BRIAN REDMAN: THE 917 YEARS
From Excellence, November 1996 :
THE 917 YEARS
SOME LONG AND SHORT TALES
Brian Redman reflects on the 917 and the men who raced them
By Patrick C. Paternie
The 917 was Porsche's ultimate weapon - so dominant that every Porsche owner fantasizes about blowing down the Mulsanne Straight in a 917 past Ferraris. And rightly so. The 917 gave Porsche its first overall win at Le Mans. It became a symbol of Porsche's capability to dominate the highest level of international sports car competition. The legend of the 917 began with its development and early handling problems and continued with the exploits of legendary drivers like Jo Siffert, Pedro Rodriguez, and Mark Donohue.
Brian Redman not only lived that fantasy, he got paid for it. He was there at the beginning and, for all intents and purposes, the end of the 917 saga. Redman was a member of the Porsche factory team in 1969 and 1970 when the 917 was unleashed on the world. He also drove the ultimate 917, Mark Donohue's 917/30, in the declining days of the Can-Am in 1974. A car he shared with Siffert at Le Mans in 1970, the #20 Gulf Wyer 917, was the star of Steve McQueen's epic movie Le Mans.
Redman wasn't just along for the ride. His credentials include winning a World Championship in the GT 40 in 1968, repeating that feat for Porsche in 1969 and 1970, adding three Formula 5000 championships, the 1981 IMSA championship, five major victories at Spa, two wins each in the Targa Florio, Daytona 24 Hours, and 12 Hours of Sebring.
Today, Brian still races actively in vintage events and also partakes in classic car rallies like Arizona's Copperstate 1000. There, he was kind enough to take some time to reminisce about his experiences in the 917. Armed with a wry sense of humour and an amazing sense of recall, Redman punctuates his stories of the good old days with mechanical sounds and dialects, as if he were sitting on the pit wall discussing yesterday's activities.
His eyes tell as much of the story as his words. Intense and alert, with a twinkle of mischief, they focus back through time, reliving the moments of triumph, speed, and danger. Moments touched by emotion - joy, laughter, and sadness. The eyes of Redman, a veteran racer, glow with the reflection of his past - a contrast to the eyes of Redman, the young racer, captured almost 30 years earlier in a Porsche factory team mug shot. Those eyes burn in anticipation of living his dream, not knowing how reality might intrude on that fantasy.
Brian shares his experiences with the 917 and the people who drove and developed it.
How did you get started driving for Porsche?
In 1968 I was picked by John Wyer to drive the Gulf GT 40. I was also asked by the Cooper car company to drive Formula One. At the Belgian Grand Prix, where a month or so before we'd won a 1000 kilometer race with Jacky Ickx in the GT 40, the suspension broke on the Cooper and I had a huge accident which shattered my right arm and I was out of racing for the rest of the year. I was lucky that Porsche was forming a very big team for a major attack on the World Championship in 1969. They had a five-car, ten-driver team and I was asked to join that team. That's how it all started, and of course, the 917 was in its prototype form almost right from the beginning. The first time I actually saw it (the 917) was in January, 1969, when they had a press conference at Hockenheim and we drove in the snow!
The early versions of the 917 had a reputation for being evil handling cars. Is that why you and Siffert relied on the 908 to win the World Championship ?
Because of the degree of effort with the 908 in 1969, there was very little development done on the 917. There wasn't time. It was a huge, huge effort from Porsche just to produce it. They wanted to run it at the Nürburgring. Of course nobody wanted to drive it. Not just because it had an evil reputation, but because we knew it wouldn't be competitive. (Redman chuckles.) You know we were racing drivers and our job was to win races.
The worst thing about the 917 in its original trim was that it was very bad aerodynamically, although everyone thought it was the chassis. In fact, it was developing a kind of lift, instead of downforce, which made it extremely fast down the straights. At Le Mans, in 1969, I went faster than I'd ever gone in my life - 238 mph down the Mulsanne Straight. But it felt terrible. Siffert and I decided to drive an open, long-tail 908/2 instead of the 917 because we thought it would be more reliable and I think it was the right choice.
Why wasn't the original 917 competitive?
Around the Nürburgring, it was too slow. The power and weight (ratio) really hurt it. Eventually they brought in an Australian driver, Frank Gardner, and an English driver, David Piper, a privateer mostly with Ferraris. They drove the car and finished the race but it was 40 seconds a lap off the pace. This was the real reason that none of the factory drivers wanted to drive it. But everyone was nervous about it as well. (Redman's eyes focus back in time with a twinkle, he’s about to tell a tale on the Porsche factory.)
At one time around that period, Porsche called me from Germany, from Stuttgart. (Switching to a broad German accent, Redman recreates the phone conversation.)
"Herr Redman, you vill come to test zee 917."
I was immediately alarmed at this. Why did they want me when I was living in England and they had 7 Germans living within an hour of Stuttgart and Jo Siffert in Switzerland? So I said I'm very busy but perhaps I can change my plans, I'll call you back in 2 hours. "Please be sure to call back, Herr Redman."
I called Siffert and asked him, "Seppi, have you tested the 917?"
There was a long silence before Seppi replied (Redman switches to his Swiss accent.), "No no Bree-an. We let zee others find out what breaks first."
Good advice. I've always been a reluctant tester, especially in the old days.
Aren't you the one who solved the mystery of the 917's handling?
That was only by chance. It was the end of the 1969 season, the day after the Osterreichring 1000 kilometer race, and the team stayed on. John Wyer and his henchmen- John Horsman, the engineer, and David Yorke, the team manager -along with two or three mechanics were there. The idea was to do some testing with them for 1970 when Wyer was to be running the official Porsche factory team.
We ran the car that we had run the day before and it was the same. Same lap times and everything. They had the Porsche PA car that Siffert had been driving in America in the Can-Am under the Porsche-Audi banner. That car had a short, open body as opposed to the long-tail coupe. John Wyer said, "Better try the PA, Brian."
So out I went in the PA. Four seconds faster!
John Horsman said it must be the body. They got some plywood, duct tape and aluminum and filled in the valley in the rear deck of the coupe. It was three seconds faster straightaway. So that's all it was. It was no great research or wind tunnel thing. The tails were redesigned. It became known as the 917K, kurz meaning short, and the car was tremendous. Really fantastic.
How does the 917's debut at Spa in 1969 compare to the 1970 race at the same track?
In 1969, the very first race for the 917 was at Spa. There were two 917s and five 908s. We were given the choice of driving a 917 if we wanted to. Both Siffert and I drove it and we didn't like it. We said, "No thanks, we'll use our 908 long tail." Gerhard Mitter and Udo Schutz, no doubt for the Glory of the Fatherland, decided to drive the 917 and blew it up on the first lap when they missed a gear. It had a very awkward gearbox at that time. Fifth gear was out of the gate to the right and up alongside third. It was terribly easy to go from fourth to third instead of fifth. Porsche made it a four-speed to correct that.
By 1970, the 917 was very good. Winning Spa was probably the most memorable race of that year. We had all sorts of trouble in practice with tires coming off the rims at 200 mph. Both Siffert and I had very, very near misses and a near miss at Spa is definitely a near miss because you're going so fast all the time. How we never crashed I just don't know. It happened three separate times. To come back from what was a very adverse situation to win the race was wonderful. It was the fastest road race ever run at the time. Including rain at the start and the pit stops, we averaged 149 mph for 630 miles (1000 kilometers). Pedro Rodriguez set the fastest lap in the race at 164 mph.
There was less pressure but it was more dangerous. We felt we had to make the most of what we have while we're alive, so we had big parties after the races. Pedro Rodriguez felt (co-driver) Leo Kinnunen wasn't fast enough, but the times and records show that he was. Rodriguez was a very good, very brave driver. (Redman's eyes focus back on past events.) He was probably the equal of Siffert, I suppose.
But you were faster than Siffert at Spa, weren't you?
Spa was the only track that I was consistently faster than Siffert. I set a new lap record in 1969 in the 908 long tail. In 1970, of course, we won again in the 917 and for once in my life I was averaging about 4 seconds a lap quicker than Siffert. (Redman chuckles at the memory of besting his good friend.) I've always liked fast circuits. Probably because I was almost killed there (Spa) in 1968 when the suspension broke on the Cooper, I felt a corresponding degree of effort to overcome the bad things that happened there.
In 1970, the factory team was run by John Wyer who had a reputation of running a precise, militarylike operation. What effect did that have on you drivers?
Wyer was very good to drive for. I'd driven for him in 1968 in the GT 40. He was a very smart guy. He had some very good people working for him. The team manager was David Yorke and the engineer John Horsman. The chief mechanic was Ermano Coughi. They were all tremendously experienced and very, very good so we never had any problems. We were too busy doing the driving. We were never drilled or anything like that.
You retired briefly in 1971. Who replaced you on the Porsche factory team?
Derek Bell. I did race a 917 in 1971 at Brands Hatch. It was with Vic Elford in the Martini & Rossi car. During a pit stop, I was all belted in, ready to go. Suddenly, there was this terrible smell of gas. There was gas running inside the car and down the road. The mechanics were shouting and yelling. The gas pump wouldn't shut off when they were done refueling. Anyway, the team manager stands in front of the car and he goes like this... (Redman waves his finger around in a circle)... Fire it up! so I turned it on. Boom! Up it went. (He laughs, eyes twinkling.) But they got it out. And, typical of Porsche, we carried on.
How about the filming of the movie Le Mans? The car you raced at Le Mans in 1970, #20, was the car featured in the movie, driven by Steve McQueen.
In the race itself, the camera car would shoot our car and then after the race, during the filming, they had another 917, owned by Solar Productions and painted Gulf blue to match our car. You couldn't tell the difference. That car was later sold to a German team that raced it a couple of times. I bought it from a mechanic and had it sitting at home 4 or 5 years. I needed to raise some money, so I called Richard Attwood and he bought it and still has it today. It's painted in his Le Mans winning colors, but it's not a Le Mans winning car. It's a Steve McQueen Solar Productions car. Hardly raced at all.
What was it like working on the movie with Steve McQueen?
He was a great enthusiast, but it was incredibly boring. You sat around all day, lucky if you got to drive 30 minutes at the end of the day. I've had a copy of the movie for 20 years and never watched it all. What I did watch looked very realistic.
How about your experiences driving 917 Can-Am cars?
In 1973, I drove a 917/10 for Vasek Polak at Laguna Seca. We had engine trouble there, but at Riverside we had a very good race. The chassis kept breaking. (Redman laughs.)
It broke on Friday. Then it broke on Saturday. On Sunday, I was really concerned. Here we were with 1000 horsepower and a big field of cars and I was concerned that it wasn't safe.
I told Vasek that I hadn't slept all night. I said I really don't think I should race this car. (He recounts the ensuing conversation, playing the role of his friend Vasek Polak with an Eastern European dialect)
"Brian. Why not? Why not?" "Well, Vasek, I don't think it's safe."
"Brian, I understand. I understand. The guys have worked all night, the car is perfect, but I understand."
So I said, "Well, okay, I'll race it." I finished second in the first heat to Donohue who was in a class by himself in the 917/30. In the second heat, I'm lying second and there's a very fast left hand kink at over 200 mph before turn 9 and something broke in the rear. I didn't spin. I had a huge slide, missed the wall by nothing, and trickled into the pits.
Only when I looked at the broken heim joint did I realize why there was quite a bit of difference in the handling of the car from the 917/10 of Jody Scheckter who was Vasek's regular driver in the series. I asked Vasek why this car didn't have a 917/10 suspension. He said, "Brian, this is a PA car."
It was Siffert's 1969 Can-Am car. They copied the bodywork from Scheckter's car and put in a turbocharged engine, a huge amount of work, and made it into what was a 917/10 lookalike!
You also drove the 917/30 for Mark Donohue at Mid-Ohio in 1974.
It was kind of disappointing. Donohue had just retired and he was an extremely reluctant team manager. Here was another driver, driving his baby, the car he'd spent two years developing and winning the Can-Am championship with. I guess it would be like inviting someone to sleep with your wife. But also the car hadn't had anything done to it for a long time. We finished second to Jackie Oliver in the Shadow, but we should have won.
You last drove a 917 about 5 years ago at Aide in Japan when they held that track's inaugural race. What kind of memories did that revive?
I drove David Piper's car. It was interesting. I looked at the aluminum tube frame that could break in half. I was reminded of the things they (917s) did. They move about under heavy braking. There was that same heavy exhaust note. That great torque coming out of the corners.
I remembered the incredible work Porsche did on the car - the pace of development that was out of this world, the effort and sophistication, the expert engineers that took a difficult program and made it work. Ferdinand Piëch was the gun behind it. He forced all those huge programs through. He was responsible for the success of the car. Aided by Helmuth Bott and a corps of engineers who were wonderful.
Listening to Brian Redman recount the days of the 917 is as close as most Porsche lovers can get to living out their Le Mans fantasy. He's certainly "been there, done that." Fortunately, he's willing and exceedingly able to take us with him as he remembers it.