In 34 years as a technical chief at Porsche, Norbert Singer oversaw a host of successful sports-racing cars. His retirement from the company last year gave him an opportunity to look back with Gary Watkins at the models he masterminded…
Porsche Carrera RSR:
Major wins: Daytona 1973, ’75 & ’77; Sebring ’73, ’76 & ’77; Targa Florio ’73; World Championship 4; IMSA 37
Drivers: Hurley Haywood, Peter Gregg, Mark Donohue, Herbert Müller, Gijs van Lennep, Leo Kinnunen, Claude Ballot-Lena, John Fitzpatrick
Chassis: Steel unitary (grp aero aids)
Engine: 2.8 to 3.0-litre flat-six, normally aspirated
Daytona 1973 provided a taste of what was to come over the next quarter of a century, though no one realised it at the time. The young Norbert Singer, just a couple of years into his Porsche career, had been given his first project to manage towards the end of ’72. The 911 Carrera RSR made its first appearance in November, on the Rally of Corsica, and less than two months later it was given a debut win in the American 24-hour classic.
“The car was just four months old when we went to Daytona and we had this amazing success straight away,” recalls Singer of the victory for Hurley Haywood and Peter Gregg in the works-backed Brumos-entered car. “It quickly turned into a successful year for us.”
Seven weeks later the Brumos car had won at Sebring too, and before the season was out a factory entry would notch up victory in another classic, the Targa Florio. As well as that, a privately-entered car would win the European Championship for Grand Touring Cars.
The first in a long line of off-the-peg 911 GT racers had somehow taken up where the 917 had left off, although that was not how the project was conceived: the factory viewed the RSR only as a means of maintaining a motorsport presence after the 917 Can-Am project ran its course at the end of 1973.
“It was clear Porsche could not afford a big racing programme anymore,” explains Singer. “Dr Ernst Fuhrmann had taken over as the head of the company from Dr Ferdinand Pïech and wanted to stay in racing, but at the lower level. The idea was to produce a GT car and offer it to customers.”
The first step was to build a homologation special in sufficient numbers to allow entry into the Group 3 category. Weight reduction was the key because the car would race at its homologated weight, and the result was the lightweight Carrera RS, the first 911 to wear the famous duck-tail rear wing.
The RS was only the starting point, however. Singer and his team now had to turn a hot road car into a true racer and, specifically, adapt the car to run on coil springs rather than the 911’s then-standard torsion bars.
“Clearly coils made more sense for racing,” explains Singer. “Not only could the springs be changed more quickly, but we were at the limit of stiffness with torsion bars. The rules allowed us to do this, but we had to make the chassis more rigid to accept the additional loads.”
Evidence that the job had been done well came at Daytona. There may have been only a small number of prototypes present, but the two Carrera RSRs dominated much of the race. The Penske car was leading when a flywheel problem put it out on Sunday morning, which left the way clear for Haywood and Gregg.
“Daytona was an amazing success really,” says Singer. “Don’t forget the car was only four months old.”
“It was a lovely machine and wasn’t as tail happy as some of the GT Porsches I had driven before. By the time I won the FIA Championship for Grand Touring cars in 1974 it was a very stable car and incredibly reliable. I stuck with the RSR through into ’75 and it got better and better every year.” — John Fitzpatrick
Major wins: Le Mans 1979; Daytona ’78-’83; Sebring ’78-’82, ’84; World Championship 35; IMSA 66.
Drivers: Jacky lckx, Bob Wollek, Danny Ongais, Bob Garretson, Brian Redman, John Fitzpatrick, AJ Foyt, Stefan Johansson, Bobby Rahal, John Paul
Chassis: Unitary body with grp floor/ aluminium semi-space-frame
Engine: 2.85 to 3.2-litre flat-six turbocharged (twin for some K3s)
The Carrera RSR may have been a winner first time out, but that didn’t satisfy the inquiring minds at Weissach. Within months a more developed version of the car was being pitched against Matra and Ferrari prototypes and, within a year, there were even bigger developments. When Norbert Singer and Porsche added a turbo they were sowing the seeds for the next big project — the 935 Group 5 racer.
“We were aware that new rules based around production cars were coming to replace the 3-litre prototype formula,” says Singer. “The GT rules limited development because, more or less, you could only run what you had homologated. Then we came up with the plan to run the car in the prototype class. That gave us the freedom to try things for the future.”
The first step was a bigger rear wing, the so-called whale-tail and suspension modifications. It was in this specification that the Carrera RSR claimed a shock Targa Florio victory courtesy of Gijs van Lennep and Herbert Müller in ’73.
The same pairing then took an even more surprising second overall at Le Mans one year later. “For 1974 we made a new car with a turbocharged engine,” says Singer. “It was built like a prototype, although it was still based on the 911.”
The first 935, designed to the new-for-1976 Group 5 silhouette formula, clearly built on the experiences of the RSR. Porsche pipped BMW to the World Championship of Makes title in the first year of the new category, and there began a cycle of development leading to more and more extreme 935s.
“The first version looks like a modified 911, but the 935/77 was a step further,” says Singer. “Not only were we gaining experience year by year, we were also learning what we could do under the regulations.” The last factory Group 5 Porsche, the 935/78 (or ‘Moby Dick’), was “almost a prototype”, according to Singer. “The front bulkhead and the rear end were 911, but in between it was like a space-frame chassis.”
Porsche wrapped up a third straight WCM title with the ‘Moby Dick’, though the big prize at Le Mans eluded the car. The 935 was beaten to overall honours in the 24 Hours in 1976 and ’77 by the 936 prototype developed under the stewardship of Helmut Flegl, and then by mega-buck Alpine-Renaults in ’78.
The 935 did go on to win Le Mans, of course. By 1979 Singer was on the 936, but a further development of his Group 5 racer, Kremer’s K3, claimed victory after the Porsche prototypes hit engine problems.
The 935’s contemporary racing career had yet to reach the halfway mark — the car would still be winning important races as late as 1984.
“It was a good car, or I should say a very powerful car that didn’t have such great handling. I’m not sure anyone loved it as a race car because it had a lot of turbo lag and a four-speed gearbox. That changed when ‘Moby Dick’ came along. It was like a prototype in comparison to what we had before.” — Jochen Mass
Major wins: Le Mans 1982-’87; Daytona ’85-’87, ’89, ’91, ’95; Sebring ’85-’88; World Championship 39; IMSA 55
Drivers: Jacky lckx, Stefan Bellof, Al Holbert, Mario Andretti, Klaus Ludwig, Henri Pescarolo, Ayrton Senna
Chassis: Aluminium monocoque
Engine: 2.65 to 3.2-litre flat-six turbocharged
It must count as the most difficult task of Norbert Singer’s career. Once he’d caught up on his sleep after overseeing victory in the 1981 Le Mans 24 Hours with the 936/81, he had to begin work on the successor to a car that had won the big one three times in five attempts. The result of six months’ hard work turned out to be the greatest sportscar of them all — the 956/962.
Not that Singer felt he had a monkey on his back when it came to building a car to the new Group C fuel-formula regulations. “When you’ve just won Le Mans your motivation is very high,” he says. “The car was all new apart from the engine, which we had tried out in the 936/81, but we knew what we had to do and we knew we had more tools to achieve it.”
The 956 would become the first Porsche with an aluminium monocoque chassis and the first to run ground-effect aero: Singer and his team were on a steep learning curve.
“We heard some crazy numbers from Formula One about the downforce you could get with groundeffects, so we wanted to see what we could achieve,” he remembers. “We weren’t allowed to run skirts, but we tried them to see what would happen. We expected to get more downforce, but instead we got less. We realised that we needed to take air under the car from the sides.”
Porsche’s 1982 programme was centred on Le Mans. After second place on the car’s debut in May’s Silverstone 1000Km, the Rothmans-backed works squad turned up at the Circuit de la Sarthe with a three-car team and promptly walked away with a clean sweep of the podium. Not surprisingly, Singer rates it as the sweetest of the six straight victories for the 956 and the longer-wheelbase 962 in the 1980s: “It is my favourite not only because it was the first, but also because it was a surprise. We had done just two endurance tests. To finish 1-2-3 was pretty remarkable.”
That run of victories at Le Mans isn’t the only reason why the 956/962 has a special place in both the history books and the hearts of a generation of sportscar drivers, team managers and fans. Porsche’s Group C design was the ultimate customer sportscar, a car any driver could handle and any team could run. If you were good enough you could win races, even against the might of the factory team.
Joest Racing proved this the first time privateer cars went up against the factory, at Monza in 1983. It would prove it again and again, most famously at Le Mans in ’85.
Customers were still winning a decade later: Joest triumphed in the Daytona 24 Hours in 1991 and Kremer did likewise with its open-top version of the 962 in ’95.
The car’s career still wasn’t finished and it was still competing into the late 1990s, notching up a final tally of race victories in excess of 250 in all competitions. A worthy successor to the 936 after all.
“The 956 and the 962 were such amazing cars that we took them all for granted. You got in one knowing it wouldn’t break and expecting to get a good result. I can hardly remember one ever letting me down. It did everything so well and was such a driveable racing car. it was a big part of my life.” — Derek Bell
Dauer 962 Le Mans Porsche
Major wins: Le Mans 1994
Drivers: Yannick Dalmas, Hurley Haywood, Mauro Baldi, Hans Stuck, Thierry Boutsen, Danny Sullivan
Chassis: Aluminium monocoque
Engine: 3.0-litre flat-six turbocharged
Depending on who you talk to, Porsche missed out on class victory on the return of GT cars to the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1993: the 911 Turbo S LM had been leading comfortably when it was rear-ended by a slower car and Jaguar’s XJ220C came through to win on the road.
It didn’t matter that a normally aspirated 911 RSR was eventually credited with GT honours after the best of the TWR Jags was excluded. Porsche knew that it needed a new car if it was to be at the forefront of the revived class, especially after an advance party from McLaren Cars turned up at the event that year.
“To us it was clear that there would be a McLaren F1 on the grid in 1994,” says Singer. “We were asked by Horst Marchart (the board member in charge of motorsport) how we were going to beat that car and I remembered that I had run into Jochen Dauer at the Frankfurt motor show a few weeks before.”
Sometime Group C privateer Dauer had exhibited a 962-based supercar at Frankfurt and had asked Singer for help in homologating his creation for the road. “That’s how we came up with the plan to homologate the Dauer car for the road, then build a GT version.”
The result of this plan was the awkwardly-named Dauer 962 Le Mans Porsche, a car that was much more than a Group C racer with number-plates. “It was not the work of a moment, even after we had turned it into a road car,” remembers Singer of the project. “The car was required to have a flat bottom and we had to adapt it to run on much narrower tyres.”
These constraints ensured that Porsche didn’t go to Le Mans with overall victory in mind. Group C cars, albeit in modified form, were eligible for one last year and a pair of factory-blessed Toyotas and two Porsche-engined Courages went into the race as favourites.
“We went there trying to win the class,” explains Singer. “The prototypes were clearly much faster than us and we only won because of their bad fortune.”
Lady Luck smiled on Porsche in the closing stages when the leading Toyota hit gear-selection problems. The best of the Dauer Porsches, driven by Yannick Dalmas, Mauro Baldi and Hurley Haywood, proved to be in the right place at the right time and came through to score an unlikely victory.
The Dauer Porsche turned out to be a one-race special. Even before June 1994 Porsche had been told by Le Mans rules boss Alain Bertaut that the car wouldn’t be welcomed back. “He said our car was to the letter of the rules, but it was outside the spirit,” says Singer. “He made it clear that he would stop us coming back in the future. There was never any plan to continue with that car after 1994.”
The Dauer Porsches were wheeled off to the museum, but not before they had given an almost eternal Porsche design a remarkable eighth victory at Le Mans.
“It wasn’t an easy car to drive at all. The lack of downforce and the narrow tires made it very tricky compared with a Group C 962. We only won Le Mans because we got lucky, but the car was still fast and very reliable. it was amazing really given that the car had been done in such a short space of time.” — Mauro Baldi
Porsche 911 GT1
Major wins: Le Mans 1998 (GT1-98); Global Endurance 3
Drivers: Thierry Boutsen, Emmanuel Collard, Danny Sullivan, Jörg Müller, Allan McNish, Laurent Aïello, Stéphane Ortelli, Bob Wollek, Hans Stuck
Chassis: Steel unitary/spaceframe: carbon monocoque (GT1-98)
Engine: 3.2-litre flat-six turbocharged
The McLaren F1 may have appeared a year late according to Porsche’s predictions, but when it did arrive in 1995 it picked up the goalposts and ran with them in the brave new world of the Global Endurance GT Series. Not only did it dominate the burgeoning championship, the F1 GTR racer even picked up a surprise win in the Le Mans 24 Hours.
Porsche wanted a slice of the action, but the experience with a beefed-up GT1 version of its new 911 GT2 during 1995 led to the realisation that a rear-engined car was never going to beat Gordon Murray’s creation. “We did what we always wanted to do with the 935 — turn the engine around,” remembers Singer. “It was obvious that if we were going to beat the McLaren we needed a mid-engined car.”
The 911 GT1 also gave Porsche the chance to go for victory at Le Mans: “The original idea was to do a car to win GT, but it became clear that the organisers wanted equality between the prototypes and the GT1 cars. That was good news for us because building a GT made more commercial sense for Porsche.”
The twin constraints of the marketing men and the need for type-approval resulted in the car mating the front end of a 911 with a racing rear end. “The car had to be as close as possible to the 911,” explains Singer. “It was quite easy to use the front part of the standard car and all the safety features, which was important for the road homologation. I would say that the car was 80 per cent 911 from the front of the car to just behind the driver.”
The use of the standard 911 gave Singer and his design team a problem: “The 911 has MacPherson struts, but we clearly needed double wishbones. The lack of space meant we had a short upper A-arm.”
The result was a car with a natural tendency towards understeer, though that didn’t stop it trouncing the McLarens in three end-of-season appearances in the ’96 Global series. A revised car, the so-called GT1 Evo, addressed this problem and had the pace to beat Joest’s WSC95 at Le Mans in 1997, but for an oil leak with 90 minutes to go.
Porsche’s attempts to win Le Mans with a 911-derived car had failed, though an all-new carbon-chassis contender bearing the GT1 monicker would put the record straight one year later.
This 911 GT1-98 was designed in conjunction with Dutchman Wiet Huidekoper and its monocoque built by an outside supplier in Britain, leading to the suggestion that Porsche’s most recent Le Mans winner was not a Singer car. That’s not strictly true, because the veteran still headed up the project in his capacity as the general manager and chief motorsport engineer at Weissach. The 1998 win for Allan McNish, Laurent Aïello and Stéphane Ortelli was victory number 11 for a ‘Singer car’ at Le Mans. And that’s not counting Kremer’s 935 win in ’79.
“It was a compromise because the front end was a regular 911 front end with a racing rear end bolted on the back. I always believed that the car lacked rigidity. I have to say that it was always fun to drive and there is no doubt that the car was capable of winning Le Mans in both years. Not a classic, but not bad.” — Hans Stuck
Major wins: Le Mans 1996, ’97
Drivers: Mario Andretti, Geoff Brabham, Manuel Reuter, Davy Jones, Tom Kristensen, Stefan Johansson, Michele Alboreto, Yannick Dalmas
Chassis: Carbon-composite monocoque
Engine: 3.0 to 3.2-litre flat-six turbocharged
Think of the WSC95 and the names TWR and Joest spring to mind long before Porsche. The heritage of a car that was based around Jaguar’s title-winning XJR-14 is clear to see and its record in the hands of Reinhold Joest’s team has left an indelible mark in the history books. Yet the factory’s role in its back-to-back success at Le Mans has been overlooked.
The WSC95 prototype programme was abandoned in the run-up to the car’s debut in the 1995 Daytona 24 Hours when it was handed a brace of performance penalties. The two chassis were sent back to Europe from TWR’s US base and a trip into the wind tunnel at Porsche’s Weissach development facility gave Singer the explanation to the strangest of problems encountered on the first test of the car.
“Scott Goodyear came on the radio at Charlotte as he passed the pits and said, ‘Look what I can do’,” remembers Singer. “He was turning the steering wheel on the straight and nothing was happening. When we put the car in the wind tunnel we found it had lift on the front.”
When Joest managed to persuade his friends on the Porsche board to loan him the cars for the Le Mans 24 Hours, Singer began a much needed programme of aerodynamic development. The front end was reworked and the WSC95 became a car capable of winning Le Mans. The only problem was that Manuel Reuter, Davy Jones and Alex Wurz beat the works team’s pair of brand new 911 GT1s to the chequered flag.
There was little to choose between the two cars in terms of pace, but the WSC95 had a near faultless run. Singer’s GT1s, meanwhile, had a series of minor niggles that left the best of the works-run cars one lap down. The result meant mixed emotions for Singer: “Straight after the race it was disappointing, but after a night’s sleep we all realised that one of our cars had still won.”
Joest only had the cars on loan, but his deal with Porsche allowed him to keep one if he happened to win the race. No one stipulated that it had to be parked in his museum and the car duly turned up, without Porsche’s blessing, to fight against the factory 12 months later.
This time Singer’s team had the edge on speed, but not reliability. Joest’s WSC95, chassis 001, took a second straight victory just as his 956 had done a dozen years before, this time with Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and Le Mans debutant Tom Kristensen driving.
The WSC95 was brought back under the factory umbrella for 1998 and reworked for a second time to take part in a twin-pronged attack on Le Mans in the company’s 50th year. This time Porsche’s latest GT turned the tables on the open car, though Singer reckons it could have been different: “The cars had the speed to win again, especially when you consider that our 911 GT1-98s each spent half an hour in the pits. All the good luck they’d had in the previous two years was repaid.”
“It was a fantastic race car; I’d go as far as saying it was one of the greats. It was more or less perfect in every way and the package was just right for Le Mans. It had a great engine and gearbox and a lot of downforce, which made it very easy to drive. And it never seemed to go wrong.” — Stefan Johansson