The understudy that stole the show

In 1987 this 962C went to Le Mans as back-up. It returned with the winner's laurels. Motor Sport was invited to try it at Porsche's test track, with two stipulations: drive as hard as you like, for as long as you like...
writer Andrew Frankel. photographer James Lipman

Weissach is cold and we know it will soon be wet, for bruised clouds are mustering in the skies over Stuttgart. Today of all days, rain is a problem I can do without.

The 962C sits on the test track apron; exactly the same test track upon which it and its works Group C brethren pounded around during the 1980s, when they came to dominate sports car racing like no other car before. The livery and the fact we're on Porsche's own track tells you that, even by 962C standards, this is no normal example. Rather, it is one of just 10 works 962s ever built: chassis 006, a car with a short and, by Group C standards, rather boring career.

It was built in 1986 but raced only at Spa, coming home seventh, before sitting out the rest of the season as the spare. The following year looked no more interesting until Le Mans came around. Then all hell let loose.

It is to be remembered that the 962C was effectively obsolete by 1987. Slowed by fuel limit regulations designed to hurt its turbo motor far more than the rival Jaguars' normally aspirated V12s, and possessing a tub made of nothing more than folded aluminium, Porsche had ceded victory to the carbon-fibre Jaguar XJR-8s at Jarama, Jerez, Monza and Silverstone — in other words every single round of the World Sportscar Championship thus far.

But Porsche had won the previous six Le Mans. If it could win anywhere, surely it would be in France. It resolved to take four 962s to the track, three to race and 006, as ever, on the bench.

And then things started to go wrong, and once they started they didn't seem keen to stop.

Firstly, Hans Stuck had a substantial accident in one of the race cars during a shakedown test, right here at Weissach. Awkwardly it was not his 008 race chassis but the 007 car of Jochen Mass and Bob Wollek. They not unreasonably figured that, as he'd wrecked their car, they'd race his instead. Which lumbered Stuck with the unloved 006 to share between himself, Derek Bell and Al Holbert.

Then, during practice, the fourth car, 002, slid on some oil and had the kind of accident you'd be happy to crawl away from. As it was, Price Cobb was fit enough to cadge a ride for the race in Richard Lloyd's private 962. Which left Porsche with two race cars and no spare.

Benefitting from the use of its qualifying boost pressure, they lined up first and second on the grid, the shunned spare showing no lack of pace with a lap time just 0.04sec off the Wollek/Mass pole-sitter. But within two hours of the race start, the circuit became littered with the carcasses of dead 962s, all suffering blown engines. One belonged to Wollek and Mass. Porsche had fitted its own and many privateer cars with an engine management chip that disagreed violently with the ACO's fuel. They got the chip changed on 006 before it went the same way, but with 22 hours of a 24-hour race remaining, the bald fact was that the spare was on its own against a trio of Jaguars with an unbroken record of victory over the 962s.

It won. In fact it didn't just win, but put 20 laps on the privateer 962 that came second, further than the distance between London and Swansea. The Jaguars? Two retired, one limped home fifth, a further 10 laps down. Though no one knew it at the time, the spare that was never meant to race had delivered Porsche its sixth and final Le Mans win of the Group C era.

*

Under the circumstances, I feel it should look smug, but it doesn't. It looks terrifying. Since then Porsche has maintained 006 in fully functioning order but, save its tyres, brakes and final drive ratio, is today exactly as it was that weekend in France 25 years ago. Same tub, body, engine, gearbox — everything. All I now need to do is drive it.

Helpfully I've been allowed a few laps in a van to figure out which way the circuit goes. It looks merciless, with so little run-off it makes tracks such as Goodwood and the NiIrburgring look like Silverstone. It's narrow, awkwardly cambered and has just one quite long and very-far-from-straight straight.

I wonder what tuition I will receive. I have actually driven the car before, for probably less than two minutes at the 2012 Festival of Speed (during which I concentrated so hard on not crashing that I learned almost nothing).

I'm escorted to the car, made comfortable for my tall frame by retaining the lanky Stuck's seat, and await further instruction. None comes. The door snaps shut, a finger circles in the air, I turn the key (yes, key) to fire the engine and am waved out onto the circuit.

This is ridiculous. No one has said how many laps, no one has said how many revs. Weissach is mine, but this is not just a massively powerful machine, this is history, one of the more important cars in Porsche racing heritage. You'll be disappointed to learn I could not bring myself just to hit the gas and hope for the best.

I decide to do three gentle laps before returning to the pits for further instruction. Time to settle into a very alien environment.

It's a mess in here. The cabin looks as old as the bodywork still looks young. The Momo steering wheel is the same as I used to have in my old Caterham, the knobs for the lights no different to those in my old 911. There's no flashing bank of multi-coloured change-up lights, just an old orange-on-black dial with a strip of duct tape stuck to its surface at 8400rpm.

All other information needs to be summoned onto two Bosch LCD readouts via a large rotary knob in the middle of the dash labelled 'Display'. Confusingly to its left is another identical control called 'Mixture', a critical dial for a car running to a fuel consumption formula; but the one in which I'm most interested is to the right — 'Boost'. I've always wondered just how much extra urge it might make available. By the time this 962 was built, all works cars ran fully water-cooled 3-litre twin turbo Bosch Motronic-injected flat-six motors, which could be wound beyond 750bhp for qualifying. Today the dial is in its mid setting, which I'm told places between 680 and 700bhp under my right foot. In a car weighing far less than the lightest Ford Fiesta, it's enough.

I pull into the pits, frustrated by my diffidence and now frightened they'll say my time is up. The team rushes up, one of them somewhat redundantly checking the heat in the vast Avon cut slicks. Foreheads crease. Clearly they don't understand what the car is doing here. I'm asked if it's OK. When I tell them it's fine, I'm simply told 'so now you drive'.

That's a message even I can understand. Implausible as it seems, today there is no limit to laps, no conservative red line to observe. Inexplicably, Porsche has provided one of its most precious offspring and its own test track and is tacitly not simply permitting but instructing me to drive one around the other as fast as I can make it go. And for as long as I like.

At first it feels quite cumbersome. I'd been warned about this by driver after driver while researching the history of the Group C Porsches for a previous story in Motor Sport. I wouldn't quite call it a truck, as did Tiff Needell, but it feels far heavier than it is, less wieldy than prototype racers I've driven from both before and after its era. It's down to a combination of factors, only one of which — cold tyres — I can do anything about. Less easily changed are its spool differential, which locks the rear axle solid, and spring rates sufficiently stiff to allow the car to maintain its ride height even when subjected to the massive downforce afforded by its full ground-effect bodywork.

A familiar conundrum appears. You can't drive it fast because the tyres are cold, but you can't warm the tyres without driving it fast. It wants to go straight on everywhere until friction generated by front tyres sliding across the surface of the Tarmac starts to do its job. Grip arrives like someone's thrown a switch: one lap it's understeering helplessly, the next it hits its mark like the seasoned professional it is.

So what have we here? A car that's intimidatingly low and wide and makes a kind of grunting noise as I gently prod the throttle. The apices are difficult to pick out, but at least the gearbox, slow and syncromesh like all Porsche's sports racers of this and earlier eras, is easy. When you drive old racing cars the prospect of missing a gear or, worse, finding the wrong one, can haunt every lap. But not today.

The straight opens out so I give the pedal a decent stab. I'm expecting lots of lag, whooshing sounds as turbos spin up and other warnings of what's to come, but there is none. This car may be a quarter of a century old and as technologically sophisticated as a Dinky compared to a modern Le Mans car, but it's also lighter and massively more powerful. Grunt turns to roar and knees to jelly as the 962C finally receives a command it can recognise and responds in kind. I feel helmet hit bulkhead and belts slackening as my body is crushed back into Stuck's seat, but there's nothing I can do about it save lift, which doesn't really seem an option now. Thanks to those tyres and that diff, it's taken all the power and torque without a cheep of wheelspin.

How many revs to use? My only guide is that strip of tape at 8400rpm, at least as many as Hans, Derek and Al used during the race at Le Mans. And if that's good enough for them...

Actually you don't really get a good impression of just how fast this car is in the lower ratios, you're too busy and distracted watching the revs and throwing gear after gear at it. But by the time you nudge forward and across the gate into fourth and feel it gather itself once more, there's time. Time to savour acceleration so far beyond the ken of any production road car they might as well be speaking different languages. Yet this straight is long enough to need fifth and even now it kicks hard and it kicks fast. That's what a 962C with sprint gearing can do. Calculations made by none other than Norbert Singer estimate it's hitting about 170mph on this tight track in the suburbs of Stuttgart before my nerve fails.

The brakes feel barely up to it: extraordinary by conventional standards, no doubt, but for this car adequate at best. Perhaps 006 has been provided with ultra long-life pads for its retirement. That would explain why they require a great deal of effort for, by these standards if no other, not much reward. Or it might also be that modern carbon ceramics have advanced the art of braking more than any other in the last quarter century. Happily, and as you must with such an unimaginably rare, precious thing, large margins have been left.

Faster than you'd think, this car comes to you. It may have been raced by the Gods, but it was designed to be driven by almost anyone and, fitting squarely into this latter category, I speak with authority when I say it shows. If you rid your mind of all the stuff that's just not helping at the moment — its intimidating appearance, rarity, provenance and value — and remind yourself it's just a car with a steering wheel, three pedals and a gearlever like most others, your brain starts to get to grips with it.

Only its ultimate cornering power remains a mystery and I don't feel too bad about that. When Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx first drove the 956, both felt it a step forward over the previous year's 936, but not a night and day improvement. Only after extensive testing, during which both came to terms with exactly what the ground-effect configuration could achieve, were they able to appreciate exactly what the new design could do. So the chances of me having the same experience with a priceless museum piece at a cold, soon-to-bewet Weissach are non-existent.

What I can tell you is that if you drive it fast enough for long enough, even with low-drag bodywork fitted, you will find that strange sensation of the car becoming easier to handle the faster you go, and that only happens when aerodynamic grip begins to take over.

Which is how I now find myself haring around the track for lap after lap, forearms burning, neck aching, sweat soaking into my balaclava and utterly bemused as to why Porsche is letting me drive its car like this.

And I am able, for a few laps at least, to take command. Only then does this surreal experience also become blissful. Because you now know how it is likely to respond, it now reacts to you and not the other way around. Acres of mental processing space hitherto entirely occupied by fear and apprehension are once more at your disposal. The performance will never feel normal, but is now at least comprehensible. You carry a little more pace through the corner that leads onto the straight and therefore get to spend a whole lot longer in fifth gear at the other end, fantasising about Mulsanne. Braking points are now merely sensed rather than physically eyeballed, apices find the nose so naturally it's as if they're coming to it. Slowly, but with immense clarity, you get the idea that you could actually race this car and emerge with dignity intact.

*

A drop of rain explodes on the screen and this ridiculous illusion explodes with it. In the dry, somewhere safe like Silverstone, sharing a grid of 'After You, Claude' gentlemen drivers, maybe. But in the rain, at night, at Le Mans? Forget it. It's time to return the 962C to safekeeping before I outstay my welcome.

Climbing out I notice the cut slicks are now just slicks. Goodness knows how many laps me and one other journalist have completed, but the Avons look spent. Good. At least the car's had a proper workout. Then comes the rain, but I start to giggle. It's too late, the job is done.

Minutes later I'm warm, dry and still chortling in the back of a VW minibus, heading for Stuttgart airport. Soon it'll seem a dream, the one where you're given a Le Mans winner, a private test track, as much time as you like and absolutely no rules at all. I'm glad we have the photographs to prove it because, one day, even I might struggle to believe it happened.