Porsche aficionado Steve McQueen and the US ambassador to France sent the contenders on their way in 1971. Of the 49 starters, 33 put their faith in the marque from Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen — a record that still stands today. Porsche modified the 917 for Le Mans, particularly in the area of aerodynamics. Their work paid dividends. At the pre-test, Derek Bell was unofficially clocked doing 396 km/h on the long straight in a long-tail 907. The car stood out for its smooth and stable handling.
The 1971 Le Mans 24 Hours turned into a marathon of records. Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep drove to victory in the #22 Porsche 917 short tail campaigned by Martini Racing ahead of Herbert Müller and Richard Attwood in the 917 fielded by John Wyer Automotive Engineering — the official JW Gulf factory squad. Marko/van Lennep turned 397 laps in the 917 featuring a magnesium space frame, and covered 5,335.13 kilometres for an average speed of 222.304 km/h. This record remained unbroken for the next 39 years. For their record-breaking drive, the winners were also awarded the “Index of Performance“ for the most efficient use of fuel! Jackie Oliver turned a practice lap with an average speed of 250.475 km/h and was clocked doing 386 kilometres per hour at the end of the long straight. With the long tail and the modified aerodynamics, the “kink” — a right bend on the long Mulsanne straight — could be taken at full throttle. Only after almost a decade and a half would a race car manage to lap the Circuit de la Sarthe quicker — and again it would be a Porsche. Both the Martini design of the victors and the light blue and orange livery of the second-placed “Gulf Porsche” are regarded today as classics of industrial design.
Once again, a 911 won the GT classification: Raymond Tourol and “Anselme” pocketed sixth overall — spearheading a further six 911. Since its Le Mans debut in 1966, the 911 remained undefeated in the GT class. Back home in Germany, the race department relocated from Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen to Weissach.
From 1972, the World Championship and the 24 hour race were contested specifically for prototypes with normally aspirated three-litre engines. The era of the magnificent 4.5-litre 917 in Le Mans was over, but a 908 long tail privately entered by Reinhold Joest turned heads. Joest, Mario Casoni and Michael Weber shared the car owned by Jo Siffert and scored third overall behind two factory-run Matra. The 908 benefited mainly from the sophisticated aerodynamics and its low weight. Despite its substantially lower engine output compared to the Works Matra, the Porsche reached an identical top speed on the long straight. Michael Keyser, Jürgen Barth and Sylvain Garant drove the 911 S of Ecurie Louis Meznaire to victory in the GT class for up to three litres. At Porsche, the mid-term decision was to concentrate on motorsport with the 911. In November 1972, development begun on the first race car based on the 911 Carrera RS 2.7. This marked the dawn of the move towards the successful Porsche turbo-powered race car.
In 1973, the prototypes with their three-litre Formula 1 engines were the top category at Le Mans. But the future was a World Championship — and a 24 hour race — for “production cars”. The factory squad campaigned the 911 Carrera RSR 3.0 in the prototype class. This class allowed greater technical freedom in testing innovations for the future. The RSR 3.0 was an impressive 911 with twelve-inch rear wheels, the braking system from the 917, and a significantly modified suspension with the “auxiliary” springs on the rear axle taking over the job previously done by the torsion bars. Dubbed the “Mary Stuart collar”, the rear spoiler stretched all the way to the fenders. The six-cylinder boxer unit delivered 330 hp. Weighing in at 890 kilograms, the RSR 3.0 had no chance of fighting for overall honours against the 200 kg lighter sports prototypes. Still, Gijs van Lennep and Herbert Müller almost scored a podium spot: Fourth place behind two Matra and a Ferrari. A mere three laps behind the third-placed “Formula 1 with a body”. One small negative in the elation: the second Works RSR driven by Reinhold Joest and Claude Haldi rolled to a halt in the seventh hour with an empty tank. Erwin Kremer, Clemens Schickentanz and Paul Keller won the GT class to three litres in the 2.8-litre Carrera RSR fielded by Porsche Kremer Racing, followed by Georg Loos and Jürgen Barth in the 2.8-litre RSR of Gelo Racing. The first five places in the class went to Porsche. The Kremer-Porsche was the most efficient car in the field and won the consumption performance category.
[Source: Porsche AG]