Norbert Singer must rank as one of the most successful race engineers in Porsche’s long and glittering motorsport history. Porsche Road & Race spoke to him about his four-decade career with Porsche, the race cars he helped develop and the 24 Hours of Le Mans. “It’s been a long journey,” Norbert Singer said with a smile, and how right he was.
Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s was truly exciting. It was the age of possibilities, big thinking and innovation. We saw the start of the space race, jet air travel literally took off shortening travel time and distance, and anything transport related was usually described in terms of power and speed. On the race track it was no different, as race car technology embraced the science of aerodynamics, while engine power seemed to increase endlessly. For a young boy growing up in this world, well, this was when daydreaming became an officially recognised pastime.
Norbert Singer was born in 1939 in Eger, a town in the former Czechoslovakia on the eastern border with Germany. The young Singer showed an early interest in the world of space science at a time when the Americans were planning to put a satellite into orbit, and he wanted to know how this would work and what would keep the satellite in orbit. It was when he began his studies at the Technical University of Munich that he considered a career in this field. But one of Singer’s tutors suggested that he should consider motor racing as an outlet for his engineering skills, and fortunately for the world of motorsport, an opportunity would later open up in this field.
Can you outline what you studied at university?
I studied Mechanical Engineering at the Technical University of Munich, in Germany they called it Diplom-Ingenieur (Graduate Engineer). At the start of my degree, I studied under a lecturer who worked in the Institut für Fahrzeugtechnik (Institute for Vehicle Technology) which was part of the university. There was a guy there who said, “Well your space ideas are very good but in Germany, we are a car country.” For me all technical things were interesting, and while I was at university, I attended the Monaco Grand Prix and went to the Nürburgring where I saw drivers such as Jim Clark, and so I could say that racing was a second interest. But at that point, although I was interested in motorsport, I did not really see any realistic chance of working in racing.
How and when did your involvement with Porsche and motorsport begin?
When I had finished my studies, I already had some work opportunities to join some companies but my favourite one was Opel. The reason for this was because some people told me that after one or two years, they sent their young engineers to America to General Motors. In those days, at the end of the 1960s, this really was a great thing and therefore this was my favoured choice. But, let’s say I was lucky, because when I finished my studies, Porsche was looking for a young engineer, and they asked this institute if they could recommend somebody. They asked me if I would be interested, and when the request came I said okay, I will change my mind and go for racing. And so, at the beginning of 1970, I started with Porsche as an engineer aged 30 years.
Norbert Singer’s first real assignment – the Porsche 917
In 1968 Porsche was still running the 908s and had just started to develop the 917 but they had to make 25 cars to run in the 5-litre category for sports cars, in order to be homologated. This was in principle a bigger 908 with more power, but in all other respects such as suspension etc, it was modified to cope with the higher power. From the aerodynamic side, the 917 was not so successful. There was a big test at the end of 1969 and John Wyer came in as a factory team and they soon realised that the 917 did not have enough downforce.
I just started with a small task like the pickup for the fuel in the 120-litre tank. For me, this was one of the biggest problems in the beginning because I had only started in March, and Porsche was preparing for Le Mans that June. The goal was that we had to win Le Mans because in 1969 they lost by three seconds against Jacky Ickx in this famous race with Hans Hermann driving the 908. Now it was the year that we had to win Le Mans, so the pressure was very high.
Then I also worked on the gearbox cooling system. They did not want to have a radiator to cool down the gearbox oil because they said we needed an extra pump which would use energy and it would mean extra weight. The 917 was just a little bit over the weight limit so there were lots of reasons to keep the weight down, and so they needed a very efficient air cooling system for the gearbox. In those days, everybody was really busy preparing for Le Mans and I was looking for some help but nobody could help me because they all had other jobs to do. I got some support from the carbon fibre department when they said that if I made the model, they would take care of the moulds and make the pieces. There was actually no room to get bigger air ducts through the spaceframe, and so I had to find a solution to get enough air to the gearbox, but we got it to work.
Can you outline the development path of the 911 Carrera RSR?
I took over the Carrera RSR project at the end of 1972. The first competition car was a rally car, because at the end of ‘72 Porsche did the Corsica rally which allowed cars which were not yet homologated. So, it was possible to run there and I spent two weeks with the people in Corsica for some pre-practice work with (Björn) Waldegård and (Gerard) Larousse. The rally was not very successful because one car crashed and the other one had a technical problem with a half shaft.
But on the way back from Corsica to Weissach I had the first big test with the RSR, this was a 2.8 RSR. We modified the rally car in Paul Ricard and turned it into a race car. In the beginning of 1973, the first big race was Daytona and we were lucky because we were supporting Peter Gregg and Roger Penske. So, we had two RSRs racing at Daytona, but Penske had a problem with the clutch and Peter Gregg won the race overall, which was a great start for the RSRs. With that background, we did the World Championship of Makes and the Targa Florio. At the Targa Florio, we were again lucky to win the race and it was actually the last Targa Florio. Jacky Ickx/Brian Redman were in a Ferrari 312PB with Rolf Stommelen/Andrea de Adamich in an Alfa Romeo 33TT3, so there was some big competition. But the Targa Florio as you know is a normal road, 72 km through the mountains, and these cars were on normal racing slick tyres. Jacky Ickx crashed the car and Andrea de Adamich struck a stone and was out of the race, while some of the other prototypes also had problems. In the end, we had no problems so Herbert Müller and Gijs van Lennep won the race overall which was the second big event in that year.
At that stage, the car had been homologated but at the factory we decided to switch the RSR to race in the prototype class. We had to make a quick decision for Monza, because this was the first race of the World Championship of Makes in 1973. We all agreed to this big change as we would be racing against our customers with that car. Another factor, which was more important, was with these Group 4 cars you had a homologation sheet that prevented you from making any big modifications. The car was already homologated and to make any big modifications you had to make another 50 units and then re-homologate the cars, which was not good for development. But by changing to the prototype class, I could immediately increase the size of the rear spoiler and after Monza we made even wider rear spoilers. Of course, there was no chance of winning against the Matras and Ferraris on the race tracks, but the Targa Florio was a very special race because Matra didn’t go there.
Can you outline some of the 935’s development?
At the end of 1973 we stopped the RSR project and around the beginning of 1974, there were signs from the FIA that they wanted to change the regulations, moving away from the 3-litre prototypes like the Matras, Ferraris and Alfa Romeos. They wanted to make more open road car regulations, and Porsche was very interested in having a 911 in this series. The 911 was the only road car that Porsche produced at that time, and this gave us some marketing opportunities in having the 911 running more competitively on the race track. So, we started the Turbo Carrera (930) in 1974 with the idea of having a turbo race car as well.
With the engine capacity limit of 3-litre, you had to divide this by the turbo factor of 1.4 which gave you the 2.1-litre capacity. The idea was to make a smaller turbo engine and that could run in preparation for the forthcoming (935) regulation, and so we ran the Turbo Carrera in 1974. We made a very special 911, it was extremely light in these days at 820 kg. The other challenge was that we wanted to run the turbo car at Le Mans, and this was actually the first turbo car to race at Le Mans. Unfortunately, the FIA didn’t publish the regulations until the end of 1974, and so they postponed the new class until 1976. For Porsche, it didn’t make sense to run in 1975, and so we stopped the project completely for 1975. We started again in 1976 and we called the cars the 935.
The regulations gave a lot of freedom, which allowed us to interpret the regulations in a way that the FIA people hadn’t really intended. One of my favourites was the regulation on the fenders, because normally you can run wider tyres, and with the wider tyres you need a fender extension 50 mm. But they wanted to avoid these ugly shapes around the wheelarches, and so they allowed this form or shape to be free so that it could be made to look a little nicer. So luckily, or unfortunately depending on who you were working for, the fenders of the 911 are very wide so in the front you have the headlights in the fenders. All of the others, like BMW and Ford, they had their headlights in the grill in the frontal area and not in the fenders, and as a result, the fenders on those cars are very small. So, with the regulation ‘the fenders are free’ you can modify the 911 completely, so we removed the headlights and put them down on the bumper, and it was a completely different looking 911.
Some customers, such as Kremer or Georg Loos, wanted to run in the Group 5 class. The 934, because of the limited rear spoiler and small tyres, was very tricky to drive. Some teams who bought the 934s very quickly found that they could modify that car to run in Group 5, so they asked us if they could buy the engine, rear wing and fenders, to move the 934 up into the Group 5 category. So, there were many cars which were basically 934s that were converted to 935s because it had more power and was easier to drive.
We started with an air-to-air intercooler in the 935 in the beginning, and we were very successful, winning in Mugello and in Vallelunga, so the FIA came and told us that our intercooler was in the wrong position. It was not in the regulation, but their people are very clever too, and they said we haven’t changed the regulation but we have come up with a better interpretation. They said that we had to fit a production engine cover on the race car so we had to remove the air-to-air intercooler and change it to a water-cooled intercooler.
This caused us some problems because at that stage we had a lot of engine problems and at the end of the 1976 championship we were fighting hard against BMW. We didn’t finish the race at Zeltweg or the Nürburgring, and at the second-last race of the season at Watkins Glen in America, we had to win that race to have a chance of winning the championship. By then the engine was stable and we won the race and so in Dijon the last race in 1976, there was big pressure because whoever won this race, would be the World Champion of Makes. BMW of course made an extra effort, and the race was very tough. After an hour, just before the first pit stop, BMW blew their engine, so at least we won the race and also the World Cup championship of Makes.
We found out in 1977 that the airflow could be improved on the 911 if you raised the rear deck up to the wing. The regulation said that you had to keep the windows from the production car, so we made an extra rear window, a kind of double window. We left the old production window inside, but we added another window on top so you could easily see the production window from the outside, but the airflow was much better.
And this leads us to the next step, 935/78 Moby Dick, because there was a meeting late in 1977 in Paris with the other manufacturers, Ford and BMW. They said Porsche had a big advantage with a rear engine because we all have front engines, and we have to run the exhaust to the middle of the car and exit through the side panel. Having the exhaust pipes underneath the side panel is a disadvantage because we have to run a higher ride height.
The FIA agreed and we also agreed. Well luckily, or again unfortunately depending on who you worked for, the FIA made a correction in the regulations but the wording was not really precise. It just mentioned that you could modify the side panel for exhausts, that’s it! So, we cut the complete side panel out, lowering the whole 911 bodywork by 8 cm along the bottom.
There were other lessons learned from the year before with this double rear window. Because we had quite wide fenders on the front and wide fenders on the rear, to cover the door we made a big NACA duct to cool the radiator in front of the rear wheels. The technical committee said that this was not in the spirit of the regulations and what you are doing is wrong. We received this letter three weeks before the first race, so we had to find a solution because it had quite a significant aerodynamic influence on the airflow. This we did and with smaller door panels, we got nearly the same aerodynamic effect as with the complete cover of the door.
What role did the 936 play in Porsche’s racing success?
We had an engine which we had planned to run in Indianapolis with the Interscope team and with Danny Ongais as driver. Porsche developed for them a 2.65-litre engine for their car. This was a very reliable engine and they carried out quite successful tests with it, but unfortunately this project did not work. This engine was actually well developed, but sadly not used. The ACO changed the regulations for Le Mans in 1981 in order to open it up just for that year and to attract more cars into the race. This was because the year after, in 1982, the Group C regulations would come into effect. This gave us the opportunity to take this 2.65-litre engine, and to put it into the 936 which had won Le Mans twice already (1976 and 1977), and to race it again at Le Mans. We won the  race and so this engine was already successful at Le Mans, it was reliable and this was the baseline for the 956 to follow.
Can you highlight some of the 956/962’s development milestones?
This was a completely different story, I think altogether we were 50 people, including the workshop, there was not a separate test team and a separate race team. We had so many new developments! I remember, we had no idea about making an aluminium monocoque, so I went to Dornier in Friedrichshafen to talk to them about what material we should use and what tools to use, because we had absolutely no idea.
We started with everything completely new, except the engine. This engine was already successful at Le Mans (936), it was reliable and so this was the baseline for the 956, but all the rest was completely new. The regulations changed again, where they removed the turbo factor that we talked about before, this 1.4 factor. They said we could ignore it so we could run with a higher displacement than just 2.1-litres. We had a new gearbox, a new monocoque because we had never made an aluminium monocoque at Porsche, and with the aerodynamics we entered the area of ground effects. Although this was already used in Formula 1, it did not work in the beginning in sports cars. With the aerodynamics, it was really a new area because you didn’t know what your competitors were doing with ground effects. Ford had their C100 and Lancia was coming too, so you had to do the maximum that you could because you just didn’t know, and maybe your competitors would be better.
We developed that car in nine months, completely from the start up to the first race, and we were successful immediately at Le Mans. So at least it worked and the car was the most successful race car in the world, racking up 232 major international victories.
How closely did you watch the opposition during the Group C days?
Well I paid a lot of attention to them because racing is not just racing for yourself, and you never know what your opposition might do. Even if a competitor had a lot of problems during testing or in a race, you should never underestimate them because they could have solved the problem by the next time you raced. If they had some real problems with an engine or gearbox, these things are easily solved. Of course, you can see them on the circuit and you also read the usual magazines. Then you have to compare lap times, section times and you see the top speeds, and then you can see when they are making progress. It is not just a case that we might have won the last two races so we will be okay, because suddenly if they beat you, you may have to ask how did this happen? During the Group C days, Ford was racing hard with the C100 and the Lancia was also quick, but even if a competitor was not so strong, you had to keep an eye on them, because they were not stupid.
How did you interpret the rules to create the GT1?
We actually had three years of GT cars, because we started with the 962 Dauer as a GT car [Dauer GT ‘94, GT1 ‘96, GT1 ‘98] which the Le Mans people didn’t really like, but it was again to the letter of the regulations. Out of this we developed the GT 1 car and the idea was to have it as close as possible to the road car. Therefore, in 1996 and 1997, we took the steel body shell of the 911, cut it behind the driver seat and made a frame on the back and turned the engine and gearbox around, and we had a mid-engined car. The regulations required us to have one road car for homologation, which we did in 1997, we actually made 20 road cars and sold all of them.
Moving on to 1998, it was clear that we needed to have a lighter car, so we abandoned the steel chassis and made a kind of 911 with a carbon chassis which was actually almost a prototype. The Board still insisted that it had to look like a 911, but it was not easy to get the face of the 911 on a prototype car. We were lucky to win Le Mans in 1998, which was very important for us.
What was one of your most endearing memories?
I remember Le Mans with the 956 in 1982, because when you saw the qualifying times on Wednesday and Thursday, we were the quickest and everybody came up to us and said that you can win easily. When you talk about winning Le Mans, you cannot think about this at the start, because it is like you talking today about what might happen in five years’ time. First of all, you have to keep in mind all the new technology and components that we had on the car. Of course, we did a lot of testing but in testing you do not always experience perfect running conditions. I thought, well let us see if we can run 12 hours or maybe 18 hours, and then let us see who is still running on Sunday morning and after that, okay we can start thinking where we are and what we can do. You cannot say in 24 hours we will win the race!
When did you leave Porsche and what role did you move into?
I finished with Porsche in 2004 but I was still involved with Porsche as a consultant to support the customer teams. I already did this as from 2001 when I supported the customer department. I was with Freisinger when they won the 24 hours of Spa in 2003 with the 911 GT3-RS with Stéphane Ortelli, Marc Lieb and Romain Dumas who was a completely unknown driver in these days. Then I changed to Felbermayr Racing and in those days, they had factory drivers Richard Lietz and Marc Lieb, and so I continued with them. When Felbermayr finished racing, Porsche worked with Proton, and I saw how these teams were building themselves up, and in 2010 they won the GT2 class at Le Mans. So, I was still working for Porsche in 2010, that makes it 40 years! After I left Porsche, I was a consultant for the ACO.
What would you say were your strengths or weaknesses in the work that you did with Porsche at Le Mans and in endurance racing?
That is a good question, I never thought about that! My strength is maybe that I was able to get a team together because you cannot do it alone, you need a team. Maybe I was lucky to have the right people at the right places working as a team, this I think is very important. My weakness is maybe in too much detail, because I was also the project manager. Of course, I did manage the project, but I also had to do my own work. It was just getting people together to do the right things in the right way.
As an engineer, and that is what I liked as well, maybe this was a handicap. But for me it was also a strength because I worked personally on the car, I did the aerodynamics myself, I did all the testing. There was not a test team, I was there and I was doing it. So, I learned from testing, from running in the wind tunnel, testing on the circuit and racing. I learned a lot.
Which was your favourite race car that you worked on and developed?
It is hard to say because it depends on the different times. For instance, the 935 was in the most interesting era, it was the best that you could have had. When you talk about the 1980s, it was of course the 956 and later there were the GTs, so overall you could ask with which car did I have the most success, and you would have to say the 956. But I think we had some great fun with the 935, it was a different time, a different era. The answer is very closely linked to the times and the situation the company was in. The company did not have much money, so when you look at the sales at that time Porsche sold 15,000 or 20,000 cars per year, and running a race project in addition you needed a lot of courage, which is what Dr Fuhrmann had. And he said we had to stay in racing because Porsche is all about racing. And because we had a small budget, we could only manage a small project.
Editor: Norbert Singer is one of the most friendly and approachable engineers that you could wish to meet in the paddock or pit lane. After a lifetime spent working for Porsche, you can still stop this ‘gentleman engineer’ and talk to him and he will give you his full attention. With almost five decades of motorsport experience and knowledge behind him, he is one of the most astute engineers in his field. We salute you Mr. Singer!
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto & Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale