The Iconic Porsche Gulf 917

A review of Jay Gillotti’s book, Gulf 917

by | Dec 6, 2019 | Culture

Photo Credit: Jay Gillotti & Revs Institute

The Iconic Porsche Gulf 917

A review of Jay Gillotti’s book, Gulf 917

by | Dec 6, 2019 | Culture

Photo Credit: Jay Gillotti & Revs Institute

Jay Gillotti, a longtime Porsche enthusiast, has written a massive 496-page book on the Porsche Gulf 917 titled, Gulf 917. Although the model’s history is covered in some detail, this book’s primary focus is on the John Wyer cars. The Porsche 917 is one of the most iconic racing cars of all time, partially because of its leading role in the Steve McQueen film, Le Mans

This book presents a detailed chassis-by-chassis and race-by-race history of the Porsche 917s raced by John Wyer of the Gulf team. The book includes the history leading up to the 917 partnership between Porsche, Gulf and JW Automotive Engineering. The cars profiled in the book contributed to Porsche taking the 1970 and 1971 World Sportscar Championship titles as the Gulf-Porsche 917s won 11 of the 17 championship races entered.

Gillotti notes, “I have been collecting the information specific to these cars for nearly 40 years. Having become acquainted with John Horsman, JW Racing‘s Chief Engineer, I thought the 917’s 50th Anniversary was a good time to tell a colorful part of the 917 story in detail — share Horsman’s archival documents, including previously unpublished race data sheets, and update the individual car histories.”  

Even though the 917 remained one of the most famous racing cars in history, it lacked big advertising budgets. At the 1969 Geneva Motor Show, Ferdinand Piëch, the brilliant and determined grandson of Ferdinand Porsche, nephew of Ferry Porsche, and head of Porsche R&D and Racing, revealed the firm’s most aggressive race car to date. A risky expense for such a small company, the 917 would catapult Porsche into total domination of international sportscar racing. At its development peak, a 917 was faster than a Formula 1 car.

Production Porsches were 2-liter cars when the CSI (The Commission Sportive Internationale) surprisingly mandated 5-liter racers, effectively killing big-block Fords and other massive engines. Porsche didn’t intend to build a larger road car to compete with rivals, Ferrari and Lamborghini. As for the track, it was a different story when the Stuttgarters exploited a loophole in FIA rules (International Automobile Federation), which mandated that a manufacturer had to build 25 examples of any 5.0-liter race car. At that time, the V-8 engine powered Ford GT40s and Lola T70s constituted the Group 4 competition. To Enzo Ferrari’s dismay, under Piëch’s intense direction, Porsche AG demonstrated they were a force to be reckoned with, by assembling and displaying a lineup of 25 new 917s in record time.

Although Porsche had introduced a completely new race car almost annually, they’d never campaigned a large-displacement model. Working under Helmuth Bott, Chief Engineer Hans Mezger and his group were responsible for the design. Although it wasn’t publicized (and at first, it was denied), Volkswagen AG helped finance the 917 effort. After all, the success of air-cooled racing cars surely benefitted VW. Air-cooled engines were potentially not as powerful as their liquid-cooled competition. Still, without radiators and coolant, the Porsches weighed noticeably less than their rivals, which was a significant advantage. 

24 Hours of Le Mans Trials March, 1969 No 45 – Rolf Stommelen works on Porsche 917 chassis ‘002’ 

The 917 was a technical marvel. It would be air-cooled in keeping with the Porsche practice. A flat-12 (V-12 engine) was logical, as it was merely four cylinders more than the 908, arranged in the same configuration. This build was similar to the unsuccessful engine Dr. Ferdinand Porsche developed for Cisitalia in 1948. Two connecting rods shared each crankshaft journal so that the new flat-12 could be built as compactly as a V-8 engine. After experiments found a point on the crankshaft that was relatively free of vibration, Mezger and his team elected to drive all the engine accessories from the center of the crankshaft, including the large, glass-reinforced plastic (grp) cooling fan. Engine cooling was aided by a 5.25-gallon, remote tank that supplied a giant oil cooler. Tiny jets squirted oil at the undersides of the piston crowns. Initial tests soon found the flat-12 was producing an astonishing 580-horsepower at 8400 rpm. Weighing just 530 pounds, this was the first Porsche engine to develop over 1-horsepower per pound. The chassis was aluminum, saving even more weight. Even the balsa shift knob was drilled for lightness.

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24 Hours of Le Mans Trials March, 1969. No 45 – Rolf Stommelen works on Porsche 917 chassis ‘002’

The 917 showed its potential at the 1969 24 Hours of Le Mans trials, where Rolf Stommelen turned the fastest times of the weekend at 142.999 mph. The car was available with both long and short-tails for low and high-speed circuits. But the long-tailed versions were unstable, especially so at the car’s next outing at Spa (The Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps). Jo Siffert set the fastest lap in the short-tail car. The long-tail 917’s quirky handling still baffled drivers and engineers. Porsche engineers thought the 917’s chassis was flexing. As they later discovered, the problem was with the car’s initial aerodynamics. This issue was further complicated by the fact that after several F1 incidents, the FIA banned elevons, the little side wings that supposedly kept the front end planted.

Spa 1000 Kilometers Track action scene, Car Number 20, a Porsche 917 K, (Jo Siffert and Derek Bell, co-drivers), Jo Siffert, driver (helmet, seated). 

Determined, Porsche competition manager Rico Steinemann brought three 917s to Le Mans and convinced the organizers that the car had to compete with movable wings, or Porsche would withdraw all its entries, including the 908s. Reprieved, Victor Elford and Richard Attwood drove one of the 917s in the race. 

Despite the new elevons, Elford noted, “It was virtually undrivable.” That said, Elford (also known as Quick Vic) bravely set the fastest lap before the car retired.

In 1970, England’s John Wyer of JW Racing was retained as Porsche’s competition manager. His race organization was led by the brilliant John Horsman, who modified and fixed the 917’s aerodynamics with a revised front end and new tail design. This updated design solved high-speed instability issues. 

Brian Redman first tested the new configuration and said, “Now, it’s a racing car.” Gillotti offers insights into this crucial development. 

The book is filled with insider quotes, like John Wyer recalling Ferdinand Piëch’s wry comment after Horsman’s British mechanics redesigned the Germans’ aerodynamics. Piëch said, “It seems that your tail is three seconds faster than ours, so that is what we must do.”

Playing catch-up, Ferrari predictably announced its new 5-liter 512, providing a display of 25 cars. Still, Wyer’s toughest competition would come from the Austrian team, Porsche Konstruktionen, better known as Porsche Salzburg — fielded by Mrs. Louise Piëch, Ferry Porsche’s sister, and Ferdinand Piëch’s mother. Family ties ensured that Porsche Holding Salzburg received new 917 development parts as soon as, and occasionally before, John Wyer’s official factory team.

24 Hours of Le Mans June, 1971 Car number 22 Porsche 917K driven by Helmut Marko / Gijs van Lennep to the overall victory 

In 1971, with the 917 sorted out, Porsche Holding Salzburg won Le Mans, with Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep driving. However, JW’s nearly unstoppable Gulf 917 Porsches won every major race that year, except the 12 Hours of Sebring, when a newly-developed 917 part failed, and a new Ferrari 512S was victorious. Louise Piëch renamed her team after a sponsorship deal with Martini & Rossi and promptly won Le Mans. The JW Gulf Porsche factory team won everywhere else, capturing the 1971 World Sportscar Championship. The Gulf cars were distinctive in their light blue and bright orange paint, but others were more unusual. A Martini 917 was painted in psychedelic colors, and for Le Mans, Porsche’s styling department painted an experimental 917/20 pink, with dotted lines representing the various cuts of meat available from swine. 

Miles Collier famously noted, “One can be cheeky when one’s a champion.” 

With its nine variants, the Porsche 917 continues to be popular. When the rules changed, Porsche built the turbocharged 917/10 and 917/30 Spyders that won the Candian-American Challenge Cup (Can-Am). With 1,580-horsepower available for qualifying, the 917/30 was one of the most powerful sports cars ever raced. Mark Donohue set a 221.160-mph closed course FIA speed record in 1976 in a 917/30 at Talladega Speedway.

Jay Gillotti adds, “The 917 was an audacious project that succeeded spectacularly for Porsche and put them on the road to (now) 19 wins at Le Mans. The cars themselves were beautiful and very fast, even by modern standards. And there’s the intersection of pop culture with the 917, thanks to Steve McQueen and the popular racing film, Le Mans.”

For the Porsche 917 enthusiast, Jay Gillotti’s Gulf 917 is a wonderfully comprehensive book with 460 images, including unpublished charts, chassis-by-chassis gen (including decoding of the renumbered chassis), and plenty of insightful information. 

The book is published by Dalton Watson Fine Books and is available to purchase online at www.daltonwatson.com for $150.00.

 

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