In the early 1980’s, the FIA changed their class structure for circuit racing across the board. Gone were the categories designated by number like Group 4, Group 5 and Group 6. Instead the different classes would now be referred to by letters, Group A for touring cars, Group B for production-based sportscars and Group C for purpose built prototypes.
Porsche had been very successful in the earlier Group 5 and Group 6 categories. To build on this winning streak, the company started work on a prototype for the top-level Group C, and came up with the 956. The new car performed exceptionally, ushering in a new era of unrelenting Porsche dominance.
After the 956 had been completed in 1981, the German company set out to develop a competitor for the Group B production category. Porsche saw the new category as a great way to test and improve experimental technology for use in their road cars.
In 1983 Porsche showed the Gruppe B concept car to the world. Plans were made to build both a production version and a racing variant, and set up a costumer program for privateers like they had done with the 956. The project lead to the presentation of the 959 production sports car at the 1985 Frankfurt Motor Show.
By then, the rules of Group B had changed dramatically to favor the immensely popular rally category. The company noted the link between production cars and the techno-insanity of the top Group B cars to be virtually non-existent. Porsche decided to soldier on with the project to win back some of its investment and put the car’s development to good use. The plans for a customer program were scrapped, as the Group B Road Racing category never really materialized.
Factory teams did not see the advantages of running an expensive development program by having to produce both a production car and a racing version. For this reason they opted to stay in the top-level C1 prototype category, competing for overall victories.
Privateers did not like the fact that they would have to buy these massively expensive and complicated cars from major manufacturers. Competing in the cheaper C2 prototype category was a much better decision for them, also allowing them to work with technology they were familiar with. Because of these factors, Group B Road Racing never had a chance. Despite these unfortunate developments, Porsche pressed on hoping to get some good data from the experience.
The latest development of Porsche's Gruppe B project was now called 961. The lone chassis retained much from the 959 road car, which had an advanced four wheel drive system. Four wheel drive was highly unusual in sportscar racing, but Group B’s rally-focused regulations obviously allowed it. The system was tuned to deliver most of the power to the rear wheels, easing stress on the front wheels.
Power came from the venerable Typ 935 2.85L twin turbocharged flat six, also used in the nigh unbeatable 956 and 962 Group C prototypes. Racing regulations allowed the boost to be turned up significantly, resulting in a hefty output of 680 horsepower. The power was transferred to the wheels by a 6-speed manual transmission. The 959’s computer controlled suspension was swapped for a traditional set to increase reliability.
The car was entered into the 1986 24 Hours of Le Mans. The #180 entry was classified as an IMSA GTX-class car, as it was not homologated for Group B. The only geniune Group B entry present was the #111 BMW M1 campaigned by German outfit MK Motorsport. Driving the all-white sponsor-less 961 were Frenchmen Claude Ballot-Léna and René Metge.
At the test day a couple of weeks before the race, the car set a 10th fastest time. Not only was it much faster than the Group B BMW M1, it also managed to beat several C1 and C2 entries. In actual qualifying the car managed 26th on the 50-car grid, and first in class as it was the only GTX runner. During the race the car’s excellent reliability caused it to slowly climb up the order. After a trouble free race it managed an impressive 7th position overall, 47 laps down from the winning Group C1 works Porsche 962C.
The 961 made a second appearance that year at the Eastern Airlines 3-Hour Camel Grand Prix at Daytona, the final race of the American IMSA GT Championship. Again the car had to change classes, running this time as a GTP-prototype. German Günter Steckkönig was partnered with Dutch-Canadian Kees Nierop to pilot the car.
The pair qualified in 29th on the grid. The Porsche’s Dunlops struggled to cope with Daytona’s steeply banked oval, suffering several blowouts. Eventually the car would cross the finish line in a disappointing 24th position, 16 laps down from the winning #44 Jaguar XJR-7.
The 961 would return for the 1987 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, now painted in the stunning Rothmans-livery also used by the factory 962C cars. The car had to make a class-change for the third time in a row, this time competing in the IMSA-class. Its competitors in class would be three of Mazda’s rotary-powered 757 prototypes.
The Porsche set a 16th fastest time in the hands of Gunter Stekkönig and Swiss driver Claude Haldi at the test day, beating out the Mazda’s easily. Porsche decided on using Claude Haldi and 1986 driver René Metge for qualifying and the race. After Kees Nierop’s 962C was destroyed in a qualifying accident by team-mate Price Cobb, he joined them to drive the 961.
Nierop was used to driving the much smoother, long wheelbase, high downforce ground-effect 962C. The 961’s ferocious power coupled with a rear-engined layout, unusually short wheelbase and a lack of substantial downforce made for very twitchy handling characteristics, which he did not like at all. He felt like the car was actively trying to kill him.
The team guided the car to a 31st qualifying position on the 50-car grid. The 961 was the only production-derived car in the prototype-dominated field. Come race day, the 961 was again performing well. It was running as reliably as it had the year before and managed to clinch 11th position before disaster struck.
Kees Nierop’s bad luck had gotten the better of him again. He smashed the 961 into the guardrail at Indianapolis when the gearbox decided to seize on him. The damage done by the impact caused a fire when bodywork hit the scalding hot exhaust of the car. Nierop tried to continue to the pits, but team manager Peter Falk screamed at him through the radio to get the hell out of the burning Porsche.
Kees Nierop feeling the burn.
After the drama of the 1987 race, the 961 was put into storage by Porsche to be restored at a later date. The lack of appropriate competition for the production-based car was another factor in cancelling the program. Instead focus shifted back to its highly successful Group C and IMSA GTP campaign.
The Porsche 961 was an outcast from the start. It never made it into its proposed class, and never really had any fair competition. On top of that, it was not even a very good car to drive. It now resides in Porsche’s museum, fully restored after its fiery ordeal in 1987.