Open Secret - Porsche's F1 Program
The story of Porsche and Formula 1's complicated relationship
Porsche is often one of the first names that come to mind when we talk about motorsport. The German manufacturer has participated in everything from the 24 Hours of LeMans to the demanding DAKAR Rally. Their racing history is filled with success. They have proven to be effective at pretty much everything they do. Or have they?
During the 1950s, Porsche dominated on tracks around the world with cars like this, the 718 RSK
By the 1950s, Porsche proved competitive in every motorsport event it attended. However, not satisfied with that, they decided to venture into open-wheel racing. Although Mr. Porsche himself didn’t have any aspirations towards single-seater racing, it was Huschke von Hanstein, racing director of Porsche at the time, who convinced him into developing a car to enter the Formula 2 championship. The initial effort wasn't too big, in 1958, a 718 RSK was converted into a single-seater with central steering, as F2 rules at the time allowed for optional covered wheels. Despite the relatively small effort, the car was moderately successful, and prompted Hanstein to convince Ferry Porsche into allowing him to start developing the 718/2, a new car, still based on the 718, but this time a genuine open-wheel racer made from the ground up.
Porsche's fist formula car was an RSK modified to be a single-seater with a central steering
The car was still only a prototype when the rumors about the 1.5-liter F1 engine regulations came to Hanstein. The rule changes would promote their 718/2 instantly into F1. Hanstein had to ask Ferry Porsche (son of founder Ferdinand Porsche) permission to enter the new car in the Monaco Grand Prix as he thought it would be a good test for the single-seater Porsche.
Mr Porsche was hesitant and told Hanstein he could take the car to Monaco under one condition: “If it can lap the Nürburgring in nine and a half minutes, you can go to Monaco.” The task was not an easy one. The F2 record at the ‘Ring had been set by Phil Hill a year earlier with a time of 9:48. After a severe development program with driver Wolfgang von Trips, the engineers managed to meet their boss’s demands and the 718/2 was set for Monaco. Trips qualified 12th overall but unfortunately hit a wall on the second lap.
Due to a change in regulations, Porsche's F2 car actually made its formal racing debut at an F1 race, however it crashed early in the race.
Ferry Porsche was confident enough with the progress made and opted to set up a proper F2 campaign for 1960 with the 718/2. Back in the category it was actually meant to compete in, the car was very successful, driven to victory by Jo Bonnier and Stirling Moss, managing a 1-2 finish at the team’s home race at Stuttgart. It won the F2 championship that same year. A total of five 718/2 were made. From the stages of prototype to the 1960 championship winner, it was driven by Jo Bonnier, Graham Hill, Stirling Moss, Wolfgang von Trips, and John Surtees. One of the 718/2s,(Stirling’s) was bought by privateer Rob Walker, who painted it orange and continued racing with it until 1962. In the meantime, Porsche was developing an eight-cylinder boxer engine for the 1.5-liter formula to enter the World Championship in 1961.
The 718/2 proved to be a very successful F2 car, with it, Porsche won the championship in 1960
In 1961, Porsche revealed the car with which they would enter F1: the 787. It was basically a 718/2 with a slightly longer back so that it could accommodate the bigger V8 engine. It wasn’t very technically advanced when compared to cars like the Lotus 25. While the British constructors were adopting fuel-injection and lightweight alloy wheels to reduce weight, Porsche stayed with carburetors and steel rims. The car was reliable, however, it had a miserable pace due to the engine's lack of power. It was so slow in fact that on their home GP in Germany, the car was disqualified for being “un-race worthy”, meaning the car posed a danger to the other drivers due to its lack of speed and poor handling. Porsche at the time wasn't the massive manufacturer that is today, but it was still a very well established and renowned racing team. To this day it remains one of Porsche's greatest humiliations. Porsche only used the car for 3 races before returning to the older 718/2 to complete the season.
The 787 was a complete failure, after just 3 events Porsche retired it from racing. It scrapped and allegedly dismantled the two 787s it had built. The 787 is one of very few Porsche racing cars not on display at the Porsche museum.
After the disastrous results of the 787, Ferry Porsche wanted to cancel the brand's F1 program. However, he was later convinced into letting the engineers develop a single car to race the following year. It was then that the engineers started working on one of Porsche's greatest and yet lesser-known projects.
The new car would be known as the 804. In charge of the design was Ferdinand Porsche himself (son of Ferry, grandson of founder Ferdinand). It was among the first projects developed by the man who would go on to design the 911. Just like the 787, the 804 had an aluminum body, but this time it was narrower and lower. It was Porsche's first car to have panels made from synthetic materials, making it very light, it weighed only 455kg (1,003lb), 5 kilograms above the minimum weight allowed. It was also the first Porsche to have disk brakes and a rack and pinion steering system. With an updated engine making a lot more power, the 804 had a top speed of 270kph (168mph). Despite the plan being initially for only one car to be built, a total of 4 were made. The 804 made its racing debut at the 1962 Dutch GP. Having invested so much time and money into his company's F1 venture, Ferry Porsche gave his team strict orders to return to Stuttgart if the cars didn't perform well in practice. The team opted to stay. Driver Dan Gurney classified 8th, with teammate Jo Bonnier in 13th. The American managed to climb onto 3rd, but retired with mechanical issues. Bonnier would go on to finish 7th.
The new 804 proved to be much more competitive than the 787, however it also showed hints of unreliability.
Ferry Porsche was hesitant to commit to another race, however, Dan Gurney had spent some extra time testing the car and believed it to have potential. It was the American who convinced Mr Porsche to send a single 804 to compete in the following race at Monaco. Gurney qualified a remarkable 5th, but was crashed into by another car in the early stages of the race.
The team sat out the following race, dedicating the time into further testing and modifying the car. Some of the changes made were a revised suspension as well as a new shift mechanism. After the modifications, Ferry Porsche ordered the car to be tested around the Nurburgring to make sure it could complete a full race distance of 200km (125m). Gurney managed to do so without complications, in the process breaking the lap record several times. The stars aligned for the team in the French GP. Ferrari couldn't send any cars due to a metal workers strike in Italy. Gurney qualified 6th and kept a good pace as the cars of Jim Clark and Graham Hill retired with mechanical problems. Gurney would win the race, making it Porsche's first and only win as a constructor, and the first German team to win a race since 1955. A week later, Porsche would lead the non-championship Solitude GP at Stuttgart from start to finish to get a 1-2 result. The next event was the German Grand Prix, which was run in torrential rain. After qualifying on pole, Gurney made the race a magnificent duel between him and race leaders Graham Hill and John Surtees. The raced proved to be one of Hill’s greatest victories, and Gurney finished a very respectable third.
Driven by Dan Gurney, the 804 gave Porsche its first and only Grand Prix win as a constructor
For the rest of the year, the cars continued to be competitive but scored no more victories. The car finished on points the next 3 races (Italy, US, South Africa). Before the last race in South Africa, Ferry Porsche announced that his team wouldn't compete the following season. The effort had proven too expensive for the brand and Mr Porsche doubted the expenses of Formula 1 would result in technology he could apply to his road cars. Porsche would finish 5th in the constructors championship, so did Gurney on the drivers championship. Even months after the withdrawal of the team, Porsche's engineers continued working on the 804 as their side project. They redesigned the suspension and retuned the engine to produce approximately 200hp. However, the car never raced again. Following a lengthy restoration conducted by Porsche in the mid-2000s, the car was seen at the Monaco Historique in 2016 and at the Goodwood Festival 2 years later.
Porsche canceled its F1 program in 1962. The car continued to be updated by the engineers in 1963, however, what happened to the car after that is unknown. After an 8-year restoration process, Gurney's 804 is now displayed at Porsche's Museum
Twenty-one years later they would return as engine suppliers to McLaren as TAG-Porsche, with funding provided by TAG Group. McLaren got the TAG-Porsche engines and created a superior car. Winning the constructors championship with 143 points, well above Ferrari, who got only 57. Partnership lasted until 1987, when McLaren allied with Honda, and we all know how that went. After splitting with McLaren, Porsche briefly powered the Footwork F1 Team, supplying them with an unreliable and overweight engine that didn't allow the car to score a single point during its campaign in 1991. The partnership ended at the end of the year and Porsche hasn't returned to F1 ever since.
Porsche returned to F1 in the 1980s as an engine supplier for the successful TAG-McLaren team. After briefly supplying engines in 1991, the brand left the sport and hasn't returned ever since.
And that was the story of Porsche in F1. I chose to write about this because very recently the headlines appeared about the FIA "opening the door" to the Volkswagen group. Porsche themselves had shown interest in 2017 about becoming an engine supplier under the new regulations in 2021 (which were postponed for 2022). If the Volkswagen group really would be interested in returning to the sport, could we see Porsche back on the grid as a team or engine supplier? It's all just an idea and possibly a vague desire of mine being a Porsche fan, but well we are all allowed to imagine, aren't we?