Porsche introduced their new 3.8-litre 911 GT3 RSR (Type 997) for the 2007 season, replacing the 3.6-litre 996 GT3 RSR. In many ways, this new model was a better all-round race car, being more predictable and stable thanks to an increase in body stiffness of ten percent and an improvement in aero efficiency of seven percent. The race car had to satisfy the requirements of races sanctioned by the FIA GT, ACO and IMSA, and so various factors required by these different bodies had to be taken into account during the build and development of the new racer.
The 24-hour race at Le Mans in 2007
Rain was in the air for most of the Le Mans week, as the Thursday qualifying session was completely washed out due to torrential rain. With Thursday’s qualifying times ruled null and void, this meant that the times from the previous session on Wednesday determined the starting order for the race. This just reinforces how important it is to post good times in all sessions…just in case!
For the 2007 race, the number of invited entries was increased from 50 to 55, although just 54 cars sat on the starting grid on race day, all shod with slicks. Although the weather looked friendly enough before the start, some rather dark and threatening-looking clouds began to build towards the south in the afternoon heat. The grid form-up was exciting enough with loads of people everywhere. But such is the Le Mans 24 Hour race, and the build up as a result of all the charged atmosphere down on the grid, is all part of the experience. Right on cue, the marshals somehow managed to persuade the army of invaders to leave the grid in a more-or-less orderly fashion.
Shortly before the hour of 15h00, the first of the cars rolled away from their positions against the pit wall to complete a lap and then to form up on the grid in two straight lines, the cars one behind the other in each line. With about five minutes to go, the pace car led the group of 54 cars around the circuit on the formation lap, weaving and ducking as they warmed up their tyres, all itching to get going like a young dog on the end of a leash. As the armada crawled around the final corner onto the start/finish straight, the pace car peeled off into the paddock, the lights went green and nigh on 30,000 bhp erupted, turning a well-disciplined afternoon into a rather frantic dash for the first corner.
While the LMP1 and LMP2 cars disappeared off into the distance, the GT1 and GT2 classes settled down to contest a much closer fight. A rule change in 2007 required the GT1 and GT2 class cars to be fitted with a five percent smaller air restrictor than they had run in 2006, in order to decrease power. Twelve cars started in the GT2 class, making this a tightly contested class as these cars were closely matched and well-stocked with top quality drivers. For the 2007 race, Tertre Rouge had undergone a makeover, the track being moved inward to create a long flowing curve instead of the single point apex corner that it had been previously. This had the effect of shortening the lap distance by 21 metres.
Our feature car, the #76 IMSA Matmut Porsche GT3 RSR, was driven by Patrick Long, Raymond Narac and Richard Lietz in the GT2 class. This Porsche qualified second in class, just a half a second behind the class pole sitter, the #87 Scuderia Ecosse Ferrari F430 GT2. The #76 Porsche led the class at the end of the first hour as several of the top players in this class yo-yoed over the following hours, but the #97 Risi Ferrari F430 and #93 Autorlando Porsche GT3 RSR were always a threat.
Just past the two-hour mark, the clouds that had been steadily building, deposited their contents in one almighty deluge that left the track around the Esses awash, as the drainage system struggled to cope with the run-off. Shortly after the first storm, Mike Rockenfeller spun his #3 Audi at the exit of Tertre Rouge, hitting the barriers hard, backwards. During the hour that the crew took to repair the barriers, a part of the drivetrain broke in Oliver Gavin’s #64 Corvette while following the safety car, and he was forced to retire. This downpour, however, was just the forerunner of the massive storm that accompanied the cars through the final hours of the race on Sunday, as we will see later.
In the sixth hour, the #76 Porsche suffered a left-rear puncture. Patrick Long, who was at the wheel, drove the car back to the pits even slower than usual in order to ensure a minimum of damage to the car. This deliberate act was on the advice of another driver, who said it was best to return to the track slightly down on where you wanted to be, rather than not at all. Interestingly, Danish driver Lars Erik Nielsen of the Autorlando team commented on the Porsche’s behaviour, “Everything is good up to 100 km/h and it is fine over 200 km/h because the downforce is high, so it keeps you glued to the road. The problem is getting from 100 to 200 and then back down again. That’s the tricky bit!”
Following problems for the two leading Ferraris, the #97 and #87, the lead in the 18th hour passed to the #76 IMSA Matmut Porsche GT3 RSR. Consistently good laps ensured that the #76 Porsche was in a strong position to take the lead when the opportunity presented itself. Another strong rival was the #93 Autorlando Porsche which, just before 09h00 on Sunday morning, pitted with front right bodywork damage as a result of a punctured tyre. A 15-minute pit stop to repair the damage put paid to any chances of a victory for the Italian team.
With around three hours left to run, the skies began to darken, and the heavens opened once again. This brought out the safety car which held the cars at bay for more than an hour, releasing them just in time to finish the race. With just twelve minutes of the race left on the clock, there weren’t any close contests between competitors that could be realistically changed in the remaining time, and so those cars still on track simply ran the clock down. It was a case of staying on the tarmac and not doing anything stupid, just to reach the chequered flag. This resulted in the remaining 29 cars following each other around in a procession of cars until the flag came down to signal the end of the 75th Le Mans 24 Hours.
But, rather than being just a boring end to an eventful endurance race, the end of the race brought much jubilation for the fact that those cars still running had survived some of the wildest weather in recent years.
Two-hourly race positions for the #76 IMSA Matmut Porsche GT3 RSR
The #76 IMSA Matmut Porsche GT3 RSR took class honours by a sizeable six laps from the #99 Ferrari F430 GT2, while the #93 Autorlando Sport Porsche GT3 RSR came home in third place in the GT2 class.
What the drivers said…
Long began his career as a Junior factory driver in ‘03 in the Supercup and Carrera Cup in Germany with the ’04 season being his first season as a fully-fledged factory driver in ALMS. Throughout the ’04, ’05 and ’06 seasons he drove the 996 model, but when the 997 became available in 2007, Long did of course make the switch. 2007 was Long’s fourth start at Le Mans and his first with the IMSA Matmut team, a team he got on well with, making several more starts at Le Mans with them.
So, how did the new 997 compare with the 996? “There were some evolutions, but it was pretty standard. I think the biggest difference was the improvement in aero, the geometry was a little wider with a bit better performance, but essentially the same sort of fundamentals. I think that we were reliable from the onset, and the car was certainly a step forward on the Porsche Curves from an aerodynamic standpoint, but nothing that was earth shattering. The first time I drove it in testing at Sebring I do remember it was a bit pitch sensitive and sensitive to spring rates. As a result, we played a lot with spring rates, running the car very stiff so it could be driven hard which meant you could lean on the tyres because we ran with the spring rates quite high,” Long explained.
About the 2007 Le Mans 24 Hours race, he described his approach to the event, “It was certainly my coming of age as a lead driver because I had two drivers who were less experienced than I was. In 2004 I had run as the reliability rookie and then in 2005 I was a sophomore running with Jörg (Bergmeister) and Timo (Bernhard), and then in ‘06 I was with Flying Lizard as more of a lead driver. Then in 2007, I just remember that it was really my time, it was a special win because I was able to win in 2004 but [back then] I was really just trying to keep up with the rest of my team.”
Patrick Long started the race at Le Mans in 2007, “I was able to get the car into the lead quite quickly, and the car had good pace especially in a straight line. The Risi Ferrari was very strong in the Porsche Curves and in the aero, but in straight line speed we were quite trimmed out in aero,” he added.
“In 2007, though, it was a great team effort, I just felt like I was able to work well with my new team and two new teammates, and we really were synced up from the beginning of the week. I wasn’t expecting to merge into a French team as quickly as I did with the different culture, but I just really enjoyed the team manager. We had a great engineer who was on loan to us from Oreca who did an amazing job calling the race, and it was just easy-going. And then of course the drivers kept it on the island, but all three of us had to battle through the elements,” Long continued.
On the Saturday afternoon, about two hours into the race, the rain came down in buckets, as this writer recalls being drenched from head to foot. For the remainder of the race the weather stayed reasonable, apart that is, from the final three hours. Long expanded, “It began right from the start, I was on slicks on a damp track then on wet tyres on a drying track. But after being up for 38 hours and having everything going our way, it then poured down so we restructured our driver order and I ended up putting in quite a bit more time in the car than I had initially been scheduled to do. On Sunday towards the end of the race, I remember going through corners in second gear where I should have been in fourth.”
When asked what the win in 2007 meant for him personally, Long replied, “I think that Le Mans has a way of humbling you. To find success on my debut, and then to struggle and fight for the next three years, you realise that it doesn’t come easy because it is a whole team effort. Then after three years of waiting to get a second victory, the 2007 win was really, really special. I think that it was also interesting to work alongside Oreca as a technical partner, it was my first insight into that organisation and I was highly impressed by Hugues de Chaunac and everybody in that team.”
“We did the Le Mans Test Day [3 June] and we finished that day on top of the GT2 category,” said a proud team owner, Raymond Narac. The likeable Frenchman had driven a 996 RSR at Le Mans in 2005 for the first time, “The 997 RSR was clearly an accomplished race car compared to the old model 996, a very unstable car due to the stiff suspension. It was quite scary, as a rookie at Le Mans, to see how much the car moved especially in a straight line. But I could see the difference driving the 997 RSR, as the factory’s work on the suspension was very important and visible. On the other hand, we had a better top speed with the 996 (298 km/h on the Mulsanne straight) compared with only 292 km/h in the 997 RSR (smaller restrictor).”
During the race the #76 IMSA Matmut Porsche didn’t make any unscheduled stops, we just did our routine pit stops, and as Narac pointed out, “We managed to stay on the track in the damp conditions on Saturday afternoon and especially on Sunday. We were just a small team compared to our rivals in the paddock, although we had factory support with the two professional drivers in Richard Lietz and Patrick Long, and we also had Porsche AG engineers to assist us in our pits.”
Narac outlined how the race went for him, “I remember refusing to drive on Sunday morning because of the heavy rain, I was very anxious because I didn’t want to drive in those conditions. We decided that our strategy would be to leave the driver in the car for as long as possible because when you change a driver in heavy rain, the new driver needs a few laps to acclimatise himself, and to see where the pools of water were on the track. There was therefore a greater chance of losing time, and the risk of aquaplaning was huge.”
Raymond Narac summarised his win this way, “It was fantastic because I considered myself a rookie at Le Mans as I had only done my first Le Mans 24 Hours in 2005, and then in 2007 I won it. I did Le Mans in 2005 in a team with two professional drivers, Sébastien Dumez and Romain Dumas. That year the temperatures were so hot inside the car, reaching 70° Celsius, but we finished fourth in the GT class. We were driving the 996 RSR and I was physically not prepared for such an endurance challenge but we did it. After 2005, the ACO made air conditioning inside the cars mandatory. I was always driven by perfection, excellence, precision and I am still so passionate about mechanics, about the car setups and all the engineering aspects of a Porsche race car.”
Richard Lietz had already completed two races in the ELMS in 2007 in a 997 GT3 RSR, “The car was brand-new in 2007 but Le Mans was not the first race [with it for me], it was the third race, because I did the first two races in 2007 in the ELMS. I never drove the 996 RSR because 2007 was my first year as a factory driver.”
When the then 24-year-old racing driver was asked, what impressed him most about the 997, he replied, “Well it was the beginning of my Porsche motorsport factory contract, so everything was quite impressive! In the end, I realised how much I liked endurance racing and how much I liked the Porsche GT cars. For me, the amount of trail braking that you could do with this car was the biggest advantage. I think at that time we already had a top speed of [almost] 300 km/h, it was a narrow car which is why it did not offer a big frontal area to the air, so everything was impressive at that time. But the race itself, in the end it was all about surviving.”
Race cars have become so much more reliable today, and so I asked Richard if he found that the race is now more of a 24-hour sprint than it was in the past. “The tyres last longer [now] so you can push right to the end, in the past we could not do this. But driving wise, it was the same because we were always on the limit of the car. Now, the limit of the car is just higher and more consistent, so I think for the driver nothing has really changed, it’s just that all the material you are working with is just getting better…and more expensive,” he responded.
What was the best memory from that race for him, “When we crossed the line and won!” he responded laughing. Being his first Le Mans outing, what did this mean for him in terms of his career, “I think it was basically like when you have finished an exam that you have been studying for, and once you had passed the exam, the boss [or the teacher] said you can have one more year. At that time, I only had a one-year contract, so for me it was a really important one.”
The #76 IMSA Matmut Porsche GT3 RSR today…
Count Manfredo Rossi
The #76 IMSA Matmut Porsche GT3 RSR is today owned by Count Manfredo Rossi, the family that had so much to do with the Martini sponsorship of Porsche cars over the years. “I have always been a big Porsche fan and I used to go to Le Mans with my father at the time of the 936 and the 935. I was impressed and that is why I always wanted a 935,” Count Manfredo Rossi began. The Rossi family has indeed owned several important Porsches over the years, and Manfredo Rossi would eventually get to own the 935 he had so admired back in the 1970s.
However, racing a 935 competitively in today’s fast-paced Historic racing scene is no small matter, and he felt it best to let this car go to a home where it could still be enjoyed. Selling that car left a big hole, and in its place, he sought a suitable replacement. Recently, the Masters Historic Racing organisation has introduced a new series that appealed to Manfredo Rossi, but as he outlined, “I don’t like the LMP1 cars and LMP2 cars, they all look alike, they are probably great to drive, but they are basically all the same. My choice was to go into GT racing which had cars that we know and like. It was quite a good championship at the time when Aston Martin and Dodge were also frontrunners with the Corvette, RSR and Ferrari, so I thought my choice would be to go towards one of those cars.”
Manfredo Rossi was approached by a friend in the historic racing scene, who mentioned that he knew of a GT3 RSR that was available. “I have learnt over the years that when you buy a race car, the history is very important and this makes up a lot of the value of the car. So, we organised to test the car at La Castellet, I had two laps in the car which was on old tyres, and obviously I fell in love with the car, it was really great. That was probably in November 2017.
“I thought the car had a good history, it had won its class [at Le Mans] and during the race it was quite effective and spectacular. So, I bought the car and sent it directly to [Philippe] Almeras because he knew the car perfectly well. Basically, we rebuilt it mechanically, except for the engine, that was in perfect working condition and the compression was good. But the gearbox is new, the suspension and brakes, everything on the car was new for the  race season. We got the car running in full race condition for La Castellet in 2018 to run in a support race to the Formula One,” Manfredo Rossi recalled.
He continued, “The car ran really well in its first race, I think we came third in class, and I beat Adrian Newey, who crashed! The Porsche is very fast on the straights, because it has very good downforce and a high top-speed, so it was surprisingly good. In race two it broke the suspension but I managed to finish the race. But it finished two races with good results, it is super reliable, really a fun car to drive, very interesting in the curves but very noisy with a lot of noise from the gears. It is quite physical and it is really a fascinating race car in the way it handles, it gives you all the feedback that you want to have from a race car. And it is still unmistakably a Porsche with the engine in the rear!”
Sam Kendle – Kendle Adams Motorsport
“It only did two races in 2018. We literally collected the car from Phillipe en route to Paul Ricard. We left the workshop in the UK with an empty trailer and drove straight to Philippe Almeras where we loaded the car. He did the Masters Historics support race to the French GP Formula One race, that was Manfredo’s first time driving the car. I had seen it two weeks before when I flew over to the Circuit du Luc [south of France] where they did a quick shake down, and they ran through a few bits with us,” Kendle said.
Sam Kendle is more accustomed to preparing historic F1 and F2 cars for Manfredo Rossi, but as he said, “With a race car like this, we have spare items like suspension parts, brake discs and things like that. We have two spare sets of wheels, one set of wets and another set of slicks with the car.”
In the longer term, Kendle added, “It will probably need significantly less maintenance [than our other cars] because it will just do what it is designed to do. We still whip the wheels off every corner when we are back at the workshop, and we take the rear section of the floors off, just to inspect and have a look around and we give it a spanner check. You can look underneath and you can look inside more areas with the floors off, and then we clean it because there is a lot of rubber that gets in under there.”
The Paul Ricard circuit is a High Tech Test Track (HTTT) and it can be a confusing circuit because there are various sections that make up the circuit, the various sections being marked off with cones. “The Porsche has a sequential ‘box, so you literally hit full throttle then upshift, which to get your head around when you’re used to clutching and changing according to an H-pattern, probably took him at least a good couple of sessions to really get used to.
Traction control is a totally new thing to him too. Not only was he concentrating on where he was going on the track, he was also concentrating on driving a car that he doesn’t really know,” Kendle explained.
“Ultimately, he likes to drive a number of cars on the same weekend. He will drive a Formula Jr, he will drive a 2-litre sports car, a Formula One car and he will drive the ‘65 Porsche 911. The grip level of these cars is so different, the weight and the speed of the cars too, and just to get your head around the different braking points is enough, but he does get on top of cars very quickly. Often though, he will do back-to-back races, so he will literally climb out of one and run straight to the collecting area and jump into a Formula Jr. that is a third of the weight and has tiny little Dunlop tyres, they are just two totally different cars,” Kendle pointed out.
The #76 IMSA Matmut 911 GT3 RSR can be seen today participating in selected Peter Auto events and potentially the Masters Historic Racing events, where it will compete with other cars against which the Porsche would have competed in period. The #76 IMSA Matmut 911 GT3 RSR is a great example of a significant race car with a proud history, and we can look forward to seeing it on the starting grid in relevant historical events.
Note: Thank you to Lucian Sonea for conducting the interview in French with Raymond Narac
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale