At the Festival the car was driven, most appropriately by Jackie Oliver, who had shared victories at Daytona and Monza with Pedro in 1971.
As well as the success in the Endurance World Championship the 917 came to dominate Can-Am. The roots of this campaign in North America was the 917PA as seen above. This was chassis 028 that had the roof removed to try and get to be competitive with the 1969 McLarens. It was overweight, had twitchy handing but was pretty reliable and took Jo Siffert to fourth in the Championship despite missing three rounds at the beginning.
The bodywork was based on the Porsche 908/2 but by the end of the season had been extensively modified.
At the FoS the car was driven by Brain Redman.
Mention was made earlier of David Piper’s accident while filming “Le Mans”. What I did not say was that he owns and still races a 917, chassis 010, amazing.
David will be 79 in December and is a fixture at all the important Historic meetings, long may he continue.
Chassis 023 was the 917 that gave Porsche its first outright victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours with Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann in 1970.
Attwood was reunited with his 917 at the Festival………or was he? There is some controversy after it was discovered that chassis number plates had beeen switched around while the car was in California during the 70s…………………it is difficult to get a straight answer.
1972 saw Porsche really take the challenge to McLaren in the Can-Am Championship. The campaigns in earlier years had shown that despite increasing the flat 12 engine to 5.4 litres and getting the power up in the region of 660bhp the car could not hack it with the lighter, even more powerful McLarens, so something must be done. One answer was to build an 8 litre flat 16 with a power output around 880bhp but that was going to be a monster. Another answer was to fit two Eberspacher truck turbos. This had the desired effect and the extra power was used to keep the speed up in the corners despite a massive increase in downforce.
The 917/10k was the first car to get turbos to work well on a circuit and the McLarens had no answer to this revolution. All of this was underpinned by the effort being run by Penske who set the standards back then that they use today. An early season testing accident put lead driver, Mark Donohue out of two races and handed the points initiative to his team mate, George Follmer, who duly took the 1972 title.
A year earlier Porsche had revised the original 917PA Can-Am car to produce the 917/10 for Jo Siffert to take over to challenge in North America. Overweight and underpowered it did not really do the job.
By the standards of 917s it was a failure but a welcome addition to the class at the Festival.
Chassis 917-030 is unique. Purchased originally for Martini Racing in 1971 it was converted to be street legal for Count Rossi in 1974. The Porsche factory made only a few modifications. A new exhaust system, additional mirrors and a leather interior were the main changes.
Count Rossi struggled with the authorities to get the car registered for road use in Europe, so took it to the USA and voila! It is still in the family and the Count’s son drove it at Goodwood.
Despite the best efforts of the team, victory at Le Mans eluded JW Automotive when they ran the 917s. The best finish came in 1971 when Richard Attwood and Herbert Muller managed second in 026.
In 1970 the car ahd been heavily crashed in the rain at Le Mans. Driver Mike Hailwood had to face the music from team boss, John Wyer, who never took driver errors well.
Final 917 up the hill was the original 917/10. After the Can-Am rules effectively outlawed the Porsches it returned to Europe and raced in the Interserie with Willi Kauhsen.
The Festival’s tribute to the 917 was very popular with the fans crowding round the paddock getting up close and personal with their mechanical heroes.
There will never be another car like the 917, from film star to speed merchant, it had everything