Living the Dream Gijs van Lennep won Le Mans in a 650hp 917 in 1971 but always yearned to drive the 1000hp Can-Am version. He got his chance 43 years later at Zandvoort’s 2016 Historic Grand Prix. Story: Johnny Tipler. Photography: Niels Keekstra, Porsche.
It’s quite a while to have to wait, but Gijs van Lennep finally got to drive the iconic 917/30 Spyder at the recent Zandvoort Historic Grand Prix, 43 years after the car’s Can-Am heyday. A top-line racing career in Porsches, including two Le Mans wins in ’71 in the 917 and one in ’76 in a 936, gave Gijs a second lease of life in historic racing and demonstrating Porsche Museum cars, opening the door for his Can-Am ride.
His home circuit, Zandvoort – nestling in the sand dunes abutting the North Sea – hosted its fifth Historic Grand Prix in early September, and the assembled Netherlands Porsche dealers created a Goodwood-inspired enclave for local race teams, along with half-a-dozen racing cars from the Zuffenhausen museum collection. As well as Gijs, other old-time Porsche stars in evidence included Jürgen Barth, Jan Lammers, Ed Swart and designer Harm Lagaaij. We chatted with Gijs in the hospitality suite of Oegstgeest-based TwinSpark Racing (which had just won both of the two Dutch Historic GT races with its two RSRs) about what it’s like to handle the car that Mark Donohue romped away with the 1973 Can-Am Championship in; sure, there were other 917/10s competing but nothing came close to the 917/30. It’s worth mentioning that Gijs was also at the forefront of big-time single-seater racing in the early ’70s, helming a Surtees TS7 in 1971, an Iso-Marlboro IR for Frank Williams’ embryonic F1 squad in 1973 and ’74, as well as an Ensign in 1975 and, more notably, he was Rothmans European Formula 5000 Champion in 1972. There were also outings with the Pon, Abarth, Autodelta, Schnitzer and Gelo squads in sports GTs and saloons over the years but it’s as a works Porsche 911 RSR (32 races with the RSR and RSR Turbo), 917 and 936 pilot that Gijs’ original career will be indelibly linked. The 74-year-old is now reprising that to the full.
Drive-My: Gijs, how many of these Zandvoort Historic Grand Prix events have you been to?
Gijs van Lennep: I think all of them. It’s the first time I’ve driven here with Porsche, though last year I was doing signing sessions, and we had my 917 from Le Mans in 1971, the Martini car with which I won the race with Helmut Marco. And now I’m driving the legendary 917/30 that Mark Donohue won the 1973 Can-Am series with in 1973. It’s funny, but it’s been my dream for 43 years to drive this actual car. During my career I drove all the Porsches, from the 911R to RSR, 906 to 908, including the 917, but I never drove the 917/30 Can-Am car. I always wanted to do it one day, but until now it never happened.
Drive-My: That must have been frustrating, given your success with the 917 in the World Sportscar Championship in ’70 and ’71?
GvL: Yes, it was. The 917 was out of the picture in the World Sportscar series after ’71, so in February 1973 we were testing the Martini 911 RSR, and we did a lot of work in ten days, changing the rear suspension, sawing it off and then welding it on again in a different place. And Mark Donohue was testing the 917/30 Can-Am Spyder at the same time; when I was driving down the straight with the RSR, doing 250km/h, he passed me doing 380km/h! It really was impressive. My car was blown half-a-metre to the side as he passed me because it’s quite a big car that creates a lot of draught everywhere. So that is actually where my desire to drive it started.
Drive-My: So, how was it?
GvL: I did two slow laps on Thursday afternoon, and then I did eight on Friday. By yesterday (Saturday) I was starting to get used to the power. There is quite a contrast with ‘my’ 917 in the way the power comes in. We started off with 650hp in the 4.9-litre JW Automotive 917s, but with two very big turbos on the 5.4-litre 917/30 engine, power went up to 1000hp – almost double. So you have to get used to that much power and how much throttle to use, because the car has a locked diff, like a go-kart, so you have to drive it on the power. So if you go into the corner with no throttle you get understeer, and okay this is fair enough, then you go on the throttle and you start to push the back away because the outside wheel has the most grip, so you can really drive it nicely on the power when you know how much power is coming in from the turbos. But by yesterday I’d already got quite used to it. First gear takes it to 100mph, so we do the slow corners in first gear, and then you can really power it out of the corner and get some nice oversteer. So the tyres were finished but they were not so young in any case, and I have a new set for today.
Drive-My: Is there really only one straight here where you can use the power?
GvL: Yes, but it’s actually not that long. It’s only 600 metres or something. But this car goes so fast it’s gone very quickly. I’m doing 260km/h before braking, maybe, but the car is still accelerating very hard. You could probably use 8000 revs. I had it on 7000-8000rpm but because it goes so quickly I was changing at 6500rpm, 7000rpm, so in the last corner coming onto the straight, you can do it in second but then I thought I’d better do this in third and throttle nicely through, about 110mph, and then go on the throttle coming out. Then it goes really quite quick and I have to change into fourth gear. I don’t know exactly how fast I’m going, but the grandstand goes past me awfully quickly! And then I have to brake. In a demonstration it doesn’t matter where you brake, just early enough not to mess up, though I still change gears by heel-and-toe; that still comes to me automatically.
Drive-My: Are you are still competing in many historic events?
GvL: Yes, this year I did Classic Le Mans in a ’74 3.0 RSR but it only lasted two laps. Two years ago I drove with Gérard Larrousse in the 2.8-litre RSR, and that was one of the first-ever RSRs built. We were fifth overall and first in class when there were 12 other RSRs. I was also at Daytona Classic with an RSR last year and also three years ago with Johan Dirickx, but we had problems last November because of the tyres going off. I had a good time anyway and Daytona is a good track to drive, so maybe next year I’ll do it again. I was also at RennSport Reunion at Laguna Seca, and Claus Bischof was there with the Museum cars. He said to me I could drive the GT1. But there was a pace car in front of us which drove at just 60-70mph, so that was no fun at all. We came in after six laps, and Claus was not very happy. He said, “that’s not the way we do it,” and next time we went out I was in the 962, Jacky Ickx was in the 936, and Hurley Haywood was in the 935. For the first lap we went slower and slower, so I passed Jacky and Hurley and the pace car, they followed me and we went flat out after that for eight laps! It was a fantastic weekend; I hope Porsche do it again.
Drive-My: So your professional racing career ended after your Le Mans win in 1976, and now you’ve established a second career in historics and as a demo driver?
GvL: Winning Le Mans for the second time with Jacky Ickx was actually the end of it. I did one race in 1991 in a 964 Cup Car at Zandvoort, and then another 15 years went by. Then in 2006 Albert Westerman of State of Art asked me if I wanted to drive the Mille Miglia in the 550 Spyder. Of course I did and I’ve now done seven Mille Miglias. I’ve done snow rallies in a Porsche 356 with Albert. Of course, the others all like to drive 911s but I can handle a 356. It’s shorter and lighter so a bit difficult to handle, but I don’t mind that. I did the Carrera Panamericana two years ago, again with Albert in a 356, and we finished second in the Historica A class. I was on the podium every day, two times in second and five times in first. I love road-racing, like the Targa Florio.
I was reunited with my RSR at the Giro di Sicilia earlier this year for the Targa Florio centenary. I’m a bit of a hero there because Herbie Müller and I won the last Targa Florio in ’73. All the old drivers were there, people like Vic (Elford), and we had a great time.
Drive-My: Can you describe the difference between the 917/30 Can-Am car and your Le Mans-winning 917?
GvL: The Le Mans-winning car actually handles almost the same because the chassis is more or less identical, but we have 630hp that I can easily use where I want it, because there are no turbos on it. With the twin turbos you have a bit of lag, especially this one, and I say to myself, if I need the power in 50 yards over there, then I shall have to go on the throttle here. In ’74 we had a 911 RSR Turbo at Le Mans where we finished fourth, and the 936 with Ickx in ’76 was also a 2.1 turbo, so I know what to expect, but they had smaller turbos so the power came in a little bit earlier. But that is the only difference between this Can-Am car and a normal 917; you have to get used to where you put the power down. If you know where you need the power you can go on the throttle early. You learn that. You get a feel of it. I was oversteering out of every corner, and then I got on the power early and realised the nose tucks in and it would slide a little bit less from understeer.
Drive-My: So it’s not a big brute, then?
GvL: No, it reacts quickly, and is fast on the straight. I drive more or less on the limit of these new tyres (although they are intermediates) and, of course, I can go even earlier on the throttle. But I have to be careful that the tyres can take it because you have over 500lb ft of torque and 1000hp, if you get out of balance you feel it through the steering. So, for the first couple of laps I’ll do the slow corners in second gear at only 3500rpm so the turbo is not coming in and I can control it better. We only do six or seven laps and then for the last couple of laps I’ll use first gear again, and if the tyres go, I don’t mind.
Drive-My: Is the 2.8 RSR your favourite Porsche?
GvL: Yeah, well a 3.0 RSR, which has a little bit more power, but it’s not necessarily my favourite car; it’s the one I can still drive when I’m 74 years old, and I can drive it quickly; two years ago I did quite good times with it at Le Mans Classic.
During practice I did 5min, 05sec but in the race I was 7.5 seconds quicker than I’d been in practice, so that was still okay, and that was racing. But the RSR is not especially my favourite; my favourite is the 917. I think I did 26 races in one, so I’m probably one of the guys who did most races with it. As well as the World Sportscar Championship with the coupés there was Interserie with the Spyders, and I did the last race that the official Works 917s did, in ’71 at Montlhéry, Paris, and I won with Derek Bell in a Gulf JW Automotive car.
The 917 was a winning car and it was nice to drive, and I liked it. But I was not there in ’69 when they were still developing it. I was only there during the good times of ’70 and ’71. But the 908 was a great car, the 908/4 Spyder, the short one, that was the easiest to drive of all the Porsches, a fantastic car.
Jan-Peter Doove of Pon Porsche and Leon van Ommen of TwinSpark Racing.
Today the 74-year-old regularly competes in historic races and is called upon to drive for official Porsche demonstration runs, too…
“It reacts quickly and is fast on the straight, I drive more or less on the limit of these tyres”
The famous Martini 917 from Le Mans in 1971 isn’t the only iconic Porsche race car Gjis competed in.
Back in period Gijs drove the 917 more than most, but he had to wait over 40 years to drive the Can-Am 917/30 variant.
“It’s been my dream for 43 years to drive this actual car. During my career I drove all the Porsches but never the 917/30 Can-Am car”