Up Close And Personal With A 917/10

Safely back on terra firma, the man grinned and said, "now I understand".

To me, this summed up the day just perfectly. It was May 29, the place was Zell am See, Austria; and the occasion was the 2nd F.A. Porsche Cup. Ferdinand Alexander Porsche's 70th birthday was a perfect excuse for an extended family gathering on the old Zell am See airfield, a location as convenient as it is picturesque: along with the adjacent new airfield, and a large portion of the surrounding countryside, the Porsche family owns it. Yours Truly was not on the list of invited guests, but I also had an appointment.

So where's the 917, said the young man. Young man, we replied, you are looking at one. But, he insisted, wasn't it a coupé? The complex 917 genealogy probably doesn't qualify as a subject for Sunday morning chit-chat; the young man took a precautionary snapshot of the white spyder, and made his exit. He was one of a select few who did not instantly recognise the car in question: the 917/10 truly is an icon, not just for afficionados of the Porsche marque. With only 13 built, and seven still in existence today, the 917/10 does not perhaps enjoy the same legendary status among casual fans as its K coupé cousin; but more than other racecars, Porsche's Group 7 racers epitomise sheer power. Estimates from various members of the public went as high as 2000bhp; in reality, "only" about 700 horses are at the driver's disposal but I assure you, they are plenty enough.

Get in, said Ottokar. According to the SCCA's rulebook, this is a proper two seater. It offers enough room, just, to accomodate one driver and one imaginary legless midget. So while I shoehorn my real-life, overweight frame into the designated space - hardly more than a beverage cup holder - I figure that my chances of survival are fair: Ottokar Jacobs is a mild-mannered, polite, friendly man, evidently at ease with himself and in tune with the universe - so what can possibly go wrong? I am in good hands. Alright, Ottokar, I'm ready, let's g---

Ah.
Okay.
Fine. Everything will be fine.
There Is No Cause For Alarm.
Every motorist probably has experienced this at some point: you think to yourself, why bother, close your eyes and wait for the inevitable impact. But it all seems to be routine, Ottokar is smiling as already (already?!), we are about to run out of pavement. It takes a complete dash up and down the strip (VERY rapid acceleration - even more rapid deceleration - sharp turn - da capo al fine) for the hapless passenger's mind to grasp that there really is nothing unusual going on here: this car is doing what it was built to do, without drama or abuse. Yes the engine is loud, but not excessively so - at least it doesn't seem all that bad when all you can hear is your own ears ringing, and the overwhelming sensation is that of smashing through a series of window panes head first. Is that really just air? Yes, and pebbles. Full-face helmets make a world of sense you know. The sounds emanating from within the car can best be described as "business-like": a big machine doing its job, and doing it well. Watching it scream by from the side of the track is spectacular, but the spectacle is merely a by-product of performance.

dailysportscar.comOne more burst down the runway, and we slow to a halt. There is not enough road here to really get the power down, says Ottokar. The 917/10 was obviously well within its limits throughout this little display. Now, try to imagine where these limits actually are, and what it takes to find them. To think that some people did this almost on a daily basis is mind-boggling. One of them, the original owner of chassis #016, dropped by on Wednesday: Ernst Kraus bought 016 in 1972, and sold it to Vasek Polak some three years later. He had not seen the car since then, and was initially hesitant to accept Ottokar's offer to take her for a spin. When Herr Kraus stepped into his old office, fired up the engine and headed out on the track, three decades were instantly erased. It is a bit of a time capsule, this car: no shiny, pristine, better-than-new restoration job, and definitely not a museum piece. The original lime green of 1972 is visible where Polak's white paint is chipped away, the red and blue stripes - meant to symbolise the Czech national colours - are slightly faded in places; stickers and decals of historic race meetings, from Daytona to Goodwood and back, tell of the car's more recent history. This machine is alive and well.

After such emotional turmoil, there is the need for something quiet, comfortable, sedate. Like the Carrera GT. Easily the most outrageous road car ever built by Porsche, it is basically nothing but a domesticised version of the still-born Le Mans Prototype of 1999 that might have become this millennium's 917. But I am spoiled now - compared to the 917/10, this feels like a limo. The elegance of the plush leather & aluminium interior, with some carbon fiber thrown in for good measure, and the abundance of Design everywhere, manage to dilute all that thoroughbred racecar DNA somewhat. And yes, it is quiet! At least until the V10 is allowed to take a somewhat deeper breath, and the engine note changes from husky purr to aggressive growl, and finally banshee scream. Somewhere in the background, the politely persistant "ding-ding" that keeps reminding you to fasten your seatbelt is evidently a concession to Porsche's most important market, but in the context of the Carrera GT, it is a bit annoying. Technically, this is not a road car at all; and therefore, I am told, it does tend to be a bit difficult to drive on anything but the smoothest road surface. A racecar suspension does not always go well with the ruts, cracks, and patches that make up our roads, and the ever present speed bumps pose a real challenge.

Later in the afternoon, the Porsche performance driving instructors who had worked hard hauling passengers around a slalom course (thanks for the ride in the 996 Turbo!) were themselves treated to a few laps in the 917. Their delight at the experience spoke volumes. Ottokar then showed me an ex-Martini Racing 908/2 that is being readied for the Ennstal Classic. He intends to give the 917 some rest now, with no plans to take part in any "serious" races anymore. So there may not be so many opportunities to get up close and personal with the 917/10 in the future, and I am glad I got this chance, in a breathtakingly beautiful setting. Many thanks to Ottokar Jacobs for making it happen.
Johannes Gauglica

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