The 1970s and 1980s were not completely kind to our friends from Weissach. In spite of their racing successes, deep in both number and variety of competitions, Porsche had reasons to be somewhat jaded about their American experiences. Having finally convincingly vanquished the seemingly unbeatable McLarens in Can-Am racing they had seen their 917 removed from contention by a change in rules. Then, having prepared a very special version of their flat six for Indy racing in the late 1970s, the Porsche engineers found themselves limited to a non-competitive boost pressure by CART rules makers (who had sent the engine specialist of a competitor—his initials were AJ—to evaluate the Weissach engine). Porsche declined to continue their plans and retired from the field before starting.
Can-Am racing dwindled away, but Indy cars remained as a reminder that there was one arena in which Porsche had not competed and won, and it was one considered important to the American market.
Panorama broke the news in late 1985 that Porsche AG chief, American Peter Schutz, had revealed their interest in having another go with CART, and renaissance racer Al Holbert, Porsche’s competition director in the US, was keen to do it. By the middle of 1985 a car was being prepared, and plans for a suitable engine—this time a V8—were subsequently worked out. The required Board approval was obtained by the end of the year, and Porsche was on the Indy road again.
Open-wheel racing in America was clearly not one of Porsche’s core strengths, and there was an immense amount of work to do. Pressure was nevertheless intensive to get going, not just to produce a development car, but to get some results. Producing both a new chassis and a new engine would require a monumental amount of engineering and testing, and there was little time available to get it done before the end of the 1987 CART racing season. Karl Ludvigsen recalls Panorama’s Betty Jo Turner observing to Schutz “It’s going to have to be a premature baby.”
The baby was born, and first ran at Weissach on September 16; known as the 2708, the car and its team are pictured here on the grid at Laguna Seca for its first race only three weeks later. Driven by Al Unser, this was actually more a public testing of untried concepts than racing, as was to an extent the coming 1988 season. Significant successes lay ahead, but the death of Holbert, the replacement of Schutz, and the retirement of Weissach boss and engineering guru Helmuth Bott, along with financial and political stresses within Porsche, eventually left us speculating about what might have been.
Next time we’ll talk a bit more about what did happen.