Go For Broke: Porsche 917
One of the most successful racecars in Le Mans history that literally put the company on the line.
In 1968, the FIA set new rules for Le Mans to slow the cars down from the crazy Ford GT40 vs Ferrari 330 P4 era by reducing engine displacment to 3.0 liters but at the same time encourage more manufacturers to compete by lowering production requirements. Within the new FIA guidelines there was also an incentive for manufacturers of allowing engine displacement to be raised to 5.0 liters if they're willing to produce 25 road-going homologation specials. The first manufacturer to raise their hand to that incentive was Porsche and the man who was in charge of its motorsport division.
The man in question was the ambitious and ruthless Austrian engineer Ferdinand Piech who has always had a "his way or the highway" attitiude that set a precedent in the years to come in the automotive world. Piech want to do everything he can to secure Le Mans fame for Porsche and set out on a costly and ambitiously quick project to replace their existing 908 racecars. In 10 months, Porsche came up with the sleek 917.
The amount of time that Porsche spent on the project showed in its initial product. It was an unstable deathtrap. Reliability was insufficient, aerodynamic stability was non-existent, and the chassis was so wobbly that the gear shifter have a mind of its own under so much chassis flex. On its first race in 1969, one of the 917 crashed and burned on the first corner killing its driver. It became so dangerous to drive that race car driver Dickie Atwood who eventually drove the 917 to victory in the coming years hope it'll breakdown so he no longer need to drive it.
With Porsche already invested everything they have on this project to succeed, they can't back down. So the 917 was improved with the flat-12 utilizing an extensive amount of lightweight materials such as forged aluminum cylinder heads, magnesium crankcase, and titanium connecting rods. Even the cooling fan is made of fiberglass. The gear knob was also changed from being made out of metal to wood not just to further save weight but out of necessity since the transmission generated so much heat during a stint, the heat was enough to burn drivers' hands through their glove. The handling and aerodynamic were revised with help from John Wyer who help develop the Ford GT40 which was also a basket case when it comes to handling.
The updates did the trick and in 1970, the Porsche 917 achieved what it was set out to do. To claim the first Le Mans victory for Porsche and broke several records along the way. It set the highest top speed record of 241 mph that stood until 1988 and the record for longest distance covered of 3,315.2 miles which stood until in 2010 beaten by the Audi R15 TDi. It also set the fastest laptime around Le Mans of 3.13.8. To give you a perspective, the fastest qualifying laps for LMP1 cars is a good three seconds behind.
The Porsche 917 received its last update in 1970 to the 917 LH “Langheck” or Longtail shown here with revised front nose and extended rear clamshell now wraps halfway down the rear wheels making it semi enclosed with bigger wing for lower drag while producing higher downforce.
At Le Mans, both the 917 LH and the 917K (the short tail) prove advantages with both versions made 1-2 finish of the automotive marathon.
The 917 was the biggest gamble Porsche had ever placed, at the time Porsche was a small company with little revenue. If the 917 were to fail in its consecutive attempts the company would die with it. But the gamble paid off taking Porsche to new heights in motorsport greatness.