It proved to be the end of the “Pure Porsche” concept.
Porsche’s Indycar Project 2708
The ingredients for success had been there. Project 2708 was led by the legendary engineer Norbert Singer, who was keen to test his Le Mans-winning sports car expertise in a single-seater.
With an engine from Hans Mezger, whose TAG creation was so successful in F1, it was a Porsche dream team.
Over two years, the car came together; Singer finding some elements of the project similar to sports cars, with others (chassis and aerodynamics) a new challenge.
Mezger repurposed the V6 turbo F1 tech to create the turbocharged V8, the bold confidence of the team clear in the huge Porsche lettering stamped on the cylinder head covers. A documentary on the making of the car was even commissioned.
In September 1987, it made its first run on the test track at Porsche’s Weissach development centre.
Mass tested the car at Weissach and then Paul Ricard but that phase didn’t last long. Singer described the next stage of the development programme as a “public test”, otherwise known as racing. Competing in the final races of the 1987 season was meant to hone the machine for the following year.
Al Unser Sr. was recruited to shake the car down at Portland Raceway and it then went on to Laguna Seca for its race debut on October 11, in the green livery of its Quaker State oil partner.
IndyCar official Dale LaFollette tells the Porsche documentary video crew that rivals would have had “fear in their hearts” if the team had arrived with its engine in a March or Lola chassis, going on to describe the all-new Porsche as a “very brave move”.
Unser Sr. said the same in quite different language, complaining of handling difficulties and scraping onto the grid in 21st. The race was little better, ending on lap seven with water pump failure.
There were already signs of disagreement behind the scenes: Al Holbert, director of Porsche Motorsports, North America, hinted that a Pure Porsche car was less important than winning. “It makes you stop and think why do you race?” Holbert said after the race. “When you are accustomed to winning and being successful fairly quickly, you really have to scratch your head and say why do you do it? What was the goal up front and I cannot underplay the competitiveness. We really like to be competitive on the racetrack.”
Soon afterwards, Unser Sr. quit the team ahead of the final race in Tamiami, Florida, leaving a vacancy for someone who knew the car.
“I was offered by Porsche to run the car in Tamiami and of course I couldn’t do it because you need a fortnight to do your rookie test,” Mass told Motor Sport.
“I knew that and I knew I wasn’t allowed to do it and I regretted it because I really wanted to race in the States then.”
The task fell to Holbert, the son of a Porsche dealer; a three-time Le Mans winner with Porsche and five-time IMSA champion — twice with Porsche. He had persuaded the company to invest in the IndyCar project, and was running the car. Nobody was more dedicated to the success of the 2708. Or so it seemed.
“He was, let’s say, a very manipulative character,” says Mass. “A pity but he was other than that a very good driver.”
According to Mass, Holbert had lost faith in the Porsche chassis and wanted the company to pursue a more conventional route. In qualifying at Tamiami Park, he fell short and failed to make the race.
“I watched him drive the car and he drove deliberately slow, that’s what I could see from the outside,” said Mass. “I told Singer [it was] because he wanted a different chassis.