Superformance Ford GT40 MKI 50th Anniversary vs. 1970 Porsche 917K

Superformance Ford GT40 MKI 50th Anniversary vs. 1970 Porsche 917K

08/06/2021

The 1969 24 Hours of Le Mans featured one of the greatest finishes in the legendary race’s history, a final-lap battle between two of the best-known competitors: Ford and Porsche. The automakers’ weapons, the Ford GT40 Mk I and the Porsche 917K, would go down in history as two of the greatest race cars of all time. Thanks to recent opportunities, we have the unique chance to compare the two as we dissect the fantastic finish.

For as well known as the 1969 running is among Le Mans fans, it hasn’t had the same lasting impact as, say, the 1966 race. That Ford-versus-Ferrari story was good enough to be made into a feature film of the same name. Previously uncompetitive Ford GT40s finishing 1-2-3 made 1966 a year to remember, certainly, but it was not the only incredible win the GT40 pulled off at Le Mans.

Race Recap

For those who aren’t aficionados of the world’s greatest endurance race, a recap. By 1969, Ford corporate was out of the game, and the GT40s were being run by factory-backed privateer John Wyer, who’d previously worked on the GT40 program. Due to rule changes (which led Ferrari to boycott the 1968 race), Wyer was back to running Mk I GT40s with the 4.9-liter engine rather than the big 7.0-liter that won in ’66 and ’67. By all accounts, the GT40 Mk I was outdated and outclassed; too heavy and not aerodynamic enough. No one—not even the team itself—thought it stood a chance in hell of winning.

Porsche, meanwhile, was dominating. The 908 was finally having a banner year, and the team had already wrapped up the championship. The new 917 was off to a rough start but was the odds-on favorite after it set a new track record in practice. Two 917s and three 908s were entered (with a third 917 in reserve) to Wyer’s two Gulf Oil-liveried GT40s (plus three other unaffiliated privateer GT40s). Porsche locked up the first four starting positions in qualifying, with the top Ford starting in 13th.

Not that starting higher would’ve mattered much. Ford driver Jacky Ickx staged a one-man protest against the traditional “Le Mans start,” walking to his GT40 and fastening his belts before leaving, which put him dead last. This, too, ultimately wouldn’t matter because, just as Ickx had feared, another driver, John Woolfe, who ran to his privately owned 917 and didn’t get his belts on right, crashed near the end of the first lap and died. The Le Mans start was never used again.

This didn’t change the fact the Porsches were much faster than the Fords. Indeed, the 917s would go on to lead 90 percent of the race laps. Deep into the night, though, everything turned in Ford’s favor. First, two of the 908s collided, taking one out of the race. Then, one of the 917s retired from the race with an oil leak. Morning broke, and so did more Porsches. The last 917 burned up its clutch and then split its gearbox, taking it out with barely three hours left in the 24-hour race. Minutes later, another 908 went down with its own gearbox issues, putting the GT40s into first and second place.

A long pitstop for the second GT40 allowed the last Porsche 908 to move up into second place, setting up the big showdown. Hans Hermann’s 908LH was faster on the long Mulsanne Straight thanks to superior aerodynamics, but the GT40 could hang with it everywhere else. Ickx, driving the lead GT40, knew this, but he also knew Hermann’s brakes were fading. Knowing he couldn’t beat the 908 down the straight and running low on gas, Ickx deliberately allowed Hermann to pass him on the final lap, then out-braked the Porsche into the tight Mulsanne Curve and held the lead for the rest of the lap, taking the win by a matter of seconds in the exact car that had won the previous year (when reliability issues took nearly all the 908s out of the race).

Ford Versus Porsche

We know how it happened, but what was it like? The rare opportunity to drive both a 1970 Porsche 917K on loan from the Porsche Museum and an exact replica of the 1969 Ford GT40 Mk I built by Superformance gives us precious insight.

Woolfe wrecked his 917 on the first lap in part because of his inexperience (having bought the car only days earlier) and in part because of the car’s twitchy handling, an issue that would be fixed the following year. Indeed, this 1970 model featured such grand aerodynamic improvements that Richard Atwood, who won the 1970 race in a 917, told me he could take one hand off the steering wheel at 220 mph on the Mulsanne Straight. We’ve driven over 200 mph in modern supercars, so believe us when we say that’s no small statement.

It’s all the more impressive when you consider the conditions inside the car. The 917 was designed to be as light and aerodynamic as possible, so the driver is effectively lying on their back. The seat is a fiberglass bucket roughly the size of a low-back bar seat. Your author is a perfectly average 5-foot-9, but with a long torso and short legs, I had to scooch down to the edge of the seat to both reach the pedals and get my head inside the car. Atwood is several inches taller than me, and when I asked how he did it, he said he’d just cock his head to the side—for the entire stint (endurance racers work in shifts called stints that can last several hours). My chin was buried in my chest, and still, my helmet was hitting the door hinge on the ceiling.

By comparison, the GT40 is downright roomy. The seat is far more comfortable, molded in such a way I can fully sit down in it and still reach the pedals fine. It has more lumbar, thigh, and upper back support, too. Compared to the 917, it’s an easy chair. There’s also more room for my head, even with an auxiliary door latch on the ceiling (necessary to keep the doors closed at high speeds due to imperfect aerodynamics). I’m still very nearly lying down, but I’m not quite as reclined as in the 917, and my chin isn’t permanently glued to my sternum. The only real issue is that the ’69 car does not have a removable steering wheel, so getting in and out is a pain.

Race-Ready Performance

Driving these machines is another matter. Neither car wasted an ounce of weight on power steering, but that doesn’t make these vintage vehicles the same. The 917’s steering is heavy, and it’s heavy all the time. With such a small steering wheel and ridiculously reclined driving position, I found myself having to move a hand down the wheel before every turn in order to get enough leverage to feel like I was in full control. Not so the GT40. Its steering is heavy at low speeds like any car without power assist, but it lightens up at higher speeds, so I could keep my hands at nine and three and maintain complete helm control.

It’s a similar situation with the stick shift, which in either car is mounted on the right door sill. The 917’s gearbox is a rat’s maze, with first and third seemingly millimeters apart, second back and far to the left of first, and fourth somewhere to the right of second. Shifting up to third too quickly is guaranteed to bust your knuckles on the raw fiberglass bodywork, and the gearbox doesn’t like being rushed anyway. It’s no surprise at all that the third 917 set to race at Le Mans in 1969 was sidelined by a blown engine caused by shifting into first instead of third. The GT40, by contrast, has a delightful shifter that slots neatly into each gear, with tight, consistent spacing located exactly where you’d expect.

It’s the opposite matter when it comes to throttle and braking. In short, the Porsche is an arm workout, and the Ford is a leg workout. The 917’s accelerator, despite needing to open four more throttle bodies than the GT40’s, provides smooth and linear resistance all the way through its long travel, making it incredibly easy to fine-tune. Its brake pedal needs a firmer push but otherwise reacts similarly. The GT40’s throttle pedal is stiff at tip-in then loosens up, but it still pushes against stiffer return springs. It’s easy to adjust once you get past the initial resistance, but not nearly as easy as the 917’s. Similarly, the GT40’s brake pedal requires a very strong leg to get serious stopping power.

How the brakes respond matters because the lighter 917 made 520 hp in 1969, and this ’70 model made 600 hp from its 4.9-liter flat-12. The Mk I GT40, meanwhile, made just 425 hp from its 4.9-liter V-8 in 1969, and as noted, this car was heavy by period standards. Although the Ford has plenty of torque to throw you back in your seat, the 917 has far more power on the top end. The 917’s naturally balanced 12-cylinder is also delightfully smooth and civilized compared to the raw and untamed Ford V-8. For as rowdy as the GT40’s engine behaves, it’s clear why the 917 had a serious top speed advantage.

This 917 being a literal museum piece and this GT40 being an exact replica valued at the price of a nice house, limit handling tests were not on the list of approved activities. At the moderately high speeds I’m allowed to drive, the 917 has enormous grip and feels light and lithe, its brutally heavy steering notwithstanding. The GT40 feels heavier but no less grippy or stable. There’s a feeling of security in that weight, like the car is pressed into the pavement even under high-speed cornering, but you get the sense the 917 would be quicker and nimbler at race speeds, scary handling notwithstanding. It’s no great surprise this car would go on to dominate in later Le Mans races and in America’s Can-Am series.

Remember the Titans

By all accounts, the Porsche 917 was built to end the Ford GT40’s domination of the European endurance racing circuit. Ford’s big 7.0-liter V-8s were simply too powerful for Porsche’s flat-six 907 and even the flat-eight 908 to keep up with, spurring the Germans to develop the flat-12 917. By then, though, the Fords were back to running 4.9-liter engines, and like the 908s before it, the 917s struggled with reliability early on. As such, the world never got to see a battle between the 7.0-liter GT40 and a healthy 917 that seemed destined. Instead, racing fans got a true underdog story of an outdated but reliable race car taking home one last major victory over a far more powerful and advanced car that couldn’t keep its gearbox together.

Still, for one glorious race, the 917 and GT40 went head to head. Even if it was a mismatched competition, it still resulted in one of the great all-time races. Between the 917’s sketchy handling and heavy steering and the GT40’s heavy brake pedal and stiff throttle, it’s hard to say which was more difficult to drive in 1969, but Ford and Porsche’s drivers fought through it. One team just managed to fight three hours longer than the other.

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