Unless you were at LeMans in 1970, there are very few places that the iconic Porsche 917-K can be viewed, let alone heard. But thanks to the monumental following of the Stuttgart Marque, not only can these cars be viewed (and heard) again, but done so in an unimaginable volume here at Rennsport Reunion V at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. But while strolling Rennsport Reunion V, you can see the latest generation of long distance endurance Porsches too—the Porsche 919—winner of the 2015 24 Hours of LeMans.
The 917 is the car that turned the sports car racing world on its ear on all continents, in every type of major sports car series. Between 1969 and 1974, the 917Ks dominated LeMans and endurance racing, the 917-10s and 917-30s nearly swept two years of the legendary Can-Am. A modified 917-30 even set a closed circuit world record of 221 mph, by Mark Donohue, at Talledega Superspeedway that stood for fifteen years. The 917s were here, in droves. While the rarity of a single appearance, the crowd was treated, rather spoiled, with a host of these marvels.
The 919 is the car that returned Porsche to the front of the highly competitive and technical Prototype category since its wins with the beautiful 962 Prototype. A marvel of engineering, on only its second attempt, the Porsche 919 beat Audi—a marque that had dominated LeMans for the past decade. While there were more 917s, in their many incarnations, two 919s appeared and one was driven on track.
Porsche has always been a factor in sports car racing—having claimed its first class victory at LeMans in 1951. But in the mid to late 1960's the focus and the most legendary battles in world endurance racing was between Ford and Ferrari. The equally legendary 512s went head to head with the GT40s in a racing and development war that essentially stemmed from hurt feelings. In Stuttgart, there were rarely hurt feelings; Germans don't get hurt feelings. There is, it seems, only determination and winning. They were busy dominating the GT classes with their new 911. But then Porsche set its mind on the Prototype class—and they killed it!
"Simplicity": That’s the word NBC Sports F1 broadcaster Steve Matchett used when I asked him about the quality of the best racecars. While the 917-K was a state of the art machine for nearly 50 years ago, it might as well be Fred Flintstone’s Bedrock Cruiser vs the 919’s Starship Enterprise. But that might also be the joy of the 917-K. Slip into the cockpit and you have a three spoke steering wheel, a 5-speed manual stick shift, and beyond the magneto and starter, the few buttons control the windscreen wipers, the headlights and the fog lights. Behind your head is the music of a 580hp 4.5-liter flat-12 motor that will propel you at 240 mph down the Mulsanne Straight. Simplicity. A pure driver’s car.
The aluminum tubular space frame chassis of the 917-K weighed only 93 lb. It was permanently pressurized with gas to detect any compromise in the welded parts of the frame. Other weight saving techniques were used including using lightweight alloys, titanium and magnesium for most of the components—and even balsa wood for the shifter knob.
“Complications”—like a Swiss chronograph watch, drivers today, like Mark Webber, Nico Hulkenberg and Nick Tandy have numerous buttons and switches to contend with almost every lap. (I think they teach a semester-long course at MIT to understand the workings of the modern steering wheel in a Porsche 919.) There are buttons for just about everything you can think of: begin with the paddles of a 7-speed sequential gearbox, brake bias, pit communication, pit speed limiter, drink delivery, traction control, an LED display showing revs and a monitor display for driver information. Think your kid spends too much time on X-Box? It could be a good training ground.
(Photo: Porsche Cars North America)
The 919 is a Hybrid, which means it runs on both Lithium-ion battery power and a gasoline-combustion motor. The powerplant is a combination of a turbocharged V4 producing greater than 500hp with a Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) powering an Engine Generator Unit making some additional 400hp, all while getting gas milage more than twice of its grandfather. Not even mentioning the handling, the car is incredibly lightweight as most of its components are made from carbon fiber—a space age compound that didn’t exist in racing at the time of the 917s.
In the North American Can-Am series, the 917-10K was in development by Penske and driver/engineer Mark Donohue in 1972 before the start of the racing season. The turbocharged 180-degree 12 cylinder motor made 850-plus hp. Unfortunately for Donohue, a horrific pre-season testing crash sidelined his driving the car in the series and sidelined the team for the season opening race at Mosport. The surrogate ride was initially offered to David Hobbs, who was already contracted with Carl Haas to drive what would prove to be the ill-fated Lola T-310. He turned the ride down and Penske offered the drive to George Follmer, who handily won 5 of the 9 races that year.
Donohue came back with a vengeance late in the season but too late for a championship. Sitting out all those races made him reflect : “It just doesn't feel right. Seeing another man driving your car, a car you know so well. I imagine it must feel like watching another man in bed with your wife.”
Then in 1973 came what so many called the “Can-Am Killer” the famed 917-30. In its instantly recognizable blue and yellow Sunoco livery, this monster was a turbocharged 5.4-liter flat 12 making a reputed 1500hp. It was the most powerful sports car ever made—and still remains that way. Donohue took the championship that year with 6 wins from 8 races.
The 917 remains the iconic racing Porsche to so many of the faithful—even made a movie star in Steve McQueen’s “LeMans”. But what is to say that something like the Porsche 919 might too be the ancient subject of comparison to the modern-age Porsches at, say, Rennsport 15?
(Photos: Kyle Burt and Norm DeWitt)