Porsche has been represented at the Le Mans 24 Hours every year since 1951, in both an official factory capacity and by privateer entries. No other manufacturer can boast such a long unbroken record of runs at Le Mans since their first race in this classic French endurance race. For Porsche, their attendance from 1951 to 2018 amounts to 68 consecutive races at Le Mans, and this record is way ahead of any other manufacturer.
Getting through the German/French border was not a straight forward process, as a carnet, or merchandise passport, had to be shown at the border. This was basically a complete list of all the parts that were packed in numbered boxes in the truck – the boxes were numbered, not so much for the border guards, but rather for the offloading sequence at Le Mans. It could become a problem, though, when the customs official wanted a certain box that was buried deep in the truck, to be opened up. This required many other boxes to be removed first, before the exact box could be opened up for inspection, and for this reason the driver was accompanied by an assistant – the heaviest boxes were those that contained the gearboxes.
It didn’t happen every time, but when the driver was asked to open every box on the truck, they would have to stay there for the whole day while the inspection was carried out. This potential delay had to be built into the time allowed for the transporter to drive from Stuttgart to Le Mans.
Also, the transporter driver always had some gifts in the truck for the customs officers, to make the process a little bit ‘easier’. “Driving back home to Stuttgart again, they also had to pass through the same customs check point and the drivers would sometimes be asked if they had cigarettes or alcohol. Once when one Porsche chap said that they didn’t have any, an older French customs officer said that it cannot be that they don’t have any alcohol with them because the Germans drink so much, they must have some with them,” Hillburger laughed.
Back in the 1950s, running race cars at Le Mans was an arduous affair for the teams and crew. Just getting the cars from Stuttgart to Le Mans in the early years involved driving the transporter on country roads. Werner Hillburger was a race engine mechanic at Porsche from 1964 to 1999, working first in the test department and then the race department. Although he only joined the firm in the mid-1960s, he tells the story of how race mechanics like Wilhelm Hild (later a race manager with Porsche), would drive the transporter to Le Mans in the early days. At a convenient point, in the village of Vaucouleurs (which was about halfway between the French border and Le Mans), they would stop at a guesthouse for the night.
Hillburger picks up the story, “Over the years the whole team, including the heads of the race department, stayed overnight at the same place. Next to the guesthouse there was a petrol station where they refuelled. The drivers didn’t have any money to pay, but because Wilhelm Hild knew the owner of the guesthouse, he arranged that they would pay all of the bills on their way back from Le Mans, using the prize-money they hoped to earn from the race! Right up until the time of the 956s , they always stayed over at the same guesthouse because it had become a tradition, and because they were treated so well.”
Helmut Bott, Peter Falk and other engineers drove their own cars to Le Mans, and they also stayed overnight at the same guesthouse. “Bott and Falk would have a contest between the two of them, to see who would use the least amount of fuel driving there,” Hillburger added.
The transporters would carry two people each while the balance of the crew travelled to Le Mans in a VW bus. Having left Weissach early on Monday morning, the transporters typically arrived in Le Mans at around noon on Tuesday. They would drive into the city centre with the big trucks and then offload the cars at the Place de la Republique for scrutineering. After scrutineering, the transporters would then be driven to the Porsche workshop in Teloché, a small village 3.5 km south of the Mulsanne Corner.
That evening (Tuesday), they would unload the race cars and all the parts at the garage in Teloché and check that the cars were set up for practice the next day. The following morning, they had to put everything back into the trucks again and drive to the circuit. This loading and unloading procedure was repeated every morning and evening throughout race week. If the cars needed repairing or working on, then that work also had to be completed before they could call it a day.
The crew all did several tasks during race week, for example, Werner Hillburger also did refuelling at the circuit, changing wheels or working on the engines, basically whatever was required in the pits – there were no passengers! Obviously, there is a limit to the amount of work that a person can do, or the length of time that anyone can go without sleep. So, how did it work during race week through the long night hours when they were so tired, were they able to rest? Sleep was a luxury for the mechanics that was hard to come by, as it was more likely a case of catching a catnap whenever and wherever they could. It was not unusual to find a mechanic with closed eyes while sitting on some tyres!
The race cars were driven on the street from the workshop in Teloché to the circuit, and back again that evening. Klaus Bischof, a race mechanic with Porsche at the time, recalls, “In the olden days in Teloché, every car was tested by Peter Falk along the main road in Teloché. He would work the clutch and shift the gears, and simple things like looking for oil leaks. Mr Falk did his test drives at 12 o’clock at night, and then we had some dinner! This happened for as long as we were in Teloché in this little workshop. You could call it a tradition, but it was hard work, it was really hard work, all this loading and unloading. And the mechanics, I was one of them, drove the cars from the circuit back to Teloché on the open road at night. This was sometimes a problem because from the race track we went through these little villages and often we couldn’t find the way. I got lost once with a 935!”
All of this activity went on every day for the whole week, and on the Friday, a day when there is no track action, the cars were all taken apart once again in the workshop at Teloché, and given a final check. “That was another problem because you only had four hours sleep before you had to load everything on the trucks again, and to then go back to the track on Saturday morning,” Bischof added. It isn’t as though the mechanics were pampered during their stay in Teloché either, as they were scattered throughout the village staying in spare rooms in the houses with the locals. While this was perhaps at the expense of team spirit with them all staying in different homes, it did ensure that the locals bought into all the inconvenience and the noise during the Le Mans week, as they would earn some extra cash during this time. The mechanics were totally exhausted, though, even before the race started, due to the demands of the heavy physical work the whole week.
“In the early days, when they had dinner at ‘The Café du Sport’ in Teloché after the race, some guys did not eat because they slept on the table in the restaurant,” Hillburger admitted laughing.
“The crew working on the cars at Le Mans were taken from the race department,” said Klaus Bischof, “but for other jobs, like checking the lap times over the 24 hours, these people were taken from other departments in Weissach, not from Zuffenhausen. They would help in their free time, and this was just a perk offered by Mr Bott, where they were invited to Le Mans in return for a ticket, and they helped with the timekeeping at Mulsanne. Later on, but before the Group C years, we also organised a few extra people from the design and construction departments to help us. We also had a few specialists such as electricians and also from the Karrosserie (bodywork) department, especially when we built the 917s in 1969. Mr Bott said we should always keep the team small, but if we needed more personnel for Le Mans, then we should take them from Weissach.”
In December, a good six months before the Le Mans race week, the cars underwent stringent testing. Klaus Bischof explains their tortuous testing regime, “In these years, we tested a long time before Le Mans. We did two things: firstly, we went to Paul Ricard to do endurance tests, where we used the long Mistral Straight [for high speed testing].
“Secondly, we also used a test rig with the rear wheels on a roller. Most of the time it was just myself doing this. I would sit in the car and do a 36-hour test on this rig, simulating ‘driving’ and shifting. In the car, I had a stop watch and I would do complete laps of Le Mans in a climatic wind tunnel according to a program. I would do 27 seconds at full speed and then brake, just like at Le Mans, so I did the same as the driver would do, but without a steering wheel. We did this every year, maybe about six or eight weeks before Le Mans. We were not allowed to use mechanics to do this test because of the smoke and the noise, so we had to do this by ourselves. But not everybody was able to do this test, because you would sit for the whole time in a closed car, and some people had a problem with this. We started doing this maybe in the mid-1970s with the 935s, and then we did this with every car after that. The purpose of the test was mainly to see how the gearbox and clutch system held up, but it was also for the engine.”
For thirty years, between 1951 and 1981, and for just one special week each year, Porsche race cars became part of everyday life in the village of Teloché. The locals would embrace these noisy visitors, and the young children of the village would spend hours admiring the race cars that lay scattered up and down the main street in which the workshop stood. For those three decades, Porsche racing lore was woven into the fabric of Le Man’s legendary heritage.
But in 1982, this noisy ritual came to an abrupt end. The reason for this sudden change was that the ultra-low 956s had insufficient ground clearance which precluded them from driving through the streets to the circuit. The ground effect Porsches had such a carefully sculptured and technically sensitive underfloor, that they were not able to pass over the bumpy streets of the surrounding villages. Technical progress had brought this colourful phase in the village’s history to a close. The Group C cars would in the future enjoy far more convenient facilities at the circuit, but it would be another decade before the current pit complex that we know today, would be built.
For some, the move away from the Teloché workshop was the closing of a nostalgic chapter, but if you asked any Porsche mechanic, his answer would be somewhat different.
You might also be interested in reading: Porsche 956/962 at Le Mans – Logistics Part II
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto