One of Porsche's entries for the 1971 24 Hours of Le Mans was a racing pig. Developed with French help in a quest for harmony between downforce and drag, it was the fastest thing on track. Until dawn on Sunday.
There are quite a few distinctly different cars called the Porsche 917 and the reason for this is very simple: in its original form, the car’s aerodynamics were what the modern online vernacular would call an epic fail. The engine was an air-cooled Germanic wonder, flat-12-ing away under a giant Alien3-style fan, but the rest of
the package was not there when future VW head honcho Ferdinand Piëch displayed the famous line of 25 homologated cars in 1969.
The original unstable bodywork evolved into two distinct shapes for 1970: the 917K—as in Kurzheck, German for short tail—and the 917L, the Langheck. The K had its tail chopped off to produce more downforce at the expense of drag while the L was an elongated, slippery version designed specifically for Le Mans, which back then was still very much about the unbroken, 3-mile Mulsanne Straight. But it was the K which would triumph there: car #23, driven by Hans Hermann and Richard Attwood, beat an L, all the Ferraris, and Steve McQueen’s camera cars to give Porsche its first of 16 wins at the event.
Victory didn’t change the fact that the K was slower in a straight line than the L. In preparation for the 1971 race, development work was farmed out to the French aerodynamics research company SERA to create a combined version of high downforce and low drag which would enable Porsche to have its cake and eat it too, to be called the 917/20. Experts in all manners of cake, the French didn’t
disappoint: the car that emerged had a widened chassis to allow for cleaner airflow and a lowered nose to prevent front end lift. It was the fastest car in practice at Le Mans in April. It also looked like a pig.
German humor is similar to British sunshine but when it does show its face it tends to do so with a bang. Reacting to sarcastic commentary regarding the 1971 car’s porcine looks, Martini Racing Team gave the car quirky new livery for the race: a pig butcher chart. In pink. Der Truffeljäger von Zuffenhausen, also known as the Pink Pig, was born.
Driven by Reinhold Jöst and Willi Kauhsen, the Pink Pig crashed out of fifth place after 12 hours with Jöst at the wheel. For a long time, it was assumed that Jöst had made an error, until the car was stripped in the factory to reveal brake pads worn to the bare metal. Because the 917/20 was faster in a straight line than the 917K it was also heavier on its brakes and this was not taken into account when setting up the Pig’s brake pad change schedule for the race.
This would not be the end of neither the 917/20 nor Jöst. The former would gain turbochargers, the digit 3, and a Can–Am entry to become the all-conquering 917/30 Turbopanzer. The latter lost the umlauts in his name and gained talented underlings to become Joest Racing Team: the winner an incredible nine times at Le Mans, running Porsches and Audis, including this year’s winning R15’s.
As for the Pink Pig, it was restored after its crash and retired to Porsche’s factory museum, where you can buy it in miniature. You can then have you cake—or, in my case, macarons—and eat it too.
Photo Credit: Tony Hatfield (Pink Pig at Le Mans in 1971), Porsche (Piëch with 917’s), Jim Culp (917K of Hermann and Attwood), Chris Davies (Pink Pig at the Porsche museum), and Peter Orosz (Pink Pig with macarons). See more pictures of the car and the 1971 race at Juan Gebhard’s Porsche site.