Gallery: Porsche’s Le Mans heroes
Before its 2014 return to La Sarthe, TG gets up close with Porsche's astonishing Le Mans racing history…
Posted: 10 Oct 2013
The countdown to Porsche's Le Mans comeback has officially begun. If the French classic is the king of endurance racing, if not the greatest race of all, then Porsche is the king of Le Mans. In 2014, the German geniuses are returning to La Sarthe in their first full works effort since 1998, aiming to add to their record 16 overall victories. So cool was the opportunity to drive for the squad that Red Bull driver Mark Webber parlayed his retirement from F1 into the lead drive.
You can only imagine the pressure, but at an event at Hockenheim this week the mood was positive, not least because the company had managed to gather half a dozen of its Le Mans-winning heroes to kick-start the campaign. It's difficult to think of anyone else who could pull that sort of thing off, or that still generates such goodwill.
Porsche's first overall win at Le Mans came in 1970, when British driver Richard Attwood and German legend Hans Herrmann - a former team-mate of Juan Fangio and Stirling Moss in the 1950s Mercedes Silver Arrows F1 squad - piloted the incomparable 917 to victory. For many motorsport fans, the 917 - all 585bhp and 850kg of it - is the most revered racing car of the lot, which makes it all the more surprising when you discover what a pig it was at first. Both Attwood and Herrmann still shiver at the memory.
‘In 1969, we were eight laps in the lead,' Attwood recalls, ‘and then the gearbox broke. I was absolutely delighted! Remember, I hadn't won Le Mans at that point, and nobody believes me when I say I was glad we went out, but the car was truly horrible to drive. It suffered from understeer, oversteer, it had no balance, it lacked downforce... frankly, it was bloody awful. They'd tested it at an airfield, but didn't go much beyond 180mph. That wasn't much use to us when we were touching 235mph on the longest straights, and most of the problems occurred at 200mph. Of course, they developed the upswept tail, sorted the chassis out, and that did the trick. It was 20mph slower, but much more manageable...'
Proper heroes, these guys, no question, and a hard-fought win came in 1970 despite fog, rain, and rivals like Ferrari, Ford and Lola. ‘The 917 was charismatic, it had character, and it was dangerous. It was a wild beast that had to be tamed, as much by the designers and engineers as anyone else. A mythology has grown up around it because it was a wild beast,' Attwood adds.
Other wins soon followed, with the 935, 936, and most successfully of all, the 956, which bestrode the 1980s endurance racing scene like a colossus. The mild-mannered mastermind who presided over it was Norbert Singer, who remembers a typically methodical Porsche approach. ‘The 956 featured ground effect, and had an aluminium monocoque. We did it all ourselves, in about nine months. Maybe we didn't get it right immediately, but then we'd take the next step. As it was, the 956 was pretty good from the start...'
No kidding. The 956, and its 962 successor, would win Le Mans seven times. The late Stefan Bellof lapped the Nordschleife in one in a barely believable 6min 11 seconds. It's a racing masterpiece, a Picasso on wheels.
It's also part of a heritage the 2014 LMP1 car and team have to live up to, and bolster. Fritz Enzinger is the man who's leading the charge, a former stalwart of BMW's motorsport effort lured into the Porsche fold by this unparalleled opportunity. A team of 220 people are flat out on the project right now, 135 of them engineers. We'd probably all enjoy seeing Porsche storm to victory, but Enzinger is more restrained. ‘It's all new. We need to gather experience on the track more than anything else. We need every kilometre we can get. How will we perform? It's difficult to know right now. It's all still theoretical. Mark [Webber] is texting me regularly asking for updates. He'll get to drive the car in Bahrain in early January.'
One of his team-mates in the two car line-up is Timo Bernhard, who has been testing the Porsche since its June roll out. ‘Hopefully, this car will enable Porsche to define a whole new era for sports car racing,' he says. ‘Right now, all we want to prove is that we can be genuinely competitive.'
And who would bet against that?
Words: Jason Barlow
Photography: Rowan Horncastle