DEC 22nd 2015

GRR Meets... David Piper: 'The 917 Was Dreadful When I first Drove it'

Le Mans, France. 13th - 14th June 1970. Gijs van Lennep / David Piper, Porsche 917K, retired, leads Andrea de Adamich / Piers Courage, Alfa Romeo T33/3, retired, action. World Copyright: LAT Photographic. Ref: 1297C - 22-22A.

David Piper has to be considered one of the greatest sportscar racing privateers, having competed in World Championship and national events all over the world. During the 1950s he campaigned Lotus and Jaguar machinery, before switching in the early-’60s to Ferraris. At home in front-engined GTOs and rear-engined LMs and P2s, he tackled many of the major long-distance events, under the David Piper Auto Racing banner and alongside top-name drivers, including Richard Attwood, Pedro Rodriguez and Jo Siffert.

Sebring 1970 Promo

A mainstay of the five-litre formula that will be celebrated at the Members’ Meeting, Piper gave the Porsche 917 its international debut, alongside Frank Gardner, at the Nürburgring 1,000km in 1969, the year in which he mostly campaigned a Lola T70 Mk3B. Later that year he gave the 917 its first international victory, when he and Attwood triumphed in the Kyalami 9 Hours.

Piper’s international career ended after losing part of his leg in a crash during the filming of the Steve McQueen movie ‘Le Mans’ in 1970, but returned undeterred to compete in historic events, both in Ferrari and Porsche prototypes.

Now 85, ‘Pipes’ will return to Goodwood, where he first raced in the mid-1950s, to demonstrate his own Porsche 917 at the Members’ Meeting. It’s a car he got to know intimately and with which he enjoyed some success, albeit outside the World Championship. As he recalls here, however, the relationship with the 917 didn’t start well…

"1969-06-01 Porsche 917". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 de via Commons -

‘The 917 was a dreadful thing when I first drove it, virtually undriveable. Porsche asked me to race it at the Nurburgring. None of their test drivers were prepared to give it a go, and they asked me if I knew anyone else who would share with me. So I got hold of Frank Gardner, he said he was up for it, so off we went to Germany.

‘Early on the first morning it was foggy and wet, and there was this white car neither of us had seen before, the first Porsche 917. So I hopped in and set off into the Nordschleife. Unfortunately I didn’t put my ear plugs in and the noise from that air-cooled flat-12 was excruciating, because two of the exhaust pipes came out underneath the doors. It had tremendous power but it was difficult to keep it on the road – it was wandering all over the place like a Volkswagen – and the brakes weren’t very good either, plus you were virtually lying flat on your back with your chin on your chest. It squatted down on its back wheels and it went from negative to positive camber the faster you went, so once you started going quickly it was undriveable. I told Frank to be very careful and he came in after one lap and said ‘Jesus, if we go off round here they’ll need a compass to find us!’ There were no guardrails, you know, just hedges, so nobody would know if you’d gone through a hedge into the forest unless you left skid marks on the road. Anyway, we qualified and back at the hotel all the works drivers were laughing at us; none of them would go near the car.

‘We did the race, came 8th overall, and Porsche asked me how I’d improve the car. So I suggested some decent Girling four-pot calipers and proper disc brakes, and some more downforce on the rear to keep the tail down for a start. They took a look at my Lola T70 and copied some things from that, like the tail section and the titanium hubs instead of stub axles. They offered to sell me one but at the time I’d done a deal to race the 512 Ferrari. Then the Ferrari was delayed by strikes at the factory, so I did buy one, for about £14,000, and we did a lot of development work on the car, raced it very successfully, won the Nine Hours at Kyalami and that was the first international victory for a Porsche 917. Enzo Ferrari always said the 917 would never work, with its air-cooled flat-12, but he was wrong, it was a very good car once it was sorted out.

"David-Piper-img 20090425 69625" by Tom Kyle , Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons -

‘The 512S Ferrari was a bit of a lorry. It had a powerful engine, not as pretty as the P4, and the gearbox wasn’t much good, bit of a lump, typical Ferrari really. The only really successful one was the car Roger Penske modified, with air jacks and other Chinetti modifications. These big sports car will be right at home at Goodwood, but I hope everyone takes care because they are very valuable these days…’

The 74th Members’ Meeting will feature daily demonstrations of a staggering horde of Group 5 sports-racers from a highly evocative period of the International Championship of Makes – the World Sportscar Championship by any other name. The years 1969-1971 produced incredible battles between the fastest and most beautiful, purpose-built endurance weapons ever seen, including Porsche’s flat-12 917, Ferrari’s V12 512S – and later 512M – and British brawn in the shape of the V8-engined Lola T70 Mk3B.

The distinctive bark of numerous examples of all three of these iconic sportscars will reverberate around the Goodwood Motor Circuit during the March 19-20 weekend, recreating the period 1000km marathons at Brands Hatch, Monza, Nürburgring, Osterreichring and Spa-Francorchamps, and the round-the-clock classics of Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring. 

Interview by Rob Widdows

Lead image couresy of LAT, second image licensed under Creative Commons 2.0, third image by Tom Kyle licensed under Creative Commons 3.0


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