Fast or Pretty?

[Pete Gorski Photo]
[Pete Gorski Photo]

by Pete Gorski

It raced for only three years, but in that short time the original Porsche 917 set a standard for beauty in racecar design. I said “original” because there were multiple variants of that series that raced beyond 1971, but I didn’t really need to say that, did I? Chances are, when you read “917”, your mind immediately pulled up an image…the image…of what is considered the iconic 917 — Gulf colors in short-tail (“K” or “KH”) form. The image of that car can be found on t-shirts, phone cases, laptop covers, and innumerable posters. And it’s a common livery at many vintage events on cars both from that era and beyond.

Not that the 917/10 and /30 aren’t unique and distinctive, and even beautiful in their own way. The same can be said of the 917s contemporaries; the Ferrari 512, ALFA 33/2 and 3, and Matra MS sports prototypes of that era share many design elements with the Porsche. But there’s just something about the 917 that captures the eye in such a pleasing way. Or should I say, the K does.

Your mileage may vary, but I’ve never been a fan…or as much of a fan…of the 917 LH. The long-tail version of the 917, with it’s semi-spatted rear wheels and aerodynamically-sound rear extension may have been the faster car at Le Mans, but aesthetically it loses something for me. The K looks fast sitting still. The expanded bodywork on the LH eliminates the high tail rake and changes (obviously) the proportion. But the K wasn’t all “beauty from any angle” — the vertical fins added in 1971 look good from some angles, but less so from others. That first version though…a handful to drive, but such a clean design.

But that doesn’t matter in the end. The LH treatment and those fins were created to make the car go faster and do so with increased stability, not improve its looks like some kind of cosmetic procedure. It has been said that racecars aren’t designed to be beautiful, they are designed to be fast, and any beauty is ancillary. But we want them to be beautiful. In the least, not ugly. Those F1 cars from not too long ago…the years with all the bargeboards and aero protuberances…undeniably fast. But lookers they were not.

And that brings us to modern-day IMSA. The Road America round of the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was the white-flag lap for the DPi era. When the class debuted in 2017, the Mazda RT-24P was generally considered the best-looking of the four designs — all Soul Red and KODO design language. The Cadillac was big and brawny, to match its basso profondo exhaust note; the Nissan had its Williams-esque FW-26 “tusks” and flashy Patrón tequila livery; and the Acura had…well…

This is another of those “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” moments. But that high front wing treatment…it’s “distinctive”. It supposedly evokes the nose of the NSX, and obviously the folks at Honda Performance Development wouldn’t have gone ahead with that wing design if it didn’t do what was necessary. To me, it has a tacked-on quality, like something hastily cobbled together when an aero problem was discovered during testing, not an organic-looking “we always wanted it like this” element. But again…so what? I’ve never seen a podium feature a “swoopiest design” award, and you could make an argument that the subjectively better-looking Mazda had a much less successful career, even requiring some redesign to improve performance.

So here we are, about five months away from the debut of the LMDh GTP class, and we’ve seen designs from four of the participants. The Porsche 963 continues the “smooth and clean” philosophy of previous Porsche prototypes; the as-yet-unnamed Cadillac Project GTP car looks like it could compete in the Empire Racing League (in a galaxy far far away), which is a good thing; the BMW M Hybrid V8 looks very BMW-ish, which, depending on the final liveries and how you feel about the new grille designs coming out of Bavaria could be a good thing or a bad thing; and the Acura ARX-06 that looks…(sigh) really very much like its predecessor, at least at the front.

Maybe artfully-created paint jobs will make that wing look less how it does. And maybe the BMW nostrils will steal the “fast but well…hmm” title from the Acura. Tune in January 26th, 2023 to see how it all plays out. I’m looking forward to the time when the Mazdas start showing up in Masters Historic races!

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