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Postcards from the edge



Bill Oursler looks back at a twelve banger in anger: Porsche 917

Porsche’s 917 12-cylinder is with doubt a legendary vehicle. Yet even legends have their hidden or at least not so well known sides. Such is the case with the 917. Introduced in March 1969, at the Geneva Auto Show, the 917’s career in sports car racing and Can Am lasted into the mid-1970’s – or did it?

In fact, the last appearance for this remarkable Porsche on an FIA World Championship stage came in September 1981 at Brands Hatch where after a ten-year absence from endurance competition it led the race before retiring because of suspension ills.

The story of the Kremer 917 K81 starts with the brothers Manfred and Erwin in 1980 during their restoration of an Interserie 917 Spyder whose British owner not only wanted it to gleam with perfection, but also wanted it converted back to its original long distance coupe configuration in the process. The Kremers were then not only fully occupied with their own 935 racing efforts –having won Le Mans in 1979 – but were in the process of putting together a 936 Spyder program for the German national title chase. Even so they had always had an enthusiasm for the 917, and the restoration project gave them the chance to indulge themselves by building their own 917.

Over the decade during which the 917 had been largely forgotten except for a passionate few, the Kremers had been collecting parts which, should the spirit come to move them, and the circumstances be right, could allow them to produce a 917 clone. That time came in 1980 as a result of one of the frequent upheaval-like rules changes. On this occasion the FIA had decided to scrap its production-based “silhouette” prototypes in favor of a return to the more traditional pumpkin seed sports racers of the past, the new direction becoming “Group C” on the international stage, and “GTP” in the North American Camel GT in 1982.

As with nearly all such upheavals, there were worries about grid sizes, particularly at Le Mans. As a result, in 1981 rules makers revived the category for the old Group 5 “production” sports cars that were allowed to take part on the FIA Makes tour between 1968 and 1971. This was a one- year only deal, the dispensation disappearing at the end of the 1981 season. Having talked to the Sarthe authorities, the Kremers saw an opportunity to gain some valuable publicity, and perhaps even a second 24-Hour triumph by entering an updated 917 replica for the annual June affair.

While there is more than a little cloudiness surrounding what the Porsche factory knew, or understood the purpose of the project to be – some suggesting that Zuffenhausen believed it was merely an historic racing effort – Porsche did provide drawings for the frame, as well as facilitating the purchase from Southern Californian Porsche dealer Vasek Polak of two new engines and a gearbox, a 4.5-liter for practice and a 4.9-liter for the race. What emerged from the Kremer workshops was a 917 coupe with flat, non- curved rocker panels, a splitter equipped nose, cut down rear tail fins with a wing and fully covered lower rear bodywork. Additionally, the frame weight was increased by 65 KGs because of the use of larger and strong diameter tubing. Other than those distinctions, the new replica remained true to its progenitor - with one ironic exception.

That discrepancy could be found in the new coupe’s roof, which, according to Le Mans and FIA officials, ran afoul of the regulations requiring all Group 5 entrants to run open topped vehicles. To suit the scrutineers the Kremers cut a long thin hole in the offending fiberglass, the leading edge of which featured a rearview mirror that improved visibility, and more importantly, the airflow over the car’s upper surfaces.

Ultimately, the 917 K81 would make just two race appearances: Le Mans and Brands Hatch. At the Sarthe it was, to say the least, a disappointment. There it arrived with too little testing, a pair of “gentleman drivers, Xavier Lapeyre and Guy Chasseuil who were over matched for the car, and a distraught Bob Wollek whose enthusiasm for driving ended with the death during the race of his friend Jean Pierre Lafosse in a Rondeau. In the end, the Kremer Porsche retired after Wollek left the Sarthe for home, placing the 917 in the hands of Chasseuil and Lapeyre, who couldn’t keep it on the track. Thus, following the second of two off course excursions and considerable damage, the K81 was packed away in its trailer for another day.

That day came in September at Brands Hatch where Wollek was joined by Henri Pescarolo, the pair keeping up with the leading factory Martini Lancia Beta turbos during the early stages of the FIA championship affair, and then taking over the lead after the Italians dropped out. Although it wouldn’t last, the Kremer 917 likewise departing after its suspension failure, the sight of an iconic 917 leading the field long after it had assumed the role of a museum piece was a something few who were there would forget.

Still, while Wollek and Pescarolo paid tribute to Porsche’s engineers by taking what was then a more than decade old design and putting it in front of a headlining, top level, manufacturer, the occasion was also a reflection on the way the FIA’s seemingly disinterest in a business plan to attract spectators who paid for the privilege of watching it than in satisfying agendas which weren’t necessarily healthy for the future of the sport. Indeed, it was those agendas, which produced the fuel economy Group C formula that left the sports car scene floundering at the gate for a number of years thereafter.

Yet, on that September afternoon at Brands Hatch there was a brief moment when all could see what had, and what might have been if, instead of agendas, those in charge had a positive vision for the sport. Today, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the 917’s introduction, we can only conjecture the path sports car racing might have taken if the FIA had allowed 917 and its counterparts such as the Ferrari 512 to fully play out their stories.

                                                                           Bill Oursler

                                                                           May 2009

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