THE POWER WITHOUT THE GLORY
We meet up with legendary Porsche race and test driver, Willi Kauhsen, to learn the story behind 917/10-001, the testbed for the mighty turbocharged Can-am Porsches
917/10-001 spent much of its life as a test mule – but what a life it had!
Cars in today's top line racing series are designed to a bewildering list of rules and regulations detailing the minutest components, but 50 years ago it was a very different story. In the early 1970s, with the 917 having effectively been banned from Le Mans for being too fast, Porsche turned its attention to America and the unlimited Can-am series.
Unburdened by strict safety requirements and limits regarding things such as engine size and power output, CanAm gave Porsche's engineers a free rein. What they came up with was an absolute monster, one that put out an insane 1830bhp. The legendary twin-turbo 917/30 is to this day the most powerful car to have ever graced a race circuit.
Behind the mantle of glory the winning cars attracted, the main test mule for these beasts was 917/10-001, which was the first car Porsche ever ran with turbochargers. It had a hard life, covering a massive 10,000km in testing at different venues around Europe. It was then raced, with an international victory to its name, and saw duty at the Nürburgring with no less a driver than Emerson Fittipaldi behind the wheel.
And now, three full rebuilds later, with the 917 Langheck nose it once ran with for comparison purposes, it's up for sale. But before it gets whisked away into someone's collection, the author spent an evening with its former driver and long-time owner, Willi Kauhsen.
In a leafy suburb of Aachen in western Germany, the sprightly form of Willi, belying his octogenarian status, came to shake my hand in a warm greeting before leading me to the back of the house. The room he led me into, with walls covered in photos and cabinets full of trophies, is a shrine to his racing years. 'Here, look at this,' he smiled, taking an old bottle of champagne off the top of the filing cabinet. 'Do you know what this is?' I had to admit that I didn't. 'It's from second place at Le Mans in 1971!'
Arguably Willi's place in Porsche history is as the main development driver of the 917/10, but he is perhaps better known for racing two of the most iconic Le Mans Porsches: the so-called 'Hippie' 917 with its psychedelic paintwork, with which he took that second place with partner Gerard Larousse, and the arguably more famous, especially as it has pride of place in the Porsche Museum, Pink Pig. But Willi's personal 'baby' is chassis #001.
The 917 was designed with only one purpose in mind, victory at Le Mans, which it famously achieved in 1970 and 1971, but a lot of changes were needed to make the car suitable for the much tighter and twisty tracks of north America. The chassis was shortened (at first) and widened, and both the huge 4.5-litre engine and driver were moved further forwards to get as close to the ideal 50/50 weight distribution as possible.
The body also had to be completely redesigned, as not only was the roof removed but there was also the need to generate a lot more downforce. Willi tells us that they managed to get the car into the Mercedes wind tunnel to try some different nose designs but they didn't really get too much information from the sessions. 'The tunnel was designed for road cars so they couldn't get it to blow fast enough,' says Kauhsen. Back then the established way to discover if something worked was to bolt it to the car and get Willi to see if it was an improvement in any way – or not, as the case may be. Mclaren M8s with 850bhp V8s were the cars Porsche would be competing against, so power was the key. And lots of it.
The first experiment was to lengthen the chassis to fit a huge 6.9-litre flat-16, which was essentially an extended version of the flat-12. This was rated at 760bhp but they soon found that the increased weight offset the extra power. The extended wheelbase had a detrimental effect on handling, too, so that idea was discarded. Turbocharging was the answer… But the project had to remain top secret, so no outside consultant could be brought
“BUT WILLI’S PERSONAL ‘BABY’ IS CHASSIS #001…”
“THE FIRST EXPERIMENT WAS TO LENGTHEN THE CHASSIS…”
in to advise the team, and that left the in-house engineers to devise their own systems from scratch.
The first pair they had to work with were from a boat engine which, of course, has very different performance parameters to a race car. After a couple of major blow-ups, the engineers duly learnt you don't need to put all the exhaust gases through the turbines all the time. They then designed a rudimentary wastegate to offer some control and, step-by-step, they got the power of a 4.5-litre engine up to 850bhp, and by the time Willi came to see what it could do they had a 5.4-litre engine with two huge turbos rated at a staggering 1200bhp.
'I knew what a privilege it was to be driving that car, that I was the first to see the future,' he said. But the radical new machine needed a completely new drivingstyle. 'The main thingabout the car wasn't the power itself, it was the terrible lagthe 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 waitingfor the explosion of power just as you hit the straight. And it came in fast.'
Mark Donohue was the driver Porsche chose to spearhead the American assault, but Willi wasn't disappointed. 'I never saw anyone else in my life who could drive a 1200bhp 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 anticipatingthe turbo boost was amazing.
'In fact the first time I saw him drive “my” car I knew I could never be as good as that and was ready to give up being a racing driver right there and then! The engineers had to stop me leavingthe track and goinghome.'
The first time the race car saw action was at the first race of the 1972 Can-am series at Mosport Park. Donohue finished second, which wasn't bad consideringthat three laps were lost while a turbo was fixed, but a bad crash that broke his legruled him out for the rest of the year.
Team-mate George Follmer stepped up, won on his debut and went on to take the title in emphatic style with exactly
double the points of the second place finisher. The following year in the even more powerful 917/30, Donohue and Follmer won every race between them. And this success was in no small part down to the many development miles put in by Willi Kauhsen.
In 1973 917/10-001's testing life was long over and, with the 10,000km on the chassis, it didn't exactly handle like a new car, but when Willi wrote-off #002 (there's a nice photo in Willi's room of him standing in its smouldering wreckage) chassis #001 was the only other available as a replacement.
With the engine and gearbox completely overhauled, the latest factory specification 'shovel' nose fitted and painted a striking bright yellow with red Bosch livery, Willi entered the European equivalent of the Can-am, the Interseries.
In the first race, at Hockenheim, Willi finished second behind his Porsche team-mate Leo Kinnunen, who would go on to claim that year 's championship – but Willi had slightly bigger ideas. Chassis #001 was shipped to America for him to race in the Can-am round at Laguna Seca. It didn't go quite to plan, though, as he retired with a blown turbo and could only manage eighth place at the next race at Riverside.
After that he took up an offer from the Fittipaldis to race in the Coppa Brazil at Interlagos. Willi won the first race, giving #001 its only victory, retired in the second heat, but the friendship Willi made with the Fittipaldis was the best thing he took away from that trip. For 1974 Willi bought the brand-new #015 chassis to race with and kept the now tired #001 to rent out to paying drivers, although none were of the calibre needed to extract the full level of performance from the car. 001's last race was the 1974 Nürburgring ADAC event.
Willi took the wheel again and let Emerson Fittipaldi drive the new #015 car which history relates he amazingly, in such an unwieldy car on the world's most challenging circuit, managed to put on pole.
That's not quite what happened, though, and Willi knows the true story. The reigning world champion wasn't too impressed with his times in the #015 car compared to what Willi was achieving in the much older #001, and instead of
“WILLI KEPT THE NOW TIRED #001 TO RENT OUT…”
complimenting the man who knew the car inside and out and how to handle it, he assumed that there was something wrong with his mount.
To check, he swapped cars with Willi and while the Brazilian was out in #001, Willi slipped his seat into #015 and headed out for a lap…and duly put in the fastest lap. The timekeepers were unaware of the switch so credited Fittipaldi with the pole position.
With 1200bhp, 600 of which came in after a few seconds' delay, and a locked rear differential, the 917/10s weren't exactly suited to the continuous curves of the Nordschleife, especially in the wet as they had wheelspin in fourth gear at 300Km/h. Fittipaldi managed to finish sixth but Willi lost a cooling fan at Brunchen and had to retire.
The car was then given another full rebulid and put into dry storage where it remained for 22 years until, in the late '90s, Willi decided it was perfect to show to an appreciative public at classic events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed. For ten more years he kept it as a driving demo version until a well-known classic collector, Dr Ulrich Schumacher, made an offer for it he couldn't refuse.
Four years later it was sold on to an enthusiast from Monaco who actually wanted to drive it, so he took out the 1200bhp engine and replaced it with the much more manageable normally-aspirated 4.9-litre flat-12, the same as it ran with at one point in the early testing phase. In 2015 Jan Juelin bought it and, as he wanted it to be eligible for FIA sanctioned classic events such as the Le Mans Classic, it needed to have lights.
With the open cockpit and Gulf-liveried Langheck nose it looks very strange. There is a photograph from, presumably, the Mercedes wind tunnel with the same setup and Jan pored over that with a magnifying glass to get the lengths and angles of the tape around the lights correct… 'It looks like a real hybrid,' he smiled. '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 '70s? Prototypes and test cars, by their very nature, can't possibly be 'matching numbers' cars. Before its first race, #001 ran with three different engines, even a different length chassis to accommodate the pre-turbo experimental flat-16, as well as multiple different turbos and their set ups – plus of course many different bodywork 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 cobbled together with many off the shelf parts, one that looks like no other 917 in the world and has a history unlike that of any other Porsche. CP