Talk about motorsports and it is hard to leave Porsche out of the conversation. From racing the 356 in the 1950s to making a comeback in the World Endurance Championship in 2014, Porsche’s contribution to the history of motorsport is unparalleled. In fact, from Mille Miglia to 24 Hours of Le Mans, Formula 1 to Dakar, Porsche has tried it all and tasted success in most. As the Porsche prepares to secure its third consecutive win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, we take a walk down memory lane bringing you the stories behind some of the most iconic race cars from the brand.
Above photo: The Le Mans winning Porsche 356 SL at Luftgekühlt 4
This is where it all began for Porsche. The 356 was Porsche’s first ever production model and was never meant to be a race car. With the kind of power that the Porsche’s designers managed to pull out from the Volkswagen Beetle derived engine and its sheer handling capabilities, it was only obvious that the 356 would make its way into the racing scene. And sure enough, a 46-horsepower 356 SL Gmünd coupe brought Porsche a victory in the 1.1-litre class at the 1951 24 Hours of Le Mans. Over the course of its career, the 356 went on to bring several trophies for Porsche.
Subsequent to the success of the 356, Porsche decided to build a car specifically for racing purposes and that is when the 550 took birth in 1953. Just like the 356, the 550 brought outstanding success to Porsche. Its durability made it so popular that it soon became the choice of wheels for privateers too. This forced the Werks Porsche team to paint their tail fins differently to easily recognise them from the pits.
Built between 1957-62, the 718 was essentially a development of the 550A. In the same year that Porsche commenced the 718, FIA introduced a new Formula Two for 1.5-litre cars. Thanks to the centrally located steering and the fact that it could easily be converted into a single-seater, the 718 was entered in Formula 2. Interestingly, with Formula 1 making a shift to 1.5-litre format in 1961, it didn’t take Porsche too much to make its debut in this form of racing as well. Porsche driver Dan Gurney managed three 2nd places that year which brought him fourth place in the driver’s championship.
This was the car that brought Porsche its first overall win at the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans race and also brought Porsche the Constructors’ World Championship in 1970. In this race, several versions of the 917 were used – popularly Long-Tail and Short-Tail. One of the Short-Tail 917s, the number 22, featured a magnesium frame – one-third lighter than the aluminium frame. While in the initial part of the race it seemed that the Long-tail 917 would go on to take victory but it was difficult for the aluminium frame car to keep up with its lighter sibling. At the end of 24 hours, the Short-tail 917 crossed the finish line two laps ahead of the second placed Long-tail 917 and 31 laps ahead of the third placed Ferrari. In that race, the 917 completed 5335.16 kilometres – a record for Le Mans at the time. The success of the 917 had spoken for itself. The following year, a total of 49 vehicles started the 24 Hours of Le Mans race – 33 out of these were Porsches. A change in the regulations in 1972 went on to make the 917 obsolete but instead of retiring the car, Porsche decided to use it in the Can-Am racing series. The Stuttgart based car maker added turbochargers to the V12 to produce 850-horsepower from the engine. The car went on to win the 1972 and 1973 championship titles.
In 1976, Porsche introduced two race cars – the 935, for the Group 5 cars of the World Sportscar Championship and the 936 for the Group 6 prototypes up to 3.0-litre. Both these cars went on to become the most successful race cars for the brand. Piloted by Jacky Ickx, the 936 secured two consecutive victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1976 and 1977. The 935 was essentially a factory racing version of the 911 Turbo. From numerous class wins in the World Sportscar Championship to overall victories in 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 935 has a lot to flaunt. But how successful was it really? Consider this, in 1984, the 935 scored 150 victories globally which included 20 class wins. The car has been the first to see the chequered flag at 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring six times each. In 1982, Formula 1 World Champion Alan Jones even drove the 935 to victory in the Australian GT Championship.
Just like the 935, this one too was a heavily modified version of the 911, only this time it was built to tackle the gruelling Paris-Dakar Rally in 1984. Commonly known as the 911 4×4, this car made use of a manually controlled four-wheel drive system and sported an extremely advanced suspension setup. Three 953s participated in the ’84 Paris-Dakar and one of them brought Porsche its first-ever Dakar win. The 953 was succeeded by the 959, which too went on to take top honours in the Dakar Rally in 1986 with Rene Metge at the wheel. Jacky Ickx took second place that year. It soon became clear, Porsche could bring glory in any form of four-wheeler racing.
Porsche developed the 956 when the Group C regulations came into force. These cars were not just about sheer speed but also about the lowest road resistance and the maximum fuel efficiency. The 956 was the first ever Porsche race car to be built on a monocoque chassis. Just a few weeks after the development of the 956, Porsche entered three of them in the 1982 24 Hours of Le Mans. That year Porsche locked out the podium places with Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell securing the top step of the podium. And that was just the start of many victories to come. Safety concerns forced Porsche to discontinue the 956 but it continued in spirit in the 962. The 962, just like the 917, 935 and the 956 before it, brought numerous victories for Porsche and became the popular choice among privateer teams to thanks to its reliability.
Also Read : A Porsche 962 used for daily commuting.
After winning the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans, Porsche did not make an attempt to fight for top honours in any of the major championship or races until 2014. They made a comeback into the 24 Hours of Le Mans with the 919 but the two cars could only manage a 11th place and a NC. But for a brand like Porsche, it is hard to stay out of the top for very long. The 919 Hybrid went on to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the next two years. Later this month, Porsche will aim to secure its third consecutive win at 24 Hours of Le Mans since its return in 2014.
Porsche is one of the few automotive brands that has racing deep in their DNA and among the few car makers to have tasted tremendous success in various forms of racing arenas. Their dedication to motorsport has been unmatched and it continues even till date.