McLaren, seeing the futility of going up against the might of the Porsche Can-Am effort without a turb-charged engine of their own decided to drop out of the Can-Am series.
The Porsche 917/30 was a derivative of the 917/10 and it was the first real turbocharged racing car developed to compete in the Can-Am series. McLaren had dominated for a number of years with big V8s and Porsche made the commitment to go forward with a full aerodynamic race car that had lots of downforce – and to use a turbocharged engine that would produce more than 1200 horsepower. The driver had a control knob that enabled him to add boost as he wished. We went to Porsche’s test centre at Weissach in 1972 and at the time there were no buildings. They had just built the track and we ran the 917/10. I watched that car test for half a day and there was a tremendous amount of throttle lag. Porsche worked on that steadily to improve the lag with the evolution of turbos and wastegates. When we took the 917/30 to its first race at Mosport in 1973, we had a tremendously competitive piece of machinery and Mark Donohue went on to dominate that year’s Can-Am series. We set a closed course world record with that car and Mark Donohue drove it to many victories and the Can-Am championship in 1973. The execution of that by Porsche, Donohue and our team was outstanding. – Roger Penske
“Before the 1973 season, I got to test the 917/30 at Weissach and at Riverside. Everything wrong with the 917/10 was corrected on the 30, much of it due to the additional seven inches of wheelbase. The short wheelbase of the 10, going up through the esses at Riverside, made that a very wicked car.”
Nine One Seven Thirty. I’ve never won the lottery, but when an invitation to track-test a legendary 1970s Porsche racing car includes this magical four-number sequence, the resultant feeling of excitement, disbelief and a strange, fearful unease can’t be too dissimilar.
Whether you’re suddenly presented with boundless wealth or a fleeting taste of boundless horsepower, life is unlikely to be quite the same again. As many of you already know, the 917/30 is the holy grail of racing cars. The ultimate expression of CanAm’s unique sky’s-the-limit approach to technical regulations, this 1200bhp twin-turbo monster was a sensation, rubbing salt into the opposition’s wounds by totally dominating the 1973 season after its predecessor – the 917/10 – had given them a savage mauling the previous year. Fearing a third consecutive drubbing for teams powered by naturally aspirated big-block American V8s, for 1974 CanAm’s organisers imposed a fuel limit on turbocharged cars. In other words, the Porsches. This protectionist measure appeased the other teams, but effectively forced the Stuttgart marque’s withdrawal from the series.
This disappointed fans and, with interest waning, the most extraordinary race series in history fizzled out at the end of the year. Consequently Porsche and the 917/30 have always been portrayed as villains, charged with the crime of killing CanAm in cold blood. Perhaps if Roger Penske had allowed Porsche to supply other teams with the 917/10 in 1972 and the 917/30 the following year there might have been more intra-marque competition but, as Penske and his genius driver/engineer Mark Donohue were the driving force behind Porsche’s CanAm campaign, it’s not unreasonable that they insisted upon being the only team to run the cars in their debut years.
Smoke, sweet and heavy with unburnt hydrocarbons, begins to fill the pit garage. Ironically this car – chassis 917/30 005 – could also be seen as a victim: collateral damage in the wake of Porsche’s ’73 success. Commissioned at the end of that year as a reserve car for the Penske team in readiness for the ’74 CanAm season – when the rule-change came and Porsche withdrew – all work stopped, denying 005 the chance to turn a wheel in anger. The part-built car then languished with Porsche Motorsport until 1979, when Gerry Sutterfield (a Florida-based Porsche dealer and serious collector of Porsche racing cars) approached the factory to see if he could acquire a 917/30. Terms were agreed and the motor sport department began working on 005 in the summer of ’79, finally handing over the finished car in February 1980.
Since then 005 has changed ownership a number of times, moving from one exceptional car collection to the next. With the present owner – Australian enthusiast Peter Harburg – placing his beloved cars with auction house RM for sale at the Rétromobile event in Paris next month, a new chapter of this extraordinary car’s life is about to begin. Before then, however, Harburg has given his blessing to a pre-auction track test, which is how I find myself in the somewhat surreal position of being stood in the paddock at Brands Hatch while Jürgen Barth – Porsche Motorsport legend and former factory driver – warms-up the 917/30 in readiness for my drive.
It’s hard to describe how you feel in the presence of this car, as technicians lovingly warm the block with a space heater (today’s ambient temperature is barely above freezing!), then spin the loud starter motor for an age before finally, one by one, each of the dozen horizontally opposed cylinders sputters into life. Even at idle the noise is all-pervading: a thumping, combative, physically draining wall of decibels that drills into your skull and reverberates around your chest cavity. As heat begins to percolate into the exotic alloy bones of this brutal engine, Barth winds on some revs, holding the throttle steady at each of what sound like 500rpm increments, the flat-12 mimicking a singer warming their vocal cords. Smoke, sweet and heavy with unburnt hydrocarbons, begins to fill the pit garage. Each lunge of revs enriches the high-octane fug until your eyes begin to sting with a painful intensity equal to that of the ringing in your ears. Barth appears impervious to the roiling mix of noise and noxious fumes that surrounds him, but I have to escape, eventually blinking and gasping into the cold, crisp Kentish air as the 917 continues to roar and rage in its lair.
And this on the very same day Porsche announces its new LMP1 Le Mans challenger is a four-cylinder petrol/electric hybrid… With the warm-up procedure complete, I venture back into the garage for a closer look. The 917/30 is a very different animal from the delicate, curvaceous 917s that raced in Europe. Indeed it looks very different even from the 917/10 Can Am car that preceded it, thanks to the deceptively clean, low-drag, high-downforce ‘Paris’ bodywork that was designed by a French aeronautics company and then further developed by Donohue, Penske and Porsche in a pivotal if somewhat haphazard test at Paul Ricard in the winter of 1972.
On discovering the new bodywork offered little or no improvement over the old 917/10’s, the Porsche team set about fabricating a rough approximation of the long tail from a Le Mans 917 and adapting it for the CanAm car. It worked immediately, Donohue pushing the 917/30’s disappointing maximum speed on the Mistral straight from 212mph to a rampant 240mph without significantly compromising corner pace or high-speed stability. While the twin-turbo flat-12’s astonishing power and torque fuelled 917/30 legend, it was this aerodynamic breakthrough that would maximise its potential. I don’t know if it was up, down or sideways, but it went away like a slow-motion dream.
The shape is as no-nonsense as the performance it released: broad-hipped with slab sides and simple curves, it looks like a chunky, big-boned machine, yet look beneath the skin and nothing could be further from the truth. Unlike the rival McLarens, which featured more advanced – and substantial – aluminium monocoques, the 917/30 still relied upon a complex criss-cross of small-diameter aluminium tubing, which was stitched together to form a spindly-looking spaceframe, just as all Porsche’s sports prototypes had been since the 1950s. With bodywork removed this lightweight structure can be seen in all its beautiful, terrible glory: a fine gossamer web of tubes cradling the vast flat-12 engine, gearbox and fuel tanks, with the driver pushed right up at the pointy end and with his feet and lower legs in effect forming the most substantial components of the 917/30’s front structure.
It’s easy to survey this absurdly perilous construction and console yourself with the thought that teams and drivers didn’t know any better, but the truth is that everyone knew how brutally dangerous these cars were should the worst happen. That few were more intimately acquainted with the perils of crashing a CanAm 917 than Mark Donohue makes his peerless dominance of the 1973 CanAm series even more impressive. In his seminal book The Unfair Advantage, Donohue describes the monumental shunt he suffered at the wheel of a 917/10 early in the 1972 season. It makes chilling reading:
‘I don’t remember seeing much of the front end go away. Suddenly the bodywork was gone and I could see twisted tubes and bars. Then the right front wheel just kind of went away from me. I don’t know if it was up, down or sideways, but it went away like a slow-motion dream. I didn’t see the frame, or dash, or steering wheel go either as I was trying so hard to pull myself into my seat. And then there was silence. I looked around – and I was sitting on the grass, still strapped into my safety seat, with the motor right behind me, and nothing ahead of me. No front end, no frame, no wheels, no body, no fuel tanks – just me, my seat, some tubes and the roll bar… then I noticed my left leg was bent at a funny angle. It bent 45º at the knee, and was lying on top of my right leg… I thought it was possible what was left of the car might blow up, so I dragged myself clear across the track by my hands. By that time I was hurting so bad I couldn’t believe it.’ Before leaving home for Brands Hatch I’d vowed to keep Donohue’s graphic description swirling around at the forefront of my mind, if only to remind myself that today is not about heroics or ego. These track tests never should be but, like anyone who’s ever pulled on a crash helmet and strapped themselves into a racing car, you find it hard not to yield to the temptation of measuring your own limits against those of the car you’re sitting in.
Having seen – and heard – this Goliath of a machine limbering-up, I’m not ashamed to say that the notion of doing anything other than respectfully tickling round the Brands Hatch Indy circuit for my allotted laps and bringing the car back in one piece now seems totally absurd. This is underlined when Barth heads out for a few exploratory laps of the circuit – treacherous with meltwater from overnight ice! – and proceeds to spin the massive rear Avon intermediates at will. Gulp. Porsche 917/30 All racing cars have their characteristic ingress rituals and the 917/30 is no different. To begin, you have to flip up the flyweight aluminium ‘door’, in much the same manner a pub landlord lifts the cut-out in the bar. You’re then confronted by the flat expanse of fuel tank, which forms a sill that’s a good 2ft wide.
There’s an awkward moment of indecision while you grapple with the conundrum of which piece of precious Porsche to use as a step, until Barth invites you to place your size 9 on the flat top of the fuel cell before standing on the seat with both feet and then lowering yourself down behind the small, leather-rimmed steering wheel. It doesn’t really bear thinking about but, when brimmed for the start of a CanAm race, the 917/30 driver would be literally surrounded by 400 litres of race fuel. That this monstrous load would be devoured in a little over an hour of racing tells you all you need to know about the prodigious thirst of that 1200bhp motor but, when you consider the dry weight of the 917/30 was just 800kg, you also begin to appreciate the explosive power-to-weight ratio CanAm regs fostered. Quite simply, no racing formula before or since has shown such single-minded dedication to free thinking and mind-warping performance.
Starting a 917/30, depressing the weighty clutch, pulling the right-hand gearlever into first and heading off down the Brands Hatch pitlane is one of life’s more memorable moments. With acres of iconic inky-blue, sun-yellow and blood-red bodywork around you, it’s easy to forget your feet are resting on pedals located way beyond the centreline of the front wheels and that the steering rack sits inches above your shins, but a glance around the crude cockpit provides a graphic reminder of the 917’s inherent structural frailty. Instrumentation is basic, the view ahead dominated by a large tacho, which is redlined at 8000rpm. Barth says we can run to 6000rpm, which (hopefully) safeguards us from buzzing the notoriously rev-critical flat-12 and, presumably, means the pair of snails are only just beginning to wind themselves into delivering that fabled tornado of boost.