Why a dream team are restoring a Porsche 917 with a dark past

Derek Bell and Norbert Singer are back together in order to bring the notorious former John Woolfe 917 back to Le Mans

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A most amazing Porsche all-star cast has assembled in Valencia, Spain ahead of the marque’s 70th anniversary celebrations at this year’s Le Mans Classic.

Five-time Le Mans 24-hours winner Derek Bell has joined forces with former Porsche Motorsport chief engineer Norbert Singer to fine-tune a Willi Kauhsen-owned Porsche 917 LangHeck. This is not just any 917 – if there’s such a thing – but the infamous John Woolfe car in which the British driver crashed in 1969, later dying from his injuries.

It’s one of the dark moments in the history of the Le Mans 24-hours. At Maison Blanche, near the end of the first lap, privateer driver Woolfe had a massive crash in the white #10 long-tail 917 he had just acquired from Porsche. He’d been the first privateer to buy a 917 from the factory.

Sports car ace Vic Elford later said that Woolfe should not have been behind the wheel of the unstable 917. Woolfe’s team-mate Digby Martland had a major moment in practice, spinning the car multiple times at the end of the Mulsanne Straight. He brought the car back in one piece to the pits, but announced that his racing days were over on the spot.

Woolfe was not so lucky. The real reasons behind the crash have never been fully explained, but the fact that the 917 was a handful, along with the excellent start Woolfe made, led to the conclusion that he was still busy attaching his harness as he put two wheels on the grass and lost control.

Jacky Ickx memorably protested the traditional running-start procedure in that year’s race by walking across to his car and attaching his harness first before taking off dead last. Le Mans abandoned the running start for the following year.

What was left of that 917, #005, remained with John Woolfe Racing until some ten years ago, when Kauhsen and Dave Seabrook bought the car and started restoring it. Singer assisted, having worked on the aerodynamics of the 917 in period.

Speaking during a break in testing at the Circuit Ricardo Tormo, Derek Bell recalls his initial reticence about getting involved with the project: ‘They didn’t tell me it was the former John Woolfe car, and I was not best pleased when I found out.

‘But I have made my mind up that this should not be about the Woolfe connection, but about the 917. After all, I have no reason to dislike the 917. I was behind the wheel with [Joseph] Siffert when I took my first victory with the 917, and I took its final victory as well. The 917 I got to drive in 1971 was already a much-fine-tuned car.’

Bell has driven 917s since, but not at Le Mans. So if he was ever to come back, it would be under his own terms: ‘I have always said that if I ever were to take a 917 back to Le Mans, I’d do it only if Willi Kauhsen and Norbert Singer were involved. I have driven Willi’s Alfa Romeo 33 at Paul Ricard, and it was fantastic.’

With the passing of time, Bell appreciates the speed and risk of driving a 917 more than ever. That’s why he’s looking for the best possible package in order to make a return to Le Mans.

‘Nothing is written in stone just yet. I will drive this car at Le Mans only if I feel entirely at ease with it. Back in the day, we were pulling 242mph (390kph) on the Mulsanne straight in the 917 in the test days prior to the race. I have no ambitions to repeat this feat once more, but you should bear in mind that we will still be going very fast. I must have been absolutely crazy back then.’

He continues: ‘I remember being asked by Porsche to help out with some aerodynamic work in the long-tail 917 on a miserable October day at Hockenheim. It was cold, wet and getting dark – you couldn’t see a thing. But I carried on nonetheless because that was what they asked of me.

‘You may think I would be crazy to take this car back to Le Mans, but wouldn’t you agree that if I said no then plenty of other people would happily take my place? It’s not as if I still feel the need to absolutely do this, but I have to admit I instantly found it a very interesting challenge. I may have lost my aggression behind the wheel, but I think my experience as a racing driver is still valuable here.’

He explains how much effort has gone into the project: ‘Norbert has, as usual, been working flat-out on the 917. We are not reinventing stuff, just trying to make the existing configuration perform in a better way. A lot of it is aerodynamic work to make the car feel good at speed. We are not where I want it yet. It feels nearly right, but not quite right yet.

‘In a way, you could say we are still developing a nearly 50-year-old car. But Norbert is working on it in his traditional style, studying and taking his time to come to a conclusion. He will make it work, I am sure of that. If I am not happy with it then this car will not drive at Le Mans… well, not with me in it anyway. Although I don’t think Willi will take it if he’s not 100 percent satisfied as well.’

On the first day of testing proceedings went well up to a certain point.

Bell says: ‘Every component on this car is brand new; it was the first time it came out. At one point, I heard a sound in the engine I didn’t like, and I instantly switched it off and cruised home to avoid damage. I think we may have a problem with one of the valves, we are now looking into that. Hopefully, we can find a quick fix so we still have a couple of hours of running left.’

Singer has 16 Le Mans victories to his credit, also spanning performances with the iconic 956 and 962. Four of Bell’s victories came as a Porsche driver. Kauhsen was on the podium – second in 1970 – and took part in most of the development of the 917. Despite their combined wealth of success, all three men are approaching 80 years old – yet no one is quite ready to slow down in the way that you or I would expect at such advancing years.

The car’s history and the achievements of its drivers are extraordinary. Everyone is hoping that such an ensemble succeeds in returning the 917 to the Circuit de la Sarthe on July 7-9, almost 50 years after this car made headlines in the Le Mans 24-hours for all the wrong reasons.

Images courtesy of Frozenspeed

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