In June of 2014, Porsche will return to Le Mans with a newly designed LMP1 racing machine. With 16 overall victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the pinnacle of endurance motor racing, Porsche is the most successful manufacturer in the race’s history. Their last win, though, was back in 1998 with the 911 GT1, so Porsche has labeled this endeavor as “Our Return” and “Coming Home”.
Sports Car Digest continues its series of photo retrospectives drawn from Porsche’s Le Mans archive. After profiles of Porsche at Le Mans in the 1950s, Porsche at Le Mans from 1960 to 1968, Porsche at Le Mans from 1969 to 1973 and Porsche at Le Mans from 1974 to 1981, the fifth installment looks at Porsche’s successes from 1982 to 1987.
On March 27th, 1982, a revolutionary race car turned its first test laps in Weissach. It was the Porsche 956. Designed to comply with the technical regulations, this was the first race car from Weissach to feature an aluminium monocoque chassis which was 80% stiffer than the frame of the 936. The body proved revolutionary in the sports car world: inverted wing profiles in the sidepods and the shape of the underbody generated enormous downforce through the aerodynamic ground effect. After intensive research, Porsche modified the principle used in Formula 1 and implements it in its sports car.
The regulation-complying 800 kilogram 956 was powered with the same 2.65-litre twin-turbo engine as the 1981-winning 936. With the exception of the 620 hp (456 kW) engine, everything else on the vehicle was new. On 20 June, Porsche celebrated a triumphant triple victory at Le Mans with the 956: Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell won from pole after a faultless race in front of Jochen Mass and Vern Schuppan as well Hurley Haywood, Al Holbert and Jürgen Barth. The race analysis showed that, thanks to the sophisticated aerodynamics, the new-comer used considerably less fuel at higher average speeds than the 936.
Porsche made the 956 available for customer teams in 1983 and Le Mans turned into a festival of the innovative car from Weissach. Nine of the top ten that reached the finish were 956 models. Only the ninth spot was occupied by a Sauber-BMW. The superior 956 vehicles provided plenty of race action on the track: After a battle of mammoth proportions with 25 changes at the top in 24 hours, Al Holbert, Hurley Haywood and Vern Schuppan swept to victory in the works-956, just 64 seconds ahead of fastest qualifiers Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell in the second factory-run 956. Mario and Michael Andretti joined forces with Philippe Alliot to bring home third. But on their way their victory, Holbert, Haywood and Schuppan faced a nail-biting situation: on Sunday afternoon, the 956 lost a door while out on the track, which disrupted the air flow to one of the radiators and caused the temperature in a cylinder bank to rise to an unhealthy level. In the final phase, the engine intermittently cut out. Holbert managed to salvage a close victory over Bell who was chasing hard behind. The engineers all agreed, his 956 would not have survived another lap.