For many years, the éminence grise of Porsche’s competition department, but now in retirement, Roland Kussmaul seems busier than ever. He left Porsche officially at the end of 2008, but our attempts to meet him were thwarted for several years by his amazingly busy schedule. More recently, we were luckier: despite a programme still just as full, he found time to meet us at his home in the charming village of Eberdingen, a convenient five miles from Weissach.
Now at 79 years of age, Roland Kussmaul explains that he has finally stopped travelling as much as he used to. Essentially, this most dynamic of pensioners, was for thirty years at the heart of Porsche’s American Le Mans programme as well as helping with the independent Lizard team. This commitment entailed for example thirteen trips to the US in eight months in 2012. Kussmaul is retained as a consultant to Porsche Motorsport and still meets his old friend, Olaf Manthey, who has long managed a ‘semi-official’ Porsche works team.
Roland Kussmaul was another of the wave of engineering graduates from Stuttgart University that joined Porsche at the end of the sixties. He recalls that exciting time when Ferdinand Piëch, a man who “knew what he wanted” was driving Porsche Motorsport to the very top with an energy that was felt throughout the company.
“He would demand a solution to a problem and would tell his people they had five days to come up with it,” says Kussmaul of Piëch’s famous technique for getting 110% from his staff. Although he had come to Porsche when it was still run by the family, the name of Roland Kussmaul did not appear ‘in despatches’ for almost a decade, which might seem a little odd given his indispensable contribution to the development of the 911 in particular. He explains:
“My degree was in mechanical engineering and I was selected to work on the Leopard tank programme. That meant I was based at Weissach, but obviously not in the competition department. I worked on several evolutions of the Leopard which involved extensive driving trials.”
Then in 1974, Peter Falk, the quietly spoken manager of the racing division, approached Roland. This was at a time when Porsche had reverted to supporting third party race teams rather than fielding its own. Falk asked for Kussmaul’s help with the Kuehne & Nagel team. The international freight forwarder was sponsoring a brace of 911s in European rallies and encountering recurring difficulties with dampers and suspensions and Kussmaul was selected to liaise with the damper manufacturers. Kussmaul’s expertise in this area had already been recognised and at a time when Porsche was taking an increasing interest in its competitors (especially with the advent of the 924 and 928) he was often deputed to evaluate Ferraris and other rival offerings on the compact circuit at Weissach. The damper project was effectively Roland Kussmaul’s ticket to Porsche Motorsport and when in 1978 Porsche decided to reintroduce its own works team, he was appointed service manager alongside Jürgen Barth. The 911 had won virtually all major rallies and the object now was to win the Safari rally in Kenya. As Paul Frère put it, the Safari was an event where structural strength rather than outright speed and power was what really counted. Though finishing second again (as in 1974), Porsche learned much from this experience, as did Roland Kussmaul:
“Africa is nothing like a European rally where you have the road book and service back up and off you go. The distances are vast, you have to do endless reconnaissance and be able to repair the car yourselves.”
Porsche had once again recruited the services of Bjorn Waldegård, winner in a 911 of the 1969 and ’70 Monte Carlo Rallies.
“I was his co-driver,” says Roland. “We had no electronic equipment then and my job was to monitor everything from landmarks to road surfaces to listening to the car (like the flight engineer in a piston engine aircraft), at every step.
It was quite fantastic for a young guy like me to be sitting alongside a champion like Waldegård, an amazing experience. I learned a lot on a few months.” Waldegard’s technique could sometimes almost defy description: Kussmaul recounts how the Swede got the 911 over water courses crossed by plank ‘bridges’ narrower than the car: “He’d come broadside so that the 911 was up on two wheels as he went over the planks – pure stunt driving!”
Kussmaul goes on to relate how Waldegård would accelerate hard before a wide river crossing so that the 911 would bounce literally like a pebble skimmed across a lake. But despite running away from other competitors, suspension problems again dogged the 911s which finished second and fourth.
The arrival of new CEO Peter Schutz in 1981 started a new chapter in the 911 story and opened the prospect of high profile motor racing. The Paris Dakar, begun in 1978 and now well established, offered perhaps the African prize which had eluded Zuffenhausen in the previous decade. Porsche decided to enter the 1984 event with a specially prepared 911 notable in particular for its huge ground clearance. “The Porsche entry was much derided,” says Roland. “The conventional approach to Dakar was a 4×4 vehicle which was believed to be the only way to cope with the sand. But cars like Range Rovers or Mercedes G Wagons were heavy and slow; we knew a lot about off road driving and African terrain and how to traverse sand and water.”
The Type 953 Safari 911, sported four-wheel drive, a slightly detuned 3.2 engine and weighed barely 1100kg; there was no question of service vans at every stage as in the Monte, so besides two works cars, a third, the so called ‘Feuerwagen’ carried spares and could be cannibalised if necessary to keep the other two in contention. This time Porsche pulled it off. Previous Dakar winner René Metge’s 953 was the first competitor to arrive in Dakar. Kussmaul piloted the ‘Feuerwagen’ and no mean driver himself, even won two of the stages though ultimately did not finish.
“We lost our way at crucial stage,” he recalls. “It taught me the importance of navigation and local knowledge. That’s why René was so good. I co-drove with him too. He had no German and I can’t speak French so we devised a kind of sign language and I learned to shout ‘frein’ when he needed to brake! He was a natural: he’d lived in Africa and had a nose for it. I remember, he surprised me when he really braked massively from 200kph in the middle of the desert though I hadn’t said anything. He had seen subtle change in the colour of the sand ahead. It was a shade darker which meant it was wet and we would never have got out of it if we’d continued. He would get out of the car and check the ground on foot before deciding whether it was driveable. He could smell the damp before we got to it.”
The 1980s were the great days of Group B, an extravagant almost unregulated rally class which appealed strongly to Peter Schutz who saw an ideal launch pad for the über-Porsche, the 959. Under the supervision of Peter Falk, Kussmaul and Jürgen Barth fitted a detuned a version of the 2.1 turbocharged racing engine to a systematically reinforced 959 shell. “When we could get decent benzine,” recalls Kussmaul, “the 959 was too fast for the camera helicopter trying to follow it across the desert!”
A crash (Ickx) and engine failure due to an oil leak (Metge) foiled the 959’s first attempt to win the Dakar, but in 1986, Metge made no mistake. Alas this was the end of the road for the 600hp Group B projectiles, deemed too dangerous after a series of fatal accidents, some involving spectators, and Porsche withdrew from the rally scene. Roland Kussmaul turned to circuit racing, developing and testing Porsche’s Group C sports racer, and together with Jürgen Barth, carried out final testing of all 77 customer 962s built by Weissach. This period also saw Roland doing the initial development of the Type 2708 F1 car, a project which promised much, but ultimately fizzled out as Porsche and Formula 1 drifted apart.
In 1988, long serving technical director, Helmuth Bott retired to be replaced by the ambitious Ulrich Bez, who was returning to Porsche after a spell at BMW where he led the team that had just produced the Z1. Imbued with the importance of motor racing for the brand, Bez immediately decided to replace the 944 in the high visibility Porsche Cup one marque series with the 964, clearly the more important product, the C2 version of which had just been launched. He turned to Kussmaul who drew on his earlier experience with the Jürgen Barth inspired SC/RS to produce a cup version of the 964. This car, and its road going homologation version of which only 2000 were made, marks the beginning of Roland Kussmaul’s reputation as the Übermensch with 911 enthusiasts.
Taking the 964 shell, he systematically lightened the chassis before welding in some strategic strengthening gussets and rebuilding the 964 with a lowered, but essentially standard suspension. Often described as blueprinted, Kussmaul says he simply selected engines off the production line that exhibited above average horsepower. With revised mapping, an open airbox and a straight through exhaust, an output of 260bhp was conservatively claimed. 1990 was the first year of the Carrera Cup as it was renamed and after a season’s close racing, Olaf Manthey won the inaugural championship. Careful manoeuvring behind the scenes by Porsche usually ensured that the Cup rounds got maximum exposure, such as the prelude to the German GP.
The road version, the RS, was much criticised by the European motoring press largely because of its harsh ride at a time when a ‘boulevard’ ride for sports cars in this price bracket was expected. After the fiasco with the 959, no RSs were sent to the US, leaving Americans frustrated that once again an extreme Porsche was being denied them. But times change and today, years on, the 964 RS is mentioned in almost the same breath as the 2.7 RS. Indeed, with prices approaching $400,000, any number of copies have been made from base 964s, either for show or for track use, the real thing, like the 2.7 RS often deemed too valuable to risk on the track.
All was not entirely lost from a US perspective though: the newly introduced IMSA series opened the way for a production 911, and Roland’s talents were again called upon to create a competition version of the Turbo, the 964 Turbo Leichtbau, effectively the RS chassis with the blown 3.3, its power was raised to 380bhp. As a road car, the Turbo lightweight needed an experienced pilot; on the track, it won two consecutive IMSA championships.
More production 911 racers followed, each one bearing the imprint of Roland Kussmaul, the 964 RSR, the 993 RS and RSR and the car which would give Porsche its last twentieth century Le Mans win, the heavily 959 inspired GT1. Roland smiles at the memory, but his best was arguably yet to come: the 911 GT3, the race edition of which has now been produced in more than 2300 units since 1999, making it the largest volume production racer in the history of the sport. Is it fair, we ask him, to call you the father of the GT3? Roland is an engineer and a typical straight talking Swabian, but here he has to reflect for a moment. “Well probably I am,” he admits a shade reluctantly and he elaborates: “I have a huge advantage compared with other manufacturers, in that we were able to build the race versions alongside the production GT3. Being under the same roof means homologation is so much simpler.”
Roland Kussmaul embodies the Porsche sporting ethos of meticulous planning, through preparation and solid commitment. “It’s the family effect,” he says, “the tradition that goes back even before Piëch. You need to understand the car, you need to understand the rules and you can’t build a race car by sticking to a 35-hour week. It needs absolute commitment, and at Porsche, there was always this commitment. That’s how we got things done.” He uses the past tense: is there an implication that today’s Porsche is somehow different? Roland is far too discreet to proffer an opinion of his former employer.
Roland Kussmaul’s garage is a Porsche enthusiast’s dream. In front, on his drive, sits a 996 GT3 RS, but he opens the garage door to reveal his pride and joy, a 964 RS. “It’s one of the original Cup cars which I returned to road specification by taking out the roll cage and replacing the interior.” In a nearby workshop, he is restoring one of the original ex-works 914/6s which has the 210bhp 2-litre race engine. But much as he likes his traditional racers, Roland is no old tech diehard: “I think the latest PDK is fantastic! The latest version is so reactive: you can go around the north curve at Weissach so much faster than in the manual car. I believe advances like ABS are essential too, but for me new cars tend to have too much functionality, and that adds weight.”
As we part, he climbs into his 996 GT3 RS: “I’m going to pick up my mother-in-law. If I take the Passat, she complains I haven’t brought a Porsche!” As Roland Kussmaul says, it’s all about family…
Written by: Kieron Fennelly
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto & Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale