Porsche at Le Mans Part V: 1980 to 1994 the Transaxle years
In this feature, the fifth in our series that looks at the different eras of Porsche’s participation at Le Mans, we examine the part played by the company’s transaxle cars. These front-engined models, that in roadgoing form rescued the company during difficult financial times, have been unjustly maligned over the years. When so many manufacturers of high performance sports cars were closing their doors in the face of the oil crisis in the early 1970s, Porsche bucked the trend and introduced a brace of new models, the 924 and 928. These two models were followed by the 944 and 968 models, the 944 seeing great success in the sale rooms around the world, and on the race track. Porsche at Le Mans Part V: 1980 to 1994 the Transaxle years, looks at the importance that the Le Mans 24 Hour race played in proving Porsche’s front-engined models.
The decade of the 1980s began with the knowledge that Group 6 was to be replaced with the FIA’s latest Group C rules in 1982. This resulted in a varied collection of contenders at Le Mans in the early part of that decade as some manufacturers understandably delayed the development of their new cars while others went ahead with theirs. Whether one viewed this situation with some pessimism or with interest, such a varied grid did provide the race-goer with some entertaining track action.
Porsche at Le Mans 1980: 14-15 June
Although the Porsche 924 was introduced back in 1976, it was four years before the car would see any action at Le Mans. The 1980 24-hour race, though, would be the last for Porsche’s chief executive, Professor Ernst Fuhrmann. Father of the famous four-cam Carrera engine, Fuhrmann had allegedly overstepped the mark when he ruled that the 911 would be phased out by 1984, to be replaced with a range of water-cooled front-engined cars that would meet the ever-stringent noise and emissions regulations threatening the industry. He also dictated that the 936 was to go, and that the new decade would see a squad of 924 Carrera GTs taking to the Sarthe circuit.
Once the shock of Ernst Fuhrmann’s announcement had died down at Weissach, it was revealed that each of the three 924s for Le Mans would be driven in a ‘low key’ exercise by representatives from the nations of Germany, Britain and America. The three cars to run in the LM GTP class would be manned by: Manfred Schurti/Jürgen Barth in the German car; Andy Rouse/Tony Dron in the British car; and Derek Bell/Al Holbert in the American car, with Bell standing in for the injured Peter Gregg at the last moment.
Although the 924s did surprise many at the 1980 Le Mans 24 Hours, the move by Fuhrmann had rattled some cages in high places, most significantly that of Ferry Porsche, and by the end of the year Fuhrmann had been given his marching orders.
On the racing front, too, the ACO were up to some new tricks this year in that the grid positions would not be determined by the cars according to their fastest lap times, but rather by the average of the fastest lap times of all the drivers in each car. Thus, when the ACO came to eliminate those cars that had not qualified in each class, there was great consternation and confusion in the paddock, but the ACO conceded by allowing 55 cars to start instead of just 50 cars which had been previously stipulated.
Tony Dron recalls, “The 924 Carrera GTP, the GT-Prototype of 1980, was quite a remarkable car. We did a 36-hour test before Le Mans at Paul Ricard and we had several drivers. I remember in our car we had Derek Bell, Andy Rouse and myself, and the idea was to drive it for more than 24-hours absolutely flat out and to see how it goes. Norbert Singer was running the show for the works team.” For some reason the car had a problem at the top end, and although the drivers enquired as to what the problem was, the engineers would not say. Dron suspected it was a combination of ignition timing and mixture, but the team was convinced that they had solved the problem by the time Le Mans came around, but they hadn’t.
Dron estimated that the car was good for between 180-185 mph down the Mulsanne straight. Had the car performed well, they could have finished as high as fourth place, which was more a statement of what the car was capable of achieving. The #2 Rouse/Dron car finished in twelfth place overall with the #3 Bell/Holbert car in thirteenth place, while the #4 car of Barth/Schurti finished a very credible sixth overall.
“What I do remember that car for, is the wonderful integrity of its chassis, an extremely stiff chassis and the handling of the car was extraordinarily good. One of the best handling cars I have ever driven, I really liked the feel of it,” Dron added.
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