Porsche at Le Mans: the next chapter

Work has begun on a return to La Sarthe for the Stuttgart marque – and the chase is on for win number 17

There’s a strange symmetry to Porche’s return to top-flight sports car racing. The Stuttgart manufacturer will mount its first bid for outright honours at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 2014. That’s 16 years after its last and ultimately successful shot at winning the big race in 1998, or one year for each of the victories it has notched up on the Circuit de la Sarthe.

The announcement in June of a return to what it calls the top league of racing” will coincide with a new rulebook for Le Mans and the new-for-2012 World Endurance Championship. These regulations are being devised to encourage green technologies, which will give Porsche the chance to showcase and further develop the energy-retrieval systems that have already reached its road car range.

Porsche called a temporary halt to what was an almost continuous line of campaigns at Le Mans following its 1998 victory with the 911 GT1-98. It opted to take a year out to plan what it described as a “future-orientated, long-term motor sport policy”.

A return with the V10-engined car known as the LMP2000 was subsequently abandoned after two runs at the Porsche Weissach test track. The stated reason was a need to divert resources into the development of the forthcoming SUV platform, the vehicle that became the Cayenne and the Volkswagen Touareg. Subsequent development of the Carrera GT supercar and then the need to modernise its Weissach research and development headquarters, which includes its motor sport facility, were used as reasons for a delay in a return to front-line sports car racing. The RS Spyder LMP2 programme of 200509, which encompassed factory campaigns in the American Le Mans Series with Penske Racing and customer attacks on Le Mans, can be regarded as an attempt by Porsche to ease its way back into toplevel motor sport.

Porsche executives began to talk publicly about an LMP1 assault at Le Mans from the end of 2009. Former R&D boss Wolfgang Durheimer, who now runs Porsche sister brand Bentley, spoke of “big plans for the future”.

Durheimer, in his final months before joining Bentley, and new Porsche boss Mathias Willer continued the theme last autumn. “The time has come for a big motor sport programme at Porsche,” said Durheimer.

He and Willer raised the possibility of Porsche returning to Formula 1 for the first time since its engine supply deal with Footwork in 1991. This can be regarded as posturing within the Volkswagen Group as Porsche attempted to win the right to race in LMP1 either in place of or against Audi.

Not a lot, at least in the short term. It is widely accepted that Audi has been given the green light to compete with Porsche in LMP1 from 2014, something Audi Sport boss Wolfgang Ullrich insists is likely to happen.

“Basically our programme is that we are going to continue the route with the 24 Hours,” he said. “Each brand is taking its own decision, though in consultation with the main VW Group board.” The timing of Porsche’s announcement in the wake of Le Mans goes a long way to confirming the theory that Audi had been given an ultimatum to produce a car capable of matching Peugeot, which won the 24 Hours in 2009 and outpaced the Audis in 2010. Once it was shown that the R18 TDI, which went on to win the race this June, could prevail Audi was told it could continue in the prototype division beyond the life of the new coupe, so long as it used a different engine technology to Porsche.

It should be a coupe, like the majority of Porsche’s Le Mans-winning designs, because the 2014 regulations will mandate closed-top LMP1 s on safety grounds. It is almost certain to be a petrol-engined hybrid incorporating energy-retrieval systems.

Porsche is already developing this technology for racing in the 911 GT3-R Hybrid that has competed in the NOrburgring 24 Hours and, on an invitational basis, in other big sports car races. This car uses a flywheel, developed by an offshoot of the Williams Fl team, as a battery.

That is undecided, according to Porsche motor sport boss Hartmut Kristen. History suggests that it could opt to run the new car from Weissach or employ an out-of-house factory team in the way it did with JW Automotive, Joest Racing and most recently Penske. The historic American team has already thrown its hat into the ring to be part of the programme. “They know were interested,” said team president Tim Cindric. “I’d like to think that if they look outside Porsche or race in the US they would consider us.”

Gary Watkins