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50 years ago: Porsche finally wins Le Mans

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Tags: Heritage, Motorsport
They had competed without interruption in the Le Mans 24-hour race since 1951, but it was not until 20 years later that the Zuffenhausen drivers were able to clinch their first overall victory: With the short tail 917, equipped with steering and limited slip differential by ZF.
Janine Vogler, September 10, 2020
Janine Vogler Vintage cars related to ZF-products have been at the heart of the journalist. Outside of work, she enjoys to ride motor bike or to be accompanied in nature by her dog.
Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood won the race in car number 23. Having made its debut at the Geneva Motor Show in 1969, the 917 Porsche achieved its first victory in Le Mans just one year later - and was to become a cult car for all time.

The 917 was the successor for the 907 and 908 models, which had achieved great results in their class but at 3.0 litres now lacked sufficient displacement to continue as front runners. The 917 with an air-cooled flat twelve engine had a capacity of 4.5 litres and produced a breathtaking 560 bhp at 8,300 rpm. The body of the 917 consisted of glass fibre reinforced synthetic resin and was firmly attached to an aluminium grid tube frame. Having been forced to retire due to technical issues in its first three races, the success story of the most legendary Porsche racing car to date began. On 10 August 1969, in the 1,000 kilometre race at the Österreichring, victory was secured for Jo Siffert and Kurt Ahrens.
The first engines had a capacity of 383 kW (520 bhp) at 8000 rpm with a displacement of 4.5 litres. By 1973 the engines would be equipped with turbochargers and produce 810 kW (1100 hp) at 7800 rpm. In addition to the different body shapes of a short-tail coupe and long-tail coupe, the car was also produced as a Spyder.
The 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans was legendary: Porsche competed with a total of seven 917 cars, two long-tail versions (L) and five short-tail hatchbacks (K) - three of the latter started under the direction of John Wyer, who had recently become a Porsche racing partner. This year also saw a new start to the race with the cars placed in echelon – and now with the drivers already seated in their cockpits with seat belts fastened and engines running. This change to the start was made due to drivers' protests against the classic Le Mans start which many considered dangerous. The traditional start, with drivers running across the road to their stationary cars and then starting the engine, meant some drivers did not fasten their seat belts and drove without wearing them until the first pit stop. The previous year had seen driver John Woolfe tragically die at Le Mans for this very reason.
The 1970 race was run in torrential rain and had promised to be a long-awaited duel between Porsche and Ferrari, who were running a number of 512S. Movie legend Steve McQueen was also slated to drive. However, after a short time, possibly the main Ferrari 512 S competition crashed out of the race followed by the remaining Ferrari 512 cars unbelievably crashing into each other in the pouring rain, putting them out of the race. The Porsche 917, car #23, delivered an absolutely spectacular race, working it’s way through the remaining pack in terrible weather conditions, achieving Porsche’s first ever overall victory at Le Mans.
To the annoyance of the fans, Steve McQueen himself did not receive permission from the insurance company to participate in the race, although he had previously finished second overall in the 12-hour race in Sebring/USA in a Porsche 908 (also with ZF technology in steering and limited slip differential). However, a Porsche 908/02, equipped with impressive cameras, front and rear, took part in the actual race - the footage it collected was used for the classic racing film "Le Mans", starring McQueen. The day after the race, filming for the movie proper began, and the rainy race of 1970 was immortalized in film.

With nine out of ten possible victories, Porsche secured the Brand World Championship in 1970 with the 917 and 908/03 models. The winning streak began in Daytona and continued at Brands Hatch, Monza, Spa, at the Nürburgring, the Targa Florio, Le Mans, Watkins Glen and at the Österreichring.
As in the previous year, the 1971 racing season was also dominated by the Porsche 917 and with eight out of ten race wins, Porsche once again won the Brand World Championship with aplomb. The season's highlight was another victory for the Porsche 917 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, this time with Gijs van Lennep and Helmut Marko at the wheel, with Marko setting a new track record with an average speed of 222 km/h. Another best had been achieved by the 917 Longtail at Le Mans in April that year: reaching a top speed of 387 km/h on the Mulsanne straight.

The 917 became one of the most successful racing sports cars of the 1970s. Its special significance for Porsche lies in the fact that it was the first sports car to win several overall victories in the largest displacement class of the time. Even during the Le Mans race, it was awarded the title "Car of the Century". As one of the fastest and most successful racing cars of all time, the Porsche 917 has achieved legendary status. 50 international motorsport experts chose the 917 as the “Greatest racing car in history”, an award to which ZF's pioneering technology of the day was able to contribute.
Long tail version: Porsche 917.