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Porsche 956/962 at Le Mans – Logistics Part II

The race winning #3 Rothmans 956 of Vern Schuppan/Al Holbert/Hurley Haywood
Le Mans 24 Hours, 18-19 June 1983: By midnight, the #3 Rothmans 956 of Vern Schuppan/Al Holbert/Hurley Haywood was leading the field by a lap after a seventh place start on the grid. With just an hour to go and with Holbert behind the wheel, the lead looked secure until a door flew off down the Mulsanne Straight necessitating a replacement. The airflow over the body to the left side radiator at the rear was affected and the engine began to overheat, and Holbert had to nurse the ailing 956 around the 13 km track once more. When the #3 Porsche crossed the finish line, Derek Bell was just one minute further back proving that nothing is assured at Le Mans until the chequered flag has fallen

In 1982, Porsche introduced the Type 956, the race car manufacturer’s entrant in the newly created Group C racing series which commenced that season. The new car scored a second place on its debut at Silverstone that year, and followed this up a month later with a clean sweep of the podium at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The rest, as they say, is history as the 956 and its modified brother, the 962, went on to amass a total of 232 international victories. The factory raced both the 956 and 962 variants from 1982 until 1988. Porsche’s customer teams could only get their hands on the 956 as from 1983, but from that season until 1994, the customer 956s and 962s scored victory after victory. In this feature, Porsche 956/962 at Le Mans – Logistics Part II, we look at what it took to get these race cars to the track, and what logistics were involved at Le Mans.

The #16 John Fitzpatrick Racing Skoal Bandit Porsche 956 of Edwards/Keegan/Fitzpatrick
Le Mans 24 Hours, 18-19 June 1983: Spitting fire, the #16 John Fitzpatrick Racing Skoal Bandit Porsche 956 of Edwards/Keegan/Fitzpatrick finished fifth overall

Norbert Singer, retired Porsche race engineer, recalled with some humour, “People used to say to me that in those days, the cars were much simpler, and therefore we didn’t need computers. We certainly didn’t have any computers to develop the car and we also had no simulations, but we had a slide rule! Of course, there were some calculators that could add or divide some numbers, and they could perform the four basic functions, but to do more complicated calculations, you had to use a slide rule.”

The 956 featured a monocoque chassis made of aluminium
The 956 featured a monocoque chassis made of aluminium. It was the first time that this style of race car construction had been used by Porsche. Here Norbert Singer (left) discusses the development of the monocoque with Horst Reitter, head of chassis and suspension development (right) in the racing department in Weissach in 1982

Weissach workings

Back in the 1980s, the race department at Porsche was not a big department, as Klaus Bischof, race mechanic, explained, “In the workshop we were around 40 people working on everything. In 1982, we ran the world championship with the 956, in 1983 we did the Formula One engines, and we did the Paris-Dakar in 1984. The personnel who went to the Paris-Dakar rally were the same as those who did the Group C racing, there was no difference.”

A 956 monocoque takes shape in the Weissach racing department (1981)
A 956 monocoque takes shape in the Weissach racing department (1981) – Norbert Singer stands at the rear on the right

“This is what the people don’t understand today when you talk about development. For instance, with composites, today you have a company who does your composites, you have a company where you get your brake callipers, a company for your brake discs, and so on. Back then, we made our own callipers in Weissach, the casting, machining and developing, and we made our own composites,” Norbert Singer pointed out.

Colleagues, technicians and engineers gather for the first running of the 956 at Weissach on 27 March 1982
Colleagues, technicians and engineers gather for the first running of the 956 at Weissach on 27 March 1982. On the right is Peter Falk (hands on hips) while test driver Jürgen Barth readies himself behind the wheel

But therein lay a big advantage for Porsche, because if something broke at the circuit, the crew would know exactly how to fix it, because they had made it. “Exactly, a big advantage you are right! They did not have to write notes or messages to tell the team manager what was wrong, they were there and they could see the problem and knew how to fix it,” Singer added.

Porsche workshop and team area in the paddock behind the pits
Le Mans 24 Hours, 18-19 June 1983: Porsche workshop and team area in the paddock behind the pits

The engine design and drawings was the responsibility of Hans Mezger and his department, and this was quite separate from the race department which was headed by Peter Falk. But engine assembly was the task of the race mechanics in the engine department, and that was part of the race department. Although the race department and the gearbox department worked together, they too were separate departments. A racing gearbox would typically be assembled alongside production gearboxes, and so when a gearbox was needed by the race department, it was simply delivered to them in an assembled state. But a gearbox mechanic would always accompany the race team to each race in the event specialist knowledge was required.

The #2 Rothmans Porsche 956 is put through scrutineering. In those days
Le Mans 24 Hours, 18-19 June 1983: The #2 Rothmans Porsche 956 is put through scrutineering. In those days, the public and media were allowed much closer to the cars than they are today

“The race department would build the cars in the early years, the tube frames and later on the monocoques as well, we did it all on our own, we made everything there. Of course, we had other companies doing some things for us, but in the race department we really made the car from the first screw to the end,” said Klaus Bischof.

For the Porsche team, the paddock area behind the pits was a busy place
Le Mans 24 Hours, 18-19 June 1983: For the Porsche team, the paddock area behind the pits was a busy place

“In the very early years with the 956, we put the car through a real test on the rough road at Weissach. This was a 1000 km test on the Schüttelstrecke (shake circuit). It was horrible, you could only do it for 45 minutes and at each fuel stop we would change the driver. This was a special programme where we used the engineers and a few mechanics, and it was to test the suspension. The car was prepared just like it would be for the race, but it was just given a little bit more ground clearance, and we used normal slick racing tyres. There were speed signs around the circuit as to how fast the drivers could go for consistency. This programme would take around a week to complete. We also did this before with the 935s and 936s, but this only happened in the beginning with the 956, not later,” explained Bischof.

Porsche race car transporter, Weissach 1983
Porsche race car transporter, Weissach 1983

This testing regime ensured that the 956 and the later 962 race cars were strong enough to survive the rigours of a 24-hour race, and when questioned if other manufacturers did this level of testing, Klaus Bischof said he doubted it very much. Then, every year just before each Le Mans race, further testing would take place around the Weissach test track, where every car was tested for two or three days before leaving for Le Mans. Most times this was carried out with Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx, but later on Hans Stuck joined in.

A Porsche team member attends to the spare body panels on board one of the Porsche transporters
Le Mans 24 Hours, 18-19 June 1983: A Porsche team member attends to the spare body panels on board one of the Porsche transporters

This rather extreme testing regime was carried out because the race department did not have any prior experience with building monocoques. When asked what problems were revealed, Bischof replied, “At first some cracks appeared in the monocoque, so we had to make it stronger because the idea was always that this car would be sold to customer teams. The rule was that, if there was new technology introduced on the factory race cars, that the customers should be able to buy that new technology for their cars within two races of it being introduced on the factory cars,” Bischof shared.

Trust Porsche to rig up an innovative timing box above the pits complete with custom-made window support extensions
Le Mans 24 Hours, 31 May-1 June 1986: Trust Porsche to rig up an innovative timing desk arrangement above the pits complete with custom-made window support extensions. This accommodation nevertheless looked rather cramped

It was also the case that the customers would feed any problems back to the factory that they had experienced, and this was a way of the factory further testing their developments. “But the important thing to remember is that we never had a test team, everybody did everything. The same people who made the monocoque were the same people who changed tyres at the track. We had ten works 956s and ten works 962s, the rest were customer cars, and in the end, we only kept two or three of each [for the Museum]. Peter Falk was big on respect, and he said that for him a mechanic was just as important as an engineer. He told his staff, ‘Only with teamwork do you win!’ and this was drilled into the crew,” Bischof said.

The #1 Porsche 956 of Jacky Ickx/Derek Bell sits in the pits prior to the race
Le Mans 24 Hours, 18-19 June 1983: The #1 Porsche 956 of Jacky Ickx/Derek Bell sits in the pits prior to the race. This car would finish in second place overall

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