How the 917 Won Porsche’s First Ever Le Mans
In 1970, Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood drove the 917 KH (short-tail) with start number 23 and in the world-famous red-white Salzburg design to the first of (so far) 19 overall wins for Porsche at the circuit. The 917 was Porsche’s first time in the league of immensely powerful, large-capacity racing cars. Its 580bhp 4.5-litre 12-cylinder engine set new standards, and is still legendary today.
Changes in the regulations meant that prototypes were allowed a maximum engine size of 3.0 litres, and for sports cars 5.0 litres were allowed – but a series of at least 25 had to be built. The 1969 race season allowed the 917 to become fully race proven, with the result that the car entered 1970 with its reliability assured and improved aerodynamics to rectify its previously wayward behaviour at high speed.
For the 1970 Le Mans 24 Hours the factory did not enter the cars directly, but via its partners, John Wyer Automotive and Porsche Salzburg. In a rain-soaked race, amid fierce competition from Ferrari, the 917s fought a close-won victory. Here’s the picture I took of it at the Concours of Elegance 2020.
This car, a Salzburg entry in the team’s red and white livery started with a disadvantage – driver Richard Attwood had opted for the smaller of the two engines available by 1970, the 4.5-litre instead of the 5.0-litre, and had chosen the 917 KH ‘short-tail’ version rather than the faster 917 1H long-tail. This was because the long-tail he’d driven at Le Mans in 1969 had been extremely unstable – but by 1970 the long-tail design had been made far more stable.
So, initially, Attwood and co-driver Hans Herrmann lagged behind the rest of the 917s and the Ferrari 512s. However, as rain started to fall in the evening, becoming torrential through the night, the car’s milder specification and the two drivers’ experience shone through – and to their great surprise they found themselves in the lead.
The heavy rain caused misfiring through the night, due to water leaking onto the ignition components, but the car kept going. After 24 hours it was still in the lead, despite the drivers being exhausted – particularly as Artwood later found that he had been suffering from the mumps.
This was Porsche’s first-ever overall win at Le Mans, and another 917 finished second. Since then, Porsche has achieved a record total of 19 overall La Sarthe victories to date – but the first, in car 23, was surely the greatest of all.
4.5-litre, flat-12, double overhead camshaft, 580bhp, fuel injection
Rear engine, four-speed manual transmission, rear-wheel drive, tubular spaceframe, glassfibre bodywork, unequal upper and lower arms, coil springs, discs