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Porsche 917

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Photo: Lothar Spurzem.

It goes perhaps without saying that our favorite racing series of all time is Group B. And why not? Family hatchbacks tuned to within an inch of their steroidal jackrabbit lives was and will always be good, dirty fun. Relatively lax rules meant manufacturers were free to employ A-league trickery to make their cars faster (both turbo and supercharging with unlimited boost), lighter (exotic materials) and nimbler (AWD, baby) than the competition. And we're not the only ones with B-lust. When put to a vote this past June, you crowned the Audi quattro S1 the King of the "Killer Bees." Interestingly, the man behind that machine is the same man behind today's Fantasy Garage nominee: Dr. Ferdinand Piëch (for those keeping score, the good doctor is also responsible for the VW Phaeton and Bugatti Veyron). No surprise then that Piëch's single-mindedness turned the nearly stillborn 917 into perhaps the greatest racing car of all time. And without question the most powerful.


Piëch's Porsche 917 came to life only because the FIA changed the rules to prevent cars like it from existing. Ford's GT40 (and the Lola T70) proved to be so totally dominant at events like Le Mans that in 1968 the homologation numbers for Group 4 (5.0-liter sports car class) were lowered from 50 to 25, opening the door to other manufacturers. Porsche's racing arm had already been building close to 25 prototype cars a year under Piëch's stewardship, dating back to 1965. This seemed like a no brainer. Furthermore, they could sell the surplus cars to privateers, recouping some of the development costs. With only 10 months to go before the start of the season, Piëch set out to develop a car that could take on and defeat the world's best. Hey, why not?

Piëch and company started with the already worthy Porsche 908 racer. The tubular steel frame was scrapped in favor of a slightly weaker but much lighter aluminum job that weighed only 101 pounds. Like the 908, four independent wishbones suspended the 917, only the coils were honed from titanium. Low weight was the top priority — the shift knob was made from balsa wood. The still air-cooled engine (rumor has it that VW put up two-thirds of the development cash simply to promote air-cooling) was essentially the 908's straight-eight with four more cylinders slapped on, creating a very slick 4.5-liter flat-12 that was good for 580 horsepower. Unlike the 908's boxer crankshaft, the 917's engine used a shorter crank similar to those used in "V" engines in order to reduce the motor's footprint. The 917's were finished with a detachable tail, allowing teams to choose between high downforce or low drag.


Things got off to a rocky start when the FIA visited the Porsche factory to find only three completed 917s, 18 assembled, and seven literally in pieces. No chance, said the inspectors; the rules mandated 25 completed cars. Three weeks later, in a feat of automotive heroism that should make your spine tingle, Piëch presented the inspectors with 25 working 917s all parked in a row in front of the Porsche factory. He even offered them a test drive, which was politely (and wisely) turned down. Regardless, these new über Porches would be allowed to compete. Funny side note: Ferrari was able to bring its 512 to the races a year later with only 17 cars built. C'est la Enzo.

Much rockier however, was the car itself. It's a running joke among car cognoscenti to refer to the 996 GT2 as the widowmaker. Oops, wrong Porsche. In the 917, wheel spin at over 200 mph was commonplace. Drivers would not only pray for their cars to break down, but openly celebrate when one did. So bad was the 917's handling that several top pros simply refused to climb inside. Porsche asked BMW to supply two drivers for the 1969 1000 km Nürburgring. The drivers found the Porsches to be both insanely fast and dangerous, and BMW ultimately refused to take the risk. The Bavarians were sadly proved right a few weeks later when driver John Woolfe was killed in a 917 during the first lap of Le Mans. Two 917s did lead the pack for a while, but much to the delight of their drivers, broke down during the night, allowing Jacky Ickx to win the big race in a GT40, beating a Porsche 908 by a football field.

The 917/20 "Pink Pig" aka "The Truffelhunter of Zuffenhausen"


Something had to be done; the most powerful Porsche racecar ever built succeeded in winning just a single race (Zeltweg) in its first season. Partnering with John Wyer and the Gulf team, Porsche's engineers were free to concentrate on refining the 917 while others had the chore of actually racing it. A breakthrough came when a Wyer engineer named John Horsmann decided downforce was more important than low drag. Taping aluminum sheets together to form a short dual set of tails, the 917 almost instantly went from being an undrivable monster to a fairly well sorted racer. Later that year a 917K (the short-tailed 917s were referred to as "Kurzheck") won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, as well as Daytona, Brands Hatch, Spa, Monza, Watkins Glenn, and the Austria Ring — bringing home the much coveted "World Championship for Makes" title. A 917K with a bigger 4.9-liter mill and a highly flammable magnesium frame would win Le Mans again in 1971. Not bad for a car once feared and loathed by its drivers.

Then the FIA banned it. Normally the story would stop here. Porsche built a can of whoop ass on wheels, won some races and then their class got canned. Happens every year, and we can't just keep filling the Fantasy Garage with Le Mans winners now can we? (Wait, can we?) Lucky for those of us for the whom the appellation "hoon" might be apropos, somebody hipped Porsche to the Can-Am series taking place in North America. Specifically, Group 7. Why Group 7? Because it didn't have any fricking rules, that's why! Seriously, there were no restrictions on engine size, induction or power. There was no minimum or maximum vehicle weight. You could do whatever you wanted in terms of aerodynamics. Cars had only to have two seats, enclosed wheels and meet 1972 safety requirements. Group 7 was essentially Smokey Yunick turned loose in Australia, metaphorically speaking of course. When you dangle meat like that in front of a man like Piëch, the results are usually both predictable and astonishing.


1500 HP Porsche 917/30, The Most Powerful Racecar Ever


Porsche's first inclination was to develop a 750 hp straight-16. However, they decided to go with a bored out 5.4-liter twin-turbo 12-cylinder that was good for 1,100 horsepower — in engine-saving racing trim. For the qualifiers, boost was cranked up to 39 psi and the 917/30s were developing 1500 horses, making them the most powerful racecars ever. Performance was double stupid, with 0-60 happening in 1.9 seconds, 0-200 in 10.9 seconds and top speeds in the 250 mph neighborhood. In 1973, with Mark Donahue behind the wheel, the 917/30 lost exactly one race. It won all the rest. Forced to act, Can-Am implemented the only rule it could to slow down the ultimate 917: for 1974 Group 7 cars had to achieve better than three miles per gallon, which effectively killed both the 917 and Cam-Am. Also, didn't Steve McQueen make a movie about the 917? Happy voting.


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[The Jalopnik Fantasy Garage appears every Tuesday. Though, because of Monday Night Football, this will be switching shortly to every Wednesday. Readers vote the cars in or out. The idea is that we'll have 50 cars in our Fantasy Garage, the world's greatest mechanic and endless wads of cash. Would you like to nominate a car for the Fantasy Garage? Write with the subject line "Fantasy."]


The Jalopnik Fantasy Garage, So Far:

RUF RT12 | 1978 Aston Martin V8 Vantage | Honda 1300 Coupe 9 | 1931 Daimler Double Six 50 Corsica Drophead Coupe | Ferrari 288 GTO | Chevrolet Corvette ZR-1 | 1970 Buick GSX 455 | First Generation BMW M Coupe | Bugatti Veyron 16.4 | Ford GT | Citroen SM | Porsche 928 | Jensen FF | DeTomaso Vallelunga | Audi Quattro S1 | Buick GNX | Nissan Skyline R34 GT-R | Honorary Fantasy Garager: The LS1 Powered Rotus | Lamborghini LM002 | Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe | Ferrari 250 GTO | Bentley Speed Six | Talbot-Lago T150C SS Figoni et Falaschi Raindrop/Teardrop Coupe