Twist and hold the key to start the engine. Gearbox is a standard H-pattern, though there’s some disagreement whether it has four gears or five installed at the moment. Idle speed is around 1,000 rpm like you’re used to, but all the power is up high, so give it more revs than you think when you release the clutch, or you’ll stall a Porsche 917 in front of everyone.
The track surface is bitterly cold and a bit damp. The car’s been sitting a while, so the Avon steamrollers have zero heat in them, but at least they’re new. This rain set has a few laughable grooves cut in, but we’ll be staying off the wet spots, won’t we? That nice British man who drove a 917k to Porsche’s first Le Mans win in 1970—Richard Atwood was his name—said to avoid goosing the throttle, and you’ll be fine. Fellow Le Mans winner David Donohue is less sure, which is why you’re following his 911 right now.
Someone is trying to tell me something through the Secret Service earpiece I crammed under my helmet, but all I’m hearing is Miss Othmar wah–wah-ing in my ear against the fury of 12 air-cooled cylinders screaming 600 horsepower behind my head. Two-way radios weren’t this good in 1969, but even if they were, race teams would’ve used handheld boards anyway for all the good the walkie is doing me.
Dreading what might happen if I take a hand off the wheel for more than a few seconds, I paw at the microphone clipped to my chest and scream, “I can’t hear anything you’re saying. I’m just going to follow David wherever he goes.” I’d find out later no one in the pit could understand me, either.
Reluctance to remove a hand from the wheel was less to do with a fear the 917 might pick that moment to get loose and more that the unassisted steering required two hands in anything more than a gentle curve, and those are the one thing Sonoma Raceway isn’t known for. It would be easier if my arms weren’t stretched out straight in front of me, but scooting down in the seat was the only way to get my head low enough to close the door, and my duct tape-protected helmet is still hitting the hinge on the ceiling. As it is, I’m having to move a hand down the wheel for every turn to get enough leverage to feel comfortably in control of the car. I was worried I’d be constantly banging my left elbow on the vestigial passenger “seat” fitted to meet homologation requirements, but I never bend my arm enough to come close.
My lower back feels like it’s 6 inches off the seat, and my short legs are still just in position to get the long-throw pedals all the way to the floor. I bang my knuckles into the unfinished side of the fiberglass bodywork every time I shift to third with that delicate-looking shifter and its cute wooden knob. I’m choosing my shift points by ear because the tachometer moves like a clock hand and I don’t want to take my eyes off the track long enough to see where it’ll land. Atwood said to keep it under 7,000, and it should be fine. I’m pretty sure I might have.
He was full of helpful tips like that. The helmet on the ceiling thing? Just cock your head a bit to the right. Oh really, is that all? I can’t imagine how he and his compatriots kept that up for hours at a time during endurance races. “Well, you just got on with it,” he replies. Naturally. And what about finding the right gear in this rat’s maze of a gearbox? “Oh, well, back then if you missed a shift—which happened quite a lot—they just put in a new engine,” he offers, matter-of-factly. “We had plenty of ’em. Not so much now.”
He’s equally sanguine about the rest of the car. Do the brakes need heat in them? No, they’re fine. What about tires? It’s too cold, you’ll never get heat in them anyway, so just take it easy. Oh, OK. Learn by doing, then.
Donohue’s taking it easy on me the first few laps. The track has dried out, but there’s still dirt in places where there used to be mud. We take an odd line here or there to avoid it, but I’m concentrating so hard on not breaking the car I’d follow him into a wall without realizing it until everything came to a stop. My biggest fear is the tires, but Donohue’s warnings about “skatey” conditions proves overly cautious. Cold or not, these race tires have more grip than I need at the speeds I’m going. This is a museum piece, after all (it was literally flown here from Porsche’s Stuttgart museum). What speeds? I have no idea. The car doesn’t have a speedometer.
Atwood’s warning about the throttle is just as overblown. The pedal feels like it has 10 feet of travel, and things don’t get real until it’s nearly on the floor. It’s perfect, because it gives you incredibly fine adjustment of the throttle. You’d have to be a total idiot to hit it hard enough to break the rear tires loose, and I am not a total idiot. As I feel out the car, though, I’m becoming more confident by the corner I can push it much, much harder than I promised the museum people I would.
At least, if I can get this damned shifter figured out. First is about where you’d expect third to be, and third is just slightly to the right of that. Second is a long throw back and way left of first. Fourth is easy to find, because it’s right behind third and hard to miss. There may have been a fifth (not even the museum people were sure whether it was installed), or I may have been still trying to find third when I should’ve given up and gone to second with so much speed already lost. I nearly money-shift it at least three times, catching first instead of third, but my left foot is ready and the clutch is back in before the revs get too high.
The transmission is especially balky when it’s cold, but it loosens up as it warms up. I’m still having trouble consistently finding second and third until I realize the real trick is to stop trying to shift quickly. No one is timing my laps. No one wants to encourage me to take chances with this car, and the times would be too embarrassing anyway. Taking it slow gets the shifter where it needs to go every time. Almost.
Donohue and Atwood are sympathetic. Donohue would later tell me he had the same experience driving his dad’s 917/30 and could tell every time I dropped away from him exiting a corner it was because I couldn’t find a gear.
Still, I’ve found my groove. I’ve (mostly) figured out the gearbox, I’ve gotten used to the driving position, and I have faith in the tires and brakes (which Atwood was right about). Donohue has stepped up the pace, and we’re going pretty good now, much faster than I ever expected to when the museum people finally acquiesced to my driving it at all. He’s intentionally pushing harder in the carousel than I’m willing to in order to open up space for me to go wide-open throttle for a few seconds on the back straight before I run him down. I’m beginning to get an appreciation for how easy this car is to drive fast (shifter notwithstanding) when he heads for the pits.
I have no idea how many laps we did, and no one else was counting, either. If it were a thousand, it wouldn’t be enough, but there’s no time to dwell on it. The 918 Spyder awaits.
Maybe it’s because I’ve had some number of laps to refamiliarize myself with tricky Sonoma Raceway. Maybe it’s because I’ve driven the 918 on two other tracks previously and am familiar with how it handles at the limit. Maybe it’s not having to worry about the shifter. Whatever it was, I was immediately comfortable getting back out there in the same less than ideal conditions on cold, barely street-legal tires and going fast. That, the 917 and 918 have in common. They’re surprisingly easy to drive fast.
It’s the stability. Some cars you get on a track and it’s a constant battle to keep them going the direction you want. The front end doesn’t grip, or the rear’s always stepping out. It’s wiggly in the brake zone, or it can’t put the power down out of a curve. Every corner entry and exit is an adventure. Not so with these.
The 918’s one gotcha is turn-in oversteer. I like to trail-brake, staying on the brake into the corner, which lightens up the rear end and can induce oversteer. For some cars, it’s just a little rotation that helps point you toward the exit of the corner. The 918, in the 911 tradition, does more than rotate. I’ve been sideways entering corners in a 918 where I’ve never been sideways before or since. Knowing this, though, I can drive around it. This 918 prototype, nicknamed Meredith, isn’t as valuable as the 917, but I don’t want to see the insurance claim, just the same.
Finish your braking before you turn, and the 918 is a sweetheart. With the instantaneous response of electric motors, it leaps off corners in a way that would’ve taken a lot more throttle (and risk) in the 917, but foot to the floor, I’m really not sure which one would win a drag race. They feel equally eye widening at full tilt. I’d love nothing more than to see any of the pros standing around the pit do a few timed laps in each.
Back to the task at hand, there are a few obvious differences in how the two cars drive. The 918’s steering is fingertip light by comparison, so driving it hard is far less physically demanding. The one-piece carbon-fiber race seat has the opposite problem the 917 had. I’m sitting so upright the headrest feels like it’s pushing my helmet forward slightly, so I have to lean forward slightly to keep my chin up. At least I’m not hitting the ceiling, though I did leave the duct tape in place, just in case.
Not having to think about the shifter is an enormous mental load lifted. I have to imagine I’d get used to the 917’s shifter with enough practice, but then, not even having to think about shifting lets you focus so much more brain capacity on getting your lines, braking points, and throttle right. Porsche’s PDK transmission has been perfect for years now, so I just let it do the shifting because it isn’t making any gear changes I wouldn’t. Getting a lap perfect in a manual transmission car feels like an accomplishment because you’ve managed so many variables and you’re a little surprised you didn’t make any mistakes. Getting a lap perfect with a modern automatic transmission feels like an accomplishment because you went faster by fine-tuning every corner with the concentration you weren’t applying to the clutch and shifter.
The 918 has a speedometer, but I’m still not looking at it. It definitely feels like I’m going faster than I was in the 917, but not a lot. I’m so much more focused on my own driving and not the experience of driving a 917, I feel like I’m pushing every corner harder, uninhibited now in this less intimidating, less dangerous car (to both health and career). Now it’s laps in an old friend, not a once-in-a-lifetime moment for which every sensory input must be cataloged lest any detail be forgotten.
Just like that, it, too, comes to an end. Standing between the two cars in the pit, my strongest impression is of an ever-present attention to the driver shared between them despite the difference in decades. Porsche today makes a point of equalizing the weight of inputs, so that the effort required to turn the steering wheel, move the shifter, apply the brakes, and apply the throttle are all as similar as possible. It does this because racing experience has shown it’s less fatiguing to the driver, physically and mentally. This likely wasn’t corporate policy in 1969 when the first 917 was built, but the same intrinsic understanding is there. Make the car easy to drive, and the driver can make it go faster.
917 drivers like to say once the car was sorted they could take a hand off the steering wheel at 200 mph, it was so stable. I’ve been 200 mph in a few cars, and I can tell you that’s not a statement to be taken lightly. In either of these cars, though, I’d be perfectly willing to give it a go. I don’t say that lightly, either, because the 917 has all the crash protection of a dog crate with a five-point harness. I don’t mind, because after just a few laps I trust it as much as I trust the 918. Porsche isn’t the only manufacturer in the world to figure out how to do this, but it’s the only one to do it consistently for seven decades and counting.