Being the first Porsche to ever win first overall at Le Mans, the 917 for sure deserves its legendary status. Well, the 1971 movie “Le Mans” starring Steve McQueen certainly helped!
The type 912 air-cooled flat-12 engine was designed using two racing flat-6 and a specific crankshaft design similar to those of V engines allowing a shorter engine, which was useful for it to fit while retaining the 908 wheelbase. However, the chassis but required a wider body and tracks. This was Porsche’s first attempt at a 12 cylinder design, and this one was rather successful. The original displacement of 4.5L producing 520hp got larger over the years to reach 5L and 630hp in its latest configuration.
However, on its first testing trials, the 917 did not really perform as expected, and actually did quite poorly compared to the Ford GTs and Ferrari V12s. Many variants of the 917 were developed to accommodate the type of tracks. The 917K (short-tail) was used for small twisty circuits like Brands Hatch or Sebring, whereas the 917L (long-tail) were preferred for longer higher speed tracks like Le Mans. Aside from the long or short tails, the variants also had aerodynamic differences such as fins or differently shaped wings to add downforce and reduce drag. These improvements impacted the future development of Porsche vehicles with the extensive use of wind tunnels for aero purposes, greatly improving the cars handling and wind resistance.
The 917L first results were not great, and in 1969 drivers complained about the car being very unstable at high speeds because of the lack of downforce. But in 1970, Porsche learned their lesson and managed to dramatically improve the car behaviour after some extensive wind tunnel developments. These improvements impacted the future of Porsche developments for their road-going models and led to the extensive use of wind tunnels for their future designs.
In 1968, the CSI (Commission Sportive Internationale, then part of the FIA) reduced the minimum requirement of 50 cars to 25 to participate in the World Championship events. The homologation was refused when Porsche presented models under construction, which led a few month later to the iconic picture of the 25 brand new 917 in front of the Porsche factory.
The 1970 “Battle of the Titans” resulted in Porsche stamping its name in the history books by placing 3 cars on the podium, including a 908 in 3rd place and beating the Ferrari 512. An even sweeter victory for Ferry Porsche (Ferdinand’s son) who dropped the start flag for Porsche’s 20th participation.
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