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Porsche and Le Mans a history

by • June 23, 2014 • FeatureComments (0)6000

The names of Auguste Veuillet and Edmond Mouche may not feature prominently in Porsche history at Le Mans, but they hold a special significance.

In 1951 Porsche received the great honor of an invitation to participate in the Le Mans 24 hours. The question of whether to go or not was a hefty decision. For the tiny company (Porsche had only built its first car as recently as 1948), the money and manpower absorbed by this grand undertaking was a heavy burden and yet, if things went well, the resultant publicity would surely add sparkle to the company’s already burgeoning reputation. Ferry Porsche knew it was a brave decision to go, but it could be done, and moreover – as he reflected later – “We found that through our work in racing we could make improvements in our normal cars”. Already, the heat of competition was forging the relentless development of the product.

855088_Porsche_356_debuts_at_Le_Mans_first_race_1951

Veuillet (whose Sonauto concern imported Porsches into France) and Mouche would drive an aluminum 356 (leftover from the company’s early days in Austria); lightened further it featured an 18-gallon fuel tank and measures to improve aerodynamics. The 1,086 cc engine was detuned slightly to 49 hp, in the interests of reliability, but 100 mph was possible on the 3.4-mile Mulsanne straight. After 24 hours and at an average speed of 73.6 mph, a class victory and 20th position overall was theirs. The first page in the sports car manufacturer’s extraordinary history at the Circuit de la Sarthe had been written.

Porsche repeated the class win a year later with the same driving partnership, but for 1953, and facing mounting class opposition, Ferry knew he needed a dedicated racing car. The Porsche 550 was born.

Although the type would later be associated with the Spyder body style, these first 550s were coupes. The little mid-engined car featured a space-frame chassis and a race-tuned, 1,500cc, pushrod flat ‘four’: 124 mph was possible on the long, tree-lined straight thanks to 78 hp, and another class win followed.

The type 550 was developed further, with customer deliveries following in 1954. Porsche was now able to supply track-ready 356s, or 550s; by 1957 the RSK (a development of the 550) came home 4th overall, and a year later the Porsches were reaching 160 mph on the straight with their diminutive but sophisticated four-cam, flat-four engines. Memories of 1951 now seemed an age away.
Next came Butzi Porsche’s masterpiece, the gorgeous 904 Carrera GTS, which scooped seventh, eighth, tenth, eleventh and twelfth places in ’64. One 904 was fitted with the flat eight cylinder F1 engine, producing 220 hp, allowing it to top 175 mph. A year later the 904 received the all-new, 2-litre flat six engine derived from the recently unveiled 911, and one came home fourth overall and took the coveted Index of Performance prize. The Porsche trademark of ‘efficient performance’ had already given it the reputation of a giant killer.

There was a new car for 1966. The air that passed over and under its curvaceous bodywork shaped its flowing form – startlingly low to the ground and brilliantly futuristic. It was also the first car under the watch of Porsche’s new Head of Development; a dynamic, fearsomely ambitious and driven individual, he was the nephew of Ferry Porsche and would, in time, become a key player in the global motor industry. His name was Ferdinand Piëch, and the car was the Porsche Carrera 6 (906).

The 906 used the 911’s 2-litre, flat-six engine but modified for racing, thanks in part to the use of titanium and magnesium components. Fifty of the 225 hp cars were built, and for the first time customers were warned to bring a trailer upon collection from the factory. The 906 took seventh overall and 2-litre Sports car class honors (repeating the feat a year later), but also served as a basis for the factory entry in the prototype class, as Porsche began to chase outright victory. With experimental fuel injection (which significantly improved fuel consumption) and low-drag bodywork, a trio of these eye-catching coupes came home fourth, fifth and sixth overall in 1966, a result all the more creditable given the race-winning trio of Fords had 7-litre engines. Porsche’s sports car activities would blast into the stratosphere in the following five years, but every car that followed – from 910 to ferocious 917 – had its roots in the overall design and engineering ethos of the Carrera 6.

Another odyssey began at Le Mans that year. A little red 2-litre 911 was entered for Jean Kerguen and Jaques Dewez (or ‘Franc’, as his name appeared on the entry list). The pair started 37th and finished 14th overall, winning the 2-litre GT class in the process. It was a successful if inauspicious beginning for a car that would play a key role in the history of Le Mans.
The lighter, more circuit-focused 910 appeared for the 1967 season, but such was the incredible rate of development at Porsche that it took a supporting role at Le Mans that year; the 907 was the Racing Department’s latest challenger, purposefully designed for the 24-hour confrontation. Leaner, with specially elongated bodywork, it could exceed 180 mph despite retaining the 2-litre engine, with fifth overall the result during the climax of the Ford-Ferrari wars. A year later a 907 took second overall; Porsche was getting nearer.

855100_Porsche_908_LH_Le_Mans_1968

The 3-litre 908 became the mainstay of Porsche’s frontline racing activities from 1968 to 1969, its new 350 hp flat-eight serving notice that the firm was no longer the underdog, but a seasoned, professional team looking for the outright win. That so very nearly came in 1969: after a pair of new 917s had led in turn for so long, only to retire with clutch issues, Hans Hermann’s 908 was beaten to the line by mere yards after a terrifically tense battle with the GT40 of Jacky Ickx in the closing stages.

But what was this 917 that had caused such a sensation in 1969? In a year when man first walked on the moon, Porsche took its own giant leap. The 917 redefined motor racing, and over the next three seasons cemented its position as arguably the greatest racing car ever built. Its 580hp 4.5-litre flat twelve generated performance way in excess of its contemporaries, and began an era when sports cars often outpaced contemporary Grand Prix cars on lap times and for sheer drama.

Le Mans 1970 was the grand showdown between Porsche and Ferrari, a titanic tussle still spoken of in awe to this day. Seven 917s were ranged against 11 512 Ferraris, with the long tail 917 variant reaching an incredible 236 mph on the Mulsanne straight. The race was a brutal 24-hours of attrition, partly due to torrential rainstorms and fog. Through the melee came the 4.5-litre 917K of Richard Attwood and Hans Hermann to clinch an emotional victory: Porsche’s dream was realized, with a 917 LH in second and a 908/2 LH in third.

Behind the big twelve-cylinder cars was even more success for Stuttgart. During the latter years of the 1960s, the 911 had become a mainstay of privateer entrants in the GT class. By 1970 it had achieved dominance of the GT 2.5-litre class with the ST model, a Group 4 development of the 911 S road car. That year the ST of Erwin Kremer and Nicholas Koob was seventh overall and class victor. One place better was a 914/6 GT, the racing version of the new mid-engined 914 road car, which also took 2-litre GT class honors. Porsche’s name was writ large over the results sheet, wherever one looked.

1971 was to be the 917’s zenith. Porsche entered short and long tail 917s and a unique 917/20 ‘Pink Pig’ one-off to battle the Ferrari challengers, with victory falling to the experimental magnesium frame 917K of Gijs Van Lennep and Helmut Marko. In the process a total distance record of 3,315.2-miles was set, that would not be bettered until 2010.

855105_25 examples of the Porsche 917 built in 1969 for motor sport homolgation purposes

In just 20 years, Ferry Porsche could reflect upon how the company that bore his name had gone from one entry per race to 33; from 49 hp to over 600 hp, and from 100 mph to 240 mph. Thanks to sheer hard work, innovative engineering and a will to win, Porsche had made Le Mans its home from home.

With the banning of the awesome 917s at the end of 1971, Porsche sought new challenges across the Atlantic in the spectacular CanAm series for 1972; and proceeded to decimate the opposition with the 1,000 hp+ turbocharged 917/10. At Le Mans, the 911 ST had reached the limit of its development in the GT class, but even so, Porsche still had a tremendous presence in the race, scoring its now customary class win via an armada of privately entered 911s. New Porsches, however, were on the horizon.

From 1973, the 911 became the principle thrust of Porsche’s motorsport activity under new company boss Ernst Fuhrmann. Two distinctive, Martini-liveried 911 RSR 3.0 ‘prototypes’ were entered for Le Mans in ‘73, where they seemed to have little chance of a decent result against the might of pure racing car opposition from Matra and Ferrari. Nevertheless, Gijs Van Lennep and Herbert Müller achieved exactly that, thrashing the RSR mercilessly for 24 hours until at the flag they finished an extraordinary fourth overall. Behind them an armada of new 2.8 RSRs overran the GT class, validating further Fuhrmann’s new road car-based approach.

For 1974, the works’ activities diverged further from those of its customers. The latter adopted en masse the new 3.0 Carrera RSR, based in turn on the newly introduced G-Series 911. Even in the glittering history of Porsche’s customer racers the 3.0 RSR holds a special place, storming to GT class wins at Le Mans in both 1974 and 1975. But could Porsche take the 911 one stage further and build a race winner?

That quest began in 1974. After the exploits of the previous year, Porsche decided to enter a prototype 911 with Turbo power. To stand even the slightest chance of competing against the outright sports car opposition – in effect F1 cars with closed bodywork – engineer Norbert Singer and his team shaved as much weight as possible from the car, embraced massive aerodynamic wings and, adapting lessons learnt in the CanAm, introduced turbocharging; 500 hp was the result, even though the engine had a capacity of only 2.1-litres thanks to the equivalency regulations applied to forced induction engines. With nearly 190 mph possible on the Mulsanne straight, the Turbo RSR was a 911 with a whole new level of performance. In the race, it ran like a train, scooping an improbable second overall. The era of the Porsche Turbo had arrived.

The year 1976 brought three new racing Porsches to Le Mans. The 934 was a turbocharged 911 for Porsche customers in the GT class; the 935 was a more exotic, 911-based turbo car for the Group 5 World Championship of Makes, and the spyder-bodied 936, as the name implied, was for the Group 6 World Sports Car Championship – and principally for gaining overall victory at Le Mans. The big, white 935, with its beautiful Martini livery, ran home 4th overall and Gr.5 victor, but it was the elegant new 936 that won the race: Jacky Ickx and Van Lennep leading by as much as 17 laps at one point. It was Ickx’s first win for Porsche, and the beginning of a partnership that would write motorsport history.

855129_Porsche_936_winner_Le_Mans_1977

For 1977 the turbocharged Porsches returned, this time ranged against significant opposition from Alpine-Renault. The 936/77s now featured twin-turbocharged engines with 540 hp and a 217 mph speed, and the race unfolded like a Hollywood film script. Ickx’s car hit problems early on, and he was transferred to the sister 936 that had also been delayed near the start. He was 15th, nine laps behind the leading Renault. Driving for up to four hours at a time, he set a scorching pace through the night, clawing his way up the leaderboard and losing significant body mass due to the extreme effort required. Finally he hit the front, only for the Porsche to falter in the final hour, but car and driver clung on to take a most famous victory.

1978 saw the 936s narrowly miss taking a hat trick in another closely fought race, but it was also notable for the appearance of the 900 hp 935/78 – or ‘Moby Dick’: the most spectacular racing 911 ever to leave the factory gates. The big Martini whale was delayed by small problems in the race, but not before leaving an incredible 227 mph marker on the straight: its four-valve, water-cooled heads were the first step in the evolutionary road that has led to the current range of engines in the German company’s road cars.

In the end, it was a Porsche customer that gave the 911 an outright victory at Le Mans: the Kremer brothers, long time Porsche stalwarts, took overall victory in 1979 with their 935 K3. But the 936 had one last hurrah: when new boss Peter Schutz asked his engineers if Porsche could win outright in 1981, he was told it would be impossible with the team’s entries that year, all based on the 924 coupe. In fact, the 924 GTP had scored an admirable 6th/12th/13th finish the previous year, and the little coupes would be back for 81’ in both production GTR and experimental 16-valve 2.5-litre LM form, the latter (a forerunner of the 944 road car) finishing 7th overall and winning the ‘least time spent in the pits’ prize. It was another classic case of Porsche efficiency, extracting the upmost from a small engine, but Schutz had wanted more, and in a blur a pair of 936s were taken from the Porsche museum and fitted with an endurance specification version of a new 2.6-litre flat-six originally designed for Indycar racing. With water-cooled heads and twin turbochargers, this was an engine that would come to define Porsche racing in the 1980s and beyond. As it was, Le Mans 1981 was one of the easiest victories ever achieved by the works team, with Ickx and new driving partner Derek Bell cruising unopposed to the win in their 936.
1982 brought the Group C formula, and Porsche was ready with a new car that would in time become a legend of the sport: the 956. Incorporating monocoque construction and ground-effect aerodynamics, as well as the ‘Indy’ engine from the last 936, this was a 240 mph car at Le Mans with near-mythical reliability. It was a golden recipe: so convincing was the 956’s superiority (and its later relation, the 962c), that it took consecutive victories from 1982 to 1987, narrowly missing out on victory in 1988 and leading for part of the 1989 before retiring. Even in 1991, a 962c driven by a privateer team came third overall; in 1994, prepared under road-car GT rules as a Dauer 962, the car won overall again, and the 962c’s flat-six engine installed in a prototype chassis scored further overall victories in 1996 and 1997.

Porsche had built a new car for the FIA GT Championship in 1996; the 911 GT1 was a mid-engined supercar powered by a new water-cooled flat-six, but narrowly missed taking overall victory in both ’96 and ’97. For 1998 a heavily revised version – the GT1/98 – did achieve Porsche’s 16th overall victory – its last to date – with Allan McNish, Stephane Ortelli and Laurent Aiello at the ‘wheel.

855124_Porsche_911_GT1_winner_Le_Mans_1998

Porsche then changed direction again to commence another new era. It wouldn’t be contending for outright victory, but it was the turn of the road-based 911 to once again shine at Le Sarthe. On the grid for 1999 was a pair of new 996 GT3-Rs, with the Manthey-entered car eventually finishing 13th overall and first in the GT class. It was the opening salvo for a glorious 14-years-and-counting of GT class victories, through successive developments of the 996 and 997, gained via homologation of the 911 GT3 road car. With GTE-class victory last year for the new 991 RSR, and GTE-Am honors for a 997 GT3 RSR, the 911 is as competitive as it’s ever been. Now, in 2014, Porsche returns with the 919 Hybrid to once again contest for overall honors at the Circuit de la Sarthe. History alone suggests it will be a strong contender.

Fascinating facts:
– The first 911 at Le Mans, in 1966, had already contested the Monte Carlo rally that same year
– The 908 made a surprising comeback in 1972: with the big 5-litre sports cars banned at the end of the previous season, the ’72 race ran to 3-litre prototype rules. A 908/01 LH, slightly updated aerodynamically, finished a remarkable third against the latest F1-engined Spyder opposition
– A 917 made an even more unusual comeback, appearing at the 1981 Le Mans 24-hours race just before the homologation of the type ran out. Despite updated aerodynamics it was hopelessly slow on the long straight
– The 240 mph top speed of the 1971 917 LH wouldn’t be bettered until the final days of the Group C formula in the late 1980s
– The Martini Racing 4.5-litre 917 LH that came second in the 1970 race is forever known as the ‘Hippie’ car, on account of its green and purple psychedelic swirl paint job. The scheme was designed by Porsche’s styling chief of the period, Antony Lapine
– The 1971 ‘Pink Pig’ 917/20 was so named because it was dissected graphically like the different cuts a butcher makes on a ham
– The 956 so dominated the 1983 race, it locked out the first 10 positions on the results sheet, bar 9th place. A 911 Turbo finished 11th
– The same privately-entered 956 – Joest Racing’s ch/no:0117 – won Le Mans in 1984 and 1985, and was a strong contender for the win in 1986 before retirement
– After the Group C era, the return of the factory to racing at Le Mans took place in 1993 with the very rare 911 Turbo S LM, a heavily turbocharged 964. It was fast, but accident damage led to retirement
– 996-based GT3 R, RS and RSR models took consecutive class victories at Le Mans between 1999 and 2005

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