DREAMS TO DUST
The story of Porsche’s attempt to break into the world of CART racing
Porsche has a long history of racing single-seaters, going back to the Formula 1 and 2 cars of the late 1950s, before turning most of its attention to sports car racing. Following an unsuccessful foray into the world of Indycar racing in the 1970s, Porsche turned its attention to the CART series in the 1980s. Keith Seume takes a look at Porscheʼs attempts to dominate the world of Us-based open-wheel racing, discovering a tale of dreams unfulfilled…
Bruised and battered after the disappointment of failing to break into the world of Indycar racing in the 1970s, and not havingmade any recent attempts to venture into Formula One, Porsche had some serious thinking to do if it was to broaden its racing horizons. What hadmade the whole Indycar episode such a bitter pill to swallow was the way that the USbased ʻestablishmentʼ seemed hellbent onmaking life impossible forweissach.
Porsche was still determined to make inroads into the world of single-seater racing and chose to pursue a different challenge following the Indycar débacle. It was clear that the companyʼs strength lay with engine design, so a new venture beckoned: developing and building a new Formula 1 engine.
Once again, after six successful years of building turbocharged V6 engines under the TAG ( Techniques d’avant
Garde) umbrella, Porsche was sidelined by both TAG and the Mclaren race team when imminent rule changes for the 1989 season forced them to reconsider the situation.
Why did Mclaren pull away from Porsche? Surely Porsche could have developed a suitable engine to meet the new regulations? To put it simply, Mclarenʼs new partner Honda was happy to give engines to the team – Porsche was not. The only proviso was that Mclaren sign a young up and coming driver by the name of Ayrton Senna…
Meanwhile, back across the Atlantic, Al Holbert, Porscheʼs head of motorsport in the USA, suggested to Porsche of Americaʼs boss, Peter Schutz, that a return to Indianapolis might be a good move. Although German-born, Schutz had been raised in the USA and needed little reminding of the importance of the open-wheel scene to the North American market. Together the two men hatched a plot…
The key decision was whether Porsche should simply supply engines to an established team, as it had to Mclaren in F1, or start from scratch and build a car of its own design. It was Holbert who made the strongest argument for going it alone: ʻPorsche should race at Indy with its own engine and chassis. Itʼs a technical challenge typical of what Porsche is capable of meeting. As in any racing,ʼ Holbert continued, ʻthe entire package of car, team and driver wins the race.ʼ
It had been more than 40 years since any volume manufacturer had won at Indy with a car of its own design powered by an engine of its own manufacture. Maserati had been the victor in 1940 and Porsche was keen to prove it could do the same in the 1980s.
Given the project number Type 2708, Porscheʼs first attempt to build its very own single-seater for over two decades proved to be a problem child. And it didnʼt take long for CART to place a spanner in the works. Porsche had learned a lot about chassis design through its association with Mclaren and Formula 1, applying this knowledge to the creation of a carbon-fibre monocoque that met the 1984 CART regulations. But then CART changed its mind, and decreed that all monocoques should be built from aluminium…
By mid-1985, work had progressed on a new chassis design to the point that attention was now concentrated on a suitable engine. Dyno tests of a Cosworth DFX engine (the industry standard in CART) showed that to be competitive, Porscheʼs new engine would need to, at least, match the Uk-built V8ʼs 750+bhp and 380lb ft of torque.
Hans Mezger, Porscheʼs legendary in-house engine guru, chose to pursue the design and build of a 90-degree V8 based on lessons learnt with the all-aluminium engine in the 928, which would have the added benefit of being suitable for use in a chassis from either Lola or March, the two leading chassis builders in CART racing. It was also deemed important to bear in mind the possible use of a similar engine in a future road car.
By the autumn of the same year, the board of management finally gave the project its full backing – much of the work up until this point had been carried out, if not in ʻsecretʼ but certainly in a relatively low-key manner. After the messy Indycar effort of half a decade earlier, keeping things below the radar was
probably a wise move. The project number, 2708, was derived from the approximate swept volume of the new engine (2.7-litre) and the number of cylinders (8). The engine itself was referred to as the Type 2708/80.
Mezger and his team sat down and began to examine the CART rule book in detail. Past experience had shown how fickle CART could be when it came to laying down firm rules regarding engine specification. This time Mezger and his team hoped to stay in step with CART, but it wasnʼt long before the US governing body got up to its old tricks again.
The regulations covered such matters as what size turbocharger could be used, while a ʻcontrolʼ pop-off valve set at 9.4psi would govern how much boost could be produced. And thatʼs when the fun started.
For 1988, the proposal was that a new pop-off valve should be introduced, limiting boost pressure to just 7.9psi. Compared to the figures Porsche had been used to, this was chickenfeed. Much of the development work on the new engine was based around the higher figure, where the 2708/80 engine proved capable of producing far more impressive dyno figures than the tried and tested Cosworth DFX motor. Buoyed by the success of the TAG race engine in Formula 1, the men at Weissach were confident of being able to develop a Cart-legal V8 which would trounce anything offered by Cosworth.
The result was a 2649cc V8, with 88.2mm bore and 54.2mm stroke, the bore-to-bore dimension of 110mm giving plenty of room for future expansion. The engine featured wet liners, of forged aluminium coated with Nikasil. These were slipped into an aluminium engine block. The crankshaft, a fullycounterweighted forging by Alfing Kessler, was a ʻflat-crankʼ design, with the 46mm rod journals at 180 degree intervals.
At the front (nose) of the crankshaft, a pair of gears drove the dual oil pumps, while another set of gears drove the gear train which rotated the overhead camshafts (two per bank of cylnders). There were four valves per cylinder, with a single centrally-located spark plug firing the mixture. To take into account the use of methanol fuel, and the relatively low turbo boost levels, the compression ratio was initially set at 11.0:1, but rose to 12.0:1 by 1988.
The problem which Mezger and his team faced was that CART imposed some pretty restrictive rules in an effort to bring about a level playing field between the teams. Or, as others saw
it, rules to stop Porscheʼs engineers steamrollering their way through the opposition. First was a ban on intercoolers of any kind, something which Porsche had made good use of for many years. Then came a ban on pressure bypass systems, which help keep a turbocharger spooled up even when the throttle is closed, thereby reducing turbo lag.
The Cart-supplied pop-off valve meant that Porscheʼs engineers needed to restrict the speed with which boost rose when the throttle was floored, for example when exiting a corner. The problem was that the valve could open prematurely as boost increased rapidly, resulting in a sudden fall off in power.
The answer was to install an electronically-controlled wastegate which allowed the precise control of boost pressure. Developed by Bosch, it formed part of the Motronic engine management package, which also controlled the ignition system and the supply of methanol fuel. Fuel was injected at the rate of over two gallons per minute at wide-open throttle, and was supplied via a pair of injectors in each inlet tract, downstream of each individual throttle body. Another benefit of the Motoronic management system was that it allowed the use of telemetry, feeding information about up to 30 different parameters back to engineers in the pits.
The new project was launched to a hungry audience in New York in February 1987. Peter Schutz announced that, following planned tests that summer, the new cars would appear at the three final rounds of the CART championship later that year. At 6.14pm on 16th September 1987, all was ready. Race engineer and test driver Roland Kussmaul recalled, ʻFor the previous two weeks, we had been getting several phone calls a day from journalists, the Porsche press office, people within the industry generally and from colleagues in other departments, all asking the same question: “When is the roll-out?”.ʼ
Delays were caused by the late arrival of various out-sourced components, the wheel rims being the last to arrive from Italy. But finally all was ready for the first tests of the completed car.
Kussmaul, a veteran of the Paris-dakar Rally in a 959, was the driver on this occasion, completing two laps of the Weissach track in front of a select audience. ʻI was incredibly pleased to be the first person to drive the car,ʼ said Kussmaul. ʻFor me, it was a truly fascinating experience, a great moment in my life…ʼ
The choice of Roland Kussmaul as the test driver appears slightly strange in hindsight as he had never driven a singleseater of any type before, let alone a throroughbred such as the Type 2708. ʻI had no experience of driving a car like this,ʼ he recalls. ʻFor example, the oil pressure might have dropped too low and damaged the engine. I would have been furious with myself if I had failed to recognise something like that… It isnʼt easy to concentrate on the track, the new car and the instruments, and at the same time observe every detail of the carʼs behaviour.ʼ
There was an amusing tale related to the roll-out. Many of the insiders expressed surprise at how restrained the new engine sounded – the exhaust note was deeper than expected, and seemed almost muffled compared to similar units. Kussmaul explained: ʻWe soon discovered the root of the trouble. There were four electrical units which supplied current to the ignition coils. Two of them were built into the main control unit. The original plan was to fit only two of the units, but this was changed at the last minute, and two new units were fitted externally.
ʻWhen we inspected the engine closely the next day, we noticed that the two new units were suspiciously light, far lighter than was normally the case. It transpired that we had fitted two dummies, empty casings which Bosch had sent us to try out for size on the wooden mock-up!ʼ The noise the spectators had heard was, in fact, a four-cylinder engine running at 9000rpm, not the full-on V8. No wonder it sounded muted…
The carʼs first outing was set for 11th October at Laguna Seca, but first an exhaustive period of testing lay ahead. Kussmaul knew he wasnʼt the ideal person to get the best from the car, and expressed his relief when Mario Andretti was flown in to take over. However, the experienced Indycar driver shared his predecessorʼs concerns about several aspects of the car, most notably tyres and chassis set-up. In the end, Norbert Singer suggested trying a secondary wing at the rear, ahead of
“FOR ME IT WAS A TRULY FASCINATING EXPERIENCE…”
the main spoiler. It worked, transforming the carʼs wayward character in an instant.
Back in the hands of Kussmaul, the 2708 was only driven a further 750 kilometres in testing, which wasnʼt really enough ahead of its first outing at Laguna Seca. There was a test session in Portland, Oregon, where old hand Al Unser was to give the car the once-over. Unser had ironed out bugs for the new Cosworth DFX when it was released, as well as tested Chevroletʼs CART engines.
Unser, however, was restrained in his comments after driving the car, pointing out that heʼd hardly had time to get to grips with it. But there had been time for the engine to display teething problems: a broken camshaft as a result of a failed petrol pump (the dual pumps were driven off the camshafts). More seriously, the new Porsche was some six seconds a lap slower than Geoff Brabhamʼs March Honda.
When the car arrived at Laguna Seca a few days later, news of the test had already reached the ears of rival teams. The car was surrounded by inquisitive onlookers, all keen to learn the ʻsecretsʼ of the new Porsche. Normally this would have been grounds for the car to be whisked away, safely out of sight, but Norbert Singer shrugged his shoulders and said ʻSince we are slower than everyone else, thereʼs nothing for them to copy.ʼ
The first timed sessions placed Unser way down in 21st place – hardly the kind of performance Porsche was used to. The engine was fine and still had plenty in reserve, but the chassis was lacking. It proved difficult to get the car to hook up out of corners, while it also showed a propensity for understeer when entering the two sharp bends at Laguna Seca. ʻPerhaps we should have fitted a limited-slip differential,ʼ pondered Singer. Instead, the 2708 had the usual ʻspoolʼ, which only served to exacerbate matters.
Come race day and nobody really expected too much of the car, or its driver. Unser was brief in his conversations with journalists: ʻWhat else can you expect if you use a race for testing purposes?ʼ After just seven laps, the new car with Unser at the wheel spluttered to a halt in front of the pits, a sudden loss of fuel pressure bringing about its early demise. What caused this wasnʼt clear, but it was also discovered that the water pump was leaking, which would probably have caused overheating problems later in the race.
The car was flown back to Weissach in an effort to get to grips with its many shortcomings, both in terms of engine reliability and chassis development. There was too little time to make any major changes ahead of the next race, just two weeks later at Sebring, in Florida, but Norbert Singer did have his way with the installation of a limited-slip differential in an effort to control the understeer.
A disagreement with Al Unser over his wish to drive a Penske March in a support race led to Porsche dispensing with his services, Al Holbert taking charge instead. But things were still not right, and Holbertʼs qualifying lap times were almost five seconds slower than those of Andretti in a LolaChevrolet. This placed the Porsche in 29th position out of 33 entries. Unfortunately only the first 28 cars were eligible to start the race…
Singer appeared philosophical about the situation but inwardly must have been disappointed. His team had a few months to ready the car for the first race of the 1988 season but it was clear the major problem was the chassis. It lacked torsional rigidity.
With the departure of Unser, and Holbert being little more than a temporary stand-in, efforts were made to find a new driver. Jochen Maas offered his services, but Porsche had other plans for him in the long term. Mass did assist with testing at both Weissach and Paul Ricard, which included driving a LolaCosworth for comparison, but Italian Teo Fabi was the man finally chosen to take over as team driver.
One of Fabiʼs first jobs was to drive both the Porsche-built 2708 and a March chassis fitted with the 2708/80 engine. A decision to use the 1988 season as an extended test session gave the team the luxury of trying a number of ideas at what amounted to be a late stage in proceedings.
The process of installing the Porsche engine in the March chassis was far from straightforward and the prototype racer suffered oil pressure problems caused by oil surge brought about by the greater centrifugal forces generated by the new chassis. Fabi tried his best to remain stoical, reminding people how long it had taken Honda to get to grips with Formula 1.
All eyes were on Indianapolis – a good showing here would do wonders for Porscheʼs reputation in North America. The March-chassised 2708 showed promise in testing but, on the day, it all went wrong because of a simple error in pit crew signalling. One misread hand gesture brought about the demise of Porscheʼs efforts at the Brickyard.
After qualifying 17th on the grid, Fabi pitted on lap 34 while the field was under caution. Unfortunately Steve Erickson, head mechanic of the Quaker State-backed team, gave Fabi the signal to exit the pits a moment too soon: the left rear wheel hadnʼt yet been properly secured.
As a consequence, the wheel became detached as Fabi nailed the throttle along the pit lane. The errant wheel and tyre bounced off into the distance, leaving Fabi stranded. It was a sad end as, prior to the pit stop, Fabi had made his way up to ninth position (heʼd actually been as high as fifth, due to pit stops by rival teams). Somehow, this scenario seemed to epitomise Porscheʼs showing in Cart/indycar.
Throughout the 1988 season, Fabi drove well, but the results were unspectacular. The best showing was at Nazareth, where the green and white 2708 finished fourth after having led the field for a couple of laps. But a week later, the team suffered a major blow when arch-supporter Al Holbert was killed in a light aircraft crash.
1989 saw a change in personnel, with Helmut Flegl placed in charge of the racing effort, his past experience with Roger Penske while running the Can-am 917s proving invaluable. Also added to the team was Brit Derrick Walker, Penskeʼs former manager and someone who would be a useful ʻgo-betweenʼ twixt Porsche and the CART organisation. Joining him was Tony Cicale, aerodynamicist and former race engineer to Mario Andretti.
All eyes were now focused on the 1989 season, the Indy 500 being the race on which all hopes were pinned. Sadly, once again, the Indy curse was to strike, with Fabi – who qualified 13th – being forced to retire with ignition problems after just 23
“SINGER APPEARED PHILOSOPHICAL ABOUT THE SITUATION…”
laps. This was a major blow to morale, even though the rest of the season was reasonably satisfying. The Quaker State MarchPorsche ended the season with one outright victory (Mid-ohio), two seconds, a third and five fourth places.
The 1990 season looked set to be ʻthe oneʼ, with March developing a new chassis – the 90P – and Fabi joined by new driver, John Andretti. The chassis was real state of the art, and followed the proposed 1990 CART rule book to the letter. The monocoque was fabricated out of carbon-fibre composite and built specifically to work with the Porsche-designed 2708/80 engine.
But, in an amazing turnabout, CART suddenly announced that the carbon-fibre chassis would not be eligible because of ʻsafety concernsʼ. This was, of course, complete bunkum. The real reason was that Penske (and Lola) had been developing its own carbon-composite chassis, but it wasnʼt ready for the new season. Nobody at CART wanted to upset the allAmerican Penske operation, and who really cared if the German ʻupstartsʼ had their noses put out of joint?
March redesigned the chassis so it could be built from aluminium honeycomb, but this meant a lengthy delay before any testing could be carried out. At its first race in Phoenix, it was obvious the car was little better than the previous year ʼs, proving unresponsive to aerodynamic changes, so the race was run using a pair of 1989 chassis.
At Indianapolis, the new chassis was pressed into service and the car appeared at the Brickyard wearing the colours of new Australian-based sponsors, Foster ʼs Lager. Andretti just squeezed into the top ten in qualifying, but Fabi was way down the field, in 23rd place.
The race itself was another disaster, Andretti kissing the wall on lap 135, ending the race classified in 21st position, while Fabiʼs March-porsche suffered transmission failure on lap 162, at which point he was classified as finishing in a lowly 18th position.
The 1990 season was a disappoinment from beginning to end. The best result for Fabi was a pole position at Denver and a soilitary podium finish at New Jersey. The cars were underdeveloped, overweight and best described as lacklustre in performance. It was not what people – especially the board – had come to expect of Porsche.
It came as no great surprise, then, that the plug was finally pulled on Porscheʼs CART efforts at the end of the season. There had been moves to use a Lola chassis, but there were no funds to pursue this avenue of development, and Flegl felt he wasnʼt in the best of positions to ask for more.
For Porsche, this was a costly and, frankly, embarrassing period in its racing history. Perhaps, said the pundits, Porsche should have stuck to endurance racing. And maybe they were right. CP