Meet 917/10 001: The Test Car That Brought Porsche Into Can-Am
Photography by Mario Bok
A version of this story previously appeared in the Porsche Magazine Excellence
If there was ever a golden era of motorsport, I would suggest that it was the 1970s. Understanding the value of on track performance and how it translated into road car sales, manufacturers invested massive budgets and built some of the most exotic and iconic cars to ever grace a racing circuit. In the space of just a few years, power and speed that would have been inconceivable became the norm. And at the forefront of that brave new era was of course, Porsche.
Despite racing for almost 20 years by the late 1960s, Porsche still hadn’t managed to win Le Mans, although they’d come heartbreakingly close in 1969. The stunning 917 was the company’s all-out assault to rectify the situation. This chapter of Porsche’s history is well documented, and by 1971 Porsche was twice a winner at Le Sarthe. When the rules were changed to an engine capacity limit of 3000cc, the 917s became ineligible to race. That wasn’t the end of the story though.
Porsche would be back to add an incredible 16 further wins at the famed race, but that hiatus in the early 70s after the 917 until they came back with the 936 was spent turning the 917 into an absolute monster for the American Can-Am series. It was a championship with so few restrictions regarding power, tire size, and bodywork that it was basically a free design, and Porsche duly rose to the occasion with the 917/10 which was the most powerful racing car ever seen.
But behind every stunning race car covered in the glory of champagne spray, there has to be a test track mule whose not so glamorous existence was to have different parts bolted onto it then driven to the point of destruction in an attempt to find more power and performance. In the case of the 917/10, chassis No. 001 took on these arduous duties but this most used and abused of all the 917s has had a full and extraordinarily particular rebuild, even down to having the tape around the headlights put on after the original photos were studied under a magnifying glass. This is its story.
Information about tests done in secret 45 years ago is a little scarce to say the least but for Willi Kauhsen, the main test driver and the man who ended up owning 001 for 35 years, was happy to tell us what went on behind the scenes. At over 80 years old he still remembers the details of his “baby.”
Starting out in the mid ’60s with 911s in touring car races, he progressed quickly up through privately-entered 910s and 908s until he was signed up by the works Martini team for the 1970 Le Mans to pilot a 917—non other than the psychedelic “Hippie Porsche” with Gerard Larrousse as co-driver. At the following year’s race he drove arguably an even more iconic car: the Pink Pig. When Porsche temporarily pulled out of sportscar racing after the rule change, Willi stayed with the company and took on the primary test driving role for the ambitious new Can Am project.
Although on paper it looks as though 001 had an amazingly long and thorough test program that lasted a year and a half, including 23 days straight at the Weissach test track, Willi says that the arduous program was perfectly normal, especially as the car was drastically different from the Le Mans-winning version. “The chassis was completely changed. It was shorter and wider and because they wanted to get the car as close to a 50-50 weight balance as possible, the engine was installed closer to the middle… which in turn meant that the driver’s position had to be moved more forward.”
The bodywork also bore hardly any resemblance to the Le Mans car, so the whole package for the spider body had to be developed and refined, and in the early 70s that could only really be done by trial and error. “They’d cut the roof off of course but they also needed a lot more downforce because there was no other circuit in the world that was as low drag as Le Mans. Back in those days though there were no computer programs to run simulations on, and also the wind tunnels were very basic. We used the one at the Mercedes factory but although it was enough for working out drag coefficients for road cars cruising down the autobahn it wasn’t so good for telling us what would happen to a racing car in high-speed corners. That’s why over the course of the project we had three sets of noses and wings to try out. We took our best educated guess for what we needed, designed it, built it, put it on the car and drove it… and then worked out how to improve it.”
One of the strangest archive photos of 001 is of the car mounted with twin sets of wheels at the rear. I could find nothing online to explain why they did this, but Willi had the answer. “At the time they didn’t know exactly with what size and width tires they’d be racing with in America. There were a few options, so the engineers wanted to find out how strong the wheel rims were. I didn’t drive with those wheels, it was Mark Donohue who did that.”
Developing a power plant that could compete with the huge 750bhp V8s was the main priority, and the first plan for more power was to add four extra cylinders to the 4.6-liter flat-12 to make a monstrous 760bhp flat-16. The added weight didn’t help the power to weight ratio though, and also the necessarily longer chassis proved to be a noticeable detriment to handling. It was time for plan B: turbos.
Forced induction was still a new technology back then in so many ways, and the strict secrecy policy meant that everything had to be developed in-house with no outside consultants allowed to be brought in. The first tests with a pair of boat turbos performed without wastegates on such a high-powered engine understandably caused some blow-ups in the workshop until chief engineer Valentin Schäffer realized that you don’t need to put all the exhaust gasses through the turbine.
“No one knew what the limit could be, so we started quite small and worked through the power band, to see what it was like in increments. At first we had 620bhp with the 4.5-liter flat-12, and the first turbos put that up to 850bhp which isn’t a really big difference. It was when they put the really big turbos on the 5.4-liter engine that it got serious. With 1,200bhp it was of course absolutely different to anything else I’ve ever driven.”
In fact it was different to anything anyone had ever driven before, so as well as finding out how to handle the power Willi had to adopt an entirely new style of driving for the 740kg car. “The main thing about the car wasn’t the power itself, it was the terrible lag the turbos had that you had to drive around. The way to do it was to brake a lot before the corner and slide the car around on the throttle waiting for the explosion of power just as you hit the straight. And it came fast. Mark Donohue was a master of this style, and I never saw anyone else in my life who could drive a 1,200bhp car like he could. Every corner on a track is different of course, and how he could drift the car around each one with perfection while anticipating the turbo boost in was amazing.”
So amazing in fact that the first time Willi saw him in “his” car he was ready to give up being a racing driver right there and then.
For the 1972 Can Am series, the team run by Penske and adorned in the white with red-striped L&M Cigarettes livery, Donohue finished second, although the race was actually a lot more successful for Porsche than the result suggests. A stuck turbo throttle cost Donahue three laps, but during the rest of the race he managed to un-lap himself twice, and if he’d had a few more corners left at the end he could have won.
With such pace and potential the rest of the season looked to be his for the taking, but before the second race he suffered a huge crash in which he badly broke his leg so George Follmer was drafted in. He won on his debut and went on to dominate the rest of the season, winning the last five races in a row. The next year Porsche did even better.
With Follmer in the 917/10 now run by Rinzler Motor Racing and Donahue in the massively powerful Penske-run 917/30 in the blue and yellow Sonoco colors between them, they won every race. So with two championships achieved with utter domination over the previously unbeatable McLarens, the program of introducing the Porsche / Audi brand to North America through motorsport was a resounding success.
But what of 001? Europe had its own comparative series to Can Am— rather unimaginatively just called the Interserie—and Willi drove the ex-Joe Siffert 002 chassis 917/10 until he crashed it. The only other available car to race was 001.
“The test car always needs to be new, because you get much different handling in a chassis that has done 10,000km,” Willi says. “So they sold 001 to me.” Eighteen months after it was first built, it was completely refurbished: the engine and gearbox were overhauled, it was fitted with a factory customer-spec nose, painted in the yellow and red Bosch colors, and entered in the Hockenhiem Interseries race where Willi finished second behind that year’s champion Leo Kinnunen, driving a 917/10 as well.
001 was then shipped over to America, fitted with the newest specification factory “shovel” nose, and raced at Laguna Seca to finish 8th. At Riverside, a blown turbo ended the race. From there its journey continued on to South America, as Willi took up an offer from the Fittipaldi family to race in the Coppa Brazil at Interlagos in December. He won the first race, the only victory 001 achieved in motorsport, but retired in the second. It wasn’t the last collaboration with the Fittipaldis though.
For the 1973 Interserie, Willi bought a brand-new car, chassis 015, and rented 001 out to paying drivers, but not really anyone who could exact the full level of performance from the car. In the Hockenhiem round, Willy let Wilson Fittipaldi drive 015 while he took the wheel of 001 again. The event was made up of two heats, and Willi finished 6th in the first, and was 2nd in the next, placing an overall 4th.
The next time 001 saw action was the following year at the Nürburgring for the 300km race, when Emerson Fittipaldi entered in order to get more experience of the challenging circuit before the German F1 Grand Prix later that year. One of the most powerful race cars ever made, on the ultimate circuit, driven by that year’s Formula One world champion seems like a dream story, but the only information I could find was that it rained, and although Emerson qualified on pole he finished 6th.
Willi (pictured on the left in orange in the image above) filled in some gaps and corrected the story. For a start, apparently it wasn’t Fittipaldi who qualified the car. He was in the much newer chassis 015 car, but couldn’t get anywhere near Willi’s times around the treacherous 22.8km track. Wondering why this relatively unknown European driver could lap so much faster than him, he thought it must be because there was something wrong with the car, so demanded that they swap over (above he is seen with Porsche manager Domingos Piedade at the Nürburgring). So, Willi took his seat out, and while Fittipaldi was out trying to improve his times in 001, Willi nipped out in 015… and duly put it on pole. The timekeepers didn’t know the drivers had swapped around, so it was Fittipaldi who was credited with the fastest time!
The race wasn’t too easy though despite the many miles Willi had under his belt with the car at the track, which included an unofficial test day time of 7:07, for the constant curves in a car that only wanted to go forwards was hard enough on dry track. In the rain…
“The car had a locked rear axle, so it hated going around corners, especially changing direction like when you had something like a left, right, left… which is pretty much the whole way around the Nürburgring. It was just so aggressive to drive, and that was why we had such a disadvantage at that track. And with the 1,200bhp it wasn’t as though it was easy to make up time on the straights either, as the wheels spun even in 4th gear… at 300km/h. In 1972, actually the same day as the terrorist attack on the Israeli Olympic team in Munich, I had the opportunity to drive a 9.6-liter McLaren M8F and it was like a saloon car in comparison.”
Fittipaldi made it around all 8 laps in 6th, but Willi retired when the cooling fan retaining screws broke. Some spectators found the fan at the Brunchen corner and brought it back to the pits for him.
That was 001’s last race, as Willi retired it from active service after that, but not before giving it another comprehensive rebuild. It was then kept in dry storage until 1997, when with another rebuild he put it back to its iconic yellow and red Bosch livery and took it out for classic events like the Goodwood Festival of Speed. In 2008 he sold it to Dr. Ulrich Schumacher, a well known classic collector who kept it for four years. Its next owner, based in Monaco, modified it again, swapping the 1200bhp engine—which was far too unwieldy for a gentleman driver to handle—to a much more manageable normally aspirated 4.9-liter flat-12. The same as it ran with in its early testing phase. In 2015 it was bought by the current owner, Jan Luehn, who with an incredible attention to detail, put it in its current guise. And with the 917L Le Mans nose on, it’s eligible to race with an FIA passport besides looking absolutely unique.
“It’s a real mismatch of parts, I agree, but the real history of 001 is not the races it was in,” Jan says. “It was the massive amount of testing it did. And there is a photo of it in the wind tunnel with the nose off the Pedro Rodríguez / Jackie Oliver 917, which was presumably done for a direct comparison test but it looks amazing, especially with the Gulf logo on it. A real hybrid, which is what it always was. And that’s perfect for a car that ran in literally dozens of different configurations.”
But is it the same car that Willi drove for months in the early 1970s? Prototypes and test cars, by their very nature, can’t possibly be matching-numbers cars. Before its very first race, 001 had already ran with three different engines in it, and even an extended chassis to accommodate the pre-turbo experimental flat-16, as well as multiple different turbos and their set ups, plus of course many different body work changes, both in testing and as a race car. So maybe it’s better to picture it as it has been for its entire existence. As a mish-mash car pieced together with parts from different iterations, one that looks like no other 917 in the world and has a history unlike any other Porsche.
Special thanks to Jan Luehn