Porsche 917 track test

You may know Silverstone's national circuit. For those who do not, it's short and very tight. After the pits it swerves right at Copse, left at Maggotts and then hard right again at Becketts. It then runs down a short straight to another sharp left at Brooklands, onto the long, slow right at Luffield which leads you to Woodcote and the start of a new lap.

I mention this now to put into perspective something it was difficult not to notice when driving Richard Attwood's Porsche 917 on the circuit. With admittedly short gear ratios and a rev-limit perhaps 800rpm below what would be used at Le Mans, I had to lift my foot off the accelerator while in top gear to avoid over-revving the engine on three occasions every lap. Just before Copse, again before Becketts and finally on the run down to Brooklands.

Consider next the car itself. Chassis number 022 has a standard 4.5-litre engine, a four-speed gearbox and bodywork so aerodynamically unfriendly that when Attwood drove its identically configured and liveried sister 023 to victory at Le Mans in 1970, it pulled just 205mph on the Mulsanne straight. A 5-litre, 5-speed long-tail 917 would be capable of perhaps 245mph. The point is this: in a straight line at least, Porsche 917s come no slower than this.

This is incredible. So explosive, so consuming is this car's acceleration, so lurid were the stories I had heard about what a 917 would do if refused the respect it deserved, that entire laps came and went before I chose even to put my foot to the floor.

Such is the luxury of time. Too often in this game you find yourself on a crowded and quite possibly wet track with an owner who, understandably, wants to see his pride and joy not simply returned in the requisite number of pieces but also within a very small number of laps. To be let loose for a day on a dry, safe and deserted circuit with an owner keen only to ensure that, by the close of play, no illusions remain about the nature of the beast is an almost mythologically rare occasion.

But first a small word from history. This 917 is not one of the most famous of the breed. Though built in 1969, its first duty did not come until 1970 when it was commandeered by Steve McQueen's Solar Productions for his film 'Le Mans'. Though it sported Gulf livery, its role was that of camera car and stand-in, should one of the other 917s break or be crashed. If you know where to look you can still see the brackets used for mounting the cameras.

It was not used in anger until 1971 when it was run and driven by Reinhold Joest. By then its 4.5-litre engine and four-speed 'box offered scant opposition to the 5-litre, five-speed works cars and the season offered only a fourth at Spa and a sixth at Brands Hatch. From there it found its way to Brian Redman who sold it to Attwood in 1978; Richard has raced and demonstrated it only rarely since.

But if 022's life has been less glamorous than that of some of its bretheren so, equally, have the last 30 years taken a lesser toll on it. For a start, it is almost entirely original, the only major modification being the John Wyer rear bodywork bought by Attwood from David Piper to mimic the lines of his Le Mans winner; in all other respects it is as it was in 1970.

Until you see one in the flesh, you'll not credit how small a 917 is. Sitting in one of Silverstone's pit garages it seems incredibly compact. The mind's eye says a 917 is a big bruiser of a racer; reality proves otherwise. Its only vastness is in the engine bay where the flat-12 sprawls across the back of the car pushing the cabin forward towards the front wheels.

The trick when climbing aboard is not to think about your feet too much. There is a removable panel in the nose of the car which reveals what stands between human flesh and whatever it might hit in a head-on accident; there's a tiny steel tube, 1.2mm of bodywork and the pedals. That's it. Those who found themselves in an out-of-control 917 went to extraordinary lengths to ensure that, one way or another, it did not hit nose first.

It's a reasonably easy car to jump into, though care must be taken where to stand and rest your hands. Most of the paper-thin bodywork, for instance, is off limits and even the door must always he held open for you lest the merest puff of winds slams it shut or rips it open.

The cabin, to be frank, is not attractive but at least it all makes reasonable sense. You sit very low and so reclined your knees feel almost as high as your head. The wheel is a surprising stretch away but at least provides a clear view between its three simple spokes to the three simple dials in the instrument binnacle. There's a rev-counter flanked by readouts for oil pressure and temperature and, unless you count the ammeter, located almost out of sight in front of the passenger's space, that's it.

It's hard to remember that the rules required these cars to be two-seaters and harder still to imagine what shape an adult would have to be to squeeze in next to the driver. Nevertheless, regulations required those cars in the 'production' category of racing which the 917 had so sneakily infiltrated to have at least a passing resemblance to road cars and the evidence is all around the car, from the handbrake to the tiny luggage stores under the rear wing.

So how do you drive this legendary beast, this car voted by a panel of 50 of the sport's greatest names as 'The Greatest Racing Car of All Time'? You turn the key and go. That's all; a Porsche 917 is as easy to start as a Ford Fiesta. This is instructive and suggests again that pragmatism plays as large a part in the secret of this car's success as pure power. As my day with the car elapsed, I learned more about this hidden talent. How many retirements were saved by its all-syncromesh gearbox and how many mistakes were avoided by a driver kept alert by the jet of cold air the ventilation system directs onto your face? Minimal instrumentation reduces the risk of distraction at over 200mph too...

Even so, all that's for later for, right now, the 917 is still sitting in the pits, bellowing its way to an acceptable working temperature. It takes an age of idling and blipping of the throttle before the oil temperature needle shows the smallest sign of life. Outside the air temperature hovers just a fraction above freezing and we decide to run the Porsche on wet weather tyres, their super-soft compound offering our only chance of generating some warmth on a day such as this. The slicks the 917 usually uses stay under cover.

Easing out into the pit-lane is easy thanks to the bright spark who dropped oil all over the floor of the garage. With the oil temperature at last off the stop, the wheels spin as soon as the clutch bites and we trickle out into the sunlight at walking pace and idling speed. Neat trick, that.

There is no point at all driving as fast as possible tight now. Quite apart from the clear and horrendous potential for disaster inherent in trying too hard too soon, there's always so much to be missed about a car's nature when flying around a circuit within a tenth of your own personal limit. It's much better to lap gently, at about the pace of say, a modern Porsche 911 being driven flat out. For now.

Even at this pace, intimidation is everywhere. At first it stems from what you already know about its value and the fact that far better drivers than me have come to grief in such cars. Very soon, however, this recedes to be replaced by more practical worries. You can feel the flat-12 sitting behind you, occupying so much of the car's mass you feel as if attached to the wrong end of fast moving ball and chain.

Then there's the visibility; I'd be alright as I had the track to myself but how anyone was expected to race at a wet Le Mans with such vast performance differentials between competitors escapes me. There is little to be seen behind the car and nothing at all over the shoulder. I put this to Attwood who shrugged and said, "I never thought it was that bad; good enough for racing for sure. Besides, in one of these, cars tended not to come racing up behind you..." I'd not thought of that.

The 917 itself is easy enough to drive at such speeds, albeit surprisingly physical for such a light machine. The steering is heavy, the gearbox heavier still. But so long as you obey the one hard rule laid down by Attwood and make sure each gear is engaged before releasing the clutch, you'll not make a mistake with it. "Siffert needlessly lost Le Mans by doing exactly that," recalls Richard, "He was in traffic, going past the pits, grabbed a gear, missed it and blew the engine to bits." The throttle is heavy too.

Even short shifting at 5000rpm, the noise is all 917, unique to the only successful racing car ever to employ an air-cooled flat-12. I'd hoped it would sing the same complex yet peculiarly hollow song of the 917s employed in the McQueen movie and am delighted to hear the same music, albeit amplified to stadium volume.

Inside, I don't feel at home yet and can only hope it's because I'm not yet using the car for the purpose for which it was designed. Everything seems so deliberate, each gearchange more of a prod than a flick, each input to the steering calculated in advance by the head, not flowing without conscious thought from the shoulders and wrists. Only the brakes, offering sure and easy retardation in exchange for a surprisingly light stab at the pedal, offer much in the way of reassurance.

The only option is to go much faster. No-one is in the pits with a board telling me when to come in and, within reason, I have as long as I like; but there is now no reason at all not to drive the 917 as quickly as I can make it go.

The Porsche 917 engine will pull effectively from 3000rpm and is, therefore, an unreasonably flexible and accommodating racing motor. However, that and certain elements of its noise is the entire extent of the common ground it shares with its behaviour above 5000rpm. I discovered this at the exit of Becketts. Adjectives flooded my head as, according to bystanders, the Porsche almost got its front wheels off the ground as it leapt down the track. I think 'insane.' was the most popular. Mathematics will tell you no Le Mans car built today would keep up with even this most standard of 917s in a straight line and, inside, it's not difficult to believe.

Subjectively, it feels quicker than any other closed car I've driven. This is stomping performance, accompanied by a shrieking soundtrack, disturbed only by brief crackle between gears and the all too long periods spent in top gear with right foot pressed only gently forward, ensuring the tell-tale on the rev-counter goes no further than the specified 7200rpm. Once you have discovered such performance, you cannot help but use it all, all of the time.

You have to push it through the corners too. Attwood's promise that the car contained none of the handling foibles that wreaked such havoc with the undeveloped 917 and his suggestion that I really should have a proper charge in it clinched it.

The treaded Avons made sure that finding the adhesion limit would not be too difficult and it was simple enough to provoke the nose to err away from the apex in the third gear Luffield bend; even so it would still wolf down Copse in the business end of top gear so do not doubt the amount of grip available. Only through Becketts did I lack the imagination required to stop me jumping on the throttle too hard and early, just to see what happened next.

The answer is nothing particularly clever. There's oversteer, of course, but while the tail moves swiftly, it is not uncontainable and can be rounded up and dispatched without lurid, last-gasp drama or even an appreciable delay. One neat little wiggle and you're barrelling up the road to Brooklands again.

And it's only when you drive a 917 like this that it starts to feel what it is: a 30 year old racing car. Its John Wyer tail may have saved lives, stopped 917s flying off the Mulsanne Straight and won countless races but in terms of what's accepted today as downforce, it offers almost nothing. The car feels soft and restless in fast corners when a modern racer would be rooted to the spot. It squirms under hard braking and, in all respects other than brake effort, requires double the physical effort to drive slow or fast.

That it feels more alive than a modern racer is a given; it doesn't matter if you're driving a Porsche, Ford, Ferrari or Lola of this vintage, they communicate in a way that has long left the sportscar agenda. Yet the 917 feels different, even to its contemporaries.

As you drive faster, the calculated progress required to pilot it at first dissolves and you find you no longer have to mentally check each gearchange, preset each pedal effort as the laps ease seamlessly into each other. But it never lets you forget that this is no toy, that it is not a car to be chucked about nor one likely to forgive those who do not respect it.

It is no less than I anticipated. The Porsche 917 is not a quaint old thing, a charming, antiquated geriatric racer: it is as serious a tool for a race track as you're likely to find, as thrilling now as it was then, still fast enough to challenge the world's greatest drivers, let alone me, and, I do not doubt, every bit as capable of wreaking human havoc should it all go wrong.

For perhaps two decades I have waited for the moment when I would be left with only a deserted track and a 917 for company. That's 20 years of expectation I had built up in my mind, an in-built mountain of childish hype no car could be expected to scale. Now the day is gone, the best and most honest thing I can tell you about the Porsche 917 is that it vaulted that mountain in one bound.

Our sincere thanks to Richard Attwood for lending us his Porsche, and to the British Racing Drivers Club for providing Silverstone for the day.