Porsche's 917 in the words of the drivers

Dear Nigel,

I’m a Porsche 917 fan (and very happy about the podcast with Richard Attwood and the Gulf article in the latest issue).

Which driver do you think has been the best interpreter of the 917? Seppi and Pedro had a huge rivalry but many others had the chance to race this beautiful car…

Thanks a lot!

Niccolò Mazzoni

Dear Niccolò,

I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘the best interpreter’ of the Porsche 917 – the guy who drove it best, or the one who told the best tales about it…

So many great drivers appeared in 917s, and I suppose if I had to pick a single name as ‘the best 917 driver’, it would probably be Pedro Rodríguez – not that I would expect Vic Elford to agree with me! I suppose Pedro comes to my mind first because I saw him win – virtually single-handedly – the BOAC 1000kms in the torrential rains of Brands Hatch in April 1970, and it stands in my mind as one of the greatest exhibitions of wet-weather driving I have ever seen. The 917 was hardly the easiest car to drive in the rain, yet Rodríguez made everyone else look clumsy and flat-footed.

I’m not basing my opinion on one race alone, however. Times without number Pedro excelled in the 917 – another of his greatest drives, for example, coming at the Österreichring in June 1971, only a couple of weeks before his death. He won many races in the JW Automotive era of the 917, as did Jo Siffert – and as, of course, did their co-drivers, one of whom was Brian Redman, the man described by Mario Andretti as ‘the most underrated racing driver in history’.

Some years after the 917 era Redman was told by a senior member of the team that he had, in fact, been quicker than both Rodríguez and Siffert around the ‘old’ Spa, a circuit he loved and feared in equal part. Not long before Wyer died, in 1989, Brian was moved to ask him, “Why did you never tell me?”, to which the famously dry ultra-Englishman said, “My dear Redman, if you’d known that, imagine what I’d have had to pay you!”

The 917 is unquestionably one of the most iconic racing cars of all time, and those who raced it love to talk about it to this day. In 1970, now usually in ‘short tail’ spec, and with the factory cars operated by Wyer’s team, it had become a much more useable car, and one adored by its drivers, but in 1969, the year of its introduction, it was woefully under-developed, and most of those who drove it that first year remember only terror. For the time its power was staggering – and its stability almost non-existent. So nervous of it were Porsche’s factory drivers that in its first race, at the Nürburgring, it was driven by Frank Gardner and David Piper, both of whom had been offered an unlikely amount of money to take on the task.

Long ago I talked to Gardner about the experience, and while – in the PC world of today – some of his more colourful remarks must sadly be omitted, I can remember at the time literally aching with laughter. Frank was always at his laconic best when talking about really bad cars.

“I got a call from the competitions manager,” he said, “and the money they were offering was certainly good enough to cross a strip of water and get in the thing. I think the reason they bestowed this honour on me was that every 917 driver was in hospital at the time, recovering from various stages of disrepair... I remember that Piper did one lap in practice at the ‘Ring, and was all for going back to England, but I pleaded with him to stay because the money was right.

“This was one of the very first 917s, with an alloy chassis, which was gas-filled. There was a big gauge in the cockpit, which measured the gas pressure, and that was there to keep you informed of the chassis’s condition. If it zeroed, they said, that meant that the chassis was broken, and I should drive mit care back to the pits.

“Once I knew what the gauge was for, I also knew that if it zeroed I wasn’t going to drive it mit care anywhere – I was going to park the bastard there and then, pick up my Deutschmarks and get home to Mum...

“Then there was the engine. You had about 300 horsepower at 5000 revs – and then between 5000 and 6000 you picked up another 300! So it was a bit of delight, really – and did I mention that it was on narrow nine-inch rims all round? The computer had said that nine-inch rims would make the car very quick in a straight line, but the computer wasn’t strapped in the bloody seat up in the Eifel mountains, where you tend to get the odd corner...”

Nor was that the end of it. “You sat between these pannier tanks, which bulged when they put the fuel in, so that was comforting – it took 40-odd gallons because it was pretty hungry. Then you started the engine, and – even with ear plugs in place – it was noisy to the point of being disturbing. It was bloody hard to think – you were horrified by all the activity, your brain numbed by the vibration, the power and the wheelspin.

“In those days, they were still gas-welding chassis, and this thing flexed so much that the actual position of the gearchange used to alter. You’d reach out for where the lever had been last time you used it – and it wasn’t there! It had moved.

“Nothing about the car was consistent, that was the thing. When it became airborne – which happened a lot at the ‘Ring – sometimes it would sort of float through the air, and other times it would crash down. It never did the same thing twice. Just when you thought you had it worked out, it’d pull another trick.

“It was simply indescribable, the motor car – and the weather did its best to help, as well. Snow and rain all the way. You were just so crossed up in the thing that you didn’t know which way was straight ahead in the finish. But we got it through to the end, seventh or somewhere, and in addition to paying me money, they tried to take up a collection for an Iron Cross, which they reckoned I’d earned...”

There followed an invitation to drive the 917 at Le Mans in June, but Gardner declined. “Again, the money was great, but I’d had my lesson. Rolf Stommelen went like hell with the thing, but he had the whole of the Fatherland on his back, and he had to rise to the occasion. Like I always said. I never really wanted to be the quickest bloke in motor racing – I just wanted to be the oldest. And that car was certainly going to interfere with those plans...”

Redman, a Porsche factory driver at the time, had similar memories of the early 917. “Of course it evolved into a very good car, but at first it was terrifying. Very early on, I got a call from Porsche to come and test it, and I thought, ‘Hmm, they’ve got 10 drivers in the team – why do they want me?’ So I said I had some very important business, but I’d see if I could put it off, and I’d call them back in an hour. I rang Siffert: ‘Seppi, have you tested the 917 yet?’ ‘No, no, Brian,’ he said. ‘Not me. We let the others find out what breaks first!’

“I drove one in practice at Le Mans in ‘69, and it was the fastest I ever went there – 238mph – but it was all over the road: on Mulsanne you were constantly having to correct the steering, and you just hoped that when you arrived at the kink you were on the right side of the road – if you weren’t, you had to brake!

“The spaceframe of the original 917 was pressurised, gas-filled, so that if the gauge lost more than so much pressure, you knew you had a crack. When that happened, they’d go round all the joints with a cigarette lighter!

“By 1970 they’d sorted the car – particularly its aerodynamics – out, and then it was nice to drive, but at a place like Spa it was so quick. In practice Siffert, my team-mate, went out in the car, but didn’t come round. Rodríguez came in, and said Siffert had stopped on the Masta Straight with a flat tyre. Pedro then took a jack, a wheelbrace and a tyre out to Seppi, and they changed it at the side of the track.

“On the Masta Straight we were doing 215mph on the approach to the Kink – and this was a road circuit, remember, not some purpose-built autodrome. Anyway, Siffert continued – and the same thing happened again. In came the car, all four wheels were changed – and then they said, ‘Herr Redman, now it’s your turn…’

“Every time I went to Spa I’d lie in bed, perspiration pouring off me – because I thought I was going to die the next day. I loved the track, but you really didn’t want to have an accident there. So now Siffert’s had two tyres fail – and I’m in the car…

“First lap OK, and the second, third lap faster, fourth lap flat out. Down Masta no problem, through Stavelot OK… On the return leg there was a flat-out right-hander – and the car went sideways as the left rear tyre came off the rim! It went every which way, at 180mph, I suppose, but I’d read somewhere that if you let go of the wheel, the castor action would straighten everything out, so that was what I did – and it worked!

“I got back to the pits, got out of the car – and Siffert fell on the floor, laughing. ‘Brian,’ he said, ‘you are the colour of your (white) overalls!’ And the next day we won the race…”

If the 917 had a devotee from the outset, it was the abnormally brave Elford. “I first saw the car at the Geneva Motor Show in the spring of ‘69 – and I just fell in love with it. It looked beautiful, powerful, sexy – everything you could want in a car. It was still very experimental at that stage, of course.

“At Le Mans in ’69 Porsche wanted to enter just one 917, for Stommelen to drive, but in fact the only guy who really wanted to drive one was me. Porsche said, ‘No, no, Vic, you drive the 908’, but I kept on at them, and finally they said, ‘All right, you can have a 917 – but it’s only going to last for six hours, and then it’ll break!’ I got Richard Attwood to co-drive with me, and we decided right from the word go that we were not going to race – we were just going to drive very quietly, very steadily, and see how far we got. True enough, the car did eventually break – but only after 21 hours, when we were leading by 50 miles!”

Elford concedes, though, that he too felt anything but comfortable in the 917 that first year: “I don’t think anyone did, although after that, when the aerodynamics were sorted out, we all loved it. These days the Mulsanne Straight is disrupted by Mickey Mouse chicanes, but back then it was a straight line for really high-speed cars – except for the little right-hand kink, which you don’t even notice in a road car. In a 917, though, you did notice it, believe me!

“Until the 917 arrived, probably none of us had ever been over 200mph, but suddenly this monster was doing more than 230, and it was very, very unstable. In the original 917, as you approached the kink, you couldn’t just snap off the gas pedal – if you did, the rear of the car would come off the ground, and start steering the front. Not very nice. What you had to do was ease very gently off the throttle, then gently back on, and probably go through the kink at about 180mph.

“By the following year, though, Ferdinand Piech – in my opinion, probably the greatest automotive engineer of all time – had taken over the 917 project, and it was a different car. You’d get up to a bit over 240mph on Mulsanne, and, believe me, 20 seconds at that speed is a long, long way, with guardrails on both sides, and then a lot of trees…

“Every lap you’d arrive at the kink at that speed, and OK, it took a few laps before I was brave enough to do it, but finally I was able to take it flat – even at night. And when I first did it, I came out the other side, and my first thought was, ‘Christ, that was easy!’ Quite seriously, it was much easier to do it flat than to lift off. Wonderful, wonderful, car…”

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