A STORY OF SUCCESS
Seventy years of Porsche at Le Mans.
Porsche is the only manufacturer to have contested the 24 Hours of Le Mans every year since 1951. Seven decades without a break is a remarkable achievement, and one rewarded by no fewer than nineteen overall wins (seven in a row from 1981 to 1987) and more than one hundred class victories. This unrivalled success in one of the world’s most challenging races has made Le Mans as much a part of Porsche as the famous three-digit nomenclature, nine-one-one.
The first 24-hour event at Le Mans took place in 1923. Grand Prix racing was the dominant motorsport force in Europe, leading to the introduction of a different type of test for man and machine: the focus wasn’t on a manufacturer’s ability to produce the fastest car, but its ability to build the most reliable, achieved through the deployment of innovative engineering. The development of ground-breaking fuel efficiency technologies was also a key aspect of what competition organisers had in mind — endurance racing requires cars to spend as little time as possible being attended to in the pit lane, whether visiting for repair or refuelling.
Adding to the challenge of requiring each participating manufacturer to construct cars that can quite literally go the distance, the Le Mans track layout was designed to encourage extraordinarily high speed. The Mulsanne Straight, for example, has gone down in history as being one of Europe’s fastest and longest stretches of racing asphalt, a feature requiring competing teams to think carefully about aerodynamics and overall vehicle stability (many of you will remember the shocking images of Peter Dumbreck’s Mercedes-benz CLR flipping wildly in 1999). Furthermore, because much of the Le Mans circuit incorporates public roads, these stretches of track lack the smooth surface of a closed circuit. In other words, chassis components are subjected to huge strain, emphasising the need for participating cars to be built with steadfast reliability in mind.
At the suggestion of Auguste ‘Toto’ Veuillet, Porsche’s official importer in France and founder of the Sonauto luxury vehicle sales company, the Stuttgart concern was the first German marque to enter Le Mans after World War II. Ferry Porsche recognised race wins would translate into production sales, primarily because the reliability and pace of Porsche sports cars — should they turn in an incident-free performance at the track — would be well documented in the motoring press come race end. This was, as he saw it, a cost-effective form of advertising likely to reach the discerning automotive enthusiast Porsche wanted to attract. Consequently, a brace of 356 SL Coupes was entered into the brand’s first 24 Hours of Le Mans, which took place on 23rd
June 1951. The construction of these 356s is worth a mention — during the first year of assembly in the now famous former sawmill at Gmünd (the Austrian town the Porsche family relocated to during the war), 356s were aluminium bodied, but using this material was proving too expensive for the long term, which is why Reutter adopted steel bodies when commissioned by Porsche to take care of 356 production from 1949. A handful of the aluminium bodied Gmünd cars remained in Porsche’s
possession, however, and were completed by wage workers at Tatra before being delivered to Zuffenhausen following Porsche’s return to Stuttgart in 1950. And with lightweight construction offering obvious performance advantages, the Gmünd coupes served as the basis for the 1.1-litre 356 SL (Super Leicht) Coupes prepared for the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
GOING IT ALONE
Fast-forward to preparations for the race itself, and Veuillet (accompanied by his fellow countryman, Edmond Mouche) was drafted in to drive the no.46 356 SL Coupe (equipped with aerodynamically superior underbody cladding, brake cooling ducts, a larger fuel tank, uprated dampers, structure reinforcement plates and quick release body panel fasteners), while Grand Prix veteran, Robert Brunet (paired with Rudolf Sauerwein) was tasked with pitching the sister car, decorated with the number 47. Sadly, during a wet practice session, the latter suffered catastrophic accident damage, leaving the fate of Porsche’s first appearance at Le Mans entirely in the fortunes of a single 356.
Despite constant heavy rain causing half the sixtystrong field (chiefly entries from Aston Martin, Frazernash, Healey, Jaguar, Renault and many privateer teams, with star drivers, including Stirling Moss, Briggs Cunningham, Juan Manuel Fangio, Jean Behra, Pierre Veyron, Jean-louis Rosier and overall race winner,
Peter Walker) to retire, the lone Porsche put in a sterling performance, tackling the difficult driving conditions without complaint to bag the 1.1-litre class win and a welcome twentieth place overall. This impressive result marked the beginning of an exceptional relationship between Porsche and Le Mans.
Veuillet enjoyed further success with the 356, taking top honours in the 1951 Coupes de Salons at Montlhéry and the 1952 non-championship ACO meet held at
Circuit International de Vitesse in Bordeaux. His return to Le Mans for Porsche (with Mouche again serving as co-driver) that year yielded another 1.1-litre class win, but also a significant improvement on the 1951 result: the works 356 SL Coupe finished eleventh overall. Privateers were getting in on the act, too. Auguste Lachaize entered a 356 SL Coupe powered by a 1.5-litre flat-four into the race and was leading his class, only to be disqualified in the nineteenth hour due to a pitlane safety infringement: his car’s engine was left running (to avoid permanent stalling) during refuelling. The second works 356 (driven by Huschke von Hanstein and Petermax Müller) retired much earlier due to transmission failure.
Clearly, Porsche was off to a strong start at Le Mans and, as the decade drew on, 356s competed alongside the newly introduced 550 Spyder, racking up even more class wins along the way, but it wasn’t until the arrival of the 718 RSK Porsche began to experience serious success in Sarthe. Indeed, in 1958, the manufacturer’s first podium in overall classification arrived thanks to the power and reliability of the 1.6-litre 718 at the hands of star drivers, Jean Behra and Hans Hermann, the pair finishing in third place overall. The dynamic duo’s Porsche simultaneously managed to achieve victory in the two-litre class (and, it should be noted, the smallerengined sister 718 RSK driven by Edgar Barth and Paul Frère finished close behind in fourth place overall, taking the 1.5-litre class win), but it was Porsche’s results as
IN 1968, FOR THE FIRST TIME IN ITS HISTORY, THE WORKS TEAM ACHIEVED THE FASTEST QUALIFYING LAP AT LE MANS
a constructor that impressed the most: thanks to the efforts of the works team and privateers (JP Colas and Carel Godin de Beaufort, both teams running a 550A) finishing in the top ten, Porsche took second place in the constructors championship, ahead of Aston Martin, Lotus and Osca, beaten only by the might of Ferrari.
Riding high on the positive results of 1958, Porsche entered three 718 RSKS into the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans, while privateer teams readied another two examples of the same car, as well as a 550A RS. Taking the wind out of Zuffenhausen’s sails, this particular race was a rare and embarrassing failure for Porsche — all six cars retired with a mix of engine and transmission complaints. In fact, it would be almost ten years and the start of Ferdinand Piëch’s reign overseeing Porsche motorsport programmes before Le Mans glory would return to the Stuttgart brand. Nevertheless, in 1968, for the first time in its history, the works team achieved the fastest qualifying lap at Circuit de la Sarthe, a feat made possible by the driving skills of Jo Siffert and Hans Hermann in the 908. Porsche cars occupied second and third podium spots at race end. It was a superb achievement, and one that paved the way for the sports car maker’s first overall win — a result regarded as the most important in the marque’s motorsport history.
The 917 made its debut at Le Mans in 1969, but clutch failure forced early retirement after what had been a strong start. The story was very different at the beginning of the new decade. Porsche racing stalwart, Hans Hermann, partnered with Le Mans and Formula One veteran, Richard Attwood, to hammer the no.23 Salzburg 917 K (the K standing for Kurzheck, roughly translated as ‘short-tail’) across the finish line in an eventful race marred by heavy rain. In fact, the weather was so bad, only sixteen participating cars reached the end. Twelve of them were Porsches.
Herrmann and Attwood’s 917 short-tail ended the race five laps ahead of the Martini Racing 917 long-tail driven by Gerard Larrousse and Willi Kauhsen, while the same team’s 908/02 took the final podium place thanks to 335 laps completed by Helmut Marko and Rudi Lins. Auguste Veuillet’s Sonauto concern entered a 914/6 GT
into the race, taking the two-litre class win and finishing three laps ahead of the non-classifying Solar Productions 908/02 Le Mans camera car featured on page 56 of this very magazine. A 911 S driven by Erwin Kremer rounded out the points scoring results, with six more 911s
(five S-badged machines and a lone 911 T entered by Switzerland’s Wicky Racing Team) crossing the finish line behind the Greder Racing Corvette C3, a pair of Ferrari 512s and a single 312P Coupe. Piëch’s dedication to investing in the development of championship-winning cars capable of beating Ford’s ‘unlimited budget’ GT40 was paying dividends.
“The first time I sat behind the wheel of a 917 was in 1969, during qualifying for Le Mans,” recalled Attwood. “Make no mistake, the car was incredibly difficult to drive. Its aerodynamics were wayward, and I detected worrying lift at speed. Thankfully, by 1970, the guys at the factory had ironed out these complaints. We were now ready to go racing in a fully sorted Porsche. The event itself was full of incident, lots of crashes and retirements, bad weather, aquaplaning, the works. Surprisingly, these terrible driving conditions worked in our favour, allowing us to take the lead after just ten hours. It was ridiculous position to be in, primarily because Hans and I were by no means piloting the fastest car on the track.”
Despite battling electrical problems and misfires caused by heavy rain, Hermann and Attwood managed to secure Porsche’s first overall victory at Le Mans.
It was a momentous occasion, and one that took on growing significance with each subsequent overall win Porsche would go on to achieve in France: another works triumph at Le Mans arrived twelve months after the distinctive red-and-white Salzburg-liveried 917 bagged sports car racing’s ultimate prize. Floodgates open, this second victory occurred exactly two decades after the aforementioned 356s heralded the start of our favourite manufacturer’s commitment to the world’s most famous endurance contest.
THE SAFE BET
Thirty-three of the forty-eight starters were Porsches in 1971. In other words, a Stuttgart win seemed highly likely from the off. Motorsport fans were kept entertained with Porsches achieving record-breaking qualifying laps, fastest race laps, fastest average speed and the longest distance travelled (3,315 miles to be exact). Fittingly, Ferry Porsche dropped the start flag. Attwood finished second in his Gulf-liveried 917, close behind the magnesium-framed Martini Racing 917 short-tail driven by Helmut Marko and Gijs van Lennep. Of the thirteen cars that finished in classification, ten were Porsches. It would, however, be another five years before the Stuttgart brand hit the top spot, when the Martini Racing team fielded a 935 and a 936, the latter driven by Jacky Ickx and van Lennep. The car romped home to first place, with Ickx returning to try his hand at achieving the same result for Porsche in 1977. This time, the Martini squad campaigned a pair of 936s, but things didn’t go according to plan: Ickx’s car lost power early on, while the remaining Porsche trailed behind in forty-second place.
Rather than kick his heels in the pit lane, Ickx temporarily dismissed the drivers of the surviving 936 and drove flat out all night, regardless of adverse weather. Amazingly, he managed to propel the car to fifth place by the time he handed it back to chief pilots, Jürgen Barth and Hurley Haywood. Inspired by what they’d witnessed, both men drove quicker than expected, but disaster loomed large — in the final hour of the race, their hardworking Porsche developed a serious engine problem. The team’s mechanics identified the car’s number five cylinder as being the cause of complaint, yet their quick thinking ensured a swift fix (removal of fuel injection from the offending cylinder), enabling the ailing 2.1-litre turbocharged flat-six to run just long enough to finish the race. Amazingly, it did so in first place. Cheering crowds witnessed a surprising end to what had been an exciting event.
1978 saw the arrival of the Martini-dressed 935 Moby Dick (nicknamed in recognition of its stretched body panels, bright white paintwork and long tail). Unlike cars designed to compete in multiple sports car and endurance racing championships, this final incarnation of the 935 was designed specifically for Le Mans. Water-cooled cylinder heads were introduced to the proceedings, mirroring what Porsche was doing with its then new line of production cars. Displacement was increased to 3.2 litres, allowing a twin-turbocharged power output of up to 845bhp. Weight was reduced to just 1,030kg, while the driver’s seat was shifted over to the right to achieve better weight distribution. This change also had the benefit of giving drivers a better view around the clockwise circuit’s right-hand bends. Moby Dick qualified third in the hands of Manfred Shurti and Ralf Stommelen. Lap times were an astonishing fifteen seconds quicker than they had been in 1976. A recorded speed of 228mph on the Mulsanne Straight highlighted this outlandish 935’s immense power, but its engine refused to live up to expectation — Porsche was forced to settle for an eighth-place finish.
SWIM WITH SHARKS
As an exercise in promoting the brand, the following year proved more profitable: a mix of privateer and works 935s and 936s dominated the grid. Even the 928 made an appearance, albeit as pace car. Le Mans was looking more and more like a Porsche Cup competition! As if to prove the point, the winning machine was the Kremerbuilt three-litre 935 K3 (driven by the famous partnership of Klaus Ludwig and the Whittington brothers), with second place taken by actor, Paul Newman, and his co-drivers, Stommelen and Dick Barbour, in the latter’s privately entered 935. The final podium place was gobbled up by another Kremer 935, driven by the talented French trio of Laurent Ferrier, Francois Servanin and Francois Trisconi.
The 1980s was supposed to be the decade the
911 marched off quietly into the sunset. Porsche’s commitment to its transaxle family of products was clear to see when it fielded three 924 Carrera GTRS in the 1980 Le Mans GTP class. Qualification of thirty-fourth place and a best final finish of sixth overall was hardly the stuff of headlines, though Ickx fared better with a Martini Racing 936, producing an amazing drive to wow spectators until gearbox failure ensured a regrettable second place was the best the team could hope to achieve. The Belgian’s frustration was relieved in 1981, when he shared driving duties in one of two 2.6-litre
936s with Derek Bell, a pairing resulting in an overall win and Ickx’s name in the record books as a five-time Le Mans champion. It was the start of another phenomenal chapter in the history of Porsche at Le Mans — one that saw the arrival of the all-conquering 956 in 1982.
The FIA introduced new race regulations for the 1982 season, encouraging Porsche motorsport mastermind, Norbert Singer, to design a new car to replace the 936 used to great effect in sports car racing all over the world. Featuring an aluminium monocoque chassis (a first for Porsche), the new machine inherited the same turbocharged 2.65-litre flat-six design used to great effect in Ickx and Bell’s title-winning 936 a year earlier. Turning back the clock, the engine can trace its roots back to the 935, before it was modified for Indycar racing. Eventually, to Ickx and Bell’s benefit, the unit was called into action for build of the 936, won Le
Mans in 1981 and then volunteered itself for the job of propelling the 956.
The car made its debut at the 1982 Six Hours of Silverstone, before the Ickx-bell dream team campaigned this new Porsche monster in France. Amazingly, the car held first place for the entire twenty-four hours, resulting in the overall win. Two additional works 956s followed close behind, meaning Porsche secured first, second and third place at Le Mans in the new car’s debut season. It was a staggering performance and one which demonstrated just how much of a huge leap forward the 956 was from Porsche’s earlier prototype racers — other than the origins of its engine, the 956 was a significant departure from the design of the 936.
Ground-effect aerodynamics and a cleverly designed carbon-kevlar shell combined to deliver three times the downforce of Herrmann and Attwood’s race-winning 917, while the newer prototype’s beating heart was equipped with smaller turbochargers in an attempt to significantly diminish fuel consumption. Even with these relatively small bhp boosters, however, the striking Porsche managed to develop more than 620bhp in race trim.
Decorated in Rothmans livery, the 956 achieved four consecutive outright Le Mans wins between 1982 and 1985, simultaneously crushing competition in sports car racing across the globe. Ten works examples were supported by more than a dozen privateer 956s, many ending up in the USA, where the now-defunct International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) GTP championship mirrored the regulations of Group C, the 956’s natural habitat. Eventually, changes to the car needed to be made for it to be able to continue to race Stateside, leading Porsche to develop an evolution of the 956 in the form of the 962. Even though it was essentially a modified 956, the newer Porsche was presented as a fresh model with an extended wheelbase designed to position the front rims ahead of the pedal box after complaints from North American motorsport governing bodies criticised the position of the driver’s feet ahead of the 956’s front axle centreline. Other amendments included a steel roll cage integrated into a new aluminium chassis, promoting rigidity and further driver safety. In total, Porsche built ninety-one 962s between 1984 and 1991. Sixteen of those were produced for the works team, the rest were sold to privateers.
The factory 962s immediately followed the 956’s success by winning Le Mans in 1986 and 1987, contributing to an uninterrupted streak of seven overall Porsche wins in France dating back to 1981. What’s more, modified and privately operated 962s won the World Sportscar Championship in 1985 and 1986, the IMSA GT Championship every year from 1985 to 1988, the Interserie Championship every year from 1987 until 1992, all four years of the Supercup series from 1986 to 1989, the All Japan Sports Prototype Championship from 1985 until 1989, and Le Mans all over again (under the Dauer Racing banner) in 1994. And this is just a small selection of the model’s triumphs. One cannot overstate just how amazing the 956/962 is. It’s a car that won its first and last outings at Le Mans (races that were an astonishing twelve years apart from one another) and for many years, held the record for being the fastest car to lap the Nürburgring, a feat achieved in 1983 with a time of 6:11.13s (eclipsed in June 2018 by the 919 Hybrid Evo’s 5:19.55 minute smash of the Green Hell).
In a world where motorsport technology progresses at
astonishingly quick pace, the fact the 956/962 enjoyed virtually unrivalled success for more than twelve years is phenomenal. The story doesn’t end there, though.
Porsche WSC-95S won Le Mans in 1996 and 1997.
The works 911 GT1 went on to achieve the same in 1998. Then, following a sixteen-year break from prototype racing in Sarthe, Porsche returned to Le Mans in 2015 with the 919 Hybrid, winning overall honours and going on to do the same in 2016, when Toyota’s speed merchants were pipped to the post in dramatic fashion by factory drivers, Marc Lieb, Romain Dumas and Neel Jani. Porsche withdrew from LMP1 in favour of concentrating on its Formula E programme at the close of the 2017 season, but not before the 919 Hybrid scored the brand its nineteenth overall win at Le Mans, a result made possible thanks to the sterling work of drivers, Timo Bernhard, Brendan Hartley and Earl Bamber. Since that time, Porsche’s GT cars have continued to dominate the field, but with the newly devised LMDH class announced, Porsche will be making a welcome return to top-tier racing at Le Mans by joining VAG sister brand, Audi, as well as Toyota and Peugeot, as an LMDH participant from 2023.
BRAVE NEW WORLD
LMDH cars will not only make up the new top class in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC), but also the North American IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship. Both competitions are hugely significant for the Stuttgart brand — Porsche very much welcomed the introduction of the new class for hybrid prototypes when it was jointly announced by the organisers at ACO, WEC and IMSA a couple of months ago. In short, for the first time in more than twenty years, it will be possible for teams to fight for overall victories with identical vehicles, primarily due to the new category’s mission to keep a lid on spend — all of the new cars are based on an upgraded LMP2 chassis, while the specification for the hybrid system, including the control electronics, is strictly standardised. Competitors are required to adopt a chassis from one of four approved manufacturers (Dallara, Ligier, Multimatic or Oreca), though each team is free to select the concept for their car’s combustion engine and body design within the framework of the new regulations, which ban any chassis alterations.
The new race cars, which will tip scales at around 1,000kg, will be powered by a hybrid system with an output of 500kw (near 680bhp). “The new LMDH category allows us to fight for overall victories with a hybrid powertrain at the Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring endurance races without breaking the bank,” explained Porsche CEO, Oliver Blume. “The project is extremely attractive for Porsche. After all, endurance racing is part of our brand’s DNA,” he added, acknowledging disappointment from marque enthusiasts who have missed seeing Porsche strut its stuff in the top category of prototype racing at Le Mans following the manufacturer’s decision to concentrate its efforts on
Formula E. “In the medium term, Porsche focuses on three different drive concepts: fully electric vehicles, efficient plug-in hybrids and the fine-tuning of traditional combustion engines,” confirmed Michael Steiner, Board Member for Research and Development at Porsche
AG. “We want to represent this trilogy in both the development of our cutting-edge road cars and our motorsport activities. We use all-electric drive to contest Formula E, and our highly efficient combustion engines are renowned in GT racing. Now, the LMDH class closes the gap by enabling powerful hybrid drives — like those mounted in many of our production models — to go up against one another. If the regulations eventually allowed the use of synthetic fuels, then that would be an even greater incentive for us in terms of sustainability.”
Will the arrival of the LMDH class see Porsche’s overall Le Mans win tally rise to twenty? Thankfully, we won’t have to wait too long to find out, but in this important anniversary year for Porsche, where seventy years of uninterrupted action at Le Mans and the 356 SL Coupe’s class win are to be celebrated, it’s fair to say we’re just as keen to step back in time as we are to look forward.