Porsche and Le Mans……..and me?
How did all this start? Well, it's probably easier to say when, 1970. Inspired by tales in the magazine Motor Sport of supercars competing at the world's greatest race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, I was hooked. Naturally I did not actually go to the race, I was a bit young but I do remember being at a cousin's wedding, sneaking out to the family car every hour or so to hear the radio reports……….I nearly flatted the battery……my father was not best pleased.
Of course the race eventually came to me, in the form of the Steve McQueen epic, "Le Mans". The dialogue and plot are non-existent and the love interest keeps her raincoat on all the way through the film, but no true petrolhead would even notice these flaws, all is focused on the cars, the Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s, the story of the film deserves a feature of its own some day but all I can say is if you can, watch it……….you will be hooked.
1970 was the first outright victory for Porsche at Les Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans….and not the last.
Porsche came back in numbers the following year and thoroughly steam-rollered the opposition to score another win with the 917, even having time for an oddity like the Pink Pig, an aerodynamic experiment that did not really work with a paint job that arose from an internal power struggle.
The grid was dominated by the long tailed 917s that could reach up to 248mph along the Mulsanne Straight. They were, and are, genuinely scary machines. If you climb into one there is a good chance that you bang your knee on the way in, this will be on the bracing bar between the front wheels. Closer inspection reveals that your feet and lower legs are in effect hanging out in space. Protection? None really, no crash box, just an oil cooler and some bodywork to give the illusion of security, it certainly increases the already high level of respect due to the drivers. These cars were much faster than the contemporary Grand Prix machines, about the only other racers that could hold a candle to the 917 were the Can Am cars, which is where the flat 12 monsters ended up.
Fast forward to 1980.
I first went to the great race in 1978, seeing Editor Rod's hero, Porsche 935/78 aka "Moby ", soundly defeated by the Renault Prototypes. In 1979 I was there again to witness the 935 in the hands of the Whittington brothers and Klaus Ludwig take honours for Porsche.
For the 1980 race I was armed with my first camera and even managed one or two shots that survive to today. Results wise it was a disappointing event for Porsche, who could only manage second place to local hero Jean Rondeau in his self built Rondeau M379. Above is the Jacky Ickx/Reinhold Joest 908/80, in reality a 936 replica right down to the twin turbo motor, Dunlop tyres and Martini sponsorship.
Of course back then I did not have trackside access so had to sneak off shots where I could, even under the disapproving glare of a soggy and bad tempered Gendarme. You can see that the pits were a complete zoo, with all manner of hangers on and tourists mixed in with the teams. Also in the hospitality boxes above the pits every square inch is occupied but there is a certain Gallic charm to the chaos. The cops provided security along the circuit and it was evident that diplomacy was not on the menu when they dealt with the public or press.
Once again a jump of a few years, I returned to La Sarthe in 1984, armed now with better cameras, bigger lenses and a press pass. Due to a row with the FIA (some things never change) there would be no works Porsches on the grid but there were fifteen customer 956 and one 962 to fill the gap. They had a few Lancias, Jaguars, Nimrods and WMs to deal with but even with the lightning speed of the Martini Lancia team few would bet against a Porsche win.
For me it was a dream come true, a press pass to the 24 Hours. Of course being much younger back then and even more impecunious than now, I did what many have done before and after, I camped at the circuit. My partners in this crime were an Aussie and an Irishman, safe to say that we kept ourselves well refreshed during the weekend which I recall was "Scorchio". Camping and working at Le Mans do not really mix but it certainly made for a laugh.
Of course I shot the race with the up and coming photo ace Keith Sutton, I suspect that all the good shots were his, anyway that's what he told me at the time. The race was won by Reinhold Joest's 956 with Klaus Ludwig and Henri Pescarolo at the wheel after a monumental struggle with the other Porsches and the Lancias. Here Klaus celebrates in style.
In 1985 the Werks cars returned only to receive a rare defeat at the hands of the Joest car. A hat trick for the yellow 956 looked on the cards during the 1986 race but a two hour full course caution period caused an engine problem and the Rothmans factory car of Derek Bell and Hans Stuck took the flag at 4 o'clock on Sunday afternoon.
The duo repeated the result in 1987 despite mounting opposition from other factory teams including Jaguar, Mazda, Nissan and Toyota, with Mercedes and Peugot giving substantial assistance to Sauber and WM' s equipes. The growth in factory backed efforts made this period of Group C one of the golden eras of endurance racing.
For 1988 everyone ramped up their teams to new heights. Porsche and Jaguar were locked in combat to provide one of the great races in the history of the 24 hours.
Sporting a natty new colour scheme reflecting the backing of Shell and Dunlop there were three factory 962s to take on the five Silk Cut Jaguar XJR9s. In the hot seat would be regular sportscar aces, Stuck, Bell, Wollek and Ludwig and in one car no less than three Andrettis. Superstar Mario being joined by his son Michael and nephew John. In the purple corner would be stars from all parts of the sport, F1, CART and IMSA……….Brundle, Pescarolo, Boesel, Watson, Lammers, etc, etc.
There should have been a third party fighting for the top honours but the Sauber Mercedes team withdrew during practice after an unexplained tyre failure at full speed on the Mulsanne Straight. Lack of conclusive evidence as to the cause and the memory of the tragic events of 1955 when Pierre Levegh's Mercedes flew into the crowd along the main straight, killing 80 people, led to the bosses at Stuttgart doing the right thing. It would be a straight fight between Porsche and Jaguar.
For me once again I was working with Keith Sutton, now joined by his brother Mark but new for us all was working for a major sponsor, Castrol. I was in the advertising business in London and one contact led to another, so somehow we got the gig.
The race was fantastic, one of the all time classics with all three Porsches taking a spell in the lead but unable to break the hold that the Lammers, Wallace, Dumfries XJR9 had on the race.
Perhaps the decisive moment came when Ludwig tried to squeeze an extra lap out of the 962's fuel tank in his stint. Exiting Mulsanne corner the engine cut out. Somehow he managed to coax the car back to the pits, mainly on the starter motor. He lost two whole laps during this exercise, around seven minutes………….the Jaguar took victory by just under three minutes……………without doubt the 1988 race was one of the greatest in the history of the endurance event.
The following few years were thin for Porsche at the sharp end of the action, no werks effort and no new cars to replace the veteran 962. The FIA took endurance racing down a blind alley of 3.5 litre racing engines in high tech chassis, driving up costs till Mercedes and Jaguar bailed out, leaving just Peugeot and Toyota to scrap over the honours. Then in 1993 the whole ediface collapsed and the ACO, organsiers of the 24 Hours decided to go their own way and set their own rules, which is the position we have today.
So 1994 was very much a year of mend and make do. Of course the clever folk at Porsche (especially Norbert Singer) read the ACO rule book and came up with a plot to raise the 962 back from the dead. There were two main classes vying for the lead, Prototype 1 and GT1. The GTs were based on the premise that there should be a street legal car. Jochen Dauer had made his 962 road worthy ( he stuck some number plates on I think) and suddenly Porsche were at the races once more.
Factory drivers, engineers, mechanics all helped to push the Dauer project along and onto victory. It was a one off as the ACO tore up the rulebook after the race and ensured that this would never happen again.
GT Racing had a renaissance inspired by the BPR Series with McLarens and F40s mixing it but totally overshadowing the 911 Porsches. This did not sit well with the Germans so for 1996 a new car emerged, the 911 GT1, a space framed racer powered by a 962 engine. Two werks entries for Le Mans were expected to clean up but the old fox Reinhold Joest brought along his Porsche powered prototype, itself having a complicated ancestry involving Jaguar and Mazda. And like 1985 he put one over on the factory boys.
A feat he managed to repeat in 1997 despite having opposition not only from Porsche but also BMW and Nissan. To say that there was a degree of frustration within Porsche would be a polite understatement,
Porsche got bored of wrestling with Joest, so in 1998, the company's 50th Birthday, they hedged their bets, took the Joest team under their control and built an out and out racer, the GT1 98. Of course the opposition had also increased exponentially. Full factory campaigns were being waged by Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota, BMW all with big money programmes.
The race had all the ingredients of a classic and so it proved to be with both BMW and Mercedes teams out before sunset and the Nissans being too slow. So it was down to Toyota and Porsche to struggle for supremacy.
Both teams it seemed were set to emulate their failed opposition, Toyota lost their lead car in an accident and then while disputing the number one spot within sight of the finish the gearbox failed on their other top car. Porsche had survived accidents and water leaks to get back to the top of the pile. Driven by McNish, Ortelli and Aiello the Porsche GT1 98 scored a fantastic victory. It was to be the last as the Porsche board soon cancelled the next wave of top line racing programmes. In the ten years since they have shown little interest in another shot at outright victory in France, selling customer 911s and supporting the Max 'n Bernie Circus with Carrera Cup being the limit of their sporting ambitions in Europe.
Is that it for the story of Porsche and Le Mans? Somehow I doubt it, racing is in the DNA of the company and always will be, so the lure of the world's greatest race will undoubtedly one day prove too strong.
In the meantime I can look back at the wins, and the losses and relect on one of the greatest names in the sport.
John Brooks, September 2008