The story of the fabulous 968 Turbo RS, one of Porsche’s sweetest front-engined racers, might be full of ‘what ifs’ and ‘if only’ but it is also certainly a story of lost opportunities.
The end of the 1992 motor sport season saw the curtain fall on Group C racing, which was quite possibly one of the most lively, innovative and spectacular decades in motor sport in recent times. From 1982 up until around 1987/1988, Porsche dominated this period with its 956 and 962 models, after which Mercedes, Jaguar, Nissan and Toyota increasingly gained the upper hand in the latter years of Group C which ended in 1992.
Between 1982 and 1992, the production of Porsche road cars seesawed with the front-engined 924 and 928 models losing market popularity. Fortunately, sales of the 911 and 944 models were buoyant and kept the company afloat, and in 1992, Porsche’s final version of the front-engined 4-cylinder models, the 968, was introduced. The 968’s design was the work of Harm Lagaaij, who had also been responsible for the design of the Porsche 924 back in the early 1970s. Lagaaij, a Dutch-born designer, left Porsche in 1977 for a stint first at Ford and then at BMW, before he was enticed back to Porsche in 1989, where he was responsible for designing the successor to the 944, the 968.
1992, the year of the 968’s launch, coincided with a strong downturn in 911 sales, and with the 968 planned only as a short-term model, Porsche needed a sales injection. Unfortunately, the 968 would not prove to be the company’s saviour, which is a great pity, because many will tell you that the 968 was the sweetest of the front-engined Porsches ever made. Powered by a chunky 3-litre in-line 4-cylinder engine, the 968 had truckloads of grunt and plenty of character. At the time of making, the 968’s 3-litre engine was the largest production 4-pot engine in the world.
The reason for the very existence of the 968 Turbo S lies simply in the homologation of the Turbo RS, which was created for a new generation GT racing series. One would be justified for asking why Porsche even considered racing a small number of 968s when the roadgoing model was at the end of its lifecycle. You would, though, have to look very hard to find a model that the company had not raced, so perhaps a more appropriate question might be, “Why not?” Arguably, the whole 968 Turbo S and Turbo RS project was an expensive one for Porsche, as just seventeen of the former and only three of the latter were produced by the factory.
Porsche developed the 968 Turbo RS for private customer teams who intended to participate in the newly defined GT class in 1993 that replaced the outgoing Group C class. Two different versions of the Turbo RS were produced, the first was the ADAC GT Cup model which developed a mandated 337bhp and was fitted with an air intake restrictor. The other version was the endurance model which produced 350bhp and was fitted with a larger fuel tank and fast-acting refuelling valves, as well as air jacks. The 1200kg endurance version was eligible for the Le Mans 24-Hour race and other international events.
The turbocharged 3-litre 968 was fully race spec’d, being fitted with a 6-point racing harness, fire extinguisher system, a single racing bucket seat and a welded-in roll cage. All interior trim and fittings was removed to save weight. A racing clutch, racing suspension, harder brake pads and wider rims were then fitted.
The first of these three cars produced, WPOZZZ96ZNS820065, left the factory in 1992 finished in red. This was the only one of the three to have been finished in 1992, the other two came a little later, but ‘820065’ or car number 1, is also the only one to have enjoyed a significant international racing career. Joest Racing, an important Porsche racing customer, had placed an order for a Turbo RS and they were allocated the last car, but as 820065 was finished first, this car was loaned to Joest. The team competed with the car in the ADAC GT series in two events in early 1993 with Manuel Reuter behind the wheel, these being at the Avus and Zolder circuits. The car raced in both of these events in May of that year, painted in its factory red colour.
Gerd Schmid, Project Manager on the 968 racing car revealed, “The first red 968 Turbo RS was our test car, originally a 968 Turbo S, but later we rebuilt it into the 968 Turbo RS. We used Turbo S bodies which were modified for racing, but only three Turbo RS race cars were made. The first registered owner of #820065 was Dr. Bscher.”
Bscher had been a regular competitor with his Maserati Barchetta, and in 1992 and 1993 he finished second in both years to John Nielsen. It was in the winter of 1993 that John Nielsen, a noted professional endurance racing driver, called Thomas Bscher and asked if he wanted to compete in the BPR long-distance championship. Bscher responded, “John, I am a banker not a racing driver, and so I asked him what car he had in mind because we had been talking with Ron Dennis about getting a McLaren. We decided to do it with the 968 which was easier to drive and easier to maintain, but the engine wasn’t very good at the time. Schmid was very much in favour of our plans, and so I went along with it. It was a superb amateur’s racing car, much better than a 911 and more predictable. In 1994, the 968 Turbo RS was also as quick as a 911 Turbo.”
When the Turbo RS 820065 was acquired by Dr. Thomas Bscher, he had it painted yellow in time for its debut at the Le Mans test weekend on 8 May 1994. With a best lap time of 6:05.99 on the test weekend, the Turbo RS was decidedly pedestrian in comparison with the other cars, and it appeared not to have completed too many laps. The car was subsequently entered in the GT2 class for the 24-Hour race on 18/19 June with drivers Thomas Bscher, John Nielsen and Lindsay Owen-Jones. The trio obviously picked up the pace in qualifying as they posted a time of 4:32.91 which wasn’t blisteringly quick by any means, and they were placed 39th out of 48 starters on race day.
Although the Turbo RS #820065 was owned by Thomas Bscher, running the car and the team at the race track was Peter Seikel, an experienced racing driver and team manager. Having established his team in 1968, Seikel had previously run race teams in the German national series, moving to international events with Audi, BMW, Ford and Toyota. However, 1994 marked Seikel’s debut race with Porsche on the international scene, and specifically the 968 Turbo RS #820065.
Unfortunately, there was no spec sheet for the Le Mans car as driven by Bscher, but Schmid could confirm that it was fitted with a K27 turbocharger, BBS wheels and a ‘special’ Turbo S gearbox. The gearbox, manufactured by Getrag, contained a gear set better suited to endurance racing, and this required a different ratio for fifth and six gears, and it was fitted with a stronger ring and pinion.
1994 Le Mans 24 Hours
This car holds the distinction of being the only 968 ever to race at Le Mans. So why did Dr. Thomas Bscher buy #820065 when the model had no direct 968 racing heritage? “I bought it because I didn’t want to use a 911 for racing because it was a very tricky car, it was a specialist car. At the time the 968 was the easier car to drive, and so I called Jürgen Barth at Porsche in late 1993 or early 1994, and he arranged it.”
Once the car had been acquired, the aim was to introduce Lindsay Owen-Jones to the car by competing in other European events in early 1994. Owen-Jones remembers, “The plan was that we would do several races together and a lot of testing with the car, but that didn’t materialise because at our first outing the car blew up before it was my turn to drive it. We then went for a big test session to Magny Cours, and for whatever reason the car never functioned properly. And so, in fact, I had virtually no driving time in the car before we arrived at Le Mans for the practice.”
There was a secret, perhaps an unspoken hope, that the car would turn out to be a bit of a surprise weapon but the initial lap times were somewhat disappointing. There was the feeling in the team that with the car not having seen an awful lot of competition, it had not had an opportunity to show what it could do. “As the third driver,” Owen-Jones continued, “I had very little time to practice and get to know the circuit at Le Mans, because the person who is going to put it on the grid has got to drive it mostly so he can sort it out and get it race ready. The other two drivers have to use whatever time they have to learn both the car and the circuit. Because Thomas already knew the car, and had already raced it quite a bit that season, my real task at that point was learning the circuit of Le Mans and discovering what a fantastic drive it is. I think that there is just nothing even faintly comparable to trying to learn the circuit of Le Mans in a short time.”
And so, with very little actual racing time to speak of, the Le Mans test weekend arrived where all three drivers were present. However, not much track time was logged because the engine regularly blew its head gasket. It was clear to Bscher and his team at that point, that although for the test weekend the car was run with its full horsepower, they weren’t going to be able to do the full 24 hours with the engine in that level of tune. In order to make it possible to complete the 24-hour race, and by agreement with Gerd Schmid at Porsche, the turbo boost was turned right down which dropped the power output from 350bhp to around 250bhp. It was the first time that the 968 would compete in an endurance race, but as Bscher pointed out, it was built for the German GT Masters and not for endurance racing. The Turbo RS was created to give the 968 model a sportier reputation as Porsche didn’t have any big plans in mind with this car, it was the end of their front-engined philosophy.
All three drivers had to drive the car during practice at Le Mans week, as Owen-Jones recalls, “Although it was a front-engined car it was a well-balanced car, but it was also extremely hot, and pretty physical to drive. It was obvious that each stint was going to be a big physical effort and indeed we always got out of that car dripping with sweat.” John Nielsen qualified the #58 car in 39th place on the grid.
Bscher recounts the early stages of the race, “I started and I was coming out of the last corner after the first lap, I think I was dead last because there was simply no power, but after two hours we had already moved up to 32nd place. We didn’t turn up the boost at all during the race, otherwise the head gasket would not have held together.”
Thomas Bscher explained that, as they didn’t have any chance of winning, that the 24-hour race was simply a regularity run and so their expectations were rather low. “We had looked at the engine problem for at least two months before Le Mans because we knew the head gasket would be a problem. We were hoping that Porsche would deliver a solution, but they didn’t. In the end, they said either you don’t race or we detune the engine for you, and they did the latter. And it was with full cooperation from all sides because we wanted to finish the race,” Bscher revealed.
Lindsay Owen-Jones recalled that his times were right in line with their plans but the heat in the cockpit, and the physicality of driving the car, were his overriding memories. “I remember the car was okay, not particularly pleasant, but not vicious. Certainly, the difficult thing with that car was that it had a turbo, so obviously at the time the engine hit the sweet spot of the turbo, that was always going to be a tweaky moment and so you had to be slightly cautious when the turbo kicked in. But it was manageable and I think we each went through our first stint quite confidently,” he explained.
It happened just around midnight, that Lindsay Owen-Jones put the car into the barriers at Tertre Rouge. However, it was many years before the reason behind his accident became clear, “I remember it very clearly, because I have had time to think back on it. We had a pretty accurate speedometer on that car, and during the night, I was clocking figures at the end of the straight before the first chicane that were noticeably slower than during my daytime stint. At the time, I just thought perhaps I was being more cautious, so I was trying to analyse my exit out of Tertre Rouge, and I thought if I could go just a little faster by getting the power on just a little earlier, I would probably get back to the speed that I had been recording in my earlier laps. What I hadn’t taken into account of, was of course with the headlights being flipped up we were clearly adding a whole lot more drag in the dark, and the reason why I wasn’t getting the speed down the straight had nothing to do with how fast I went through Tertre Rouge. The simple fact was that the car had a whole lot more drag. That was partly due to the fact that I knew so little about how the car would react in that situation. This caused me to try too hard to get to power down earlier at Tertre Rouge and it really was an absolutely classic, silly spin, with the turbo kicking in suddenly and quite brutally.”
With the turbo engine, the power delivery was either ‘on or off’ and with so little practice in the car, the driver would not have had a sufficiently good feel for when the engine was going to bite. With a normally aspirated car the driver would not get off the accelerator when it started to spin, but would instead feather the throttle and give it some opposite lock. But with a turbo, the instinct is to get off the power because the delivery is so sudden. This created a perfect whiplash effect and instead of spinning, the car whipped back as the tyres regained their grip, and it did so pretty violently. But when it let go, it let go pretty brutally and when it got the contact back again it then spun the other way.
The 968 Turbo RS came off the road to the left, and according to Owen-Jones, it wasn’t by any means a huge crash as the front of the car hit the barrier. “The wheels were obviously turned left to get me out of spin, and then when they suddenly regained their grip it was just too quick to catch, and I went left and hit the barrier. I was not hurt, but after a few seconds some oil splashed onto an exhaust pipe and there was a small oil fire in the engine compartment. I had a very uncomfortable moment briefly in which I couldn’t open the driver’s door, and there were flames just on the other side of the windscreen, so it was quite impressive! Very quickly the marshals came and put the fire out and opened the door, it seemed a long time at the time, but in reality, I’m sure it was quite short really.
“I was so upset and furious with myself, and disappointed for the team, that in fact I just found a quiet piece of grass and lay down and tried to die basically. It was just so awful that when they offered to take me back to the pits, I just said no, leave me alone. I lay in the grass for an hour or two and then I walked back. Obviously, everybody was very cross and disappointed, it was not one of the happier days of my life I can assure you, but it is history now, and that’s fine.
More recently, Owen-Jones headed the Endurance Commission for the FIA, organising endurance races because it gave him such pleasure. “When people ask me, ‘what is Le Mans’, I say you have to accept that it is sometimes heart-breaking and sometimes it is wonderful, in equal measure. Two years later though I finished fifth there in a McLaren [in 1996 with Pierre-Henri Raphanel and David Brabham – Gulf Racing McLaren F1 GTR]. So, both things exist in endurance racing and that is what makes long-distance racing such a difficult and exciting sport and why I love it today. But that was just a very unhappy day [in June 1994], that was all,” he concluded.
Porsche 968 Turbo RS chassis #820065 went on to finish eighteenth in the 1995 Sebring 12-Hour race and it was also raced at Road Atlanta. It is, perhaps with more than a tinge of regret, that one of Porsche’s finest front-engined racers only had just a single chance to prove itself in the world’s greatest endurance race, the 24 Heures du Mans. With more time, and further development, the 968 Turbo RS would undoubtedly have proved itself in the sport, but as an outgoing model, that wasn’t going to happen. The world of motor racing is all the poorer for it.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto & Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale