DURING THE 1960s, Porsche introduced new racing cars at a frenzied rate, driven by the personality and work ethic of Ferdinand Piech, the grandson of Ferdinand Porsche. It seemed that new race cars were coming out a few times a year, with the goal being the overall victory at Le Mans. The 917 – considered the ultimate and greatest race car, was developed for that purpose.
Porsche entered three 917s in the 1969 Le Mans but none would finish. Unfortunately, one of the drivers, John Woolfe, was killed before the end of the first lap. The 917s had been very fast taking pole position doing over 220 mph but in a rather unstable fashion. This was the last Le Mans race in which the drivers sprinted across the track to jump in their cars, do up their belts and drive away. A lot of the drivers would wait until the long straightaway to click in. Jacky Ickx thought that type of start was unsafe, so he strolled across the track. His concern was well founded as Woolfe was thrown from his Porsche during his fatal crash.
The 917s dominated the race but with about three hours to go, Ickx, whose teammate was Jackie Oliver, in a Ford GT40 for John Wyer Automotive (JWA) took over the lead. Interestingly, both Ickx and JWA went on to work for Porsche. Ickx won the 24-hour classic four times for Porsche and also won in a Mirage, a modified Ford.
In second place at the 1969 race were Hans Hermann and Gerard Larousse in a Porsche 908 LH (long tail). There had been pre-race controversy as Porsche had movable wings on both the 917 and the 908 but they had just been outlawed by the governing body for safety reasons. The 917 was finally allowed to race with movable spoilers although they were required to be fixed on the 908. With three hours to go in the race, all the 917s had retired.
The teams installed their fastest drivers for the final sprint, Hermann and Ickx. Those last three hours saw the lead seesaw between the Ford and the Porsche with the cars passing and repassing five times on the last lap. The brake warning light was on in the Porsche, which caused Hermann to be a bit cautious, along with the fact that the 908 was down about 400 rpm. Ickx won by only 120 metres, which is still considered the closest finish other than staged ones. Unfortunately, it was discovered that the problem was not the brakes but the warning light.
Hans Hermann told his wife that he would retire if he won Le Mans. He was able to do so in 1970 as he won for Porsche’s first Le Mans overall win in the 917 after the handling problems had been resolved. This year, Porsche returns to the prototype class at Le Mans with the 936 looking for the company’s 20th overall victory. This should be a good race. </>