Long-distance front runners

A car's greatness can be measured not just in results but also by the memories it triggers. Some of the 956/962's famous operators tell David Malsher what this car means to them

At the end of 1981, I went to see Professor [Helmut] Bott of Porsche. He said, Well, Derek, we would like you to drive for us next year. We are building a monocoque chassis; we have never done that before. We are putting a horizontally-opposed engine in a ground-effect chassis; that's never been done before. We have never been wrong before; will you sign a contract?' I signed.

My first drive was in chassis 001 at Paul Ricard in January 1982.! was completely blown away because I had never driven anything with ground-effect. It was a complete revelation to someone like me who'd driven a 936 the year before. I couldn't believe the speed I was turning-in to the corners. But! missed getting the tail out! Then, as more power was created over the years and arrived with a measure of violence, the car could be unstuck. And, of course, the IMSA-spec 962, with its single turbocharger, a bigger ride-height and consequently less ground effect, was more fun. The 800bhp would send you up the road in a massive powerslide.

IMSA also didn't have the fuel restrictions which were the biggest let-down of the Group C era in Europe. At the first Group C race at Silverstone, Porsche admitted they had got their sums wrong as far as fuel economy was concerned; Jacky[Ickx] and I had to cruise round at 4000rpm to make the finish, and the Lancias trounced us. I thought it was particularly unfair on the public who just heard us droning round in fifth gear.

Eventually, it became a wonderful series and there were wonderful Le Mans races. Even when 16 of the cars were Porsches it didn't matter, because they were different colours, different teams, and therefore different names. Without Porsche supplying those cars, we wouldn't have had a championship of any strength. However, on the two occasions that I moaned that we were doing too much development for the privateers, the answer from Norbert Singer was, 'Every race must be the development of something; that is our philosophy'. So sometimes we ran modifications that were detrimental to our performance but which were ultimately going to be used by customer cars. Porsche looked on it as a business, one which they had been in for many, many years, and they wanted to keep their customers satisfied.

In 1994, I drove the ultimate 962.1 was at the Most circuit in Czechoslovakia testing the Kremer K8, the car I put on the front row at Le Mans that year. Kremer had also brought his Interserie sprint car and let me try it. It had about 800bhp, and almost nothing else! Everything was pared to the minimum — even the fuel tank was tiny. It was so light, and unbelievably quick: the best Porsche I ever drove. Most is very quick and difficult, but in that car it was a joy. To drive Kremer's Le Mans K8 and then get in their sprint car was like comparing a sportscar with an F1. A magic version of a wonderful car.

Thierry Boutsen

The first time I drove the car was at Zolder in the German Supercup in 1983. There was no testing, nothing. I just turned up — and won the race with Bob Wollek in the Joest Racing car. Then we did it again in the proper world championship race at Monza the next month, beating the works team by just a few hundred metres.

I knew immediately how much potential the car had: it was easy to drive, well balanced, easy to get used to and, of course, I was with a very good team, Joest Racing, whose cars were very well prepared. There was always quite close work between Porsche and their clients, but especially Joest. I think they developed their car together. It was a great arrangement, because whatever was being produced by Porsche became almost immediately available to the customers, and yet the customers also had the ability to develop the cars themselves. I remember, at Reinhold Joest's team, we did a few things with the engine and the aerodynamics.

I also drove for John Fitzpatrick's team and had a very good time there, and also for Walter Brun. It was amazing when we privateers at Brun beat the works team to the manufacturers' championship in 1986. So that proves that the clients were able to match the factory effort. It meant everyone had the same potential.

It was an amazing car, huh? It was easily adjustable, yes, but it was good from the start. Whatever you did to balance it, it responded, so that made it easy to setup. It's difficult to think of a circuit where it didn't work.

Between team-mates, sometimes the way the springs were set up was a little bit different. For example, I sometimes liked the car to be a little more nervous and responsive. But I don't think this was a problem. A good car is a good car for everyone.

My best memories of these cars are winning at Spa-Francorchamps in front of my home crowd in 1986, winning first time out at Monza back in '83, and for sure the Daytona 24 Hours in '85.1 shared with A J Foyt and Al Unser Snr, but they didn't drive much. It was mainly myself and Bob Wollek, as usual.

Reinhold Joest

When the Porsche 956 appeared, I had already decided to stop racing and concentrate on running the team. I was very impressed by the car, the first I had encountered with ground effect; it drove as Wit was on rails. I was immediately certain that this car would have a great future, and I'm proud that we were so successful with it.

In 1983, our car won the Supercup race at Zolder, and we were hopeful it would go well at the opening WEC round at Monza. But, for sure, we were surprised when we beat the factory Porsches.

Many people ask me how we repeated our 1984 Le Mans victory in '85 against the works team. And I have always the same answer. There is no secret in winning there: you need a strong car, a team working perfectly, precision preparations and a good strategy. Sure, Porsche were disappointed, but they behaved very fairly and congratulated us publicly for the victory. Ultimately, the victories in both years were not only our team's but belonged also to Porsche.

We were able to contribute to Porsche's progress, too. For example, we developed software for the programming of the Motrunic 1.7, and furthermore, the final water system with radiators and heat exchangers, including all its couplings, was developed by us.

It was a truly great racing car: well designed, well developed and very reliable.

Mario Andretti

I liked the 956 straight off. It was basically good straight out of the box. Anyone could drive it, and I think that's why they were successful. You could just unload it and go, and be competitive.

The 956 was more responsive than the 962, and so was its engine with two little turbos. It was more of a racing car that you were able to hustle. If you had a choice to race one or the other, you'd pick the 956.1 would, anyway.

In 1983, I was third at Le Mans in a Kremer-run 956 with my son Michael and Philippe Alliot, but we had a problem with the reserve fuel tank, so we couldn't keep in our fuel window and had to sit idle in the pits for too long.

Then in qualifying for the Daytona 24 Hours of 1984, in the prototype 962, they sealed the louvres for the air-cooled engine and I put it on pole by about 2sec. Obviously that was not feasible for more than three laps, but even so, on race day, we looked easy winners until the gearbox seized because it didn't have enough heat-shielding from the turbo.

Le Mans in 1988 could have been another victory, for myself, Michael and nephew John. Mr [Norbert] Singer put us on a great fuel strategy that meant going easy in the early stages, and then, when the Stuck and Wollek cars had to back off in the night, we maintained our pace and homed in on them — until we dropped a cylinder. We ran it on five — and it still finished sixth.

Klaus Ludwig

The first time I drove a 956, I didn't like the handling. It seemed only made for high-speed straights, with a very low and small rear wing, and ground effect that was not that great because we had openings in the undertray to allow exhaust pipe ventilation. In high-downforce configuration it was not a bad car. But in Le Mans spec in 1983 it was heavily oversteering: you would turn in, and almost immediately have to put on opposite lock. But by '84, it was a lot better as the teams learned more about the car and how to close the bottom to make the ground effect work better. Then in '85, we got Goodyears, and with those we could run much more camber than the Dunlop crossplies we'd had previously. This was a really big step forward.

Joest was one of the more conservative teams and would run only with factory parts, but I would say the reason they achieved more than Kremer and Brun was because they were a better team and, at that time, I was at my height. I don't think there was anyone who could beat me in the same car on the same day — and I also had many ideas. Together with the best mechanics and a very good engineer, we were just better. Every day we had new ideas, and the others didn't Joest prepares cars better than anyone, I think. We never ever had a suspension failure, for example, as other teams did.

At Le Mans, I had some great days and also big disappointments. People were suspicious about Joest's great fuel consumption when we won together in 1984 and '85, but really that's just bullshit. In '84, the opposition was not strong enough. In '85, the opposition from the factory cars was huge, but we had fantastic Goodyears which gave us less rolling resistance than the works team's Dunlops. Then we worked on making the car reach our usual 8600rpm figure on only 1.1 bar of boost, and the gearing was specifically done for this. The factory team went another way, using a very long fifth gear which allowed 7500rpm. They thought this would save enough fuel. Both teams were doing 3601un/h on the straight, but although the works cars were using less rpm, they needed more boost than us to get there. As we pulled away from them during the race, they added more boost to catch us, and so their consumption was really shot to hell.

In the 1986 Le Mans, we had the latest electronic equipment from the factory and again we were much faster than their car. But then Jo Gartner had his crash, there was a long pace car sequence and our engine let go. Two years after that, our brand new works car had crap in its pipes, so when I went to the reserve tank on my first stint, the fuel wouldn't come through. Then the race was ended a lap early as we dosed on the lead Jaguar, which had only fifth gear left.

But from the driving point of view, the 500km cars were the best. We ran much stiffer springs, and got the front solid enough to avoid diagonal roll, and ran soft at the rear to get better traction. In this high downforce specification, with the big rear wing and the full venturi underneath, the faster you went through the corner, the more stable the car was. Fantastic!

Hans-Joachim Stuck

When I first drove the 956 at Spa in 1983, sharing Walter Brun's car with himself and Harald Grohs, I immediately knew why they had been winning everything up to now. The cornering speeds were shocking, yes, and also that whole weekend at Spa we only had to make a slight change on the rear anti-roll bar to get it perfectly balanced.

My first win was at Imola in 1984, sharing the Brun car with Stefan Bellof. And then I got the factory drive for '85 and did a lot of testing and development of the 962.1 also drove the purpose-built sprint version of the 956 in the Supercup in Germany.

Looking back, I would say it was a miraculous car. And looking back at its safety, I think I was lucky to have survived, too. My friend Jo Gartner died in this car, as did Stefan Bellof and Manfred Winkelhock. If you had a big crash, you had to be very lucky to survive. And yet in those days, this car was state of the art. There was no alternative, so we drove them.

It was such a good Le Mans car. It was the first car I drove there in which I could just concentrate on the driving, without thinking about losing doors or wheels or bodywork and without having to nurse the engine.

When I came to the factory team in 1985, there was some development of the PDK semi-automatic gearbox going on. The other drivers didn't like it, but I found it interesting, and Professor Bott liked my enthusiasm for it, so we started a huge programme about 10,000km of testing at Weissach and got it up to race standard. We won the Supercup title with the PDK gearbox, and we did many long-distance races with it with Derek Bell. The only problems with it was that it took a little bit of power, and made the car a little overweight But you couldn't miss a gear and buzz the engine, and you didn't have to take your hands off the steering wheel: on the top spoke you had a button for upshifting, the bottom spoke button was for downshifting. And because you didn't have to lift the throttle, you had an acceleration advantage.

It also took me a long time to convince Porsche to change from a spool to a differential. But we went to the Nurburgring GP course for three days and set up a speedtrap at the beginning, middle and end of every corner, and it was eventually proven that the differential was a little better than the spool. We had finally improved on that turn-in understeer. Towards the end of the 1980s, the jaguar and Sauber were principally sprint cars, and we could have done with coming up with a whole new design that was built more for outright pace. The 962 was strong and reliable I think it could have done a 48-hour race but we gave up some speed for that

My favourite memories are from the Supercup, when Porsche built a car just for me. It was different in terms of weight and strength. In addition, it had the perfect seat for me, the perfect pedals for me, the perfect set-up for me. I was in an extremely privileged situation and I really appreciated it. If I asked whether we could have an extra day of testing, I got it I felt like Michael Schumacher must feel with Ferrari.

Jonathan Palmer

It looked so civilised and sophisticated, I thought; the seat upholstery was nice, the dashboard was nice, you used a key to start it. And it was like that to drive. The flat-six engine had quite a soft power delivery, its turbo didn't blip viciously. The gearbox, unusually, was synchromeshed and, driving up to nine-tenths, was lovely to use; try and hurry it to ten-tenths, and it would baulk, but that at least meant it was generally reliable.

And Porsche had the car on soft progressive-rate springs: as it got lightly laden it got softer, so the ride quality was very good. All in all, it was easy to breeze it along pretty briskly, pretty comfortably. Then again, when it came to wringing its neck, you really had to be aggressive.

The factory was quite conservative, whereas at GTI Racing with Richard Lloyd, we were quite maverick and pioneering. They sealed up the little holes around the driveshafts and between the panels to maximise ground effect. There was never any problem getting rear-end downforce on the 956, but that would give you more more and more understeer unless you could create lots of front-end grip. So at the Brands 1000km in 1984,1 came up with the idea of fitting a front wing. In the end we had so much angle on it that it was probably pretty horrendous drag-wise, but on Brands' GP circuit that hardly mattered. Our lap times shot down by about 1.5sec; Jan Lammers and I were quickest by a long way and went on to win easily.

The Silverstone 1000km in 1985 is a great memory, too, even though Jan and I were leading easily when a wheel fell off. But that 956 on crossplies handled beautifully — and Silverstone was a proper circuit back then. You whipped through Stowe in fourth, and I think you exited Club flat in fifth, with just a touch of opposite lock. Woodcote was approached at 190mph. You braked to 100mph and then flicked it, on opposite lock each way, through this right-left-right chicane. Exhilarating! We got back to fifth and I set fastest lap.

Coming second at Le Mans that year was great, too, but not as good as spending the first 12 hours dicing for the lead with Stefan Johansson, going down the straights at 225mph making rude hand signals at each other!

John Watson

While Porsche were initially developing McLaren's 1.5-litre TAG unit, they put it in a 956 at Weissach and I was asked to drive it. Strangely, it didn't have much lag in the 956 chassis but a lot in the F1 chassis. Don't ask me why. I would say its performance was marginally better than the original 2.65 flat-six. But then it was a much newer engine.

Porsche would have been better off developing a V6 2.6-litre. The trouble with flat engines is that you have to get the exhaust system out of the way somehow, and that means the engine has to be raised higher than ideal. The whole engine/gearbox package was on a tilt to make room for the venturi underneath.

Stefan Bellof and I won in the works 956 at Fuji. Or rather, he won and co-drove. At one point Stefan, being quite tall, had hopped out of the car with the seat fully back. I jumped in, did the belts up and forgot to pull the seat forward. The steering had a lot of castor and was heavy, so you needed to sit quite close to get good leverage on the wheel. That was a pretty tough stint! I had Ickx behind me with his boost turned up to try and catch me as he and Jochen Mass were going for the championship against Bellof.

The Porsche 956 is one of the all-time classics — a very good package and user-friendly. It was only the Jaguar XJRs that highlighted its shortcomings, in particular its relative lack of rigidity from its aluminium monocoque.

Tiff Needell

My first impression of the 956 was not good: on my very first lap out of the pits at Monza in 1983, in the Richard Lloyd car, a front wheel flew off at Curva Grande, as they tended to do in those early days. Also, its brake pedal used to go to the floor a lot; it was quite an evil beast in its early days.

I spent much of my career jumping into cars at the last minute with no testing, having to make an impression while sharing a car with the guy who had set it up! It used to be halfway through the race before I had caught up with their pace, which was usually too late to impress the team's owner. It was only in 1989 with the British-sponsored car, and in '90 with the Japanese car, that I had my 'own' 962, and then I was as quick as anybody in it.

Le Mans in 1990 was just fantastic, when myself; Anthony Reid and David Sears finished third and beat the works car. It took Brun's breakdown near the end for us to reach the podium, but it was still wonderful.

That was the first year of the chicanes on the Mulsanne, and every Porsche runner was debating whether to go with the long or short tail. I looked at Fuji and thought its straight was as long as each of the stretches that comprised the new Mulsanne. So we did back-to-back testing with rear wings and were certain we'd be quicker with our high-element one. Everyone else had gone low downforce except ourselves and Brun. And we were proved right.

Porsche 956/962 Long-distance roll of honour