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The Sunday supplement: power to the people

26w ago

12K

One of the defining pillars of the Porsche philosophy is that you go racing in order to make great road cars. Over the decades, hundreds of ingenious developments have made their way from the cut and thrust of international competition to the forecourts and driveways of daily Porsche life. And occasionally, instead of the unseen and inscrutable stuff like flat-plain cranks and rose jointed suspension, it's an unmissable technological paradigm shift.

The most recent example of this is the 919 Hybrid, a programme into which Porsche invested a king's ransom over a five-year period in order to oil the cogs for an inevitable shift towards cleaner transportation solutions.

The 919 was a record breaker, a history maker, a goliath of endurance racing that won Le Mans three times on the trot and became triple World Endurance Champion in the process. It achieved the unthinkable in its racing lifetime, and carried on doing things no-one thought possible even after it had been officially retired. So it's strange to think that it did all that in the name of progress. This uncompromising totem of tech, this unprecedented world beater, was actually serving a purpose beyond the confines of the race track.

Porsche has form with this, however; telling parallels in its long and illustrious racing history. Rewind to the early 1970s and the still-small Stuttgart firm had just thrust itself atop the pile, winning Le Mans outright for the first time with the 917. Porsche's defining sports prototype, the 917 evolved gradually, increasing engine capacity and improving nascent aerodynamics to become an unstoppable force in motorsport.

Having swept all before it in Europe, Porsche turned its attention to the US and specifically the Canadian-American Challenge Cup, better known as Can-Am. This was a largely unrestricted formula that allowed vast engines and all manner of experimental aero. An ideal blank canvas, in other words, for Porsche to run riot with the 917.

The car Porsche cooked up for Can-Am was to change the way the world drove for ever. Privateer 917 Spyders had been competing in the US since '69, but they had enjoyed scant success against the mighty 800bhp Chevrolet V8s. So Porsche's first full factory effort turned to the little-known technology of turbocharging.

The 917/10K used the previous year's 5.0-litre flat twelve and fitted to that two large turbo chargers, producing in excess of 1,000 bhp, all via a four-speed manual gearbox. A technology in its absolute infancy, lag was not good, delivering sudden and extreme bursts of power in a 3.7-metre-long car that weighed well under 800kg. Nevertheless, the 917/10 won six races and the championship, breaking a five-year-long McLaren deadlock into the bargain.

Porsche was not done, however, and returned the following year with the car that would become the 919s spiritual predecessor, the all-conquering 917/30. This was a thorough evolution of the 1972 car; longer, more aerodynamic and displacing 5.4-litres with a minimum output of 1,100 bhp in race trim. With the boost maxed out for qualifying, considerably higher figures were possible, but either way the 917/30 was the most powerful racing car of all time.

Just as when Porsche embarked on its first fully-fledged hybrid racing programme, at this point turbocharging was still largely unchartered territory, but the possibilities were clear for Zuffenhausen to see. With boost controllable from the cockpit, Team Penske driver Mark Donohue, the man with whom the 917/30 is indelibly linked, could regulate power and fuel consumption to provide maximum attack at the start before dialling in a vital degree of economy to survive the race. So furious was the 917/30's appetite for fuel that it was fitted with a 440-litre tank, but driven intelligently, it would offer the best of both worlds.

Yet again, the 917 utterly dominated Can-Am, winning six of the eight races in 1973 before a rule change rendered it obsolete. But turbocharging was now on the map - a proven technology and unstoppable force. The race car had paved the way for a road car, and less than two years later the original 911 Turbo arrived and forever altered the supercar landscape.

It's hard to imagine such an extreme, bespoke and frankly terrifying 1,100 hp race car feeding so seamlessly into daily driving, but it did. Today, even the entry level 911 Carrera uses a turbocharger, benefitting as it does from the superior torque and efficiency of carefully managed forced induction.

In years to come then, when a new generation of gearheads stumbles upon the grainy viral video of the 919 Evo clocking 5:19 around the Nordschleife, the furthest possibilities for hybrid and all-electric technology will have become the new normal. And for Porsche, that's just the way meant it's to be.

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