The Porsche 917: a monument to heroism

Car Culture

What made the Porsche 917 so special? Was it the 917’s looks, danger, or something much more than that?

Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood on the way to 1970 Le Mans victory

Fifty years ago, Porsche created the 917.

Thirty years later, a reasonably august jury of greats from the sport (as well as one or two rather less worthy journalists) voted the 917 to be the world’s greatest racing car.

I remember this well as I commissioned the poll and published it in Motor Sport, which was, at the time, enjoying the dubious pleasure of having me as its editor.

And I wondered then as I wondered now why this might be.

Of course, being faster than anything else against which it competed is hugely helpful, as is being super-successful, but that can’t be all because then we’d all swoon over pictures of Audi R8s – a car more dominant in world sports car racing than the 917 for a longer period of time – and I just don’t think we do.

Eleven seconds quicker the fastest F1 car. Imagine that

Is it that it was dangerous? It’s hard to see why such an undesirable trait could evoke such positive emotional feeling towards a car.

So perhaps it’s beauty: a 917 was indeed a beautiful car, but more beautiful than a Ferrari 512S or Lola T70 MkIIIB? Not to these eyes. Nor was its air-cooled flat-12 any more sonorous than Maranello’s water-cooled V12.

Actually I think it was a combination of all the factors above plus a couple for which its designers were not directly responsible: the places it was raced, and the people who raced them.

Anyone who has driven around the public road section of the Le Mans track will, I hope, have pulled over on the side of the Mulsanne Straight and imagine the sight and sound of a phalanx of 917s streaming through the kink at 220mph, cresting the rise and slewing right and left as their drivers tried to shed speed with negative downforce before the hairpin.

More: Porsche 917 track test

Richard Attwood told me that in 1969 (the 917’s least stable year) he could look in the mirror at over 200mph and see the horizon lowering as the rear springs reached full extension.

“Eventually all you’d see was sky,” he said.

“It was so aerodynamically unstable that the only way it could be tempted through the kink was first to back off, then turn the wheel a little bit to compress the springs, then turn it again to actually go around the corner.”

Going from full throttle to maximum braking would have been suicidal because the car would never have coped with the change in pitch, so drivers had to gingerly release one pedal before easing onto the other losing huge tranches of time all the while.

And yet, whether you look at either its fastest lap or pole time, it was still 12 seconds a lap faster than any car had gone the year before.

And then it just got faster and faster: by 1971, its final year in the championship, it was lapping exactly the same circuit over 21 seconds quicker than its 908 predecessor had just three years earlier.

But for me the greatest place to go and dream about 917s is the old Spa. For one reason or another I go every year, and every year I go down to the chip shop that stands at the exit of the infamous Masta kink and imagine what it must have been like to witness Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert come through here in 5-litre 917s.

Pedro’s fastest lap in 1970 was 11 seconds quicker than Chris Amon’s fastest lap in the Belgian Grand Prix that year. Eleven seconds quicker the fastest F1 car. Imagine that.

So I think what dials us into the 917 on such an emotional level is not just the car’s speed, its look, it sound or its success – there is a human dimension here too. I am sure that the best sports car drivers today are every bit as quick as their forebears and probably quicker because they’re better trained, tutored and fed.

But there is something gladiatorial about those who raced fast cars back then, and none was faster than the 917. Just the thought of Pedro or Jo (and Brits like Richard Attwood, Vic Elford, Brian Redman, Derek Bell and Jackie Oliver who did such stirring things in 917s too) strapping themselves into a 917 at somewhere like Spa makes me shiver.

I think of what it was they were actually doing – attaching themselves to a 600bhp bomb on wheels protected only by a laughably inadequate lattice of small diameter tubing and some polyester bodywork, and I wonder how they did it.

But they never did. They had no knowledge of the carbon fibre-capsules to come, how circuits like Le Mans and Spa would become so radically changed in the interests of safety. They were professional racing drivers and the 917 was the quickest thing on wheels. Of course they wanted to race it. They were aware of the risks but it never stopped them.

And that, I think, is the essential quality. I cannot separate the 917 from those who drove it: there was a heroism about them that simply does not exist today because, thank god, it’s not needed.

Of those things that interest me – cars, mainly – none gave greater expression to that heroism than the Porsche 917.

And the greatest moment of my career remains the day I got to drive one. Perhaps I may be allowed to trouble you with tale later in the year.

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