The Porsche 961 was a special racing car. Based on the roadgoing technical showcase, the Porsche 959, the Type 961 showed that it had the stamina to go the distance in endurance racing on both sides of the Atlantic. Sadly though, its competition life was restricted to just twelve months, and as such, it is often regarded as Porsche’s forgotten jewel.
Even though the Type 961 race car saw action on the track well before the 959 road car was delivered to its first lucky customer in March 1987, the two models shared the same DNA. While the racing records and history books will show that the 961 did not set the world alight with multiple victories, the racer is held in very high regard by those who both worked on it and those who drove it in competition.
The story of Porsche’s 961 began with the public viewing of the four-wheel drive 959 which was unveiled at the Frankfurt Motor Show in September 1983.
Initially a production run of 200 Type 959s was envisaged in order to have the car homologated for Group B racing, but when the rules governing that class of circuit racing did not materialise, the cars were prepared for sale to customers for road use, in order to minimise the financial damage to the company. But Porsche wanted to show what the 959 might have been capable of delivering on the track and to this end, one chassis was held back by the factory (#10016) for development into a full race car, the Type 961. This racer was both visually and technically very close to the 959 road car.
The problem with this plan was that there wasn’t a class in which a four-wheel drive car could compete on the international stage, and so the ACO created an invitational category for the 961 to compete at Le Mans. The resultant IMSA GTX class allowed the 961 to compete in the Le Mans 24 Hours as an experimental model, which it did in 1986. This classification also allowed it to compete in the Daytona 3-Hours that same year. With such a limited number of eligible events open to the 961, its career was always going to be a short one, in fact the list of races extended to just three – Le Mans and Daytona in 1986, and again Le Mans in 1987.
And so it was, thirty-five years after the company’s first outing at Le Mans in 1951 with the 356 SL, that Porsche entered the 961 in the 1986 Le Mans 24 Hours. The result in the French endurance classic astounded not only the press and public, but Porsche themselves. But where the 356 SL that developed 40 bhp in 1951 giving it a top speed of around 100 mph, the 961 pushed out 640 bhp and propelled the modern Porsche to a speed of more than 200 mph.
Type 961 development
Developed in the Experimental Department at Weissach, the 961 was a very different car, as it wasn’t a modified road car and nor was it the forerunner of a racing series like the 934 or 935. It was in fact an experimental race car – a one off. All the body panels were formed from either aluminium or composite materials such as fibreglass or lightweight Kevlar panels that were reinforced with steel frames. Even the 911-derived steel roof was replaced by a lightweight panel.
The engineer responsible for the car’s design and testing, Roland Kussmaul, revealed some of the 961’s design origins, “Admittedly it always had a wing similar to the street car. For me this was integrated into the design and it worked well, but the 961 had a bigger wing so that suitable [aerodynamic] balance could be established. The drag coefficient was approximately 0.46.”
The 961’s experimental status was confirmed by the FIA ruling which classified the car for racing in the IMSA GTX class. The FIA still laid down the law in terms of the car’s engine as their ruling stated that the block had to be air-cooled as in the normal 911 production engine. However, the 911 engine is divided into three sections, head, cylinder and crankcase (it had its origins in the 930 Turbo) compared with the head and block in a traditional water-cooled engine. The original French wording from the FIA, however, did not clarify the meaning of the word ‘block’, and so Porsche asked for further clarity on this as Günther Steckkönig explained, “We asked them what do you mean when you say ‘cylinder blocks’ when you have an air-cooled engine like the 911, and so they said after a few days, we had to keep the air-cooled cylinders.”
This presented Porsche with some problems because the 961’s engine had to be based on the production 911 engine, while at the same time producing significantly greater performance. Although the heads could be water-cooled, they could not be in the form of the individual cylinder heads as found in the Group C 962, and so Steckkönig’s race engine department was called on to develop a water-cooled one-piece head for each bank of cylinders.
Chief Engineer of the Racing Engine and Chassis department from 1965, Günther Steckkönig clarifies, “The engineers were told that the 959 engine, or 961 engine, had to be close to or very similar to the Group C engine, but with the big difference, it was to have a one-piece cylinder head.”
The twin overhead camshaft 961 engine was in the meantime being put together by a group of engineers within the 911 production engine department. However, another problem reared its head said Steckkönig, “There were problems with the chain drive and the housing. As you know on the standard 911 engine there is a separate housing for the chain and that had to be sealed on the cylinder head. But the camshaft housing and cylinder block [of the 961] had to be made in one piece and so we helped them by designing the one-piece cylinder head.”
Roland Kussmaul said of his work on the 961, “We used 959 parts used as much as possible, however, the intake system as well as the complete exhaust system were special to the 961.”
The racing 961 literally knocked the socks off the roadgoing 959, which itself developed an impressive 450 bhp from its twin turbocharged 2849 cc engine. With the 961 pushing out a barnstorming 640 bhp, Steckkönig offered the following explanation, “With turbocharging you could do this more easily than if it was a normally aspirated engine. And there was a lot of experience in turbocharging [at Porsche].”
Putting this power on the road was a new high-tech four-wheel drive layout. Known as the clutch-controlled all-wheel drive system, the rear axle in the 959 is driven directly from the gearbox, while the front axle is driven from the rear axle via a controlled clutch. The advantages of the all-wheel drive system included improved straight-line stability when encountering crosswinds, and better acceleration out of corners under slippery road conditions. The ability to convert a hundred percent of the car’s tractive capability greatly improved wheel traction, and although the system did carry with it a weight penalty, the advantages in road holding were thought to outweigh the disadvantages.
On the track
The first public sighting of Porsche’s new weapon was at the official Le Mans test session in May 1986, where the car was driven by René Metge. This was in preparation for its first competitive outing in the 24-hour race on 31 May/1 June, where it was driven by the French-born endurance racer Claude Ballot-Léna together with Porsche rally star René Metge. The #180 all-white sponsorless 961 put in a faultless drive at Le Mans to finish in seventh place overall and, by default, achieving a first in the IMSA GTX class, being the only entrant in that class.
The year 1986 must rank as one of Porsche’s finest Le Mans results, as the Stuttgart company took the first seven places with the 961 being beaten only by six Group C1 Porsches made up of two 962s, three 956s and a 936. This helps to put the seventh-place finish for the 1150 kg racer into context, against such a powerful field of Group C prototype sports racing cars.
Dutchman Kees Nierop went to the 1986 Daytona 3-Hour hoping to find a ‘ride’ and as usual, checked in for any possible seat vacancies with Porsche race team owner Al Holbert, who was himself driving a Porsche 962 in the race. Holbert had previously helped Nierop into other race cars, and suggested that Nierop join Günther Steckkönig in the 961. This was Nierop’s first time behind the wheel of the 961, and Porsche wanted to use the Eastern Airlines 3-Hour Camel Grand Prix at the Daytona International Raceway on 26 October as the car’s introduction to the North American market. Following the 961’s impressive finish at Le Mans in June, the factory was understandably buoyant as regards their Daytona prospects.
Nierop enthused, “Al had me join the factory team and as a team we went ahead and introduced the car to the racing crowd. We even had a ‘show and tell’ presentation at one of the hotels in Daytona. Mr Steckkönig and I got on very well as co-drivers, he was the engineer and I was the young kid with the Daytona experience because I had already raced there several times before.”
Knowing Daytona as he did was a great benefit to the Porsche team, and the notoriously difficult banking held no fears for the young Nierop. “Key was to keep the car in one piece and bring it home. The 961 was a bit of a handful to drive because of its experimental all-wheel drive system and the tyres weren’t up to the Daytona banking, so we lost some of those,” Nierop recalled.
Günther Steckkönig felt that the 961 had not had sufficient development time and that due to the higher weight of the car, this impacted on the performance of the tyres. Steckkönig experienced this first-hand high up on the Daytona banking, “I had a puncture on the banking in the right rear, and I was very lucky that I could come down without touching another car. We repaired the car and then we tried with other tyres,” Steckkönig revealed.
As it turned out, the team ran with Dunlops in practice but due to problems with these, they switched to Goodyears for the race. The problem as Steckkönig pointed out, was that at high speed the tyre walls would buckle on the Daytona banking but this was not detectable by the driver, so there was no warning that a tyre failure was imminent.
With the engine now running with water-cooled heads, this required a radiator to be mounted up front, the outlet from which washed the car with hot air. Both Steckkönig and Nierop cited this as a problem for drivers as the fresh air duct for the cabin was simultaneously filled with the hot radiator air, which, when combined with the extremely hot external air temperature, made driving conditions quite difficult. “We had very high temperatures in the cockpit, but a racing driver always had high temperatures,” Steckkönig admitted.
The Daytona 3-Hour race turned out to be a disappointment for the 961 team, as it was only tyre degradation that prevented them from finishing much higher up the order, as they encountered no mechanical problems. When the chequered flag fell, the Porsche was placed 24th overall and eleventh in the GTP class.
1987 Le Mans 24 Hours
Kees Nierop had always been a ‘big fan of horsepower’ and the 961 was for him a powerful beast, but he admitted that at Daytona it was hard work to drive because of its four-wheel drive system. At Le Mans in 1987, however, that was quite different as the circuit was much faster with long straights and sweeping bends. For the French race, the 961 was fitted with bigger tyres and wider fenders, a better AWD system and a better aero package.
Kussmaul explained the aerodynamic developments, “In the context of the rules we were allowed to widen the vehicle in order to accommodate the broader racing tyres. A modification was necessary in 1987 once again.”
June 1987 arrived and Nierop was down to drive #19 Rothmans works 962, but Price Cobb was involved in a huge accident in practice and the car was completely written off. Nierop picked up the story, “I was scheduled to drive a 962 PDK with Price Cobb and Vern Schuppan, but as it turned out, one car got crashed back at the factory test track before Le Mans and then the backup car got crashed during practice at Le Mans. I hadn’t touched a car yet and I was already out of a ride…that is when Mr Steckkönig offered his seat to me as he thought that I had done a great job at Daytona, and he felt I should drive the car instead of him.”
Nierop had never driven at Le Mans before, and this was to be the realisation of a lifelong dream for him. In preparation for the Le Mans race, the Dutch racer did what he would normally do ahead of any other long distance race, which was to be in good physical and mental shape. Preferring endurance racing, he was able to settle into a rhythm, reading the car in order to make it last the distance, “Don’t over drive, don’t over use, don’t take chances…make it last for 24 hours and bring it home. You don’t need to be the fastest to win a 24-hour race, you need to be the smartest! That is how we won the 12-Hours of Sebring overall with a 934 GTO against 935s in the top class,” Nierop offered.
On race day, June 13, Nierop was partnered with Porsche rally legend René Metge and the Swiss driver Claude Haldi in the Rothmans liveried 961. Nierop had really warmed to the 961 and he remembers it like it was yesterday, “My memory flashes back to going down the Mulsanne straight at full speed and having Hans Stuck just creep by me [in the #17 Rothmans 962]. The 961 was a big car with the same output as the 962, it was just the aero package that kept it from going any faster.”
While lying in eleventh position overall, and at 10h00 on Sunday morning, as Nierop approached Indianapolis at around 180 mph, he changed from sixth gear into fourth as he had done many times before in the race, or so he thought. The gear lever slipped instead into second locking up the rear tyres as the engine could not rev fast enough to keep traction at that speed in such a low gear. Nierop explained what happened next, “I caught the tach, realised what had happened, and depressed the clutch again in time not to over rev the engine, but the damage was already done…the rear of the car came out and hit the guard rail which swung the car around causing the front to also impact the barrier. After the impact, the car was still running although a lot of the fibreglass components, front and rear, were now flapping in the wind. With the rear bodywork lying on the hot turbo (the turbos hang out the rear on a 935), this quickly caught fire. I didn’t know it at that stage, so my main aim was to get back to the pits.”
Not realising the extent of the damage, Nierop thought he would be able to limp back to the pits, but the call came through from Porsche Race Director Peter Falk in the pits, “Stop the car and get out!” Obviously, Falk and the team in the pits could see the flames licking from the rear bodywork on the TV, but Nierop could not see that, and obeying his boss’ orders, he pulled over. Once stationary, the flames caught up with the back of the car as it was no longer moving forward, but unfortunately Nierop had been ordered to pull over in no-man’s land, midway between two marshal points, which meant that no fire marshal was able to reach the car quickly enough to stop the flames engulfing the car.
Nierop again, “Our bad luck was that I was told to stop at a place where there was no fire marshal. They had to run a long way to get to me and so all I could do was stand on the side line and watch this million-dollar car burn up. Had I been just that little bit better informed, I could have stopped at a fire marshal station and there wouldn’t have been much damage at all. Structurally the car was fine, the actual impact against the barrier didn’t do that much damage.”
Realising that there was nothing that could be done, Nierop caught a ride back to the pits on the back of a motorcycle, presented himself to the team and did his debrief. “I was very depressed and couldn’t believe what had just happened. The most important race with the most important team, and we crashed out. It took me months to get over it. Le Mans was such a dream for me and then when I got to do it, it all went wrong. As a matter of fact, I never went back. I only did Le Mans the one time,” Nierop recounted.
Many years later, at the 2004 Rennsport Reunion at Daytona, Nierop met up with Peter Falk again and the former Porsche Race Director asked Nierop to take him for a ride around the Daytona racetrack. Kees Nierop recalled, “I did so in a Boxster provided by the late Bob Carlson. I think those few laps meant a lot to Peter and myself. I so respect that gentleman, even 25 years later, I still felt bad for being involved in the crash and burn of his 961.”
Although the Type 961 did not enjoy a long and glittering career, the unique four-wheel drive experimental racer was an important piece in the jigsaw that makes up Porsche’s remarkable motor sport history. A last word from Nierop, “No matter what, I loved the experience, and the 961 was one heck of a car!”
Type 961 race results with class results:
|1986 Le Mans 24-Hours||Ballot-Lena/Metge||Porsche AG||7th||1st|
|1986 Daytona 3-Hours||Nierop/Steckkönig||Porsche AG||24th||11th|
|1987 Le Mans 24-Hours||Haldi/Metge/Nierop||Rothmans Porsche||DNF||DNF|
Technical specs of Type 961:
|Valves||4-valve, twin overhead cam|
|Bore x stroke||95 x 67 mm|
|Power output||640 bhp (471 kW) @ 7800 rpm|
|Torque||630 Nm @ 5000 rpm|
|Top speed||212 mph (340 km/h)|
|L x W x H||4380 x 1890 x 1260 mm|
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto