They were all just stories. They had to be. Of course a Porsche 917/30 would not actually spin its rear wheels at over 120mph.
I mean, have you seen those wheels? Or the acres of fresh Avon racing rubber that cover them? And it’s not as if there is a lot of car in need of propelling: dry of all liquids, just 850kg all told. Lighter than the smallest, lightest Smart car.
And then there was the power. In period the actual horsepower of this 5.4-litre, twin-turbo flat 12, in standard racing output, was a little in excess of 1100bhp. But then again Porsche wouldn’t let me out with that under my right foot, surely? Not for a demo at Goodwood, and not in this of all its cars.
The only person ever to win a Can-Am race in a Porsche 917/30 was Mark Donohue, and he only raced two of these cars. One is in captivity in the US and this is the other. This car has only ever been raced by Mark, and it has never been out of Porsche’s hands. This car, 917/30-002, was the first 917/30 to win a Can-Am race. The idea that I would be released in it unfettered seemed rather fanciful at best.
But I was wrong. Here’s a snapshot of a telephone call between the Franchitti brothers. Dario has been watching the live feed of my run at Goodwood, sees something on the screen and feels an urgent need to call Marino: “Tell me that was clutch slip,” he says to his little brother. “No mate,” says Marino, “that was wheel spin. Wheel spin.”
It seems odd to be responsible for such a moment, but what the four-time IndyCar champion and triple Indy 500 winner is asking about is a moment I’ll be remembering for a good while yet.
I’ve encountered wheel spin plenty of times on the Goodwood pit straight, because you enter it via a rather slow chicane and tend to bury the throttle on the way out. True, this wheel spin was on the pit straight too, but at the other end of it. At the fast end. The end where you should be thinking about losing speed, not gaining. But there it was, just at that moment I thought it finally safe to leave my foot on the floor. Before I had time to react, the tell-tale on the tachometer had flicked from 6000rpm to 7200rpm. This was the top end of third gear: it only has four gears and fourth is geared to do 220mph. So you tell me how fast it was travelling when it tried to incinerate its Avons…
“This is the ultimate version of the car readers of this magazine voted to be the greatest of all time”
When it was all over, I asked a question the answer to which I should probably have found out before we even started. Exactly how much power did the car have today, right here and right now?
The engineer shrugged apologetically. “I am sorry but we do not know for sure. More than 1100 horsepower for sure, but maybe not much.”
What I had just driven was the best of the best. The fastest, most highly developed and just plain greatest version of the car that readers of this magazine voted the greatest racing car of all time. It can never, could never, get better than this.
Here’s a question. in the space between the first 917/30 firing up for the first time on November 10 1972 and the end of the 1973 season, whereafter Can-Am racing was made to run to a fuel-consumption formula which effectively killed the series and certainly the 917/30’s competitiveness in it, how many people won any kind of race in a Porsche 917/30 – any Porsche 917/30?
The answer is two. Donohue is of course best known for driving the car. He raced chassis 002 and 003 to six wins in eight races in the 1973 Can-Am championship. Sadly, he died nearly 44 years ago during practice for the 1975 Austrian Grand Prix. The other is Victor Henry Elford.
This is because the original test car, chassis 001, never left Europe and was instead campaigned in the Interserie championship, a somewhat less prestigious series, but one that nevertheless ran to the same Group 7 regulations as Can-Am.
Elford came out of semi-retirement to do one race at Hockenheim. And despite the fact he’d never driven it before and the small matter of it having close to double the power of any other car he’d raced, Vic put the 917/30 on pole, then won the race by three minutes, leading home a Porsche parade that filled the first nine places. “It was such a lovely car to drive,” mused Vic over dinner the evening before I drove it. “Twice the power of the 917 I first drove in 1969 and none of its vices.”
“I changed gear at 150mph and it left thick black lines behind it”
I asked him what it was really like to race. “I can’t really tell you I’m afraid. It was never in the plan to actually race it. The plan was to start in front and stay in front. No racing required. And that’s exactly what we did.
“What I remember most clearly was when it came out of the old Ostkurve and I changed from third to fourth at 150mph, it could still leave thick black lines behind it. I did find that quite impressive…”
Less than 24 hours later, I had some first-hand experience of what he said.
Of Mark Donohue’s thoughts on the car, we have only the written word, though these are fairly unequivocal. After his dominant 1973 season he said: “At this time, there is nothing in the world any quicker, any better handling, any more advanced technically and any more fun to drive.” And he’s not just talking within the world of Can-Am cars. His fastest lap of the race that he won at Watkins Glen in this very car was over two seconds quicker than any F1 car would go on the same track later that year in the US Grand Prix.
In popular imagination the 917 Can-Am story starts at the end of 1971 when Porsche stormed out of the World Sports Car Championship (when the 917 was effectively banned) sailed across the Atlantic and steam-rollered Can-Am, first with the 917/10 in 1972, then with the 917/30 the next year. But while the Porsche factory team did indeed make its Can-Am debut with the 917, it was with a very different 917 to that seen here, and in a different decade. It was August 1969, just over three months after the 917 had raced for the very first time in Europe. The car was called the PA Spyder and surrounded by McLarens, Lolas, the odd Chaparral and Ferrari, Jo Siffert brought it home a very creditable fourth overall. But the car was basically a 908 Spyder chassis complete with the early 4.5-litre normally aspirated engine.
What is sad about Porsche’s tentative early steps into the Can-Am field is that Siffert was the driving force behind it, yet did not live to see the project through. It is poignant to wonder what he would have made of the 917/30.
Although few noticed them, Siffert’s efforts in Can-Am in 1971 had been extraordinary. Using a new car called the 917/10 and entered under his own name (albeit with a car designed and engineered by Porsche) he scored a string of impressive results: third on the debut at Watkins Glen, second at Mid-Ohio, second at Road America and so on, and all with a car hopelessly down on power relative to those of the full works McLaren team with its enormous ‘big banger’ Chevy V8s. If the missing horsepower could be located, the implications were clear.
Perhaps surprisingly to us reading this almost 50 years later, it was not immediately obvious where the source of that power might lie. Ferdinand Piëch favoured adding a cylinder to each corner of the extant flat-12 motor to create a 16-cylinder monster. It was evaluated at various capacities, built and even run in the back of the long-suffering PA Spyder: in 7.2-litre guise it had 880bhp, which was probably enough to put Porsche on a par with McLaren. But the engine was complex, heavy and, most importantly, required an extension in wheelbase that ruined the car’s handling.
So it was decided to turbocharge the existing motor, a move that liberated even more power and did so at a fraction of the cost and with no need to redesign the chassis to accommodate it. Turbocharging was hardly in its infancy even in 1971: pole position for the 1952 Indy 500 had been won by a car using a Cummins turbo-diesel engine while GM had even sold turbocharged road cars in the early 1960s, but these were short-lived projects and the technology was far from perfected.
Porsche had charged Roger Penske with running its Can-Am programme in America as it had John Wyer for the World Sports Car Championship, and at first Mark Donohue found the engine all but undriveable. Despite all Porsche’s development efforts through the latter part of 1971 with both Siffert and Willi Kauhsen driving, smoothing out the engine’s wild power delivery remained at best a work in progress.
To begin with the car was so difficult to drive that it was no quicker than with the normally aspirated engine. But working with both the factory and Bosch over the winter, a fuel injection pump was created that provided a torque curve that was at least manageable. It became known as the ‘happy pump’. And it was the happy pump as much as the additional power that turned the 917 into a competitive Can-Am car. The engine was reliable, driveable and had 900bhp with the boost turned down. Once they had it, all other competitors were toast.
By 1972 then, the 917/10 was the class of the field. It won six out of nine rounds despite Donohue having to sit out most of the season through injury incurred in a massive testing accident at Road Atlanta. George Follmer, who’d never so much as sat in a Can-Am car, proved a superb deputy and eventual champion.
But the real concern for everyone else was that, quite obviously, the 917/10 was Porsche’s practice car. It had come to a new formula with new technology and blown the establishment to bits. What, then, might a perfected car do?
The 917/30 was that car. Most notably its engine had expanded from five litres to 5.4, resulting in both more power and better response across a wider rev range. On the bench blowing two atmospheres of boost pressure it really did develop 1500bhp, but there was nothing whatsoever to be gained from trying to race it like that, so 1.3bar and 1100bhp was usual for racing.
But power without control is nothing; the truth is the 917/10 had always been a rather unruly beast and nothing less than a total rethink in all areas was required. Most urgent and fundamental was an extension in the wheelbase which would serve not only to provide a more stable platform, but also to increase the size of the fuel tanks (they’d carry a barely believable 400 litres) and optimise their location, important when you consider a fully brimmed 917/30 was over a third heavier than when dry. The suspension, brakes and entire aero package were also revised and upgraded.
The result? Six victories in eight rounds. Donohue lost one of the two by running off the road and pitting for repairs and the other because a fuel valve burst, drenching him in high-octane petrol and he had to pit to have a bucket of water thrown over him. A fairer estimation of the car’s performance is that it took both pole position and fastest lap in every single race it entered. On only two occasions was he less than a second clear of the next-quickest car in qualifying (always either Follmer or Jody Scheckter, both in 917/10s) and at the wondrous Road America he was fully three seconds quicker than anyone else out there. No wonder Donohue wrote such warm words about it.
This is not Road America 1973, this is Goodwood 2019, and Porsche 917/30-002 is not behaving. In a demo of five 917s, four have fired up just fine and are sitting in the assembly area, but Donohue’s car has so far resisted every external battery pack and exotic liquid squirted down its inlet trumpets. Time is running out. There is one last chance: an old Goodwood Land Rover is commandeered and the priceless old Can-Am Porsche is towed through the paddock, crowd parting like the Red Sea before it. The mechanic drops the clutch, which elicits a deafening bang as all the liquid enticements explode at once, followed by the sweetest sound I’ve heard outside a hospital delivery room: it’s the rasping, roaring sound of a 5.4-litre, flat-12 twin-turbo engine finally prised from its slumbers and clearly in very rude health.
Despite my rather fraught introduction to the car, once installed behind the wheel in the thin but surprisingly comfortable seat, there is time to look around. In traditional Porsche fashion, it is right-hand drive (which assists weight distribution because there are fewer left-hand corners than right in motor racing). Everything has been pared back to the bare minimum: there’s a large rev counter in Porsche’s signature typeface, flanked by two smaller dials giving oil temperature and pressure. There are some boost gauges on the far left but how you’re meant to read them is anyone’s guess.
Like all 917s, it has a synchromesh gearbox, containing just four presumably fairly massive gears. The pedals are slightly offset towards the middle of the car but perfectly arranged for slick downshifting. And that really is about it.
Surprisingly, I’m not terrified. I have spoken to Derek Bell, Richard Attwood, Vic Elford, Mark Webber and Marino Franchitti about driving the 917/30 and to a man they all say that so long as I’m sensible with the power there’s nothing to worry about. Quite what ‘sensible’ means in the context of a 1100bhp, 46-year-old racing car is not entirely clear to me. But I am as nervous as I’ve been in a racing car without racing it: it’s not the career-ending implications of stacking it in front of tens of thousands of people, because if I bent Mark Donohue’s immaculate and entirely original 917/30, I’d run away from this business all by myself.
It’s the fact that no-one from Porsche has even said ‘please bring it back’, let alone suggested how I might drive it. I have encountered this approach before when Porsche let myself and Chris Harris drive the 1987 Le Mans-winning 962 at Weissach until its cut slicks had cuts no more. The trust is proven from the very fact that you are in Porsche’s car, and compared to that words are meaningless. To betray that trust would be unthinkable. But still the responsibility is awesome.
A whistle blows. I hit the little black starter button and the now warm motor blasts instantly into life. First gear slots home easily. Up comes the clutch as I wait for its savage bite. It doesn’t come: the pedal is heavy but this one-time world’s fastest racing car drives away as easily as a street machine.
You learn so much in the first 10 seconds. The action of both clutch and gearbox, the gearing of the steering, its feel and accuracy, the tractability and throttle response of the engine. In simply pulling out of the assembly area in first gear and turning onto the track you are bombarded by data which, because brains are clever things, coalesce into one single thought: this is going to be alright.
It sounds insane given that I’m not yet out of first gear and not even in danger of breaking even the urban speed limit, but those messages are unambiguous. This big old racer drives exactly as you’d hope and expect, and while loadings on the car will change, this fundamental behaviour should not, unless acted upon by external forces whose influence has yet to be felt, like high-speed aerodynamic instability. From all I’ve heard and read, that is not going to be a problem.
So that’s it: you’ve learned what you can learn, prepared what you can prepare. You have 10 minutes on one of the world’s greatest tracks in one of the world’s greatest racing cars. Don’t waste them.
Only now, just as you’re expecting confidence to build, does the fear hit. I know that when I put my foot down, this car is going to behave in a way for which all my time in all those other really fast racing cars has hardly prepared me at all. Truly this is a voyage into the unknown, yet I’ve set sail in front of the equivalent of the population of a small town. What will it be like? How, exactly does 1100bhp in an 850kg car feel?
I could of course find out now. One of the few skills I possess is being quite good at climbing aboard unfamiliar racing cars and driving them fast from lap one, because that’s the very nature of the track testing business. But this, of all cars? Right Here? Right now? I only have a few laps anyway. Besides, the bloke in the 917/10 in front of me appears to think he’s going shopping, and we’ve all been told very clearly that overtaking is a black-flag offence.
“You can literally hear the power coming as the turbos spool up”
I hang back a little, find myself some space and let it build. As the speeds rise all those early indicators hold true. And I recognise the feeling I’ve experienced before but only in the greatest cars of their respective eras: that of being in control of a racing car that’s been honed by the best in the business to be as good as it can be.
Here comes the boost. It’s actually surprisingly easy to modulate and worlds apart from the all-or-nothing approach I had expected. Yes, it takes a long time to arrive after your foot makes the request, but you can literally hear it coming as the turbos spool up, and when the resulting thrust goes from mad to maniacal, you can just ease off a touch and it all calms down instantly. Thank you, happy pump! In the meantime, I’m guiding it around Goodwood, savouring the car’s typically Porsche slow and heavy gearshift and the car’s delicious steering.
Even so, this is not quite enough. I have to be able to look you in the eye and say I’ve really driven the 917/30. Not oversteered it on the edge of oblivion through Fordwater, of course, but not simply steered it around the track either.
I put half a lap between myself and the next car, take a deep breath and go. And here’s the thing: it wasn’t scary at all. All my fear disappeared as I was swept along on a torrent of power the like of which I’ve never experienced before. Unlike putting your head in a tiger’s mouth – thrilling no doubt, but probably best not done for very long – the faster I went in the 917/30 the faster I wanted to make it go. Just as long as you made some allowance for the fact that you arrive everywhere at a simply ridiculous speed and therefore need to adjust your braking points accordingly, the 917/30 is almost, whisper it… easy.
The only problem is that it wants to break traction absolutely everywhere, which is why I waited until near the end of the pit straight before not just putting my foot down, but leaving it there. Which is how you find yourself spinning the wheels of a Porsche 917/30 at over 120mph.
And that was that. I returned the car to a group of now grinning Porsche mechanics, gabbled my thanks and left.
How do you sum that up? To say it was an experience like no other seems so obvious as to be entirely redundant. So I’m going to wimp out and let someone else sign off.
Writing in his sublime autobiography The Unfair Advantage in 1974, Mark Donohue summed it up very simply: “It is to me the perfect racing car.”
Forty-five years later and at least to me, it still is.
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