We catch up with Norbert Singer at Sound Nacht in Stuttgart as the legendary Porsche engineer is reunited with some of his greatest hits
There’s a row of 13 Porsche road and race cars gathered in the underground parking area outside the Stuttgart arena, their engines being fired up one by one to warm them over before they’ll be paraded in front of nearly 4,000 people as part of Porsche’s annual Sound Night. Among the cars, Röhrl, Ickx, Bell, Stuck, Attwood, Singer, Lieb, Linge, Manthey and Herrmann all mingle, the people who drove and engineered these legendary machines as iconic as the cars themselves. It’s a who’s who of Porsche’s racing history, but here we single out Norbert Singer, a man instrumental in the success of almost every car here.
Norbert Singer started his career with Porsche. His father wasn’t happy about it, saying such a small company was likely to go the same way as so many others at the time – out of business – but Singer wanted to work there, and specifically in the racing department. Had he missed a phone call, Porsche’s racing history could have been so different; Singer hadn’t received a letter saying he’d been offered a job, and was promptly called to ask why he wasn’t in on his first day. He made it in for his second. He’s typical of a German engineer: humble when talking about his achievements, a company man to the core, always describing the efforts of the entire team.
“For me it’s nice to see these old cars again, and the best is these cars are running,” says Singer, as we escape the sound of old race engines starting and the heady aroma of burnt hydrocarbons filling the air. Motorsport and Porsche are intrinsically linked, Singer admitting that without it Porsche might not be around today. “The motorsport of Porsche helped to keep them alive. You look at other companies, especially in Germany, there were companies that did a little motorsport, but not much. They were even bigger than Porsche were in the States and they didn’t survive. I think the key is motorsport for Porsche. This is important.”
Singer’s influence in that can’t be overstated. In over 34 years as Porsche’s technical boss Singer oversaw some of the most recognisable and successful cars in Porsche’s racing history, from the Carrera RSRS and 935s of the 1970s and 1980s, to the 956/962 that dominated in the 1980s and 1990s, to the 911 GT1. For a small company the success of these cars is incredible. “I think our flexibility was that we were quite a small company. Of course, you don’t have these resources like big ones, but we were fast enough to help find solutions for problems we had, and then you are in a small team. You’re still a team, and when you get bigger and bigger, then you get an organisation. And this is different,” he explains.
Even in the company’s worst days for sales, Singer says, “Porsche made motorsport. I
think this is important, and this was only possible with only a handful of people. You don’t need any meetings or paperwork; you just meet them somewhere and say, ‘Wait a minute, we have to talk,’ and then you make a decision.”
The 911 is core to that. “I think the 911 was a very good road car,” Singer admits, “but, in parallel, it was doing rallies, it was doing racing. And then it stepped up by racing more power, wider tyres and again, the highest level was
Moby Dick, which was, well, looks not really like a 911, but is a 911 at its core.” That essence, that link between road and race cars is important, the old adage win on Sunday sell on Monday something of a core belief within the company and Singer himself.
Moby Dick may have been an extreme representation of that, but what followed in the 1990s would be even more radical. With racing regulations championing the GT1 class in endurance racing, Porsche’s contender would take the 911 to another level. “When we started the GT1 we had the original 911 chassis,” explains Singer. “We tried previously in the old days to make a mid-engine car, but the regulations didn’t allow it. But, in GT1, you could make a road car, then you make a mid-engine car and then you can have what you want. So again, when you look at the GT1 in 1998, it’s not really a 911, but it’s the spirit of the 911. I think sometimes you don’t see, but you feel this is the spirit of the 911 still in it. It doesn’t matter if the engine is before or behind the rear axle.”
As instrumental and hugely successful as the 911 race cars were in Singer’s career, it’s the 956 and 962 era he looks back at most fondly. “The 956 in 1982 when we won, one, two, three. This is the absolute highlight. It was completely unexpected for us,” says Singer. “We developed the car in nine months. Then we did some testing and, of course, you learn a lot, you learn the car, and then there was no possibility doing longdistance running. We just had some testing. We added up all the mileage and then we said, ‘OK, for another ten hours we put it on the drums just to test the engine, gearbox and that’s it.’ And then we went to Le Mans. There were some question marks, and I remember it when people asked, ‘What do you think about winning the race?’ We didn’t talk about winning. I thought first let’s run 18 hours and then we will see who is left.”
He describes time taking forever at Le Mans, laughing about it now, but saying the last hour was always the longest, with the drivers saying they’re hearing things, the worry that the cars won’t finish always present. He can empathise with the pain Toyota recently had at Le Mans: “As an engineer you must be realistic. You know what you have done and you say, ‘Okay, even if you’ve covered 100 per cent distance you can never be sure.’ You saw it with Toyota; they tested everything, but this can still happen. These issues you must have in mind. And when you enter the last hour at Le Mans, you say ‘OK, one hour, but urgh.’”
That’s an hour Singer knows only too well, with 16 Le Mans victories to his name over 29 seasons. Today, Singer’s happy to see Porsche winning again, racing still clearly a core within the company. He’s certain too, in an uncertain future for the automobile, that Porsche will remain true to its history, pushing boundaries through racing, and of course winning.
“I think the key is motorsport for Porsche. This is important”
BELOW The Turbo RSR was a wild remake of the 911, but the 956 and 962 was Singer’s proudest creation