The 1972 season broke, ushering in with it a new era of racing. The Porsche 917 had reigned supreme for two years, but the race authorities (read FIA) had had their fill of Porsche interpreting the rules their way, and for 1972 a 3-litre engine limit had been applied. This capacity limitation was also introduced in an effort to slow the cars down but this ruling played neatly into the hands of the French manufacturer, Matra, who had been developing their MS670. Ferrari, for the first time, withdrew from the 24 Hours of Le Mans, citing the fact that their 3-litre V12 engine would not last the distance. Matra occupied first and second places on the starting grid, and that is how they finished 24 hours later. Porsche at Le Mans Part IV basically takes a look at the decade of the ‘70s, up until the start of Group C in 1982.
Porsche at Le Mans 1972 – June 10/11
Porsche was represented by a band of six 908s, the best of the bunch being the #60 driven by Reinhold Joest, Mario Casoni and Michel Weber. The Porsche 908 was still powered by its evergreen 2997cc flat-eight which was a more than capable combination. The 908s were joined by a pair of 907s and a lone 910, plus no less than seven 911 S. The ACO was making it clear that they favoured GT cars, and so Porsche did not feel the need to develop any new hardware for that season. This situation was no doubt influenced by the fact that the Porsche family were in the process of vacating their management roles within the company, and this was thought not to be the best time to commit to any new race car or engine development.
As it happened, the Joest 908 LH put in an excellent performance, finishing third behind the two Matras. On the GT front, although Ferrari was not present with an official works team, they did support their customers and the five V12 Daytonas occupied positions five through nine. The only 911 to finish was the #41 2.5-litre S/T driven by Juergen Barth, Michael Keyser and Sylvain Garant, crossing the line in 13th place overall and sixth in the Grand Touring class, where it was up against the 5-litre Daytonas.
Porsche at Le Mans 1973 – June 9/10
This year is widely considered the year in which the 911 came into its own as a fully-fledged, highly capable race car. Although turbocharging was still a year away from being unleashed on the race tracks of the world, the naturally aspirated 911 RSR was a formidable competitor on any stage.
In 1973, the 911 Carrera RS 2.7 was introduced as a high-performance road car, and it was this model on which the 2.8 RSR and the 3.0 RSR were homologated. The bigger engined version was used by both private teams and the factory, but in an effort not to compete head-on with their customers, the factory cars were entered in the Prototype class. Although out-classed by the true Prototypes, this move allowed Porsche to experiment with improvements or modifications, something that was not possible in the GT class.
The 1973 RSR is recognisable by the inclusion of what became known as the ‘Mary Stuart collar’ – a form of wrap-around rear wing. This was basically the standard Carrera rear wing mounted on the engine cover, with extensions that came around to meet the rear fender, forming what looked like a continuous wing.
For Le Mans, the factory entered three cars, two of which were the Martini RSRs to run in the Sports Prototype 3000 class, while a ‘standard’ RSR was entered in the GT class. The #46 RSR driven by Gijs van Lennep and Herbert Muller finished a very credible fourth overall behind two works Matras and a Ferrari 312PB, all thoroughbred prototypes. The other Martini RSR failed to finish, retiring with just 65 laps completed with fuel problems. The third 911 RSR, driven by Peter Gregg and Guy Chasseuil, finished in fourteenth place overall and third in the GT 3000 class.
Six 911 RSRs finished in the running in 1973, highlighting the endurance characteristics of the immensely flexible and strong 6-cylinder boxer engine. The 911 had made its mark!
Porsche at Le Mans 1974 – June 15/16
If the previous year had witnessed the arrival of the 911 as a durable GT racer, 1974 saw the model firmly establish itself as a very serious player, capable of embarrassing even cars in the Prototype class. Turbocharging lessons learned from the 917/10 and 917/30 racers, played a big part in the development of the 911 Carrera RSR Turbo, a 2.1-litre engined 500bhp ‘giant killer.’ With a top speed of 300km/h, this car threatened to take the lead from the Matra MS670B prototype, but a gearbox repair prevented this embarrassing outcome. The #22 Martini Carrera RSR Turbo did however beat the sister Matra, forcing it into third place, as Gijs van Lennep and Herbert Muller brought the little Porsche home in second place overall.
While the normally aspirated Carrera RSR 3.0 was making waves in the GT 3000 class, the Carrera RSR Turbo was a purpose-built car, aimed at the ‘silhouette’ series that was to start in 1975. The car obviously proved to be a great success, as described above, but the Group 5 ‘silhouette’ series was postponed a year and so Porsche dropped the model after just one year. In the 1974 Le Mans race, seven of the top twenty finishers were 911 Carrera RSR models, one Turbo and six naturally aspirated cars.
Porsche at Le Mans 1975 – June 14/15
With the ACO’s plans for introducing radical fuel saving measures, most of the big-name manufacturers such as Matra, Alpine, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo all stayed away. Porsche too did not attend with an official works team, leaving it up to the privateers to carry the company’s flag.
With so many Prototype competitors absent, this played into the hands of the GT teams, which led to 27 Porsche cars on the grid of varying description. There were three rather old 908s, thirteen N/A 911 Carrera RSRs, ten Carrera RSs, and a single 911 S on the starting grid. Fifteen of the top 25 finishers that year were Porsche cars!
The reason for Porsche staying away in 1975 was because they had their hands full with the development and production of their new 911 Turbo road car. With all hands busy with this project, there certainly wasn’t much spare cash or spare hands to divert towards the racing department, and so the bulk of the private entries at Le Mans consisted of the 911 Carrera RSR.
Reinhold Joest, Mario Casoni and Juergen Barth finished top of the Porsches in a 908/03, coming home in fourth place. Places five through to nine, were occupied by Carrera RSRs while tenth and eleventh places were filled by a pair of Carrera RSs. Even though Porsche was relatively far from the top spot, the media focus on Porsche’s accomplishments that year was almost unavoidable. This is exactly what Ferry Porsche had intended from as early as the company’s first race at Le Mans back in 1951, claiming that as they didn’t have the marketing budgets of the bigger players, the media would instead do that for them through their race reporting.
Porsche at Le Mans 1976 – June 12/13
Following the FIA’s decision to push out the introduction of the Group 5 ‘silhouette’ class, Porsche had ceased development of the Carrera RSR Turbo. But this had not slowed down Norbert Singer’s quest to develop the ultimate 911 turbocharged racer, and this newcomer, the 935, burst onto the world stage in 1976. In fact, Singer had developed two 911s at pretty much the same time, these being the 934 which was eligible for the Group 4 class, and the 935 for the Group 5 class. Although the two race cars came from the same stable, their engines had quite different configurations with the power output of the 935 being substantially higher.
The 1976 Le Mans race organisers had to do something about the flagging spectator numbers following the withdrawal of so many of the top manufacturers in ’75. As a result, the new Group 6 racers broke onto the scene this year, with the Porsche 936 being a potent contender. As it happened, the Porsche 936 of Ickx/van Lennep proved to be ultra-reliable, romping home by a margin of eleven laps despite having its exhaust system replaced. The 935 works entry driven by Schurti/Stommelen came home in fourth place overall and first in Group 5.
With such a strong Porsche contingent, thirteen of the top nineteen finishers were Porsche cars of some description.
Porsche at Le Mans 1977 – June 11/12
The 1977 Porsche 936 was different externally from the 1976 car, with the later car being slightly lower and slightly shorter, but with a small increase in wheelbase. The same 2142cc engine was used in both models, and in fact the same two 936 chassis that had been used at Le Mans in 1976, were put to work again in 1977.
For the 1977 race, Porsche entered three cars, the two Martini sponsored 936s and a single 935/77. The #3 936 (chassis #002) driven by Ickx/Pescarolo was retired after just 45 laps with a broken conrod, but Ickx was transferred to the #4 sister car (chassis #001) that was being driven by Juergen Barth and Hurley Haywood. Ickx lost no time in getting up to speed in his new steed, and proceeded to set the fastest race lap in the #4 car.
The 55-car field included no fewer than 26 Porsches, consisting of 911 Carrera RS and RSR, 934, 935, 936 and a 935 K2 (Kremer). Porsches occupied nine of the top twenty finishers which illustrates how strong, reliable and efficient Porsche’s cars were at the top of the motor racing pyramid in the 1970s. The #4 Porsche 936 of Barth/Haywood and Ickx won by eleven laps from a Mirage-Renault, with a 935 in third place.
Porsche at Le Mans 1978 – June 10/11
Just as in the previous year, the decision by Porsche to compete at Le Mans was made quite late which did not give the team much time for testing. Once again, the same two 936s were called into action with this year with important engine modifications. Whereas in 1976/77 the engine had featured 2-valve heads, for 1978, the heads were modified to take 4-valves. This had necessitated a change from air-cooled heads to water-cooling, and this was made possible by moving from a single head per bank of three cylinders to six individual heads, each head being beam welded to the cylinder barrels.
Another technological mould-breaker at this race was the 935/78 ‘Moby Dick’ which was competing in the Group 5 class. This car is deserving of a whole feature on its own, and our readers will be able to see a detailed feature on this famous car later in the year, where Norbert Singer explains how he created this car. But, suffice it to say in this feature, Moby Dick, without any doubt, packed the biggest power punch on the grid. The 3.2-litre engine developed a whopping 845bhp, but as a result the car proved a thirsty competitor. So together with an oil leak and a puncture, the car was unable to fulfil its true potential, finishing eighth overall.
Despite exhaustive engine testing, which served to prove the power and reliability of the 936’s engine, and with Jacky Ickx setting the fastest qualifying time, in the 1978 race at Le Mans it was the 936’s gearbox that failed. Lengthy repairs ensured the Alpine Renault won the race, but the 936/78 was second and the older 936/77 came home in third place. In a field that included 21 Porsches, six of the top eight finishers were made up of two 936s and four 935s.
Porsche at Le Mans 1979 – June 9/10
The same two 936s were wheeled out once again for the 1979 Le Mans 24 Hour to represent the best Porsche had to offer. This year, the two cars had new sponsors, Essex Petroleum, and the cars looked resplendent in their red and blue on white livery. Both 936s featured long tail bodywork, with a different rear wing structure than had been seen on the 1976-78 models. Essentially the cars were the same as in the previous years, but the engine had been improved to provide better flexibility and low down torque, while the brakes featured stiffer callipers.
In the race, both cars were beset with unexpected problems. The first car to retire was the Wollek/Haywood car which suffered fuel feed problems. In the Ickx/Redman car, Brian Redman suffered a high-speed tyre blowout, luckily without any serious consequences, and he was able to get back to the pits. Ickx took over but was well down, a situation in which the Belgian excelled. However, despite his best efforts to close down on the leaders, the fuel pump drive belt broke, which saw both 936s retired.
Fortunately for Porsche, a very loyal and enthusiastic band of privateers with no fewer than fourteen 935s lined up on the starting grid. Among the top privateers were the usual Cologne rivals, Georg Loos and the Kremer brothers, while Dick Barbour Racing entered four 935s. There was no shortage of top drivers amongst the privateers with the likes of Rolf Stommelen, Klaus Ludwig, Milt Minter, René Metge, Anny-Charlotte Verney, Skeeter McKitterick, the Whittington brothers and many others.
The #43 Numero Reserve Kremer 935 had its own scare when it stopped out on the circuit with a snapped fuel pump belt, it did get back to the pits to be repaired. The car got back into the fight and, against all expectations, the privateer team from Cologne came home the winners. It was the first time that a privateer Porsche team had won the Le Mans 24 Hours, and in confirmation of the 935’s credentials, the #70 Dick Barbour Racing 935 driven by Rolf Stommelen/Paul Newman/Dick Barbour finished in second place. In third place was the #40 Porsche 935, placing Kremer on two steps of the podium that race. The champagne flowed that night in Cologne!
Despite there being no works car in sight of the podium, twelve of the top nineteen finishers were nevertheless Porsche cars.
Porsche at Le Mans 1980 – June 14/15
With the success of the Kremer 935 K3 the year before, demand for performance parts from the Cologne-based team was high. The 1980 race witnessed no fewer than 25 Porsches on the starting grid, eleven of which were Kremer 935 K3 variants.
The 936 which had served the company so well since 1976 was relegated to the Porsche Museum. Instead, under the guidance of CEO Professor Ernest Fuhrmann, a new family of front-engined water-cooled sports cars was planned to replace the evergreen 911. As can be imagined, this decision did not sit well with the Porsche family or the engineers and workers at Porsche, and Fuhrmann was shown the door at the end of the year. But in the meantime, a squadron of three 924 Carrera GTs was prepared to race under the works banner.
The three cars, after extensive tests of all kinds, were then allocated their drivers in accordance with the national theme with one for the German team, one for the UK team and one car for the American team. Drivers were chosen from amongst those who had been loyal to Porsche over the years and who had demonstrated success with Porsche cars. The German team car was to be driven by Juergen Barth/Manfred Schurti, the British car would be driven by Tony Dron/Andy Rouse/Derek Bell and the US team car would be in the hands of Peter Gregg/Al Holbert. Unfortunately, Gregg was unable to drive due to an injury, so Derek Bell was ‘Americanised’ to replace the injured Gregg.
Despite the decree that the 936 was to be retired, an updated 908/80 appeared on the grid (looking remarkably similar to a 936) in Martini colours, to be driven by Jacky Ickx/Reinhold Joest. Apart from these cars already mentioned, there was an armada of 934s, 935s and even a 911 SC. The story of the race though belonged to the 908/80 of Ickx/Joest which had been closing in on the leading French Rondeau-Ford at an alarming rate. Rain squalls of severe proportions had characterised the race, and with Ickx’s legendary skills in the wet, he dived into the pits for grooved tyres in the closing laps when another downpour drenched the circuit. It was this act that lengthened the gap to the leader because as soon as the rain started, it stopped again, cementing the 908/80’s position in second place.
The turbocharged 924 Carreras gave a far better account of themselves than most expected. Despite two of the three 924s experiencing failed pistons, all three cars continued to circulate with the #4 German car of Barth/Schurti finishing a very credible sixth overall. The #2 British car driven by Dron/Rouse came across the line in twelfth place with the #3 American car of Bell/Holbert in thirteenth place. The 924s, which were also called the 924 GTP or the 924 Carrera GT Le Mans, had performed better than most had expected.
Porsche at Le Mans 1981 – June 13/14
The 1981 season was an interesting one for a number of reasons. There was still a large number of Porsches on the entry list, nineteen to be precise, but these were spread across an even large number of models than before: 936/81, 935 (various), 934, 908/80, 924 LM GTR, 944 LM GTR and a 917-K81. That’s right, a 917-K81 was entered by the Kremer brothers as they believed that this was still a superbly designed race car that, with certain improvements and upgrades, could hold its own a decade after the model had last raced at Le Mans.
The factory entered a pair of 936/81s that were quite different in a number of areas from the cars that raced between 1976-1980. Firstly, the car was powered by a 2650cc flat-six engine that had originally been intended for the now-abandoned Indy 500 project. This engine produced 100bhp more than the 2142cc engine in its predecessor, pushing power up to 640bhp. The 936/81 was 250mm longer than the earlier car, it was higher by 250mm and had its wheelbase extended by 10mm, all of which made it 10kg (22lbs) heavier. The revised rear wing and tail treatment made the car far more stable at speed.
The 944 LM GTR entered by the factory, had been fitted with a new 2.5-litre turbocharged engine. But here Porsche had an ulterior motive, as the same engine was to power the new 944 Turbo production model due for launch straight after the race. The 935s too, were still highly competitive, six years after they first appeared in 1976. At the sharp end of the grid there was a lack of competition because the two 936s only had the two Rondeau-Fords to contend with. While the #11 Ickx/Bell 936 romped off into the distance, the #12 sister car driven by Mass/Schuppan experienced an engine misfire at first, and then later, clutch problems dropping it out of contention. The lead Porsche eventually cruised home to a 14-lap win over the second-placed Rondeau.
Two 935s came home in fourth (Group 5) and sixth (IMSA GTX) places, winning their respective classes in the process. The 944 LM GTR driven by Barth/Röhrl crossed the line in seventh place overall, giving the new production 944 Turbo the best introduction the company could have wished for.
It should be noted that this was the last season before the introduction of Group C in 1982. This will form a separate feature for a future date. Should you want to read the previous parts of our Le Mans series, you can access them here:
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto