No other manufacturer has had a more profound effect on the history of sports car racing than Porsche. In endurance racing’s peak in the 1970s and ‘80s the Stuttgart firm was the definition of quiet German dominance at Le Mans, setting a 16-victory precedent that seemed, until the turn of the century, to be unbeatable.
Richard Attwood and Hans Herrmann’s winning 917 in 1970
It’s a perfect time for the manufacturer to return, or ‘come home’ as it says. There are new rules; it’s a new era. But can the new LMP1 machine live up to the 917 or the 962? And will the World Endurance Championship ever rival the peaks of the World Sportscar Championship?
“What Porsche did for sports car racing made our lives and everything of us,” says five-time Le Mans winner Derek Bell, pondering the might of Porsche when it last reigned supreme at La Sarthe. “We raced through one of the greatest eras of sports car racing, maybe even the best, and that was partly because of Porsche. Without its support during the 1980s, building and then selling privateer 956s and 962s, the World Sportscar Championship would not have become what it ultimately became.”
“I really hope the WEC can match those great days, I really do. The organisers must build it up in the public’s eye as the championship needs that recognition. Formula 1 is so strong, from an audience perspective, and has been for some time, while series divisions decimated the WSC and CART.”
Bell’s fifth and final Le Mans win in 1987, sharing with Al Holbert and Hans Stuck
The WEC has certainly got a fight on its hands, but Porsche vs Audi vs Toyota… it’s a heady mix if all three are on the pace. Justifiable question marks remain over what Porsche can manage in its first year as although it’s a manufacturer steeped in history and success, it’s a different world to the one it knew.
“Back then the philosophy was that it’s an honour to drive for Porsche, the money’s irrelevant. The head of engineering made it clear to me that I shouldn’t earn more money than he did.” A different world indeed. “Porsche thought the world of Jacky [Ickx] and I was pretty good back up. Hans Stuck has since told me that we were put together so I’d calm him down and mould him into a great long distance driver!
“In the days of John Wyer and the 917s it was a different mental outlook; if you touched somebody else on track the bloody thing exploded, but John said to me that if I crashed I’d be out of the team and if I didn’t crash I wasn’t trying hard enough…”
Fast-forward 40-odd years and it’s still a case of getting the best drivers you can. In Porsche’s new LMP1 squad is Mark Webber, who has made a high-profile move from Formula 1, rising sports car stars Neel Jani and Brendon Hartley, Porsche GT works driver Marc Lieb and 2010 Le Mans winners Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas.
“I worry,” says Bell, “that the others will be trying to keep up with Mark saying ‘I’m as fast as him, I should be in a Formula 1 team’. In my day I just did the quickest time I could and it wouldn’t have affected the rest, now it’s so difficult to get a drive and keep it they’re going off the road to stay ahead of their team-mates. I don’t think the camaraderie is quite the same as it used to be.”
Camaraderie or not, Porsche is up against the might of Audi and Toyota. One has dominated Le Mans for more than a decade while the other has showed signs that it, too, could step onto the top step of the podium. Whatever happens, the return of Porsche signals a new era in sports car racing with Ferrari also admitting that it is looking carefully at the category.
Ferrari vs Porsche, 1970
“If and when these other big names do come back,” says Bell, “I think we’ve got to see them producing cars that customers can buy, two Porsches out there, for example, just isn’t going to crack it. With a 962 these wealthy owners could spend $800k (£480,000) a year to run a team, hire a Bell, Stuck or Jochen Mass and be competitive. It filled the grids and we had some magnificent races.”
“However it performs, I just think it’s fantastic that Porsche is back. I don’t know how the cars will be at Le Mans, but you would hope they’d be mixing it with the established top guns. They’ve got the chance to do it and I think they’ll be coming in with a very new mindset, but you know they’re always going to do a great job; you expect that from Porsche”.
By Jamie Snelling
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