Porsche 917 – Le Mans legends remember Stuttgart's first winner

Race Car of the Century

The Porsche 917 made waves on its debut, eventually marking itself out as a sports car icon – is it your 'Race car of the Century'?

5 Porsche 917 Richard Attwood 1970 Le Mans

Attwood and Hans Hermann secured Porsche's first Le Mans win in 1970


It’s a car which is at once sublime and beautiful. Not to mention terrifying.

With its wedge-shape nose giving way to a swooping rear tail, the Porsche 917 is speed personified, not just in looks but in the records it smashed at Le Mans.

Stuttgart’s at-first unwieldy car struck fear into the hearts of its drivers, but once the beast had been tamed it took a pair of La Sarthe wins, making it an endurance icon for the ages.

With all that history, it’s a leading candidate to be named Motor Sport’s ‘Race car of the Century’, in celebration of our centenary year. You can click here or scroll to the bottom of the page to see the other contenders and vote now – or make your choice after hearing what a number of sports car legends have to say about the 917 first.

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Porsche 917: Birth of a Le Mans monster

Vic Elford Porsche 917 Le Mans 1969

Vic Elford found the 917’s outrageous speed rather to his taste – here he is at Le Mans in 1969

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Based on its predecessor the 908 – which had taken a bevy of class win in the world sports car championship – the 917 was a car designed with one goal in mind: to win Le Mans overall.

While Helmut Bott designed the chassis using an aluminium spaceframe, it was Hans Mezger who produced the 917’s 560bhp beating heart – a 4.5-litre 180-degree 12-cylinder engine.

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Though speed and yet more speed was the order of the day, actually harnessing its sheer power and downforce was a bit tricky – as Le Mans winners Richard Attwood and Jackie Oliver attested to Motor Sport in 2010.

“It was aerodynamically unstable,” said Attwood. “We all told Porsche that at anything over 200mph it was virtually off the ground.

“At maximum speed the car was all over the road. It was a life-threatening machine but we had to race it like that so we did.

“There’s a kink at the Mulsanne Straight that normally you’d take flat out in any car. But this was the only car I drove – previously or since – that you’d have to slow for it.”


The 917 beast reborn

Pedro Rodriguez Jackie Oliver Porsche 917 at Le Mans 1971

Jackie Oliver set blinding lap times at La Sarthe in 1970


While all the 917s entered made heavy-going of its 1969 debut at Le Mans, modified bodywork for 1970 meant it was highly competitive – as demonstrated by Oliver in testing.

In the April practice sessions he put up the-then fastest lap ever around Le Mans at a 153.53mph average, as well as smashing the 240mph mark on the Mulsanne Straight. In the race he broke the official lap record at 151.8mph – but such velocity became commonplace for 917 drivers.

“I had no idea,” said Oliver. “Once you are over 100mph it doesn’t make any difference. Depends how close you are to the wall.

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“What you do get at Le Mans is the speed differential. I have a picture of me passing somebody in a 911. He was doing 150mph and I was doing 250 and my bow wave has put him at a slight angle.”

Vic Elford, was another who was witness to the 917’s incredible speed in racing it from 1969 to 1971 – and he couldn’t get enough of it.

“None of us had ever done much more than 190mph before, and here we were doing 225-plus,” he said in 2007. “I loved the 917 for that.

“You had to be very precise, to get it right first time. Once you’d committed to a corner, you had to stay committed. I found that I could go through the Mulsanne kink flat, at night, in the rain, at 240mph.

“Took a while to work myself up to it, though. In practice in [1970] I kept thinking, ‘you know it’s flat, Elford’, and then I’d just ease off a little. Finally I thought: ‘whatever,’ and I kept my foot in it. Came out the other side and said: ‘s**t, that’s easy, why didn’t I do it before?’ You see, that little lift-off was unsettling it. Once I kept it absolutely flat through there, the car loved it.”


1970: Victory at last for the Porsche 917

Porsche 917 Richard Attwood 1970 Le Mans

Attwood and Herrmann come through hell and high-water to win Le Mans 1970

Yves Debraine/Klemantaski Collection/Getty Images

After several years of trying, the German marque came good at last with a famous victory at Le Mans in 1970, with Attwood and Hans Herrmann clinching the win.

At a La Sarthe engulfed in an almost 24-hour deluge though, the win was hardly a walk in the park. The attrition rate was high and Attwood, driving an older spec 917 which was 8sec slower a lap than some newer Porsches, gradually rose up the leader board due to other’s misfortune. The sports car ace explained:

“It was so wet that you might hit a puddle that wasn’t there the lap before and you’re out of that race,” he remembered.

From the archive

“You couldn’t lack a fraction of a second of concentration because the car was ready to break away. There were so many times when I thought, ‘Am I going to get the car straight in time?’

“We weren’t really in any race per se, we were trying to drive in safe mode but the weather was so bad that to drive in safe mode was unbelievably complicated.

“I remember those [‘69 and ‘70] races so vividly because they were massively dangerous.”

Attwood and Herrmann clung on though – it would be the start of Le Mans’ greatest dynasty: 19 wins and counting for Stuttgart.

“It was pure joy,” remembered the Brit. “It had been an ongoing saga for so long. Porsche was trying to win Le Mans with small-engined cars and a 3-litre simply wasn’t going to be enough. Then there was the birth of the 917 as a result of that ridiculous formula. It was a marvellous period.”

“The most fantastic thing about cars such as the Porsche 917 was that they were so fast,” concluded Oliver.

“That’s why the 917 is still probably the most iconic sports car around.”

Since those early glory years, Porsche has produced a whole range of dazzling Le Mans winners: the 936, 953, 956/962, WSC-95, GT1 and 919 racking up those 19 victories – the most of any manufacturer.

Now, in the new Hypercar era, its 963 could clinch an incredible 20th this year – but it was the 917 that started it all.

Vote for your Race car of the Century to celebrate 100 years of Motor Sport


Now it’s time to have your say.

The Porsche 917 is one of motor sport’s greatest machines – but is it the ‘Race Car of the Century’?

Run through the choices below – and cast your vote:

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