Lately, Porsche has been on this kick about celebrating their motor sport “Past, Present, and Future”, and there’s no other part of their history that is quite so relevant to the company than Le Mans. With 17 overall victories, looking at them in the context of their time helps to give an idea of what Porsche is, and what they stand for. In looking at this list of Porsches, you can see progression in technology, you can see advancements in aerodynamics, and you can see how the sport as a whole has changed over the course of 45-years of progress. This little microcosm of sports racing prototypes is indicative of advancements in Porsche’s line of street cars as well, always advancing race tech to their fastest sports cars. There is some fascinating stuff going on in these 17 overall victors, so let’s inspect them all just a little closer.
Porsche’s first overall victory, and probably my favorite of all of their cars. The 917, and by extension this Le Mans victory, forever changed the face of Porsche as a company. They were Le Mans victors, taking on the best the world had, and handily beating them. Porsche won through sheer force of will, providing seven entries into the 1970 running of the Le Mans 24 as ostensibly factory-prepped 917s. Some luck was still needed, though, as competition from Ferrari arrived in the form of eleven 512 prototypes. Le Mans 1970 is one for the history books, known as the “Battle of the Titans”. With a lot of drama and a whole lot of rain, it was Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood who teamed to take the victory in the Salzburg liveried Kurzheck model with the more reliable 4.5-litre flat-12 engine. When the dust settled, it was Porsche on all three of the podium steps. Herrmann and Attwood were followed by the Langheck car of Larrousse and Kauhsen in second, and a 3-liter classed 908/02 driven by Lins and Marko. Porsche’s first victory at Le Mans was a 1-2-3. Who else could pull off such a feat?
Fast forward a year, and Porsche was back, pulling out all of the stops to repeat their victory. An astonishing 33 of the 49 entered cars were Porsche models, which is a record that still stands today. Taking a second straight victory for the 917 Kurzheck, Helmut Marko (third in 1970) and Gijs van Lennep teamed up in a Martini-liveried lightweight magnesium-framed car. The Gulf Oil-backed Wyer team took their Porsche to second place on the podium with Herbert Müller and 1970 winner Richard Attwood. Victors Marko and van Lennep completed 397 laps, setting a speed record that lasted for an amazing 39 year period. Another record made that day, Jackie Oliver drove a test lap with an average speed of 250.475 km/h, and it took 15 years before that record would fall (broken again by another Porsche).
In 1972, Porsche’s mighty 917 was no longer competitive thanks to a rules change. It was a handful of years later that the 936 was introduced in all its turbocharged glory. Jacky Ickx and Gijs van Lennep took victory in one of those Porsche 936s. This was the first Le Mans victory for a turbocharged engine, owing partly to the fact that Porsche had been developing turbocharger technologies since the late 1960s, and was one of the pioneers of the technology in road-going sports cars. The tiny 2.1 liter engine in the 936 proved its worth when it was introduced 1974 and further development had it up to an output of 550 hp.
1977 was another great race for the ages. Porsche had to compete against Renault with a quartet of brand new and very fast A442 Turbo models. Porsche only had two 936 Spyders with which to do battle, and it wasn’t long before one of them fell out of the race. When Jacky Ickx’s primary car suffered failure, he got behind the wheel of the other 936, which had already fallen well down the order into 42nd place due to an injection pump problem. Ickx was 9-laps in arrears of the leading Renault when he took over. Mounting a serious effort and staying in the cockpit for seven-and-a-half hours, Ickx was a man possessed, clocking up lap record after lap record, gradually catching up to the lead. Renault, seeing that the Porsche was much quicker and would soon overtake, respond by picking up the pace, but suffered some technical issues in the process. With an hour to go in the race, the lone remaining 936 is leading, but has burned a piston. After time-consuming repairs are carried out, Jürgen Barth slowly drives the 936, still running, but down a cylinder thanks to the mechanics’ actions, over the last two laps and across the finish line for Porsche’s overall victory number four.
In 1979, Bill and Don Whittington essentially purchased their victory, shoveling more money into car preparation and driver talent than anyone else. This race was the first and only for a rear-engined car, having been taken in a Kremer 935 K3 Porsche. This was also the first time a Porsche customer team would win at Le Mans. Teaming with Klaus Ludwig, they managed to run more reliably than the factory Porsche 936s (Wollek and Haywood were on the pole, but suffered an engine failure, and the sister car broke an injection pump belt).
The 936 that drove to victory in 1976 and 1977 was discontinued and pushed into the Porsche museum. In 1981, however, the car was pulled back out of mothballs and a new engine was installed. With an increase in engine size to allow a new engine, Porsche coincidentally had an engine in development that was intended for use in Indy cars, so they shoved it in the back of their museum car and took it racing. They were victorious. The 2.65 liter six-cylinder engine has an output of approximately 620 hp in Le Mans trim. A pair of Porsches had to compete with factory cars from Lancia, Ferrari, Peugeot, and Rondeau, not to mention numerous privateers. Legends, Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell, who were the fastest in qualifying, dominated the race from the start and beat out a Rondeau by 14 laps to capture the overall victory. Little did they know, this win would be the first in a series of seven consecutive victories, a feat which no other manufacturer has been able to match.
On debut of a revolutionary race car, Porsche wins again. The new Group C racing category saw the development of the type 956, which was the first race car from Weissach with an aluminium monocoque chassis. It was also designed to take advantage of ground effect aerodynamics for its downforce. The car was powered by the same 2.65-litre twin-turbo engine from 1981, having already proven to be reliable. This new car was so successful that it drove Porsche to another spectacular 1-2-3 finish. Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell win again from the pole position, followed by Jochen Mass and Vern Schuppan in second, and Hurley Haywood, Al Holbert and Jürgen Barth in third. Thanks to the new sophisticated aerodynamics, 956 used significantly less fuel than 936 did the previous year, despite recording a higher average speed. Now that’s progress.
Porsche, having already proven the concept of the 956, opened the car up to privateer purchase. This year, Porsche dominated Le Mans more than any car had ever done before, taking 9 of the top 10 overall positions. Reliability, speed, and ease of use were cornerstones of the 956 experience. After a number of grueling battles, including 25 overall lead changes in 24 hours, Al Holbert, Hurley Haywood and Vern Schuppan take the win with Ickx and Bell just over a minute behind.
1984 was another year and another opportunity for Porsche to show off their dominance at the Circuit de la Sarthe. With the factory passing the baton on to the privateer teams, it was Klaus Ludwig and Henri Pescarolo who would take the race victory in a 956 prepared by Joest Racing. The Joest car would lead a Porsche 7-car train to the finish. Porsche 1-2-3-4-5-6-7 victory? It can’t get much better than that.
After dominating outright for a couple of years, factory efforts start showing up from Aston Martin, Jaguar, Lancia, and Peugeot to try to take on the Porsche might. Porsche retires the 956 and brings out a new-and-improved version they call the type 962. Because of IMSA rules, the car is lengthened slightly, and the front axle is moved forward in a way that the driver’s feet are now behind the centerline of the axle. For reliability reasons, the car now also features watercooled cylinder heads, and output has been increased to around 700 horsepower. Hans-Joachim Stuck takes the 962 C to a new lap-speed record in qualifying with a time of 3:14.80 (251.815 km/h), finally breaking Jackie Oliver’s 1971 record. Even though the new 962 has proven faster, it’s the 956 from the Joest Racing that takes a second victory in a row with Klaus Ludwig, Paolo Barilla and “John Winter” driving.
Chalk up another win for the Porsche factory entered team, as Derek Bell, Hans-Joachim Stuck and Al Holbert drove a factory 962 C to the 11th overall victory. It was the second time in only a few years that Porsche would take the 9 positions of the top 10, in addition to closing out the podium. After the factory victors came a new 962 C from Brun Motorsport in second and Joest Racing’s stalwart 956 taking another podium in 3rd.
For the early part of the 1987 season, Porsche found themselves on the back foot in comparison to the Jaguar XJR-8LM, and were afraid of losing out at Le Mans as well. Le Mans, however, turned out to be nothing for Porsche to worry about, as they took another victory. This race was interesting, because many of the entered cars were forced out during the event because of detonation issues thanks to quality issues with the supplied gasoline. One of the factory 962s even fell victim to this. During the overnight hours, however, Porsche figured out the electronics in their remaining factory car, driven by Bell, Stuck, and Holbert, and after some extensive reworking, the car’s engine managed to stick it out and help the trio repeat victory at the circuit.
After the 1987 season, the 962 fell a little behind on speed to the new F1-engine group C cars, and eventually the regulations were changed effectively moving the 962 out of Le Mans contention. In 1994, there were new regulations for Le Mans allowing GT cars to race alongside the prototypes. Studying the rules, Porsche engineers interpreted that a modified version of the 962 would be eligible for the GT category, assuming there were a number of street-legal versions built and sold. With the Dauer 962, Porsche fits that loophole quite nicely, and enter Le Mans with a new version of the 962. To fit the regulations, the car has to weigh 1000 kilos, has to have a smooth bottom floor (cancelling out much of the car’s ground effect downforce), and has to wear narrower 14 inch wheels. Rather than taking the GT class victory that they were looking for, Porsche actually ended up with another overall victory, thanks to the efforts of Yannick Dalmas, Mauro Baldi and Hurley Haywood.
Another year and another new Porsche wins at Le Mans. This time, the car was not even built by Porsche. Enter the TWR WSC 95. It was a weird car, but it was powered by Porsche, and it counts as a Porsche victory. The WSC 95 was, in a former life, a Jaguar XJR 14 modified to accept a Porsche engine by Tom Walkinshaw Racing, and converted into an open-top car. Reinhold Joest (Joest Racing) took over the project and brought a pair of TWR WSC 95 sports prototypes that were originally built to race in 1995 (though did not). With some help from Weissach, Joest racing further optimized the car’s aero profile, at his own expense, evidently. The car was built on an advanced carbon monocoque and used the race-proven three-liter turbo engine from the later 962s. This victory was driven by Manuel Reuter, Alexander Wurz and Davy Jones. 1996 was also the debut of Porsche’s 993-body GT1 coupe, the car that very nearly beat the WSC 95 to victory.
Again, with a little help from Porsche, Reinhold Joest modified the 1996 Porsche TWR WSC 95 in order to return for the 1997 season. While this was happening, Porsche was hedging their bets by making further improvements to the 911 GT1 coupe. The GT1s are a smash hit right from the beginning, and they both charge to the front. The first one drops out from the lead and Porsche’s expression starts to change from ecstasy to worry. The second GT1 dropped out of the race after 22 hours of racing, again from the leading position. With both factory-backed cars out of the race, Joest drivers Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johannson and Tom Kristensen move to the point and hold that position through the finish. Failure for Porsche is tempered slightly by the Joest/Porsche victory, the 15th for Porsche-powered cars.
With worry in their eyes after the performance in 1997, and a mounting charge of new factory-backed GT1 cars, Porsche completely redesigns the 911 GT1 for 1998 competition. The GT1-98 is Porsche’s first carbon-monocoque chassis ever, and is powered by a larger 3.2 liter twin-turbo engine mounted amidships. The race develops into an all-out knock-down drag-out race between Porsche and Toyota. Both of the factory Porsche GT1-98s suffer minor issues that set them back. They spend the rest of the race getting back to shouting distance from the Toyotas, and that’s when they made it work. The factory Toyota entries started to stumble near the end of the race, and had a lengthy pit stop that moved the Porsche into the lead with only 90 minutes remaining in the race. Porsche’s 16th victory was another 1-2 win with Allan McNish, Laurent Aiello and Stéphane Ortelli winning ahead of Jörg Müller, Uwe Alzen and Bob Wollek in the sister car. After this win, Porsche dropped out of top-level competition, though had originally planned to return in 2000. Unfortunately, Porsche would not come back to top class prototype racing until just last year.
After the ‘learning year’ in 2014, Porsche came back with a brand new 919 Hybrid in 2015. Dealing with the efficiency regulations for FIA WEC racers, Porsche built a small 2-liter V4 engine and attached it to an 8 MJ hybrid system inside a gorgeously complicated carbon monocoque. The new car has been further perfected, conforming to all of the data the team gained in 2014, and it seems to have worked quite well. Exactly 45 years after Porsche’s first victory, they took their 17th with Earl Bamber, Nico Hülkenberg and Nick Tandy winning out. What do you know, it was another Porsche 1-2 finish, with the sister car of Timo Bernhard, Brendon Hartley and Mark Webber in second. Porsche pulled out all of their stops to get this victory, and it paid off. With top-level competition from Audi, Toyota, and Nissan, this was no mean feat. From here, Porsche is just looking forward to next season and will take the hits as they come.