Legendary Porsche engineer Norbert Singer on the RSR’s genesis
Norbert Singer worked for Porsche for 40 years and had a hand in every one of its 16 Le Mans wins between 1970 and 1998. Given the cars he worked on – the 917 and its Can-Am derivative, the 935, 936, 956, 962 and the GT1 that provided his final Le Mans win – you might think the RSR would pale by comparison.
Not a bit of it. Singer is now 78 but on the telephone from Stuttgart he recalls the programme as if it happened last week. “It was difficult in many ways because we were starting with a road car. With a prototype you start with everything where you want it, with the right wheelbase, weight distribution, suspension pick-up points and so on. We couldn’t do that.
“But (new Porsche boss Ernst) Fuhrmann was insistent that we should race, but the 908 was the only 3.0-litre car we had. It was already old and its engine was never going to compete with the Ferrari, Matra and Alfa-Romeo 12-cylinder cars or, of course, the Ford DFV.” He wanted to race the 911 but people thought we were mad and would never sell the 500 road cars needed to homologate the car for Group 4. In fact we did quite well with that.” This is trademark Singer understatement: in the end more than three times as many examples of the homologation car, the legendary 2.7 Carrera RS, went to grateful owners.
In the meantime, and in typical Porsche fashion of the period, Singer was given a ridiculously short timeframe. “We entered two cars for the Tour de Corse in early November 1972, just as a test (both retired), but the race car programme didn’t begin until later.”
One example of the lateral thinking Singer employed at the time allowed him to circumvent one of the car’s inherent weaknesses, its torsion bar suspension. The rules said the springing medium had to be retained, so Singer simply added coil springs, which were so stiff the torsion bars were rendered ineffective. But they were still there, so the rule makers could hardly complain… “I think some customers started making the torsion bars out of rubber to save weight,” he says, with a chuckle.
Porsche had not planned to compete at Daytona in early February, because it was just too soon, but “Penske wanted a car and was already very involved with Porsche, and Peter Gregg wanted one and he was a Porsche dealer.” So the factory sent two cars over without much expectation; but once the prototypes had broken and the Penske car had wrecked its engine, the Gregg car cruised to victory 22 laps clear of the second-placed Ferrari Daytona.
“We ran the car in Group 4 in Europe until we got to Monza, when a customer complained about our rear suspension. We didn’t have time to change it so were faced with the choice of withdrawing or racing with the prototypes, which we did. After that Fuhrmann told us always to race in Group 5, which worked well. I was happy because while we couldn’t beat the prototypes on speed it meant we could use the races to develop non-homologated parts and Fuhrmann was happy because it meant one of his customers would always win in Group 4.
“No one gave us a chance on the Targa Florio,” Singer recalls. “But Gérard Ducarouge told me why he wasn’t going to enter the Matras, as he thought the event just too hard on prototypes.” In fact it wasn’t mechanical frailty that led to the retirements of the Ferrari and Alfa works pairs, but driver errors and a puncture leading to driveshaft failure. “Our drivers never made a mistake and the car won quite comfortably,” Singer says. Indeed it did, almost six minutes ahead of Sandro Munari’s Lancia Stratos with Leo Kinnunen and Claude Haldi (R2) in third place.
So where does the RSR rate among all those incredible cars that Singer oversaw. “Very highly. It was not just a difficult project that turned out to be quite successful, it was also the first Porsche job I oversaw from start to finish. In addition this was the beginning of the journey that led to the 935. It is something of which I will always be very proud.”