Track test: We drive the Canon Porsche 956
“It would make a nice road car, wouldn’t it?” enquired Richard Lloyd as I stopped at the pits for a breather. After a few gentle laps of the Silverstone Club circuit in the Canon sponsored Porsche 956 I had to agree, but then the irony of the situation sunk in. There I was, strapped snugly into a car recently purchased for £164,000, and let loose on a race track shared with 40 aspiring Formula 3, Formula Ford and Clubman’s drivers. One false move in this 650 bhp projectile could have caused no end of damage. . . and we were discussing its nice manners, its torque, and its brakes.
Racing Porsches have always been “friendly cars” to use a contemporary phrase. I nurse a memory of Jo Siffert having a long chat in the pits at Brands Hatch with Helmuth Bott, Porsche’s director of research and development. What was remarkable about that scene, back in 1969, was that the engine was ticking over the whole time, for three or four minutes perhaps, while a DFV powered car along the pits lane was being blipped noisily to keep it alive. During the practice session Siffert went faster in the Porsche 908 than he had the previous July when winning the British Grand Prix at the wheel of Rob Walker’s Lotus 49, so the flat-eight was clearly no detuned cooking engine.
After the 908 came the 917 that won Le Mans for Porsche for the first time in 1970, and again in 1971; after that, Porsche shunned the 3-litre sportscar formula, returning to Le Mans with production based 911 model variants: the Carrera RS in 1973, the Carrera Turbo in 1974, and then the 936 which won Le Mans in 1976 and in 1977, then again in 1981. The flat-six turbocharged engine retaining the block and crankshaft of the roadgoing Porsche 911 Turbo, was the nucleus of the 956 model which made its debut at Silverstone in May of last year. In common with the stillborn Indy project, the unit had a capacity of 2.65 litres and featured cylinder heads welded to the crankcases, so that the two banks have to be split before any work can be carried out. The latest in Bosch Motronic engine management systems was installed, twin KKK turbochargers fitted, and straight out of the box the Porsche racing engine gave 620 horsepower.
The 956 is the first racing Porsche to have a monocoque chassis, this designed by Weissach engineer Horst Reitter. Increasingly stringent safety regulations virtually ruled out the old spaceframe method, the construction of which had hardly changed since the 906 model was introduced, but the biggest innovation of all was the introduction of ground effects, a science that Porsche had to catch up on.
So successful did the 956 become, immediately, that you could come to two immediate conclusions. One, that designing a Group C car is easy, and two, that Porsche had no real opposition. The first conclusion is rebutted by the Lancia-Martini team’s problems this year—it is by no means easy to design a race-winning car. The second supposition is dealt with by pointing out that Lancia were still campaigning the fleet little Group 6 LC 1 models when the Porsche first appeared, and indeed beat Porsche in the debut outing at Silverstone by virtue of their better fuel consumption. From then on, the Rothmans-Porsche team became unbeatable, and by the end of the year customers were queuing up to buy replicas of the works 956s.
Richard Lloyd was one of the customers, with the backing of Canon Europa, the Amsterdam based European headquarters of the Japanese carnera and business machines manufacturer. Canon had been faithful to Lloyd through two lean years of campaigning the Porsche 924 Carrera GT, a good enough car for its purpose but one which had the utmost difficulty in scraping onto the grid at Le Mans.
“To get into Group C racing this year we drew up a budget of close on £500,000 — but that included buying the car and some spare parts,” says Lloyd. “Our total budget for two years is 1.3 million dollars (£860,000) which may seem like chickenfeed to Formula 1 teams, but is a great deal of money by any other standards.”
The purchase price of a 956, ready to race, is DM 640,000. Spare parts prices are “astronomic”; a spare complete engine, for instance, would cost £33,750; the titanium road springs cost £1,000 each, and the team carries one spare set. A new nose section costs a cool £3,500, a tail section £4,500 — and these had to be changed for Le Mans, where less downforce is required.
The financial blows are softened because Porsche send a 15 metre, 22 ton trailer to all the World and German Championship races, administered by Gerd Schmid. All the parts which could possibly be needed by the customers are carried on board, and are paid for “on account”. The Canon team does not, therefore, need to have a spare engine, nor a spare gearbox, since these can be supplied off the shelf. The service includes the labour, so a broken gearbox could be rebuilt by Herr Schmid’s mechanics between practice sessions if need be.
“Though everything is so expensive, it is better value,” is Lloyd’s opinion. “If something breaks, we don’t have to worry about midnight phone calls to somewhere miles away to see if a spare part exists. We know we can get the car running again with a minimum of bother, and we can therefore perform better for our sponsor.”
A good example of this was in evidence at Le Mans, when Jonathan Palmer had the front hub shear through during a practice session. He radioed to the pits, a spare hub was obtained, and the mechanics took it to the stricken car. Forty-five minutes later the Canon 956 was practising again, before many people realised that anything was wrong. Although Palmer had never driven before at Le Mans he was sixth quickest overall, and second only to Stefan Johansson of the Porsche 956 customers. More to the point, Palmer was quicker that last year’s pole position set by Ickx, so clearly the customer cars are extremely competitive.
Palmer, now the European Formula 2 Champion, is on a two-year contract to the team, though this year his F2 commitments took priority just as, next year, would his F1 career take precedence if he signs up with a team. Jan Lammers, the 27-year-old from Zandvoort, is the regular driver in the team, popular with the mechanics and “a terrific asset” in terms of testing ability, and sheer determination to succeed. Lammers has, however, “a bit to learn about the finer points of endurance racing,” as became clear to the world when he took Ickx off the track right at the start at Le Mans. It was a driver error, and Lammers was lucky to find Ickx in a philosophical mood afterwards, but his kerb-hopping style was not attuned with a 24-hour endurance event.
Other drivers this year have included World Champion Keke Rosberg at the Nurburgring, and Thierry Boutsen who has taken so well to Grand Prix racing. Lloyd himself has rarely raced the car, taking a mature attitude that the team is his responsibility, and driving is the work of professionals.
The team’s results have been good. The Canon 956 was sixth on its debut outing at Monza (having lost a front wheel at one point, after a pit stop), third at Silverstone, third at the Nurburgring (winning the second part of the race, after it had been stopped for track repairs), then eighth at Le Mans after havng all the Rose joints replaced, the atermath of Lammers’ fracas on the second lap. Ninth place at Spa last month, after dealing with a loose connection from the turbocharger, maintained the team’s 100% finishing record in WEC events.
At the non-championship race at the Norisring the 956 retired with a sick engine. From the start an electrical problem put the rev-counter and the boost pressure gauge out of action, so Lammers had to drive by ear, as it were. He reduced the boost to be on the safe side, but possibly over-revved the engine while compensating for the comparative lack of power, and pulled up when the engine began to run roughly. The rebuild, which was due anyway, showed nothing much to be wrong with the strong unit, and as prepared for Spa the engine had the latest pistons giving it a safe maximum of 650 bhp on an 8:1 compression ratio, rather than 620 bhp on a 7.2: 1 compression as it started the season.
Richard Lloyd runs the Canon Porsche 956 from his headquarters, the GTi Engineering company at Silverstone. He employs five men who do nothing else but look after the Porsche, Ian Sanders as chief mechanic, John Daniels who is the engine and gearbox specialist, Steve Brydon who is the tyres expert, Jeff Wilson who is the bodywork specialist, and Tom Butler who is the truck driver.
Extra skills are needed at the circuits. Val Dare-Bryan, an automotive design consultant, is the Team Engineer; Peter Stevens, an automotive styling expert (and DSJ’s nephew), is the timekeeper who liaises with Val on refuelling schedules; Grahame White, the former BARC executive, looks after liaison and logistics, and David Ingram helps with refuelling.
It is a neat, close-knit team comprising people who know how to enjoy themselves, but they also know and anticipate the time to get on with the hard work. Though their experience was admittedly limited at the start of the year, they have looked very professional. Various modifications have been made to the car, independently of Porsche, such as subtle re-profiling of the bodywork, stiffening the bulkhead to improve braking efficiency, repositioning the exterior mirrors (so that theirs is the only strictly legal car!) and now, the latest tweak from Ian Sanders, a fully cockpit adjustable rear anti-roll bar.
Typical of their thorough approach is to cover the front of the car, and all leading edges, with a sticky, transparent plastic tape which eliminates all the stone-chipping that is usually seen at the end of an event. That might not seem unusual, until you realise that the tape is the same stuff that’s used to protect the Kevlar rotor blades on helicopters … and it costs £91 a roll!
“It’s all yours”
Even for someone well beyond his youth, that’s a phrase that quickens the pulse. Richard had given the 956 its shakedown at Silverstone after a total rebuild, every nut, bolt and rivet having been checked in readiness for the Spa 1,000 kms event. Clad in a full suit of Nomex and topped by a gladiatorial full-face helmet, I first realised that I couldn’t look downwards to step into the cockpit, peering as I was through a pillar-box slit! Two-minute pit stops may seem leisurely for racing drivers, but it took me longer than that to wriggle into the driving seat and find the ends of the three-point harness.
Snug is the right word for the fit. The seat is not designed for broad beams, and allows the driver no lateral movement at all. The car’s interior is all matt-black, with a neat row of instruments for fuel pressure, oil pressure, water temperature on both cylinder banks, engine oil temperature, gearbox oil temperature, boost (marked at 1.3 bar), and revs marked at 7,500 rpm for the day, though 8,500 rpm is used in a race. Below, there were switches for the windscreen heater, lights, spotlights, and .. . the ignition key. The boost wheel was prominent, but I was advised that I would not be needing it for my track impressions.
Track testing is for racing drivers, people who know what they are doing. I set out to obtain track impressions, quite another thing, suitable for amateurs and scribes who can drive competently on the road, but that’s about all.
If anyone was brave, it was not me but Richard Lloyd who’d entrusted this expensive piece of machinery to someone who had not even sat in a racing car for eight years. But as I said, the Porsche is nothing if not a friendly car, and my main concern was not for myself, or the 956 even, but for the Formula 3 lads I would have to share the track with.
Forward visibility is no problem, the panoramic screen giving a full field of view. Rearward, the two mirrors gave me a view through the supports of the high wing, but not to the sides of the car as they would in a road vehicle. I had to see a faster car approaching, because when it got to my flanks I’d lose sight of it for a few moments.
Starting up the engine is simple enough. Move the throttle half an inch, turn the key, and the car comes to life. Move the right-hand gear lever to the left and pull back firmly, and we are in first gear, waiting for Ian Sanders to signal to move off. I dreaded stalling in the pits lane, but even that didn’t prove a problem, though it takes a few more revs than you’d expect to pull away on lock since the 956 has a solid differential.
Everything on the 956 needs firm pressure, without being excessively heavy. The throttle pedal feels stiff, the brake pedal absolutely solid (“like pressing a brick” warned Richard). The suspension is firm, of course, but the car steers like a go-kart with very little movement of the Momo steering wheel.
My first lap was very slow, keeping well to the right-hand side of the road. There are only three corners on Silverstone’s short circuit, Copse, then a left-curve at Maggotts which is flat in anything, an acute right at Becketts onto the Club straight, then Woodcote which is a sharp, though wide corner onto the pits straight.
I began to settle down on my second lap, realising that I had not once looked at the gauges. I couldn’t take them all in, but I tried to check the oil pressure and water temperature gauges once a lap. Then, I was spending about 50% of my time studying the mirrors, wishing heartily that I could concentrate more on the road ahead.
It surprised me that the 956 was not more noisy. Once before, driving a DFV powered sports car, I had been almost deaf for about 24 hours afterwards. This was not the case in the Porsche, which transmitted plenty of sound and some vibration from the engine, but nothing approaching the threshold of pain.
By the third lap I felt I was getting into the swing of things. Foot hard down on the Club straight, the turbochargers really start working at 6,000 rpm and propel the car forward at a startling rate, the boost gauge and rev-counter needles zapping round in unison. In a moment or two the tachometer is up to 7,500 rpm and an upward change is needed to fourth, then fifth gears as the speed approaches 160 mph.
Suddenly those angry little Formula 3 cars become victims to the Porsche, slipping back in the mirrors. I started braking at the 300 metre point — much too soon — and the Davy Jones of this world were upon me again, looking for a way past. My second surprise was the amount of retardation available simply by lifting the throttle, partly from the engine but mostly from the aerodynamic forces. The brake pedal, so firm, was powerfully effective too; braking for Woodcote at 300m, I could have stopped the 956 completely before the corner regardless of my terminal speed a few moments before.
The gearchange and clutch actions were easy to synchronise. The gears were quick and easy, never once leading me astray in the box, so that after a couple of laps I felt that I was driving the car well, albeit at a fraction of its potential.
The orange fuel light warned me to go back to the pits for meditation. I felt hot . . . not through exertion, I thought, rather because it was a warm afternoon, and I was distinctly overdressed for any other occasion. The remark about it making a nice road car got me thinking . . yes it would, if driven at half throttle.
I might say that power steering would improve it, that the brakes could do with a servo, that the suspension should be softer — but there would be plenty to praise, too. I was fully aware that the steering would become much heavier if I started to explore the ground effect properties, “loading it up” as they say. Rosberg said so, as did many others. As it was, I could take the left curve at Maggotts while changing up to fourth gear without feeling that things were getting out of hand. The moment of truth came when I was braking for Becketts on the right-hand side of the road, with Ray Mallock passing me on the left in the Aston Martin Nimrod. To my dismay he heaved across my bows aiming for the apex, which I had almost reached, giving me a full frontal view of his flank at a range of 10 metres or thereabouts. Either he was brave, or he thought I was!
There was never a lap when I could concentrate fully on all three corners, such was the traffic, and my times showed it . . . all the wrong side of 60 seconds . . . light-years away from a competitive time, but I decided to stop while the going was good. I was beginning to get ideas about how to pass a Formula 3 car, and stay ahead of it through the corners, when it occurred to me that I was starting to get the competitive urge, and that wasn’t the idea at all. It’s possible to forget what a valuable piece of property a 956 is when you’re enjoying yourself.
It is easy to see the attraction of a car like a 956 for the professional team, which can run with (or not far behind) the works cars, and for the wealthy amateurs too. It’s a flattering machine, one which makes the driver feel good even if he isn’t. Like any thoroughbred it does not have any vices, and is not even difficult at less than racing speed. But looking for those last few tenths of a second for a grid position . . . that would be another matter. I have not even mentioned the handling, because there is nothing to think about when you’re far off the pace. It just goes where it is pointed, and it doesn’t make any difference if you are off the line. Now, I’m off to find a sponsor. — MLC.