Having quietly racked up numerous victories in the ALMS in 2006 and 2007, including an indecent number of overall victories, the LMP2 Porsche RS Spyder developed into a mature thoroughbred racer just as its forebears did.
In the world of Porsche motorsport, nothing happens by chance and equally, nothing is left to chance. But, as the new millennium rolled on, many Porsche enthusiasts and followers once again hankered after greater assertiveness from the Stuttgart manufacturer on the world stage of motorsport. After all, it was back in 1998 that the 911 GT1 had last taken overall honours at the 24-Hour of Le Mans, and that was too far back in history, in the opinion of many.
The type designation ‘Spyder’ stems from a long success story which began back in 1953 with the Porsche 550 1500 RS Spyder. Many encouraging results were achieved in those early years, but the first major international overall win for Porsche came in 1956 with Umberto Maglioli’s victory in the Targa Florio driving a 550 A Spyder. This victory marked the start of a string of unparalleled successes that followed over the ensuing four and a half decades, rounding off the millennium with Porsche’s victory at Le Mans in 1998.
As the new century dawned, Porsche continued with their programme of developing and supporting their 911 GT customer teams, until the moment that the motorsport rules allowed them to look at building a completely new prototype racer. Emerging from under the covers in 2005, was Porsche’s latest iteration of the RS Spyder, an all-new 3.4-litre V8-powered prototype racer aimed at conquering the LMP2 category. Testing commenced in June 2005 followed by a successful three-day test programme under race-like conditions at the Estoril circuit in southern Portugal.
During the test sessions in Portugal, works drivers Lucas Luhr and Sascha Maassen shared the cockpit of the open sportscar that Penske Racing was contracted to run in the LMP2 class of the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). The test at Estoril served as the perfect training ground for the two drivers who would pilot the Spyder in its inaugural race in Atlanta on 1 October 2005 and again at Laguna Seca on 16 October. These final two races in ’05 served as an important precursor to the Spyder’s first full season of racing in 2006. Penske Racing, who ran two RS Spyders in its first ALMS racing season, were to assist Porsche in further developing the car for other possible ALMS customer teams in the future.
In the RS Spyder’s second season of racing, 2007, the two Porsche teams of Penske Racing and Dyson Racing took overall victory in no fewer than seven of the twelve races against the mighty Audis, winning the LMP2 class in ten of those races. Winning against such overwhelming opposition as the squadron of works Audi R10s, one might ask what challenges still remained for the Spyder to achieve. But it wasn’t until 2008 that the RS Spyder entered competition in Europe.
Competition in Europe
Porsche revealed in their press release dated 4 March 2008, that the Porsche RS Spyder was to celebrate its European premiere at the official test of the Le Mans Series (LMS) at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Castellet, southern France. Here, the two European privateer teams, Team Essex (Denmark) and Van Merksteijn Motorsport (Netherlands) tested their respective RS Spyders for the first time. The Swiss Horag Racing team was not present for the test as it was already in Florida to contest the Sebring 12 hour race on 15 March. The main purpose for the test in southern France was for teams and drivers to familiarise themselves with the new sports prototype, as for both race teams, the RS Spyder represented new territory.
The main difference between the RS Spyder sanctioned by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) and its IMSA counterpart, lay in the vehicle weight and fuel capacity. Mechanically, the two race cars were initially the same in 2008, apart from the direct injection engine, but the ACO version weighed in at 825 kg (1818 lbs) and had a fuel capacity of 80 litres (17.5 imp gal). The IMSA version, on the other hand, tipped the scales at 800 kg (1763 lbs) – up from 775 kg in 2007 – and it had a fuel capacity of 90 litres (19.8 imp gal).
Engine and gearbox
Commenting on the development of the 2008 Spyder, Martijn Meijs, Porsche race engineer responsible for the RS Spyder customer teams in the European Le Mans Series (LMS) said, “The main step for 2008 was the improved engine spec and the different add-on parts on the bodywork.”
During the car’s first two seasons in the ALMS, 2006 to 2007, the engine was developed with reliability in mind and the 2008 season saw the first performance upgrade since the Spyder’s launch. This performance upgrade was made with improved fuel consumption as a priority, as this was a benefit in the ALMS races and it also enabled the teams to run the car leaner than they had done in the past, enabling them to achieve an increase in power output from 468hp to 476hp.
The ALMS saw the introduction of the direct injection engine which wasn’t immediately available to the Spyder in the European LMS. The introduction of the direct injection engine was prompted by the level of competition in the US which was very different there. “We are not running them in Europe this season , so at the moment we are one spec behind them. So we kept the same engine and just changed certain things to reduce friction in the first two years because we were mainly looking to get the car reliable,” explained Meijs.
Martijn Meijs was referring above to the fact that in the ALMS, the Porsche RS Spyder can challenge for outright wins, whereas in Europe it is very much confined to victories in the LMP2 class, as the Audi and Peugeot teams are so strong in LMP1 and the circuits are faster. The tracks in America are more diverse, and on the twisty street circuits in particular, Porsche has beaten the LMP1 cars, and to maintain this advantage, the direct injection was introduced. This would also have contributed to assisting the performance of the car given the rules affecting the air restrictor and fuel tank size.
When the Spyder was first launched in late-2005, the regulations then allowed a 44 mm restrictor. “So we started with a bigger restrictor and we developed the car which then revved higher, but now [in 2008] the shifting points are a little bit lower than in 2006.” In an effort to slow the LMP2 cars down somewhat and to increase the performance gap between them and the LMP1 cars, the ACO introduced smaller restrictors for the LMP2 class. Meijs expanded, “I think there is not a big tolerance on maximum engine power between different 3.4-litre engines with a 42.9 mm air restrictor – I think the maximum horsepower on all these engines is very, very similar.”
As the restrictor limits the airflow to the engine, it is directly related to the maximum horsepower and so, as Meijs explained, “It doesn’t then make sense to rev over a certain engine speed because there is not enough air going in.” Building up the engine’s reliability has allowed the Porsche engineers to run increasingly leaner machines. With engine reliability sorted, Porsche felt that they finally had their package right and with fuel consumption under control, they were able to explore ways of extracting more power from the engine. As fuel consumption has played an increasingly important part in long distance racing, finishing with one pit stop less than the opposition can mean the difference between winning and losing.
During the initial two year period (2006-2007), the Spyder’s transmission was subjected to ‘normal development’ by the Porsche engineers, which amounted to again building up its reliability. Some fine tuning was done to make shifting quicker, which resulted in many of the mechanical parts remaining largely unchanged.
Apart from its impressive collection of class and overall victories, the Porsche RS Spyder achieved another double victory at the 2008 Le Mans 24 hour race, when the sports prototype claimed first and second places in the ‘Michelin Energy Endurance Challenge Trophy’ as the vehicle with the best overall efficiency. The classification is based on a formula with factors including fuel consumption, vehicle weight and average speed.
Body and aerodynamics
If the previous two season’s results were anything to go on, the RS Spyder seemed to have an efficient aero package, but several small upgrades to the body were implemented at the beginning of the 2008 season. These small but significant upgrades in the aerodynamic tuning of the bodywork, focussed mainly on high downforce.
“We have some different side planes and the nose changed a bit, we made it a little bit bigger. We have a slightly different front underfloor and we have louvres in the rear that we didn’t have in 2007,” Meijs pointed out. In 2006/2007, the RS Spyder featured just a single side plane, or ‘flick’ as the technicians call them, but with two fitted each side for 2008, it significantly increased the car’s downforce – although, according to Meijs, these were not used very often in Europe. The faster tracks in Europe such as the Nürburgring, Spa or Monza, do not require such high levels of downforce, but at Silverstone the teams run a setting very close to high downforce.
“In addition to the side planes, to increase the downforce at the front, we can add vertical end-plates to the front diffuser. This way we can further adjust the front downforce through deciding to either fit these, or to leave the end-plates off,” Meijs continued.
An important aspect of the aero package is that the new parts developed for increased downforce can be changed for different track conditions, and are therefore referred to as ‘add-on’ parts by the factory. “With the natural form [of the body] that you see here, we tune the level of downforce with the add-on parts for all the tracks from Monza and Spa to Silverstone,” Meijs explained. However, for Le Mans, all the teams have a completely different point of reference as far as aerodynamic efficiency is concerned, as there they focus on top speed, sacrificing downforce in order to achieve that point of aerodynamic performance.
Everything that one does to increase the downforce at the front automatically gives you more drag, so it just depends on the layout of the track as to which setup the teams apply. To reduce time spent at the track finding this out, Porsche carry out simulations to help them decide whether high or low downforce is needed. “Silverstone is the track in Europe where we run the most downforce,” Meijs explained.
Insofar as the underfloor is concerned, the teams can do little as this area is strictly regulated, but the front diffuser is a different matter. Although Porsche did not change the basic shape of the diffuser from 2007 to 2008, this is clearly an area of much development. This is a point Meijs feels very strongly about, “For me one of the biggest things, if you carry out aero development on a car like a prototype, I think you would spend thirty percent of your time developing the front diffuser because the front diffuser is by far the most sensitive to ride height changes.
“So you put most of your knowledge and most of your wind tunnel time into developing that properly, not only to get the highest level of downforce, but also to make it driveable. This includes what happens when you go over a bump, what happens when you get ride height changes, how big is the drop, and so forth. From the perspective of the floor, if you go through the regulations, that is the part where you have the biggest freedom,” he concluded.
Equally as important as getting the air to flow efficiently over the race car’s surface, is getting the air to flow through the body with the least amount of turbulence. Meijs again, “Similar to the Audi, we send the air through the front wishbones. But here we are a little more old-style, as we try to keep the top front wishbone as flat as possible so that you get some air to also go through the radiators.”
Looking at the Spyder of 2006/2007, there is a big change in that philosophy where previously the air flowed ‘into’ the body rather than ‘through’ it. “It is also very important to get your front floor working because it depends a lot on how I get the air away from around the front axle, and the area just behind the front axle,” Meijs added.
How the Porsche engineers control the main airstreams through and underneath the car, is largely the result of extensive wind tunnel testing. Porsche utilise a fifty percent scale model for the bulk of their wind tunnel testing at Weissach, where all the main conceptual work is done. “We use the model in the wind tunnel and then we go from this model to a 1:1 full scale design, before releasing the parts to the teams,” Meijs expanded. Introducing the new parts to the teams also follows a procedure whereby a manual issued with the new part explains how to balance the car when fixing a different side plane, for instance. Meijs again, “By adding a ‘flick’, what do I then have to do to the rear wing to balance the car. It is quite a long procedure.”
There were no changes to the rear wing assembly for the start of the 2008 season, nor were there any overall body changes. But for Le Mans, as Meijs explained, “We all run a Le Mans kit which has far less drag due to the long straights and the faster corners. This is to reduce the air resistance because the straights are so long, and so you are looking at completely different aero points. You are just focussed on the speed and not on the lack of downforce.”
“We have two positions for the rear main flap. We have a high downforce setting and a low downforce setting and we do the fine tuning on the flap,” Meijs continued. To run a high downforce setup, the wing is set in its lower position at a steeper angle, and for low downforce, you run that it in the higher position with a flatter angle.
For 2008, the chassis and suspension were given some new kinematic points, making it easier to get the balance of the car right. These new points allow the teams to adjust and direct anti-squats in a different way, but the rolling chassis has remained broadly unchanged since 2006. “Under the skin, it is the old car,” Meijs smiled.
Having started life as a 775 kg race car, ALMS regulations now require LMP2 cars to have a minimum 800 kg weight and for the LMS, this is up an extra 50 kg on the original weight, to 825 kg. “Where did you add that weight, is that all in the ballast,” the writer asked Meijs? “Actually, through the years the car has become a little bit heavier so we are running ballast, but not the full 50 kg,” Meijs replied, dodging a direct answer quite skilfully.
Meijs confirmed that Porsche was one of the first sports car manufacturers to install the three shock absorber suspension set-up. “It is very similar to F1 technology. It is a more complex system, but if you understand how to set it up, it is really easy to handle. By touching one suspension parameter, it changes the whole balance of the car,” he explained.
The mechanics from the various teams spend time at Weissach when a new car is introduced. A two week period is planned into the build schedule where the mechanics and the race engineer from each team attend training at Weissach where they are introduced to Porsche’s systems, and where they will build a car with the help of the factory mechanics.
Importantly, the RS Spyder teams are buying more than just a car from Porsche, they are also buying the infrastructure. “We give them all the same information, we give all the teams the same level of support and if one has a problem, we try to help them,” said Meijs reassuringly.
“So there is for sure some kind of positive competition between the teams, but not from our side. For me it does not matter which Porsche is at the front, its [the team] that did the best job at the time that should win,” he continued.
Support at the track includes Porsche engine and systems experts. “My job as a race engineer is to help if there are any setup problems or any questions, or if something is broken, then we have to bring that information back to Weissach,” Meijs explained in the team’s pit garage. “My job during the races is normally to do nothing, the teams do ninety-nine percent of the work,” he added with a smile.
At that time, Porsche managed the RS Spyder support structure in parallel with a similar team which oversaw the customer 911 GT3 RSR race cars. Although it would make sense to streamline these two operations, this was still a consideration for the future, as the cars were running in two different series. “But if we keep the same teams for next year, we will be able to reduce the support because with most things, the teams are more than capable,” Meijs said.
The Porsche press releases highlight the Spyder’s 11 wins in 12 races, including eight overall wins in the ALMS series ahead of the Audis. “That must have embarrassed them quite a bit, those eight overall wins,” the author proffered. “Yes, it did”, Meijs replied with a smile, “But it was not only the performance of the car, it was also the pit stops. The Penske team did a really good job in helping us achieve that [in the ALMS]. The RS Spyder is still not at the end of its development possibilities, although we have kept this the same for a long time,” he concluded.
Looking back at the RS Spyder era in the noughties, it was competitive in the ALMS broadly from 2006 to 2008, and in the ELMS in 2008. RS Spyders did compete in selected races in the 2009 ALMS and one team did the full 2010 ALMS season, while Team Essex and Navi Team Goh ran in the 2009 Le Mans 24 Hours, where the Essex team won its class.
With five highly successful seasons under its belt, the RS Spyder rolled into retirement in the Porsche Museum and into the motorsport history books, as a modern-day ‘giant killer’, just like its forebears.
Written by: Glen Smale
Images by: Virtual Motorpix/Glen Smale & Porsche Archives