Speed fast times, gripping stuff
Porsche proved that turbos could survive 24 hours of Le Mans. Richard Hese!tine hangs on as 935 and 911 GT1 go toe to toe
You probably wouldn’t pay much attention in the normal run of events. A few droplets arch their way up the windscreen, no need yet to call on the wipers. It’s only light drizzle. But this is a Porsche 935 K3. It produces, if the stats are to be believed, somewhere in the region of 750bhp. As former team entrant Charles Ivey helpfully comments shortly before the off: “With that much power and no differential, these things understeer like you wouldn’t believe on a greasy track. When we were running 935s, they could be a real handful in the wet. Too much right foot and you’d be off into the trees.” One thing Chobham doesn’t lack is trees. As drizzle streams into rivulets, rain stops play. For now.
Monstrous is probably the right word. Indomitable is another. With the 935, Porsche conquered the World Championship of Makes. And IMSA. And Le Mans. Yet the bewinged Porsche isn’t deemed a copper-bottomed classic racing car, probably due to its road-car origins. Thing is, this is no 911. Oh no.
At the end of the mighty 917 era, Porsche’s competition department turned to the 911 as the weapon of choice. With useful experience of forced induction with its Can-Am programme, it was only a matter of time before a turbocharged 911 would spearhead a Weissach attack on Le Mans. Running in the prototype class, a 2.14-litre (factored by 1.4 it equated to a normally aspirated 3-litre) variation on the theme, the largely glassfibre-bodied RSR Turbo Carrera proved far more successful than anyone could have envisaged: Herbert Müller and Gijs van Lennep took second place in 1974 behind the winning Matra.
With the production 911 Turbo (Type 930) announced later that year, this toe-in-the-water approach led to total immersion for 1976. Belated regulations from the FIA called for three classes in the World Championship of Makes, namely Group 3 for production GT cars, Group 4 for limited-production models, and Group 5 for heavily modified ‘silhouette’ cars. The 934 slotted neatly into the middle one. Essentially a lightened and beefedup road car fitted with a much larger KKK turbo, privateers flocked to the new edition; but project leader Norbert Singer had bigger fish to fry. Enter the Group 5 935.
Beginning with a standard steel bodyshell and floorpan, stiffened with additional braces in line with the 934, much of the outer metal was replaced with glassfibre. Only the roof was still made of steel. The rules allowed free interpretation of bodywork and Porsche’s engineers did just that. The front end was detachable in two pieces for access to the fuel and oil tanks. At the rear, the intercooler for the fuel-injected, KKK-turbocharged 2865cc flat six was installed within a box-like cowling which supported the rear wing. Underneath all the add-ons, the 911 Turbo’s cast rear swing arms picked up at the ball-joint front mountings, the front end suspended by tubular wishbones, with rising-rate titanium coil springs all-round. Brakes, thick, drilled and ventilated discs clamped by aluminium four-piston callipers, were borrowed from the 917.
For the opening round of the ’76 WCM, Jacky Ickx and Jochen Mass stormed Mugello to win first time out. There followed another win at Vallelunga, after which time the rule-makers insisted that Porsche replace the air-to-air intercooler with a more compact water-cooled version. It didn’t stop the 935 from winning, with only BMW’s 3.5-litre CSL giving any cause for concern. But not for long, as the ‘Batmobile’ BMWs were withdrawn at the end of the season and ’77 proved to be a Porsche jamboree with the 935 (now boasting twin turbos) winning every round. By the following year, works development resulted in what was essentially a fully spaceframed car. That would be the end of major factory involvement, as its thoughts turned to Champ Cars. It was left to a selection of privateer teams to continue progress, the enduring 935 retaining its relevance into the mid-1980s, its last major victory being the ’84 Sebring 12 Hours.
With the emergence of Group C in1982, Porsche dominated with the 956 and 962, but this wasn’t the end of 911-derived endurance racers. The 961 which ran at Le Mans in 1986 and ’87 proved a flop, but the emergence of GT racing in 1994 (and Le Mans eligibility from ’93) marked the start of the GT1 project. Having won controversially at Le Mans in 1994 with the Dauer 962 — a purpose-built racer turned into a road car and then back again as a purported GT — Porsche devised this new strain to reworded rules that required racers be derived from a production model.
Once again a regular bodyshell served as the basis. The main structure was made of steel, the entire front floorpan fore of the bulkhead being standard 911. Carbon fibre featured extensively for the heavily sculptured front and rear body sections, with double wishbones and coil suspension at either end (with F1 -style pushrods at the rear). A sizeable cast bellhousing acted as location for the rear suspension, new six-speed ‘box and mid-mounted 3.2-litre water-cooled six with twin KKK turbos and twin intercoolers.
At the model’s maiden outing at Le Mans in 1996, the works GT1s dominated their class, ending up second and third overall. Ironically, they were kept off the top spot by a TWR-developed WSC-95 prototype that had resided in Porsche’s museum, presumably never to race, until Reinhold Joest dusted it off. Nonetheless, to charges of sandbagging, the GT1 proved its worth elsewhere, Hans Stuck and Thierry Boutsen taking a convincing win at Brands Hatch later that year. So convincing that the Porsche had its wings clipped for 1997, the FIA requiring (if only for a few races) smaller air restrictors on the turbos that cost 50bhp, and the deletion of ABS. These moves hamstrung the GT1, now in Evo trim with longer front and rear bodywork. Against the revised McLaren F1 GTR and the superfast Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR, it proved hopelessly outclassed. Aside from Allan McNish’s ballsy drive at Laguna Seca, which was affected by a botched pitstop, there were very few high points. Le Mans glory also proved lacking when Bob Wollek put the leading GT1 into the wall after spinning at the Porsche Curves.
For the following season Porsche regrouped and, with outside help from CTS, the Huntingdon-based composites company, produced the GT1-98. Six carbon-fibre monocoques were made for two complete cars, the new design being 207mm longer with its 996-style bodywork. Not that it made the GT1-98 any more competitive in the European sprint races — it didn’t win any — but the Porsche came good down the long Mulsanne Straight. Thanks to a double night time stint by McNish to retain its (then) slender lead, rivals were vanquished and the sister car came home second. At the end of the year, the project was ended to make way for a bespoke V10-powered sports-racer. We’re still waiting for it.
The rain has stopped. Against a backdrop of pepper-marked asphalt the two Porsches sit silently with an air of belligerence. The family resemblance is obvious, the silhouettes bearing at least some similarity to a road car that first aired as far back as 1963, but which has been pushed and pulled, tweaked and honed with haphazard elan. ‘Our’ 935 is more radical than most. It’s a K3, which in Porsche-speak means Kremer. After Porsche toned down its involvement in developing the model, the K3 became the dominant force and the fruit of a development programme stretching back to ’76. Most, but not all mods, are obvious. A ‘roll cage’ begins at the front suspension pick-up points and ends at the rear suspension, creating, in effect, a spaceframe. Then there’s the preposterously big rear wing and revised ducting with air-to-air intercoolers sited just ahead of the rear wheels.
Chassis number 930 890 0022 ran twice at Le Mans as a Kremer entry but found form in the hands of Dudley Wood who bought it in late 1979. Prepared by Charles Ivey’s equipe, the car romped home to fourth overall and first in class at Le Mans in 1981. It was bought subsequently by Barry Robinson, who entered it in Thundersports events before it went to John Goaté, who ran it in the Porsche Modified Championship. Its current owner Nick Mason has since reinstated the car’s early-1980s livery.
No such racing pedigree for the GT1. It’s one of two pre-production prototypes built in 1996 (as opposed to the 20 street-legal cars made subsequently to appease homologation requirements). After being flogged around test tracks and acting as a testbed, it was rebuilt at the factory as a road car and later used as a press demonstrator. It was finally sold by Porsche in 2000 to an anonymous collector. And now it could be yours for £400,000.
Yet while both machines share some common DNA, in reality they couldn’t be more different. Having squeezed into the 935 while being very careful not to step on anything glassfibre, and negotiated the roll cage, the 911 ancestry is all too obvious from the dashboard and windscreen pillars so close to the vertical. The gear lever is improbably long, pedals offset towards the centre-line. Try the clutch. Keep trying. God, it’s heavy.
Fire up. Splutter, cough, pop, bang. And then back to splutter. It sounds like it’s in pain. With its mechanical injection, fuel gushes into the cylinders; and then a minute or so later, the idle evens out to a just about recognisable Porsche backbeat. Just getting the car off the line is an effort. The clutch is either in or out. There’s no biting point. Simply pile on the revs and, under advisement, take your foot off the clutch. Lunge. Bunny hop. Lunge. Motion. Geared for 90mph in first (and there are only four cogs), moving into second at about 3000rpm means it gets bogged down. More gas, hit 4200rpm and the turbos start spooling up. One, two, three… acceleration. And lots of it. Not so much the ‘pull the pin out and brace yourself’ levels of combustion you were expecting but urge of the singularly visceral kind nonetheless. And it sounds glorious once you actually get up to speed, all pent-up fury and ever so slightly abrasive.
Up to speed and coming off the banking, the steering feels not uncomfortably heavy, providing you can keep hold of the wheel. Find a ridge or camber change, then it writhes in your hands: hit a bump and it’ll snap your wrists. The gear change is a joy, with a close-coupled, clean, snicking action. More speed. Coming into what passes for a challenging sequence, the brakes bite hard and you can feel the nose start to push wide: the rear boots remain clamped to the road. The solid axle, supposedly there to unitise the rear tyres, probably contributes to the sense of the front end washing out at even moderately enthusiastic speeds. After being baited by a trio of black McLaren-Mercedes SLRs, it’s time to head back to the paddock. Hop, lunge, blip, lunge, blip. Idle. Off.
Now the GT1. Typically, getting in or out is a feat of physical dexterity thanks to the low roofline and big steel tubes across the door opening. Oh, the luxury: leather, adjustable seats, very ‘now’ carbon fibre weave (real here, not appliqué as on so many other exotics). The outline of the dash is familiar but that’s about where all familiarity stops. Whereas in a standard 911 you can place the car to the nearest millimetre, there’s a sense of spatial displacement here, despite the commendably useful mirrors. The cabin is cramped; headroom at a premium, yet the acreage of composite addenda just flows off into the distance.
What strikes you about driving a GT1 is how easy it is to get on with. There’s no histrionics, nor hissy fits.