5 min read •
During the sixties there were profound changes in the status quo of motorsport: in the rallies was the surprising revolution caused by the small Mini-Cooper, in Formula 1 the growth of the English teams, the garagisti, as Enzo Ferrari called them, with some disdain, and the duel for supremacy between Ferrari and Ford, in the Sport-Prototypes races. The latter, motivated by the strong will of the American brand to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, led to an increase in the power of the huge engines that equipped these Group 6 cars, Ferrari (a 4 L engine), Ford and Chaparral (both 7 L).
In order to reduce the high speeds achieved by these vehicles, the FIA's CSI (Commission Sportive Internationale), limited the participation in the future World Sports Car Championship to vehicles of the new Group 6, with 3-liter engines and to Group 4 cars, equipped with engines limited to 5 liters displacement, with a mandatory minimum production of 25 units, to take effect from 1969. Porsche, already dominant in the endurance races in the lower classes, saw here the opportunity to fight for absolute victories and, led by Ferdinand Piëch and under the technical direction of Hans Mezger, developed the 917 project.
The 917 model was an enhanced version of the 908, a 3 L sports car, which has been so successful in the 1960s. The original version of the Posche 917, introduced in 1969, used a multitubular light alloy chassis derived from the 908 and a 12 opposite cylinders, 4.5-liter, air-cooled engine, with double overhead camshaft, for distribution, and 2 spark plugs per cylinder, for ignition, and which delivered about 520 bhp of maximum power at about 6,000 rpm. The transmission used a manual 4 or 5 speeds gearbox of the marque. The suspensions were of double wishbones with springs and dampers. The bodywork was wider and longer than that of the 908 and showed careful aerodynamics, which followed the standards of the time.
Between 1969 and 71 the german marque built 37 of these cars, of no less than 11 different versions, with different aerodynamic configurations and engines with a displacement ranging from 4.5 L and 4.9 L to 5-liters.
At its headquarters in Modena, Ferrari was also preparing itself for the new championship. The purchase of 50% of the brand by FIAT, in 1969, allowed the construction of the 25 cars needed for the homologation of the new 512 model, which, powered by new V12 5-liter engines, would be Porsche's great rivals.
The original 917 model debuted in competition in 1969 and the first victory came in the last race of the year, the 1,000 km of Zeltweg, by a private team. Its aerodynamics, very elaborate for the time, generated, however, positive lift at the rear and made the car very unstable.
For the following year, the German brand developed the 908/03 model for the most sinuous races and used the 917 on the fastest tracks.
In order to solve the stability problems that have been revealed since its debut, the brand has scheduled a test session with one of its future official teams, John Wyer Engineering. The solution found was the adoption of a truncated rear, which made the new 917K an extremely effective competition vehicle. This allowed Porsche to defeat Ferrari and won 9 of the 10 races of 1970’s World Sport Championship, among which the much desired first absolute victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, by the 917K nº23 of the official Porsche Salzburg team.
For 1971, Porsche developed a new magnesium chassis for the 917. The season was dominated by the official team of John Wyer (Gulf Team) and Martini Racing cars, which would, with the 917K nº22, guarantee the second absolute victory at Le Mans. In that event, the 917 set 4 new records: the fastest qualifying lap, the fastest lap in the race, the highest top speed and the longest distance in race.
For 1972 Porsche left Ferrari free to dominate the new World Championship of Maques, with the engine displacement being reduced to 3,000 cc, and turned its attention to the very popular Can-Am Championship, held in North America.
By the time this championship was dominated by McLaren, with little opposition. Porsche developed the 917/10, fitted with a new spider bodywork with greater negative lift, better suited to the winding tracks of the Can-Am. Equipped with a turbocharged 12 opposite cylinders, 5-liter, engine, that delivered approximately 850 bhp of maximum power, and, driven by George Follmer, the new Porsche beat McLaren, which abandoned the competition at the end of the season, to focus in F1 and Formula Indy.
In the following year Porsche developed and aligned the 917/30, equipped with a 5.4 liter supercharged engine with two turbochargers, that reached close to 1,600CV of maximum power. With a revised aerodynamics on an elongated wheelbase chassis, the new model won all the championship races. As this championship was losing popularity, Porsche abandoned the competition at the of 1973.
This was the end of the 917 saga and the German brand turned to its natural environment, in endurance races. Thus, he developed its 911 models equipped with turbochargers, which would give rise to the future 934 and 935 model series and also to the 936 of Sport-Prototypes. With the models Porsche would, again, dominate the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the other Sport races all around the World.
The 917 model marked an era, on the transition from classic to modern cars, and went down in the history of motorsport as one of the most beautiful and effective sports cars ever.