In 1982, Porsche introduced the Type 956, the race car manufacturer’s entrant in the newly created Group C racing series which commenced that season. The new car scored a second place on its debut at Silverstone that year, and followed this up a month later with a clean sweep of the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The rest, as they say, is history as the 956 and its modified brother, the 962, went on to amass a total of 232 international victories. The factory raced both the 956 and 962 variants from 1982 until 1988. Porsche’s customer teams could only get their hands on the 956 as from 1983, but from that season until 1994, the customer 956s and 962s scored victory after victory. In this feature, Porsche 956/962 at Le Mans – Logistics Part II, we look at what it took to get these race cars to the track, and what logistics were involved at Le Mans.
Norbert Singer, retired Porsche race engineer, recalled with some humour, “People used to say to me that in those days, the cars were much simpler, and therefore we didn’t need computers. We certainly didn’t have any computers to develop the car and we also had no simulations, but we had a slide rule! Of course, there were some calculators that could add or divide some numbers, and they could perform the four basic functions, but to do more complicated calculations, you had to use a slide rule.”
Back in the 1980s, the race department at Porsche was not a big department, as Klaus Bischof, race mechanic, explained, “In the workshop we were around 40 people working on everything. In 1982, we ran the world championship with the 956, in 1983 we did the Formula One engines, and we did the Paris-Dakar in 1984. The personnel who went to the Paris-Dakar rally were the same as those who did the Group C racing, there was no difference.”
“This is what the people don’t understand today when you talk about development. For instance, with composites, today you have a company who does your composites, you have a company where you get your brake callipers, a company for your brake discs, and so on. Back then, we made our own callipers in Weissach, the casting, machining and developing, and we made our own composites,” Norbert Singer pointed out.
But therein lay a big advantage for Porsche, because if something broke at the circuit, the crew would know exactly how to fix it, because they had made it. “Exactly, a big advantage you are right! They did not have to write notes or messages to tell the team manager what was wrong, they were there and they could see the problem and knew how to fix it,” Singer added.
The engine design and drawings was the responsibility of Hans Mezger and his department, and this was quite separate from the race department which was headed by Peter Falk. But engine assembly was the task of the race mechanics in the engine department, and that was part of the race department. Although the race department and the gearbox department worked together, they too were separate departments. A racing gearbox would typically be assembled alongside production gearboxes, and so when a gearbox was needed by the race department, it was simply delivered to them in an assembled state. But a gearbox mechanic would always accompany the race team to each race in the event specialist knowledge was required.
“The race department would build the cars in the early years, the tube frames and later on the monocoques as well, we did it all on our own, we made everything there. Of course, we had other companies doing some things for us, but in the race department we really made the car from the first screw to the end,” said Klaus Bischof.
“In the very early years with the 956, we put the car through a real test on the rough road at Weissach. This was a 1000 km test on the Schüttelstrecke (shake circuit). It was horrible, you could only do it for 45 minutes and at each fuel stop we would change the driver. This was a special programme where we used the engineers and a few mechanics, and it was to test the suspension. The car was prepared just like it would be for the race, but it was just given a little bit more ground clearance, and we used normal slick racing tyres. There were speed signs around the circuit as to how fast the drivers could go for consistency. This programme would take around a week to complete. We also did this before with the 935s and 936s, but this only happened in the beginning with the 956, not later,” explained Bischof.
This testing regime ensured that the 956 and the later 962 race cars were strong enough to survive the rigours of a 24-hour race, and when questioned if other manufacturers did this level of testing, Klaus Bischof said he doubted it very much. Then, every year just before each Le Mans race, further testing would take place around the Weissach test track, where every car was tested for two or three days before leaving for Le Mans. Most times this was carried out with Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx, but later on Hans Stuck joined in.
This rather extreme testing regime was carried out because the race department did not have any prior experience with building monocoques. When asked what problems were revealed, Bischof replied, “At first some cracks appeared in the monocoque, so we had to make it stronger because the idea was always that this car would be sold to customer teams. The rule was that, if there was new technology introduced on the factory race cars, that the customers should be able to buy that new technology for their cars within two races of it being introduced on the factory cars,” Bischof shared.
It was also the case that the customers would feed any problems back to the factory that they had experienced, and this was a way of the factory further testing their developments. “But the important thing to remember is that we never had a test team, everybody did everything. The same people who made the monocoque were the same people who changed tyres at the track. We had ten works 956s and ten works 962s, the rest were customer cars, and in the end, we only kept two or three of each [for the Museum]. Peter Falk was big on respect, and he said that for him a mechanic was just as important as an engineer. He told his staff, ‘Only with teamwork do you win!’ and this was drilled into the crew,” Bischof said.
Getting to Le Mans from Weissach in 1982 required up to five trucks, of which two would carry the three race cars plus some spares. One truck was allocated as the workshop truck and one was reserved for the bulky spare body parts, a second body parts truck was added later. Each truck would have a driver and an assistant, totalling eight or ten personnel travelling in the trucks, depending on the requirements that year. The convoy would leave Weissach at 05h00 on the Monday before the race and head straight for the city of Le Mans, arriving there that evening. It was a one-day journey on the motorways as opposed to using country roads which in the past required an overnight stay. Klaus Bischof remembers, “We, the mechanics, drove the trucks to Le Mans, with no separate truck drivers or logistics people, and we also did everything ourselves like loading and unloading.”
Right up until 1981, the Porsche team always set up shop in a small garage in the village of Teloché and the crew all stayed in that village, boarding in rooms in the private houses of local residents. “It all changed when we got up to 40 people, there weren’t that many rooms available in that small village, so we had a problem. I think it was in 1986 or 1987, we started to move to a hotel in Le Mans,” Norbert Singer explained. As from 1982, the workshop at Teloché could no longer be used by the team as the very low clearance of the ground effects 956 would not allow them to make the journey through the streets to the circuit.
People at Le Mans
For the Le Mans race, Porsche would have around sixty people on site for a two-car team, and this would rise to around eighty people for a three-car team. Added to this was the Chief Engineer for each car, Peter Falk, Norbert Singer and Klaus Bischof. While the staff count of the race department only totalled about forty, additional hands were co-opted from the design and construction departments in Weissach. Each car required five mechanics and one engineer making up twelve people for the two cars, and if we had three cars this was eighteen people. The total of 80 people included the staff at the Mulsanne signal station and the timekeeping team in the pits, another half dozen people who worked in shifts (two teams). Then there was the crew who looked after the tyres and other pit functions.
Norbert Singer explained the system, “There were no monitors from the organiser where you could see the complete field, we had to do our own timing. We had up to 15 cars in our timekeeping system, including our own cars and the opposition, and each person had about five cars to watch. Every time one of their cars passed the pits, they would press that car’s button. We then had a computer with a printer that was nearly one metre wide, and you had all these cars listed, so you could see all the lap times. But there was no other data acquisition in these days.”
“We also had members of the board including the man who was in charge of development at Porsche, Helmuth Bott. And they were not just there to hold some nice talks, they also worked, for instance, they did timekeeping. In those days, we didn’t have a lounge where you could look out of the window and enjoy the race, no they were helping us,” Norbert Singer expanded.
The 956 team also included an ‘electric man’ and the medical team consisted of Dr. Heuber, a ‘one-man show from the Black Forest Hospital’ is how Klaus Bischof put it. The contingent of nine drivers would understandably bring along their respective wives and girlfriends, but as Klaus Bischof explained with a smile, “When Mario Andretti was driving, that was at least another twenty people. We called it the ‘Andretti clan’ and we had to look after them. But, actually working on the cars, it was only about thirty people.”
When an engineer wanted to get data from the car such as wheel travel, acceleration and more detailed data, the equipment necessary to measure such details was so heavy that it could only be done on test day. It could not be done during practice or qualifying, as Singer explained, “It was very important to have a good connection and a good understanding with all the drivers, and to understand what they meant when they said this or that. You had to interpret the driver’s explanation, and with that information, you had to do the car’s setup for the race.”
Mulsanne signalling station
Included in the tally of official team members at Le Mans were two teams of four people each, who would man the signal station at the Mulsanne Corner. The distance from the pits to the Mulsanne Corner was 4 to 5 km as the crow flies, as Norbert Singer explained, “Radios were not able to cover that distance, so you would lose contact at the end of the Mulsanne Straight and only regain contact again after the Porsche Chicane.”
Klaus Bischof highlighted the radio communications problem, “We started with radios in the Group 5 935s in 1976/77, but we could not talk to the driver because he had no earphones, just a loudspeaker in the car. The only way to speak with the driver was when he was stationary because of the noise in the car, and we said it would disturb him while he was driving. So, the driver could call the pits, but you could not call the driver.”
A telephone link between the old pits and the Mulsanne signal station was therefore used which allowed messages to be passed either way. For instance, if a car was smoking as it passed the pit crew and time keepers, then the pits would call the Mulsanne signalling station to put out the IN sign for that car to make a pit stop. Norbert Singer explains with some humour, “Each pit had a very small pit box in Mulsanne, so if you had pit #26, then you also got #26 at Mulsanne, and the connection was the telephone. You had to wind up the phone and then it would ring on the other side. There was a microphone fixed to the telephone on the wall, and you had a separate ear piece, and so you would talk to them. This was a telephone from the Middle Ages, but it worked.”
“The system of calling from the pits to Mulsanne to tell them what to show the driver worked very well, because it was the slowest corner, only about 60 km/h or 80 km/h. This enabled the drivers to read the message when to refuel, but we had to teach this system to the drivers,” Bischof added.
Norbert Singer compared the communications in the 1980s with modern systems, “I remember the last time I supported the Customer Department in 2008/2009, I listened to what the engineers were saying to the driver.” As the driver left the pits, the conversation started, “‘You have a new set of tyres and you have new brakes, and be careful here and press this button’. In the old days, with Jacky Ickx, Jochen Mass or Derek Bell, when you talked to them, they knew what you meant. We talked about these things on the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings before the race at Le Mans, and that was it. You didn’t need to tell the driver when he was driving out of the pit to be careful to do this or do that. These are people that have a brain, the drivers knew what to do. Before the race, we talked about what he had to observe and what he had to do, and that was it. So, for me, today’s drivers seem a little bit more like a robot, they just do what you say,” he added.
For a 24-hour race like Le Mans, you could almost never have enough spares, or at least the right combination of spares. In preparing the 956s, each car would have a complete set of front and rear suspension components as well as a complete set of replacement bodywork, but this later increased to two sets, requiring an extra truck. “Normally we could build another car with the spares, for every car, you had one car in spares (enough to build three extra cars). In the old days, you had an engine which you ran in practice and qualifying, and you had a race engine and a spare race engine. Normally we would run one engine on Wednesday night in qualifying, we then changed the engine for Thursday and if the race engine had a problem we still had a spare one which could be used, so each car had at least three engines. When you changed the engine, you had to go to scrutineering again to get this sealed. For Le Mans, we had different engines from those we used at all other races, because they were built for longer endurance to last the distance. Each car had a gearbox for practice and a race gearbox as well, so you had three cars with two gearboxes each, with one spare ‘box in case something happened,” Klaus Bischof explained.
One spare component was permanently fitted in the car though, and that was the car’s black box. The introduction of the 956 coincided with the advent of electronic engine management, and so each car was fitted with two black boxes. Klaus Bischof explained why, “The black box was the most important thing when they started with electronics in 1984. We put the one black box on top of the other and made the cables longer so that the driver could just switch them over if he had a problem.”
Sponsorship and Catering
Porsche’s sponsor, Rothmans, contributed and organised all the food and refreshments for the mechanics and the team during their years of sponsorship. During the race, there was a table which had a constant supply of food and drinks for the team, this was no doubt one of the first full hospitality facilities on such a scale in motorsport. Werner Hillburger, a race engine mechanic at Porsche from 1964 to 1999 recalled, “I remember what my colleagues once told me about Rothmans. In the press department, they had so many cigarettes from Rothmans, which were all free because Rothmans was the sponsor.” Of course, this was the era when cigarette sponsorship was huge and smoking was widely accepted.
Baron Huschke von Hanstein or the Racing Baron as he was known, and his successor Rico Steinemann, were both Porsche racing drivers in the 1950s and 1960s. They realised the value of Public Relations and how to maximise it by embracing the media. One of the important benefits of motor racing is publicity, and getting the message across to the media and ultimately the public. This is the function of an effective PR department, and the antics of von Hanstein are legendary in this respect.
Although the PR industry had moved on, back in 1982, the internet did not exist and cuttings agencies flourished as they tried to satisfy the growing hunger for information, which at that time, could not be distributed electronically. The job of these agencies would be to compile newspaper and media cuttings of the race from a wide variety of sources and in numerous languages. Singer remembers, “I know in 1982, after the first win at Le Mans [with the 956], the press department made a book with the articles from all kinds of newspapers, not just German, but French, English, American and others. It was a big book with perhaps 300 pages and more than two-and-a-half inches thick.” This book of cuttings would be copied and circulated to the media and other interested parties, to be used briefly and then discarded, as another one would be produced after the next race.
How the playing field has changed
We can look back at the days of the Porsche 956 and 962, and admire its many achievements and victories. On the plus side, thanks to the fact that so many 956 and 962 race cars were manufactured, we can enjoy seeing many of these cars in current historic race events. The only Porsche prototype race cars that were sold to the motorsport enthusiast after the Group C era, have been the GT1 of 1996-1998 (not a prototype, but as close as can be) and the RS Spyder in the late-2000s. Apart from these, the only other race cars to be sold to the public are the many GT racers that Porsche produced in healthy numbers.
Which is all rather a pity, because there is no top-level class of race car that could fill the gap in historic racing in the future in the same way that the 956/962 does now. With the benefit of hindsight, Porsche made a tremendous case that justified the development of the 956/962, in that ten 956s and ten 962s were built by the factory for use by the factory in the official works teams. They then built a further 130 cars that were sold to their racing customers. The proceeds from the sale of those cars and the revenue generated from the sale of spares for those customers made the 956/962 model a resounding success, not to mention the incalculable press and public awareness that came from the car’s monumental success.
Few will argue that the period from 1982 to 1992, was the most exciting period in racing in recent years. So, with the above in mind, let us enjoy the magnificent Porsche 956s and 962s when we see them competing in Group C race series.
You might also be interested in reading: Porsche at Teloché, Le Mans – Logistics Part I
You might also be interested in reading: Taking the Porsche 919 Hybrid around the world – Logistics Part III
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto