The FIA regulations for the 1968 World Championship allowed manufacturers to use 5.0-liter maximum engine capacity for sports cars and 3.0-liter maximum engine capacity for prototypes.
The newly revised regulations for the sports car category meant that the big capacity engines used by the likes of 1966 Ford GT40 are not allowed anymore.
FIA also pointed out that to be considered as a production sports car, at least 50 units have to be manufactured.
Ferdinand Piech with his original plans to improve the successful Porsche 908 Flounder by making it lighter, aborted its developments when he heard about the FIA revised regulations. Their arch-nemesis Ferrari race cars were now supposed to be equipped with all-new 5.0-liter engines according to the rumors.
When the production of the Ferrari 512 series was confirmed, he sent Porsche racing team manager Rico Steinemann to FIA headquarters in Paris to appeal for a much smaller production run of the sports cars. The FIA listened to the appeal and revised the regulations, now stating that the manufacturers had to produce only 25 cars. This decision was taken to increase the number of participants.
The Porsche 917 was developed in mid-1968 following an agreement with Volkswagen. Volkswagen needed a replacement for their aging VW Beetle. With more than 1.2 million Beetles sold by 1965, Chairman Carl Hahn decided that they need a worthy replacement without sacrificing the image of air-cooled engines.
Carl Hahn and Ferdinand Piech came to an agreement according to which Volkswagen’s marketing and advertising departments will provide 2/3 of Porsche’s racing budget, but Porsche has to continue using air-cooled engines. This is how Porsche found enough budget for the Porsche 917 racing program.
Hans Mezger developed a new engine for the Porsche 917 derived from the 3.0-liter eight-cylinder Type 908 engine. What Hanz Mezger did was combining a Type 908 engine with another half of a Type 908 engine to create a 4.5-liter V12. The power output was 520hp. This engine was designated as Porsche Type 912/00
The tube-frame chassis was also similar to the chassis of the later Porsche 908 variants.
Engineer Helmut Flegi worked on the Porsche 917 from the beginning. He has previously managed the development of the bodies of Porsche 907 and Porsche 908 projects as well.
The concept for the new car was a low-riding race car with a sleek body and a long tail in the rear. The tail could be removed to make it a shorter variant. Both long tail and short variants of the Porsche 917 were the designs of Eugen Kolb, Porsche’s body engineer.
To improve the aerodynamic efficiency of the car, a team of engineers spent dozens of hours in the wind tunnel. This also resulted in improved handling and stability of the car.
Wind tunnel time proved to be tremendously successful for the long body Porsche 917, but when the rear tail part removed, it caused rear lift making the car lose its stability as well as handling in an erratic way. Porsche test drivers were terrified of the short tail cars and nicknamed them the “Ulcer”.
The Porsche 917 debuted at the Geneva Auto Show in March 1969 to the disbelief of the FIA. Porsche was supposed to build 25 cars to be qualified to compete in the sports car category. When the FIA inquired Porsche about this, Porsche said that they had engines and mechanical components to assemble at least 25 cars. The reality was completely different. Porsche engineers under the guidance of Ferdinand Piech had assembled only six Porsche 917 cars and when the inspectors finished their inspection of the cars and the parts for the rest of the cars, they gave their approval, but when they wrote a complete report, the full committee of the FIA governing body reversed the approval.
The FIA pointed out that all twenty-five cars had to be built to get approval. Since Porsche never had that amount of manpower for their racing department. So, to meet the demands before the deadline, Ferdinand Piech drafted all the bookkeepers, accountants, messengers, sales staff, accountants, delivery drivers, and almost every employee who wasn’t a part of the Porsche 908 development program. These employees under his and his engineering team’s close supervision assembled the remaining cars.
The FIA inspection team arrived to find twenty-five cars parked very closer to each other alongside the Werk 1 building. The mechanics of the racing development program were told to make sure that the engines ran and the gearboxes could find the right gears without an error. However, the FIA inspectors couldn’t take all the cars for a test drive since the staging area was jammed with the cars on display. There wasn’t enough room to maneuver or even to reverse the cars.
FIA inspectors didn’t know that some Porsche 917 cars had truck axles and some had engines from other Porsche cars. With being satisfied with the cars, the inspectors went away after giving their approval. After they left, the cars were supposed to be either taken apart to be rebuilt using the correct components or to become test mules for future racing projects.
With the backing of Volkswagen, the Porsche 917 first saw competition during the 1969 season. It was a season of trial and error because Porsche never had enough time to fully-fledged its development.
Brian Redman of the Porsche racing team nicknamed the Porsche 917 as the “Widow maker” after his first trial drive test before the 1000 km endurance race on the Circuit de Spa Francorchamps.
At the 1000 km Nürburgring endurance racing event, the single Porsche 917 that competed in the event finished with the eighth overall position.
At the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a long tail variant of the Porsche 917 led the race for 20 Hours but suffered an engine malfunction forcing it to retire without finishing.
Porsche 917 Spyder
The first win for the Porsche 917 came at Zeltweg in Austria, a very important victory for Porsche.
After the race win in Austria, Helmut Flegi stayed with Porsche competition director Peter Falk and racing driver Brian Redman and some mechanics to do some additional body improvements to address the issues.
They had an open-top Spyder variant of the Porsche 917.
The Porsche 917 Spyder was mechanically identical to the Porsche 917 and used the same chassis and the powertrain, but the body was completely redesigned to feature a different rear end.
For the 1970 racing season, Porsche hired John Wyer to run their competition program, and he managed to secure a Gulf Oil Sponsorship for the Porsche racing team. He appointed John Horsman as his racing team manager and John Horsman was at Zeltweg for the race and the tests.
Some engineers argued that it was best to retain the original rear tail design of the Porsche 917, but it was clear that the rear-end treatment of the Spyder was enough to solve the handling issues of the car.
With the modifications done, the Porsche 917 now handled reliably and performed the way Porsche wanted it to perform.
By this time, Ferdinand Piech managed to establish another Porsche 917 team with Martini as their primary sponsor. This was a privateer entry using his mother’s Porsche Salzburg distributorship as the home base.
Hans Mezger decided to improve the engine displacement of his Type 912/00 V12 engine from 4494cc to 4907cc, and eventually up to 4999cc. The maximum power output was now 630hp.
Ferdinand Piech with the support of Volkswagen, his mother, and Martini sponsorship, then went on to participate in each major race with a freshly assembled car.
Porsche entered 24 World Championship events in between 1969 and 1971 racing seasons and won 15 of them. Porsche 908 won another four World Championship events.
With the Porsche 917, Porsche won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1970 and 1971.
Porsche was crowned World Champion in 1970 and 1971 racing seasons due to the success of the Porsche 917 racing program. The success of Porsche 911 R in Tour de France and Tour de Course events was also an added bonus for Porsche’s racing reputation.
Soon, the 917 was nicknamed the Rennwagen Wunder or the race car wonder.
Ferry Porsche and Ferdinand Piech achieved what they always dreamed of. Porsche was now unstoppable and much successful in every way possible.