Countdown to Le Mans EP3: The little 911 that could
History of 911s that challenged the mighty 24 Hours of Le Mans
Image from Ferdinand Magazine
Porsche has been one of the most successful marques ever to tackle the 24 hours of Le Mans, and their flagship vehicle, the 911, has naturally seen success at the prestigious event as well. Today we will go through a brief history of 911s that challenged the mighty 24 hours of Le Mans.
1966: Porsche 911
The Porsche 911 made its first debut in 1963. However, it was not until three years later that the crowd at Le Mans finally got to see the 911 racing down the track. Campaigned by two privateers, Jacques Dewes and Jean Kerugen, the Porsche 911 took part in the GT 2.0 class. Although the two were technically privateers with a normal Porsche 911, the car had actually been prepared by the Porsche factory.
Instead of the standard 911 engine, the car was fitted with the 901/02 engine that was yet to be released. The 901/02 engine was previously fitted in the 1965 Monte-Carlo Rally entered 911 and would later be fitted on the 911 S. The engine made a healthy extra 30 hp thanks to its new all-aluminum engine. The car proved to be reliable on the circuit, and although it qualified 51st, it finished 14th overall by the end of the race and won the GT 2.0 class as well. The same car took part in the 1970 Le Mans a few years later and finish 14th again, but was not classified due to the distance covered.
1974: Porsche 911 RSR Turbo 2.1
Since the 911’s first debut in 1966, numerous 911s were campaigned by privateers as they were reliable and performed well for their class as well. New regulations forced sports prototypes to have engines no bigger than 3 litres, and in response, Porsche brought their 911 Carrera RSR 2.8s which won the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Targa Florio in 1973. The cars proved to be effective in the fight between GTs, but as a sports prototype, they were clearly slower than the Matras and Ferraris.
Porsche wanted an overall win, but without the ability to develop a new prototype from scratch, instead built what would be a ‘Frankenstein Porsche,’ the 911 Turbo RSR 2.1. Instead of the familiar 2.8 litre or 3.0 litre flat-six, it had a bizarre 2.1 litre engine, but with a massive KKK turbocharger. It was the first turbocharged car to tackle Le Mans, making 450hp being a huge threat to the Matras on the straights.
Two cars were entered, and while the car running 5th retired with an engine failure, the other car soldiered on despite losing 5th gear to come home 2nd place. Considering La Sarthe is a very fast track, and the Matras were purpose-built prototypes with F1 derived engines, it was a great feat for this monster Porsche. The turbocharging technology used on this car would eventually trickle down into 911 road cars, creating the legendary 930 Turbo.
1979: Porsche 935 K3
1979 was when Group 5 cars, a.k.a silhouette racers, were at their peak. Although the top class Group 6 cars would take the overall victory, Group 5 cars that looked closer to road cars were undoubtedly the fan favourites. The 1979 Le Mans featured many Group 5 cars, including the two Porsche 935 K3s, which were variants of the Porsche 935 built by Kremer racing. The reason behind Kremer’s own variant was due to Porsche’s lack of interest in supporting customer teams with ‘Evolution’ models that the factory teams used. Kremer had been developing their own upgrade kits known as K2s, and for 1979, they had a new 935 K3 ready.
One of the two 935 K3s were driven by Whittington Brothers, who bought their seat into Le Mans with drug money. Erwin Kremer told them their main drivers would start the race, but the two brothers demanded that they should take the start. Kremer jokingly said that he would let them go first if they have bought the car for $200,000, which was far more than the average 935 K3s prices. Surprisingly, they told Kremer to take $200k from their duffle bag, and Kremer baffled by the fact that 1) They were willing to buy the car for 200 grand and 2) They were carrying tons of money in cash, let them start the car.
It rained an awful lot that year, which slowed the cars in general, and the two 936s, which were the potential winners, were out of the race. Therefore, despite having two very slow, inexperienced gentleman drivers, the #41 Kremer K3 took the checkered flag and won the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans. Their rather unsuspected victory led to a huge increase in demand for K3s, while the Whittington brothers ventured into other branches of motorsport with their huge sack of drug cash. The #41 car that they bought later had nitrous secretly added for more power to compete in the IMSA series as well and has been campaigned until the Whittington brothers were arrested for drug trafficking.
1986: Porsche 961
In 1986, Porsche debuted what would be one of their finest supercars to this date, the Porsche 959. The issue was that the Porsche 959 was not meant to be a series production road car in the first place as the original plan was to have only 200 cars built for Group B homologation purposes. But with Group B regulations effectively phased out due to safety issues, the cars were prepared for road use to minimize the financial damage caused by the project.
Still, Porsche being Porsche, wanted to show what the 959 might have been capable of. They simply took a chassis awaiting to be assembled, and instead gave it to their experimental department to make it into a road car, and thus the 961 was created. It did have a few differences compared to the 959s as it had a parallel turbocharger instead of the sequential units, lightweight bodywork, lack of the electronically controlled suspension and ABS, custom intake and exhaust systems. The result was astonishing as it made a whopping 640hp, and with AWD to handle the power, the 961 was a monster.
Due to the uniqueness of the car, the 961 ran under the IMSA GTX class at Le Mans by itself. It was the first AWD car to tackle Le Mans, giving Porsche another ‘first’. Still, it proved to be fast among the prototype Group C cars. It was able to hit 320km/h on the Mulsanne straight and ran almost problem-free, finishing 7th overall. The car came back in 1987, only to retire due to an accident, and with the lack of competition and high costs, Porsche folded the program. Although the 961 is more of the lesser-known Porsche race cars, it helped Porsche refine their water-cooling and turbocharging technology, along with the fine-tuning of AWD systems at the end of the day.
1998: Porsche 911 GT1-98
With the advent of new top class GT racing at Le Mans, Porsche had developed their own GT1 race cars. Despite sharing almost nothing with the roadgoing 911s, the 911 GT1 was still homologated as a ‘GT1’ car and gave them considerable success throughout the seasons. However, there was one thing Porsche still haven’t checked off in their to-do list. They were not able to win Le Mans with their GT1s. With Joest Racing taking the wins in 1995 and 1996 and the competitors catching up fast, the Porsche factory team was desperate for a win at Le Mans with their 911 GT1.
In the 1998 season, Porsche made huge changes to the existing 911 GT1 with a more aerodynamic bodywork. Yet it still proved to be slower than the Mercedes Benz CLK-LMs and Toyota GT-Ones on the track. Thankfully, the gods of Le Mans were on Porsche’s side, as both CLK-LMs and GT-Ones threw the towel due to reliability issues. Even other potential competitors like the BMW V12 LM and Nissan R390 had issues slowing them or putting them out of the race. Porsche came home with a 1-2 victory at Le Mans after two years of defeat. The 911 GT1-98 was the last 911 to race in the top class at Le Mans, and their win 1998 was a proper swansong for the 911s at Le Mans.
Image from WEC
2020: Porsche 911 RSR-19
This year, Porsche will once again tackle the 24 Hours of Le Mans with their 911 in the GTE class. Although GTE is not the top class at Le Mans, it is still highly competitive, with 8 entries this year. The 911 RSR-19 is a revised version of the older 911 RSRs, featuring a new 4.2 litre flat-six, the biggest engine ever to be fitted on a 911 from the factory. With a class victory in 2018 and a 2nd place finish in 2019, the 911 RSR is a highly competitive race car, just like its ancestors. We hope the best for the two #91 and #92 cars this year at Le mans as well.