Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Iconic Cars - The Second in an Occasional Series

Last month, I wrote the first of a short series on iconic cars from the 1980s, singling out Austin Rover's brutal 4 wheel drive, rear engined Metro 6R4 rally car. My second choice is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the in-yer-face Austin-Rover. The Porsche 956/62 that becam3e the mainstay of sportscar racing through much of the 1980s was an elegant exemplar of German efficiency - all flowing lines, a classic design. Oh, and unlike the Metro, it was also enormously successful.

Sportscar racing was in a bit of a mess as the 1980s dawned. Open top Group 6 sportscars that looked some years past their sell-by-date competed against road-car based GTX Porsche 935s and odd privately built GTP coupes. The dearth of real competition was perhaps best illustrated by the fact that Jean Rondeau was able to win the 1980 race with a self-built car. It would be the last time that a car not built by, or at least funded by, a major motor manufacturer would win Le Mans.

For 1982, the FIA threw out the Group 5/6 rulebook under which sportscar racing had been run since the early 1970s and created the 'Group C' formula, which restricted performance mainly through fuel consumption limits which, theoretically at least, allowed small capacity normally-aspirated powered cars and large-bore turbo-charged machines to compete on equal terms. Rather than being about outright horsepower, Group C would be all about efficiency.

Porsche, whose 935 and 936 machines had been at the forefront of sportscar racing through the late 70s, decided that they wanted to be in on the new Group C category from the very beginning. Taking the 2.6l 'boxer' engine which had won Le Mans when installed in the back of an ageing Porsche 936 the previous year, the works designed and built a very modern looking replacement around it - the Porsche 956.

The car made its debut at the opening round of the Group C championship - the Silverstone 1000kms of 1982. The car was light years ahead of the Group C competition: the ill-fated Ford C100, Joest Racing's hastily converted 936, an early WM-Peugeot and a Cosworth DFL engined Sauber C6. As it would turn out, however, this would be the only Group C race where the Porsche 956 was ever beaten - not by one of its Group C rivals, but by an old Group 6 Lancia LC1 Spyder which had been given dispensation to race (as a matter of accuracy, I should point out that, what I mean is that the 956 was never beaten until its replacement, the 962, appeared).

The Porsche works skipped the next round, their home race at the formidable old Nordschliefe and returned to the fray at Le Mans with a 3 car entry, in the now legendary Rothmans livery. The cars finished an easy 1-2-3. The winner finished 30 laps ahead of the first non-956 finisher (a private Porsche 935(a six year old Group 5 machine, which perhaps served only to illustrate the lack of strength in depth in sportscar racing at the time).

Such was the sheer scale of Porsche's dominance that Group C could quickly have died a death - with every race a foregone conclusion. Think of how great an advantage Audi have had in the ALMS and the LMES in recent years, at least until Peugeot turned up in the LMES and Penske started to extract some real pace from their Porsche RS Spyder, and then multiply by a factor of two. The only other manufacturers in at the beginning were Ford, who never really managed to sort their problem-child C100, and Lancia, whose Martini liveried LC2 might have been a beautiful piece of kit, and stunningly quick over a single lap, but had neither the fuel efficiency nor the reliability to threaten Porsche over a race distance.

Fortunately, Porsche had, from the very beginning, built the 956 as a turn-key racing car which could be sold to private teams. One year on from the 956's debut, at the Monza 1000kms of 1983, there were a total of 8 Porsche 956s in the field. And just to prove the point that the private teams were serious, Reinhold Joest's 956, in the hands of Bob Wollek and Thierry Boutsen, won the race. In 1984, in the absence of the works team, Joest won Le Mans with a privately entered 956 and then repeated the feat a year later with exactly the same car, this time beating a squadron of 3 works Porsches into the bargain.

Over the following few years, John Fitzpatrick Racing, Brun, Kremer and the late Richard Lloyd's RLR outfit all proved themselves capable of beating the works and winning outright with customer Porsches. For me, this is one of the key reasons I have singled out the Porsche 956/62 as my 'iconic Group C sportscar'. The Sauber Mercedes C11 may have been prettier, the TWR Jaguars may have attracted more of a following at the time, and the final evolution of the Peugeot 905 might have been far and away the outright quickest Group C car ever made, but through its sheer ubiquity the Porsche 956/62 remains for me the quintessential Group C car.

The cars weren't just successful on this side of the Atlantic. The Porsche 956's replacement, the near-identical 962 was originally created to comply with tougher IMSA safety regulations which required that the driver's feet must not sit forward of the front axle-line. The car initially struggled against the Jaguars and Marches in IMSA, which did not have the fuel-economy based rules of Group C, but a larger 3.2l engine brought it into contention and enabled Porsche to pick up five wins in the Daytona 24hr race between 1985 and 1991 and pick up several IMSA GTP titles.

In the end, Porsche were unable, or unwilling, to keep up in a development race with entries from other manufacturers, including Mercedes (Sauber) Jaguar (TWR) and Nissan (Lola). As a Group C car, the 962 took its last Le Mans win in 1987, after the quicker Jaguars broke, and its last World Sportscar Championship race win a couple of years later at Dijon in 1989 (a Joest car, unsurprisingly). They did come close to winning Le Mans again in 1990, after a once-in-a-lifetime drive from wealthy amateurs Jesus Pareja and Walter Brun, but a battery problem knocked them out of contention for the lead and then engine failure saw them fall out of a safe second place with just minutes left on the clock.

The Porsche 962, though, was a car that would not die. Though the Group C category for which it was designed collapsed at the end of 1992, the cars would go on winning. Jochen Dauer and the Porsche works got together to create a one-off Porsche 962 road car to enable them to enter the GT category of Le Mans. Though this was an especially blatant way of sneaking a 962 Group C in through the back door, the plan worked and Mauro Baldi, Hurley Haywood and Yannick Dalmas chalked up one last win at La Sarthe for a car built to the same basic design as the 956 which Ickx and Bell had won the race with 12 years previously.

A year later, longtime Porsche stalwarts Kremer recorded one last 24 hour race win for a 962 of sorts when they won the Daytona 24hr race in a WSC spec, 'spyder' which was essentially a 962 with its roof chopped off. Come to that, the Porsche WSC95 which Joest took to 2 Le Mans victories in 1996 and 1997 relied on the 962 engine and running gear, albeit installed in what was essentially an old Jaguar XJR-14 with, yes, its roof chopped off.

Older readers might pick out the Porsche 917, the Ferrari 250LM, the Ford GT40 or the Jaguar D-Type, but for me, the Porsche 956/62 will remain forever the very definition of the sports prototype racing car.

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Blogger Nicebloke said...

Great article Patrick. Takes me back to the first time I saw Group C, at Brands Hatch in 1985. They really were magnificent. The fact that Porsche made the 956 and 962 available to privateers was perhaps the key reason for the success of the formula.

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Boy George said...

Awesome post. Very informative lots of great information.

9:39 PM  

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