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Little Classics Features: 14 June 2014

LeMans: Porsche – 1951 to Today

Porsche 356 debuts at Le Mans first race 1951With the imminent start of the famous LeMans 24 hour race today, we take a look back at one of the most constant brands to feature amongst so many other famous classic racing teams – Porsche.

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

Porsche in the 1950s

In 1951 Porsche received the great honour 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.

Veuillet (whose Sonauto concern imported Porsches into France) and Mouche would drive an aluminium 356 (top); 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 550 Coupe Le Mans 1953Porsche 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 (above) 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.

Porsche in the 1960s

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.

Porsche 906 Le Mans 1966There 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) (above).

The 906 used the 911’s 2-litre, flat-six engine but modified for racing. 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 honours (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 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 (below)– 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.

25 examples of the Porsche 917 built in 1969 for motor sportThe 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.

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 this team was 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. 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.

Porsche in the 1970s

Porsche 917 winner Le Mans 1970 driven by Attwood and HerrmannLe Mans 1970 was the grand showdown between Porsche and Ferrari. Seven 917s (top) 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 realised, 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 honours. Porsche’s name was writ large over the results sheet, wherever one looked.

1971 was to be the 917’s zenith (below). 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.

Porsche 917 winner Le Mans 1971With 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.

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.

Porsche Typ 935 Turbo in Le Mans 19771976 brought three new racing Porsches to Le Mans. The 934 was a turbocharged 911 for Porsche customers in the GT class; the 935 (above) was a more exotic, 911-based turbo car for the Group 5 World Championship of Makes, and the spyder-bodied 936. 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.

For 1977 the turbocharged Porsches returned, this time ranged against significant opposition from Alpine-Renault. The 936/77s (below) 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.

Porsche 936 winner Le Mans 19771978 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 took overall victory in 1979 with their 935 K3.

Porsche in the 1980s

Porsche 936 Le Mans 1980The 936 (above) 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 finishing 7th overall.

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.

Le Mans debut for Porsche 956 19821982 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 (above). 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.

Le Mans 1987 Porsche 962It was a golden recipe: so convincing was the 956’s superiority (and its later relation, the 962c - above), 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.

Porsche Typ 961 in Le Mans 1987Porsche in the 1990s

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 (below) – did achieve Porsche’s 16th overall victory – its last to date.

Porsche 911 GT1 winner Le Mans 1998Porsche then changed direction again. It wouldn’t be contending for outright victory, but it was the turn of the road-based 911. On the grid for 1999 were a pair of new 996 GT3-Rs, with the Manthey-entered car eventually finishing 13th overall and first in the GT class.

Porsche in the 2000s to today

This latest move 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 honours for a 997 GT3 RSR, the 911 is as competitive as its ever been.

Now, in 2014, Porsche returns with the 919 Hybrid to once again contest for overall honours at the Circuit de la Sarthe.

History alone suggests it will be a strong contender.


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