Happy birthday, sie biest !

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The Porsche 917 at the Daytona Historic Event

Over the years, there have been many manically fast and technically magnificent race cars which have now become part of automotive lore. Enthusiasts discussing them do so in hushed, reverential tones and manufacturers lovingly preserve surviving examples in their heritage museums, or even the hallowed precincts of the factories in which they were conceived and built.

Presently, I’ll go in a completely different direction. As a 4-year old, I remember my favourite toy being a dark blue pull-back toy car – it had stickers screaming '69' on its flanks and several others saying ‘Gulf’, ‘Koni’ and ‘Tag Heuer’ – I didn’t know what any of that meant. It was my most prized possession and I had a great time playing with it all over the house.

It was a model of the Porsche 917, THE Porsche 917, the fabled Porsche 917, the car that annihilated all its opposition and occasionally its own self in a fiery ball of aluminum, titanium and magnesium. Apart from blitzing the Le Mans, the Can Am, the Targa Florio, and several other racing classes, it was also immortalized on celluloid in the Steve McQueen starrer, Le Mans(1971). Endorsement from the King of Cool, no less! 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of the 917, and Porsche is commemorating this occasion at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in July. The world is celebrating and so am I!

It was born under interesting circumstances, to say the least. The FIA, in a way, had a hand in this. In those days, Le Mans witnessed insane speeds and cars like the Ford GT 40 MkIV and the Ferrari Ps (the 250Ps, the 330Ps, the 412 Ps, etc) with their massive engines and immense power outputs were the undisputed kings. The FIA then tweaked the rules a little to allow cars with smaller engine capacities to be a part of the World Sports Car Championship and to entice more manufacturers to line up on the starting grid. There was a catch, however – the manufacturer couldn’t just set up a race team, devote the finances and manpower and build a precious few cars to compete in the championships. The cars had to be homologated as well. That is, they had to be built and sold as road-legal machines to people like you and me. A manufacturer could take its cars to race as long as it had made at least 25 units for road use.

Ferdinand Piech(right) and Gerhard Mitter(left) at the first presentation of the 917

So, Porsche got started on its project. A super-lightweight 42 kg aluminium spaceframe, several titanium and magnesium alloy components, a glass fibre body-shell and a 4.5 litre flat-12 naturally aspirated engine putting out a substantial 520 horsepower were thrown into the mix, and the 917 was born. It was not without its share of pitfalls, though – the spaceframe was barely able to contain the immense power that the engine belted out. It was riddled with mechanical and aerodynamic faults and if it were not for the iron-will of Ferdinand Piech (currently President, Volkswagen AG), it would have most certainly died a silent death. It was not good at changing direction, and was extremely unstable at high speeds. Drivers did not want to drive it because it was a total bitch to drive. This called for a revision of its specifications and the aero components. The result was the 917K(Kurzheck) which got a choppy, wedge shaped tail, which was the idea of engineer John Horsmann. Later, an LH(Langheck) version was developed for the high-speed circuits, with enhanced aerodynamic efficiency and greater stability. These days, engineers with their laptops, wind tunnels and CAD simulations sort out these problems in the conception stage itself, before a single body panel has been created. Things were slightly different back then. They had to tack on new components and test it on the racetrack. Still no luck? Go back to the shed and try again!

And when Porsche got it right, boy oh boy, did it deliver! It won Porsche it’s first Le Mans Championship in 1970, and then again in 1971. Its speed, as Jezza would say, was biblical. 0-60 came up in 2.5 seconds and it maxed out at over 250 mph. Shudder. However, it is remembered not just because it made winning a habit – many cars have done that. It was the manner in which it did it – by blowing all the opposition to the weeds, by making them look limp wristed and clumsy. It lapped Le Mans at a record average speed of 222.09 kph, a feat which no other car has been able to overhaul ever since a chicane was added to the Mulsanne straight. And talking of the Mulsanne straight, that was where it did 386.24 kph, driven by Vic Elford in 1970, that too at night in wet track conditions. After conquering Le Mans, Porsche set its sights across the Atlantic and entered it in the Can Am Series in 1973, where it became the 917/10. The 917/10 was slightly different from its elder sister – Porsche uprated the power to a nuclear 1000 bhp (as if 520 was too weeny). Needless to say, its rivals could only watch it walk, no, fly away with the title . Porsche came back the next year with another 500 horses in its powerhouse, and won again, before the FIA had to change the rules again to try and control the rampaging monster that was the 917. Eek. Bow down.

So, was the 917 the greatest, most balls-out racer ever?

You bet!


Today, seven of the most important 917 models – among them the Le Mans-winning cars from 1970 and 1971 and the 917/30 CanAm Spyder – are currently on exhibit in the new Porsche Museum in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen. Most of the other 917s are in the hands of proud collectors around the world, and have been seen – and heard – at the most prestigious vintage events, including Goodwood, Amelia Island, Monterey Historics, and Porsche’s three Rennsport Reunions in the U.S. in 2001, 2004 and 2007. Porsche Motorsport North America, the racing arm of Porsche in North America, services, restores, rebuilds and maintains many of these 917s for collectors at its shop in Santa Ana, California.(Source - http://993c4s.com/)


Varun said...

That was an entertaining history lesson, dude!

I'm not into racing and stuff, but i enjoyed this piece...

RaunaQ said...

Heh. Thanks!

RaunaQ said...

the ford gt 40 is another such car. that was the car with which ford humiliated ferrari at le mans in the late 60s...

Varun said...

I'll be watching out for that one!