In this feature, the fifth in our series that looks at the different eras of Porsche’s participation at Le Mans, we examine the part played by the company’s transaxle cars. These front-engined models, that in roadgoing form rescued the company during difficult financial times, have been unjustly maligned over the years. When so many manufacturers of high performance sports cars were closing their doors in the face of the oil crisis in the early 1970s, Porsche bucked the trend and introduced a brace of new models, the 924 and 928. These two models were followed by the 944 and 968 models, the 944 seeing great success in the sale rooms around the world, and on the race track. Porsche at Le Mans Part V: 1980 to 1994 the Transaxle years, looks at the importance that the Le Mans 24 Hour race played in proving Porsche’s front-engined models.
The decade of the 1980s began with the knowledge that Group 6 was to be replaced with the FIA’s latest Group C rules in 1982. This resulted in a varied collection of contenders at Le Mans in the early part of that decade as some manufacturers understandably delayed the development of their new cars while others went ahead with theirs. Whether one viewed this situation with some pessimism or with interest, such a varied grid did provide the race-goer with some entertaining track action.
Porsche at Le Mans 1980: 14-15 June
Although the Porsche 924 was introduced back in 1976, it was four years before the car would see any action at Le Mans. The 1980 24-hour race, though, would be the last for Porsche’s chief executive, Professor Ernst Fuhrmann. Father of the famous four-cam Carrera engine, Fuhrmann had allegedly overstepped the mark when he ruled that the 911 would be phased out by 1984, to be replaced with a range of water-cooled front-engined cars that would meet the ever-stringent noise and emissions regulations threatening the industry. He also dictated that the 936 was to go, and that the new decade would see a squad of 924 Carrera GTs taking to the Sarthe circuit.
Once the shock of Ernst Fuhrmann’s announcement had died down at Weissach, it was revealed that each of the three 924s for Le Mans would be driven in a ‘low key’ exercise by representatives from the nations of Germany, Britain and America. The three cars to run in the LM GTP class would be manned by: Manfred Schurti/Jürgen Barth in the German car; Andy Rouse/Tony Dron in the British car; and Derek Bell/Al Holbert in the American car, with Bell standing in for the injured Peter Gregg at the last moment.
Although the 924s did surprise many at the 1980 Le Mans 24 Hours, the move by Fuhrmann had rattled some cages in high places, most significantly that of Ferry Porsche, and by the end of the year Fuhrmann had been given his marching orders.
On the racing front, too, the ACO were up to some new tricks this year in that the grid positions would not be determined by the cars according to their fastest lap times, but rather by the average of the fastest lap times of all the drivers in each car. Thus, when the ACO came to eliminate those cars that had not qualified in each class, there was great consternation and confusion in the paddock, but the ACO conceded by allowing 55 cars to start instead of just 50 cars which had been previously stipulated.
Tony Dron recalls, “The 924 Carrera GTP, the GT-Prototype of 1980, was quite a remarkable car. We did a 36-hour test before Le Mans at Paul Ricard and we had several drivers. I remember in our car we had Derek Bell, Andy Rouse and myself, and the idea was to drive it for more than 24-hours absolutely flat out and to see how it goes. Norbert Singer was running the show for the works team.” For some reason the car had a problem at the top end, and although the drivers enquired as to what the problem was, the engineers would not say. Dron suspected it was a combination of ignition timing and mixture, but the team was convinced that they had solved the problem by the time Le Mans came around, but they hadn’t.
Dron estimated that the car was good for between 180-185 mph down the Mulsanne straight. Had the car performed well, they could have finished as high as fourth place, which was more a statement of what the car was capable of achieving. The #2 Rouse/Dron car finished in twelfth place overall with the #3 Bell/Holbert car in thirteenth place, while the #4 car of Barth/Schurti finished a very credible sixth overall.
“What I do remember that car for, is the wonderful integrity of its chassis, an extremely stiff chassis and the handling of the car was extraordinarily good. One of the best handling cars I have ever driven, I really liked the feel of it,” Dron added.
Porsche at Le Mans 1981: 13-14 June
Following the management upheaval in Stuttgart at the end of 1980 following the departure of Fuhrmann, Porsche once again reinstated its motor sport programme with the aim of dominating the top step of the podium, rather than following a detuned race programme as proposed by the outgoing chief executive, Ernst Fuhrmann.
The factory entered two cars in the 1981 race, one being the #36 Porsche 2-litre 924 GTR which was driven by Manfred Schurti/Andy Rouse. This car was not entered by and nor was it run by the factory race department, instead it was managed for Porsche by Herbert Linge. The other car, basically in the same 924 chassis, was however was fitted with the new turbocharged 2.5-litre engine intended for the production 944 Turbo due for launch in the future. This second car, the #1 924 GTP/944 LM, was entered by the factory race department and managed by Norbert Singer, Porsche’s racing boss. Both cars ran with the same ‘Boss’ sponsorship branding, which led some folk to think that both cars were entered by the racing department, but they were in fact entered and managed by different departments.
Introduced for the first time at Le Mans this year was the use of a pace car in the event of a potentially dangerous race situation. The aim was to slow the field to a manageable speed, allowing track crew to clear away debris following a crash or to allow a damaged or stopped car to be removed from the track.
The 410 bhp Porsche 944 LM didn’t miss a beat in the race, and despite being given a real thrashing by factory drivers Jürgen Barth and Walter Röhrl, the #1 car came home in seventh place overall and first in the LM GTP class. The #36 Porsche 924 GTR, driven by Schurti/Rouse finished eleventh overall and first in the IMSA GTO class.
Immediately after the race, Porsche announced the introduction of the new 944 production model which was also powered the 2.5-litre turbocharged engine as used by Barth/Röhrl in the 24-hour race just completed.
Porsche at Le Mans 1982: 19-20 June
1982 saw the introduction of the Group C era which ran for ten years, and in the process, it became one of the most popular and successful decades in modern racing.
While the Porsche factory effort was centred around the introduction of the all-conquering 956s, no less than three 924 Carrera GTRs were entered privately in the 1982 Le Mans 24 Hours. Two of these cars were entered by Jim Busby/BF Goodrich while the third was the #84 Richard Lloyd Canon Cameras car.
It was of course Porsche’s policy at this time to retain a new model for use by the factory team, and so the 956 was reserved for that purpose. Many other Porsches made up a colourful field and these included a multitude of 935s and an assortment of 936-based cars, all of which had great potential and would be snapping at the heels of the factory cars, should they falter.
Driving the #87 Jim Busby/BF Goodrich car was Jim Busby and Doc Bundy, and they finished sixteenth overall and first in the IMSA GTO class. The #86 Busby car driven by Pat Bedard/Paul Miller/Manfred Schurti retired after 128 laps due to a gearbox failure. The #84 Richard Lloyd 924, driven by Richard Lloyd and Andy Rouse, only completed 77 laps before it too succumbed to gearbox woes.
Porsche at Le Mans 1983: 18-19 June
This was the first year in which Porsche sold the 956 to privateer teams, and the customers were almost lining up around the block to place their orders. Looking at the 1983 Le Mans results sheets, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a Porsche benefit race. Porsche 956s occupied nine of the top ten places (!) with ninth place being taken by a lonely Sauber BMW C7, otherwise it was a 956 clean sweep.
Apart from the twelve 956s and a squadron of six 911s, the only other Porsche on the starting grid was a naturally aspirated and lightened 928 S, entered by the Frenchman, Raymond Boutinaud. The #97 Porsche was driven by the owner and fellow-countrymen Patrick Gonin and Alain le Page. A broken wheel hub on the Saturday night and various engine maladies significantly delayed the car. Although the near-standard 4.7-litre Group B 928 S had 235 laps under its belt at the finish, the car was unclassified as it had failed to complete more than seventy percent of the winners’ total laps.
Despite all the talk of being too heavy and unsuitable for racing, Tony Dron was very successful with a 928 on a couple of occasions. Dron drove the AFN-entered 928 to a memorable victory in the 1983 Willhire 24-Hour at Snetterton, as he recalled, “I put it on pole at Snetterton by five seconds in the dark and the wet. The next morning in the dry, I qualified it on pole again by three seconds. Andy (Rouse) started the race and took an immediate lead and we just had a wonderful time, it was great. I happened to be driving it when the race finished which was really great. I mean it was obviously not Le Mans, but it was a 24-hour race and we won outright, so that meant a lot.”
Porsche at Le Mans 1984: 16-17 June
The 1984 Le Mans 24 Hours was almost a repeat of the previous year insofar as Porsche race cars was concerned. While Porsche withdrew its factory cars in protest against fuel regulations, there was a large group of 956 and 962 racers supported by the usual brigade of assorted 911s. Once again, Raymond Boutinaud brought along his Porsche 928 S, and this time carrying the number 107, he and his two French co-drivers, Philippe Renault and Giles Guinand finished the race. The 4.7-litre Porsche was the last classified car across the finish line in 22nd place.
Le Mans 1990
Of significance were the changes to the circuit which altered the character of the long Les Hunaudieres straight with the inclusion of two chicanes. The first chicane was located about two kilometres along the famous back straight and was kinked to the right, while the second was a further two kilometres down the track but this time it kinked to the left. The aim of the addition of these two chicanes was to slow the cars down, which they did, but their effectiveness was brought into question due to the additional stresses and strains placed on the race car’s suspension, brakes, tyres and other mechanical components, as well as to the drivers themselves.
Porsche at Le Mans 1994: 18-19 June
The 968 was not intended to be the prolific racer that the 944 had been, especially considering that the model was produced in the twilight years of the Porsche transaxle family lifecycle. The 968 Turbo S was produced in order that Porsche could homologate the Turbo RS for racing, which they did, but in 1993 they built just three of the 968 Turbo RS models for private clients to race.
The first of the 968 Turbo RS models produced holds the distinction of being the only 968 to race at Le Mans. Entered by Peter Seikel in the 1994 Le Mans 24-Hour race and driven by Thomas Bscher/Lindsay Owen-Jones/John Nielsen, the car was unfortunately out of the running as a result of an accident after just 84 laps. This same 968 Turbo RS went on to finish 18th in the 1995 12-Hour race at Sebring and it was raced at Road Atlanta as well.
Destined to live such a short life, there was little chance of the 968 being developed further as a race car, but there can be no doubt that given the right circumstances, the 968 could have been a successful racer.
Click HERE for a link to the full 968 Turbo RS Le Mans story from 1994
Click HERE to read the PORSCHE 924/928/944/968 book review
Click HERE to read The Porsche 924 Carrera book review
Should you want to read the previous parts of our Le Mans series, you can access them here:
Porsche at LE MANS PART IV: 1972 to 1981
Porsche at LE MANS PART III: 1969 to 1971
Porsche at LE MANS PART II: 1964 to 1969
Porsche at LE MANS PART I: 1951 to 1963
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto