World's greatest racing car? Not likely

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The Porsche 917 was not always the great racer we remember it as today. As Richard Attwood tells Shaun Campbell, when it was new, it was a complete nightmare. He should know, he had to drive it

It was nominated by readers of Motor Sport as the world’s greatest racing car, and it’s not hard to see why. Back-to-back Le Mans wins in 1970 and ’71 and practically unbeatable in endurance sports car racing, it was developed into an 1100bhp McLaren-crushing CanAm car which triumphed in every single championship race in the 1973 season. It was perhaps the most awe-inspiring mad racer ever built. But, says Richard Attwood, the original specification Porsche 917 was also the worst car he ever drove.

“When it first came out it was just an animal,” he says today. “I’m not at all sure how the designers at the time theorised these things, but the people at Porsche had it stuck in their minds that there was sufficient downforce in this car so that even an idiot could drive it. I remember a similar thing with the Ford F3L from the year before. At the presentation at some London hotel they told us that at 200mph it would have something like 6001b of downforce on the tail. Well, believe me, there was none, and they had to add spoilers and wings and all kinds of things to make it work. Single-seaters don’t tend to have the same aerodynamic problems as sportscars with their all-enveloping bodies, and what made it worse was that we were driving the thing on the fastest circuits of all. There is a hell of a difference between driving at 100mph and 200mph and the higher the speed, the more apprehension you have when you don’t like what you’re driving.”

As Attwood remembers vividly, none of the class of ’69 Porsche 917 pilots liked what they were driving. “The factory drivers didn’t want to have anything to do with it,” he says. “The 908, either as the long-tailed coupe or the short-tailed Spyder, was quick enough to win everything anyway, so nobody was very keen to get into this thing that was maybe even quicker, but nowhere near as nice to drive.”

Two cars were entered for the Spa 1000Km race in May, but only one started the race after practice revealed just how terrifying the combination of 520bhp and no downforce could be. “I wasn’t at that meeting, and the car only lasted a few hundred yards before the engine supposedly failed,” says Attwood. “I can imagine what the driver did to make that happen.”

It next appeared at the Nürburgring —y the most suitable venue for an under-developed car — when Frank Gardner and David Piper were co-opted to drive it. The outspoken Gardner left Porsche in no doubt what he thought about the car. When he asked what a pressure gauge on the dashboard was for, the engineers told him that if the needle zeroed it meant that he should drive the car slowly back to the pits. If that happened, said Gardner, he would “Park the bastard and walk back.” In fact, he and Piper drove conservatively, but with very considerable courage, to finish eighth. The Porsche 908s occupied the first five places.

Attwood’s first meeting with the white monster came at Le Mans, just a few weeks later. “I wasn’t particularly keen, but someone said: ‘You, Herr Attwood, will be driving the 917 with Vic Elford, and there wasn’t much more to be said. There was a hell of a row that year, because the car was fitted with these little movable wing flippers and there was a big protest. Eventually, Rico Steinemann talked to the organisers and threatened to withdraw every Porsche from the race which was about half the field, so we were given the go-ahead. The funny thing is that those flippers were totally ineffective anyway. I doubt if it would have made a scrap of difference if we’d taken them off.”

Practice confirmed all of Attwood’s worst fears. “The further you went clown the Mulsanne Straight, the less you could see through the rear-view mirror, because the back of the car was just coming off the ground. At the kink, you had to brake and downshift, things you wouldn’t dream of doing in a decent car. The other problem we had was these new Goodyear tyres on very narrow wheel rims, which started chunking at speed. That was fortunate from my point of view because it meant we had to slow down a bit on the straights… which is exactly what wanted to do.”

Despite all the problems, though, the new Porsche was clearly in a class °fits own. Two works cars were entered one for Rolf Stommelen and Kurt Ahrens, the other for Attwood and Elford, and they dominated practice. Stommelen qualified on pole with a lap that was 13 seconds quicker than the pole-winning time from the year before. It was quicker even than the 7-litre Ford Mk4s managed in ’67, even though the circuit had been lengthened and slowed down considerably with a new chicane before the pit straight.

“There’s no doubt about it, it was massively quick,” remembers Attwood. “They timed one car at 235mph on the Mulsanne Straight, which was 20-30mph faster than anything they had ever clone before. Looking back, we could probably have stroked it, like Gardner and Piper had done at the Nürburgring, and we would have won so easily.” But, as Attwood also recalls wryly, drivers like Stommelen, Ahrens and, particularly, Elford, were not likely to do much stroking. “They would just take the bull by the horns and go for it,” he says. “And you can’t afford to be a laggard so you have to go along with it as well.”

The original 917 was for the brave, but not for the foolhardy. A third car, entered and driven by John Woolfe, crashed on the first lap of the race, killing its driver. “I think that explains how had the car was,” says Attwood. “The factory were trying to get Rudi Lins, one of their test drivers.to start the race, but Woolfe insisted on doing it. In retrospect he should never have been driving the car.”

The 1969 Le Mans 24 Hours is now remembered for the close battle in the closing stages between Jacky lckx in the venerable John Wyer Ford GT40 and Hans Herrmann in the Porsche 908. But for 12 hours the Porsche 917 of Attwood and Elford was in a race of its own, opening up a six-lap lead. “The gearbox casing broke in the end. It was cracking all the way round the bell-housing and let all the oil out. The engine dropped down in the chassis and eventually we couldn’t get any gears because the clutch shaft mechanism was holding the whole unit up and the clutch wouldn’t operate. And that was the end of that.”

It was, of course, only the beginning to the Porsche 917 story, though. “We went back to the factory for a debrief and we explained exactly what was wrong with the car and they promised to redesign this, that and the other. Then Brian Redman went testing in it at Zeltweg, but although they’d changed all kinds of things under the body, it still had all the same problems. It wasn’t until John Wyer got involved in the project that it started to improve. He realised the drivers weren’t all idiots – whereas Porsche presumably thought they were – and he reacted to the drivers’ inputs. First they removed the rear tail section completely and at once it was immediately and substantially better. Then came the upswept tail to give it some downforce, and after that, the car was just fantastic.”

At the final round of the 1969 season, at Zeltweg, Jo Siffert and Kurt Ahrens gave the much-modified Porsche 917 its first win, with Attwood and Redman taking third. By 1970 it had been developed into a truly magnificent racing car, and Attwood was able to make up for the disappointment of the year before by sharing a car with Hans Herrmann to victory at Le Mans. He came extremely dose to doing it again in 1971, finally settling for second place.

“I was lucky in that I drove a lot of good cars,” he says, “and in some ways the Porsche 917 was probably the best, certainly the most successful. But that original car in 1969 was definitely the worst.”

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