Audi has ruled for 14 years, but for many Porsche is still the true king of Le Mans. Now – finally – it returns. Racing’s most anticipated comeback is on
Writer Gary Watkins
It started off as a sabbatical: Porsche was only meant to be absent from the top of the sports car racing tree for one year. Now, 15 seasons after its withdrawal from top-line endurance racing, the German manufacturer is finally returning to its rightful place. That means the sharp end of the grid at the Le Mans 24 Hours and, now that there is one again, what we might generically call the world sports car championship.
The new 919 Hybrid LMP1 coupé ends the great interregnum – let’s call it so because Porsche is undoubtedly King of Le Mans – that began in late November 1998, just five months after it notched up a 16th outright victory in the 24 Hours. There have been false dawns along the way, most notably the still-born LMP2000 and the hope offered by the LMP2 RS Spyder, but after more than three years of planning, the great marque is now once again taking on the world and bidding for Le Mans victory number 17.
It has been quite a journey for Porsche, during which time the company has undergone a dramatic transformation. It is a very different organisation from the one that was an almost ever-present force at Le Mans through the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s. For a start, its ownership has changed: it has been subsumed into the Volkswagen Group, starting in 2009. But the changes run deeper. Porsche has gone from a niche sports car manufacturer building 18,000 cars a year in 1998 to 129,000 in 2012, with an expanding model range that sells more SUVs than it does sports cars.
The stars finally aligned to bring Porsche back. A new set of rules with an emphasis on efficiency was critical at a time that Porsche was beginning to develop its 918 plug-in hybrid super car. The recreation of the World Endurance Championship out of the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup was important, although it was confirmed when the decision to return was already made, and then there were changes in senior management at the company. Wendelin Wiedeking, the architect of Porsche as we know it today, left the company, with Matthias Müller arriving as his replacement and Wolfgang Hatz as research and development boss, the board position at Porsche with responsibility for motor sport.
“Probably about time,” is how Hatz describes Porsche’s comeback. That is why it was right up near the top of his agenda when he rejoined Porsche over the winter of 2010/11.
“When I came back – and I am an old Porsche man – in 2010, it was clear for me that we had to return,” says Hatz, whose first spell at Porsche in 1989-1993 included an involvement in the unsuccessful 3.5-litre V12 Formula 1 engine raced by Footwork. “It was one of my targets. I was born in the race department: for me it was clear we had to do it.
“We had to return at some point, but the fit with 2014 was perfect. We knew in which direction the regulations would go. The objective was that they should very much have road relevance and that fitted our strategies.”
Hatz and his predecessor Wolfgang Durheimer have used the terms “big motor sport” or “high-level motor sport” when talking about Porsche’s return. Those phrases clearly encompass Formula 1, which Hatz admits was an option.
“There were only two options – F1 or LMP, but Le Mans is our second home,” he says.
Hatz explains that Porsche could have been forced to go F1 had the VW Group supervisory board decided not to allow a head-to-head clash with Audi in LMP1. Perhaps the more likely scenario is that Audi would have been pushed into Formula 1 to leave the way clear for its newly acquired sister marque. Müller’s comments in 2010 about the possibility of Porsche going F1, backed up by those of Durheimer, have been widely interpreted as part of the game of politics as the two marques manoeuvred for the right to go for Le Mans glory when the new rules came on stream in 2014.
The supervisory board, as history relates, didn’t have a problem with Audi and Porsche racing at Le Mans, so long as they were using different technologies. That means diesel power for Audi and petrol for Porsche.
That the Porsche contender would be powered by petrol was one of the few decisions already in place when it announced its intention to return to Le Mans three years before its projected comeback. Porsche’s return has been a long time coming, but it has also been a long time in the making.
The complexity of the rules has a lot to do with it, of course, but so does that long absence. Porsche believed it had to start again and has put together an all-new organisation on its Weissach R&D campus, entirely separate from the existing Porsche Motorsport department that produces the range of competition 911s from Supercup one-make racer to the GTE class Porsche 911 RSR that will race alongside the 919 in the WEC this year. This includes assembling an in-house race team: Porsche, in keeping with its long traditions, will run the cars itself without the assistance of an outside partner such as Joest (Audi) and ORECA (Toyota).
It is estimated that fewer than 10 per cent of the 200-plus staff working on the LMP1 project were existing Porsche employees with experience of its previous racing programmes. LMP1 vice-president Fritz Enzinger, regarded as Hatz’s man on the project, joined from BMW. Likewise team principal Andreas Seidl, who has charge of the race squad, worked at the Sauber BMW F1 team and then continued with the Munich marque in its first year back in the DTM in 2012, while technical director Alex Hitzinger came from F1 and Red Bull Racing, where he was head of future technologies. There were, interestingly, also a number of staff recruited from the defunct Peugeot 908 P1 turbodiesel programme.
Hitzinger says that when he joined Porsche in December 2011, “There were just a few people looking at ergonomic studies and stuff.
“We had to build a completely new team from scratch and even had to create the infrastructure of the buildings,” he says. “We have brought in people from all over the place and from very different horizons.”
Key decisions about technology that the car we now know as the 919 Hybrid would employ were still to be taken. That was a job made all the more difficult by the fact there weren’t firm regulations in place at the time.
“At the very beginning, there was only a rough idea about the regulations,” says Hitzinger. “We did a lot of concept studies in the beginning, when we were looking at different technologies potentially available and in parallel talking to the regulators, the FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. It took us into the second quarter of 2012 to do more defined concept studies. Then it became clear which direction we should take.”
That direction included a change of the energy storage system Porsche would employ.
It originally planned to go down the same route as rival Audi, using a flywheel or mechanical battery developed by Williams Hybrid Power.
It had run such a system on its 911 GT3-R Hybrid Nürburgring 24 Hours racer of 2010-11 at the same time as Audi was independently forging a link with the British company.
“When I arrived, we looked at the whole spectrum of technologies again and we did a proper in-depth analysis and then changed course,” says Hitzinger.
The 919 runs a lithium-ion battery pack because, adds Hitzinger, it offers the best compromise between energy density, power density and weight. In layman’s terms that’s the amount of energy that can be stored and the rate at which it can be stored and then released.
The new rulebook allows two energy-retrieval mechanisms in the LMP1-H (H for hybrid) class in which manufacturers must run. Porsche, in common with both Audi and Toyota, has opted for a front-axle system to recuperate kinetic braking energy (a Motor Generator Unit – Kinetic in F1 terminology) and a second system driven by exhaust gases.
Opting for front-axle energy retrieval was a no-brainer with the abolition of the so-called ‘120 Rule’, which prevented Audi from returning power to the front wheels below 120km/h (75mph) in 2012-13. The higher braking loads on the front axle also make such a system more efficient than one on the rear axle and offers advantages of traction by making an LMP1 car four-wheel drive for key phases of each lap.
The exhaust system is distinct to that employed in F1 (an MGU-Heat) and that originally planned for Audi on its latest R18 e-tron quattro, in that it recuperates energy not via the turbo but a second turbine in parallel. This is more efficient, argues Hitzinger, who also points out there’s no need for an active F1-type system that can put power back into the turbo to reduce lag: “If you don’t have a problem [with lag], you don’t need it.”
There are four sub-classes of hybrid power allowed under the new rules, ranging from two megajoules per lap of the 8.47-mile Circuit de la Sarthe at Le Mans to eight megajoules. There is a sliding scale of energy or fuel allowed to cars running in each, but there is an incentive in terms of fuel allocation to run in one of the higher classes.
Porsche, like Toyota, has opted for the second highest, which allows for 6MJ to be returned to the track per lap of Le Mans. That is a change from its initially-stated intent to run in the highest class after it struggled to hit the 8MJ figure with its systems. The choice of engine is inextricably linked to the decisions about the hybrid systems.
“The regulations are all about efficiency and weight. Nobody talks so much about the weight. But the weight is extremely important in these regulations,” Hitzinger says. “There is an incentive built into the regulation to have a very big hybrid system. In order to have weight to spare to invest in the hybrid system, a lighter base car is an advantage.
“We think you want a compact engine, a light engine and a very highly efficient engine. One way to achieve this is to downsize.”
That explains Porches’s choice of a single-turbo four-cylinder of two-litre capacity. A vee configuration was favoured over an in-line set-up, again in the interests of weight saving because it allows the engine to be a structural component.
“If you went for an in-line four, you would have to have some kind of spaceframe around [the engine] and that is obviously additional weight and complexity,” says Hitzinger.
This V4 engine was beset by a serious vibration issue from the moment it undertook its initial roll-out at Porsche’s Weissach test facility in June last year. It led to a major redesign – including a change in the firing order – that was put in place almost immediately after the shakedown.
“We recognised it straight away at the rollout and we reacted,” reveals Hitzinger. “It was a big call, but we did the right thing.”
The long lead time on the design and delivery of a crankshaft meant that the new engine didn’t run in the car until Porsche’s final test of 2013, at the Algarve circuit in Portugal last December. Hitzinger suggests it is wrong to believe that Porsche wasted the head start it gained over rivals Audi and Toyota by getting the car out so early.
“For sure we didn’t do much performance testing in the beginning last year, but then that was never going to be the priority with a new car and concept,” he says. “There was a lot that we learnt all over the place on the car.”
The Algarve test was a turning point for Porsche and was followed by further encouraging tests at Bahrain and then Sebring, when revised aerodynamics came on stream. The team then went to Paul Ricard, ahead of the official WEC test at the same venue at the end of March, for an endurance run. It didn’t complete 24 hours, but it did manage to pass the six-hour mark – the duration of all WEC races apart from Le Mans – on two occasions.
The Porsche also ran reliably through the two days of the official ‘Prologue’, with only one of the cars spending any serious length of the time in the pits. This was the most significant fact to emerge from a test in which the no20 Porsche topped the times in the hands of Brendon Hartley. The times were of little significance, given that each of the three manufacturers was sticking to its own programme, but the reliability of the Porsche was not. It changed the way some are viewing the 919 programme.
Porsche, however, is sticking to its relatively modest goals for year one of the programme with its two cars, one that Hartley shares with star signing Mark Webber and Timo Bernhard and the other (no14) driven by Romain Dumas, Neel Jani and Mark Lieb. Enzinger says that finishing races is the first priority and being competitive is the second, while Webber has talked about the desire to “get some bubbles here and there” this season.
Those boxes were all ticked first time out at Silverstone in April with third place for Webber, Bernhard and Hartley. “A dream start” is how Enzinger put it, but Porsche is still regarding this as a learning year. For next season, though, there can be only one aim. “Winning in 2015 is something we have to do,” says Enzinger. “We want another Le Mans victory.”
Different ways to skin a cat
Facing the same rules, the three manufacturer teams have taken separate paths
Listen to Audi, Toyota and Porsche, and you’ll be left in no doubt that each is confident it has picked the best technical solutions to the conundrum set by the 2014 LMP1 rulebook. That’s what makes the 2014 World Endurance Championship so intriguing. The three factory players have each chosen different engine configurations (split between two different types of fuel), different means of retrieving energy and different storage systems. The bottom line is that they can’t all be right.
Porsche 919 Hybrid
Engine: 2.0-litre single-turbo direct-injection V4
Hybrid class: 6MJ
Energy-retrieval system: Front-axle kinetic, exhaust gas-driven turbine
Storage system: Water-cooled lithium-ion batteries
“To be able to fit a big hybrid system, you have to have a very light base car. We think you want a light and compact engine and a very highly efficient engine. One way to achieve this is to downsize.”
Alex Hitzinger, Porsche LMP1 technical director
Toyota TS040 Hybrid
Engine: 3.7-litre normally-aspirated V8
Hybrid class: 6MJ
Energy-retrieval system: Front and rear-axle kinetic
Storage system: Super-capacitor
“A small-capacity turbo is efficient in your wife’s car, but not in a racing car. If you want to increase the efficiency, you need to drop the revs.”
Pascal Vasselon, technical director Toyota Motorsport GmbH
Audi R18 e-tron quattro
Engine: 4.0-litre single-turbo direct-injection V6
Hybrid class: 2MJ
Energy-retrieval: front-axle kinetic
Storage system: Flywheel
“We think the combination of the diesel engine and the 2MJ system is a better combination than going into a bigger class and having the problem of not getting the weight where you want it.”
Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi Sport
How Porsche’s 12-month lay-off from endurance racing turned into a 15-year absence from Le Mans
Porsche had won the 1998 Le Mans 24 Hours with its 911 GT1-98 (below), but the new carbon-chassis machine was thrashed in that year’s FIA GT Championship by Mercedes. The final score was 10-0 in Merc’s favour. That beating was the catalyst for Porsche’s decision to take a year out of top-line sports car racing in 1999.
The company’s racing hierarchy saw that the writing was on the wall for its turbocharged flat-six concept, which had powered all its Le Mans winners since the 917. By autumn 1998 it had already started on an all-new car and, crucially, engine to replace the short-lived GT1-98.
“We knew it was over for that engine,” says long-time Porsche senior engineer Norbert Singer. “In terms of efficiency we were not able to compete at the top level.
“There wasn’t really the development on turbo engines at that time, so the idea was to have a larger-displacement normally aspirated engine, which would be much better in terms of acceleration.”
It quickly dawned on Singer, Porsche Motorsport boss Herbert Ampferer and R&D boss Horst Marchart that time was too short to undertake the project in time to defend its Le Mans crown in 1999.
“It was clear that we couldn’t do it – a new car, a new engine and a new gearbox – in half a year,” continues Singer, “so we said we don’t come back in ’99.”
There were other factors. These included rule changes that Porsche believed would benefit LMP900s, as LMP1 prototypes were then known, over GT1 machinery such as its own car in what was about to become the GTP class, with removal of the pretence that they were road cars. That night Ampferer also, presciently, talked about the need to build a “motor sport pyramid”, which today is firmly in place with Porsche’s range of 911 racers.
Ampferer made it clear on the night of Porsche’s bombshell, dropped at its annual prize-giving ceremony in late November, that the new car would be a prototype rather than a GTP machine. That open-top prototype, which became the LMP2000, ran for the first time at Porsche’s test track in November 1999, only to be axed before it had left the gates and, according to unconfirmed stories, long before it was even assembled.
Porsche was changing, the transformation spearheaded by the arrival of the Cayenne SUV, and Wiedeking decided resources had to be focused on development of this vehicle.
That has resulted in a conspiracy theory that still abounds to this day – that Porsche was prevented from going up against Audi, then about to start its second season in prototype racing, by VW Group chairman Ferdinand Piech, whose family was a major shareholder in Porsche.
Singer says this can be discounted.
“I asked Mr Marchart two or three years ago about that,” he says. “He said that it was all bullshit. Porsche needed the money to develop the Cayenne. Looking back it was a big step: it turned Porsche into a much bigger company.”
Instead the LMP2000 project spawned Porsche’s Carrera GT supercar. Technology employed on the LMP900 prototype found its way into the million-dollar machine, as did its five-litre V10 powerplant. There was talk of this car being raced in the GT1 category by Ampferer at a time when many were predicting the demise of the prototype division.
Singer insists that a racing future was never envisaged for the Carrera GT, on the strict instruction of Wendelin Wiedeking.
“When we stopped the LMP we asked ‘what are we to do?’ We have no work. Wiedeking said you can make a GT car out of the LMP2000, which became the Carrera GT. That made us smile, but at the first meeting about the car, he said, ‘I tell you, this car will never go to the race track, because if you have a race car in mind it will become far too expensive and we cannot afford it. This is a road car. It was clear from the beginning.”
The knowledge from the LMP2000, both on the chassis side and on the engine, was utilised when Porsche finally did build another prototype in 2004. The RS Spyder was, of course, an LMP2, all that Wiedeking would sign-off, although there was a clear hope at Porsche Motorsport that it would lead on to an LMP1.
“Our goal was always to prepare for LMP1,” says Hartmut Kristen, who had replaced Ampferer by the time the decision to build the RS Spyder was made in late 2003. Unfortunately, by the time Porsche might have been ready to move up the company was in the throes of the power struggle that ultimately led to the company becoming part of the VW Group, and the world was in the midst of an economic turn-down.
Both situations had to be resolved before Porsche could finally decide to return to top-flight sports car racing.