Smashing records around Porsche's Weissach test track
A history of Porsche’s famous test track, one hot lap at a time
The story of the Weissach test track begins in 1959. By this time Germany’s motorways were proving too narrow and busy for test driving sports cars, let alone racing cars. Nearby Malmsheim Airfield, used as a stopgap by Porsche since 1954, had obvious limitations, and the Volkswagen test track in Wolfsburg was too far away. It was Herbert Linge who suggested an area next to the villages of Weissach and Flacht, which a record from 1910 described as ‘remarkably mountainous and rocky, but not very fertile and very difficult to cultivate’. Porsche readily acquired most of the almost 38-hectare site and on 16 October 1961, Ferry Porsche fired up the bulldozer for the ceremonial breaking of ground.
First up, a circular skid pad was built offering three tracks with inner diameters of 40, 60 and 190 metres. On 15 October 1962, it was here that Linge and test engineer Peter Falk began the early analysis of the still secretive 901. The focus was on basic chassis set-up, aerodynamics and endurance tests for what would become the most successful sports racer of all time.
In 1966, head of testing Helmut Bott commissioned engineer Jochen Freund to lay a proper test track on the site and the 2.88 km long clockwise mountain circuit soon emerged, comprising fast turns, precarious kinks, steep uphill combinations and brake-bursting downhill sections. Cars had to withstand thousands of kilometres of testing on the circuit before they were allowed to race, an ordeal for drivers and cars alike, but one that proved to be absolutely essential, as an event in early 1969 would reveal. Heavy snow fall in Weissach early that year had prevented the new 908/02 Spyder from being vibration tested as per normal, and at the 12 hours of Sebring in Florida weeks later, its lightweight frame broke over the venue’s rough concrete slabs, denying Porsche a likely victory.
Roland Bemsel (left) and Werner Kühnle build a 935 in the workshop in 1977. Glamorous it isn't, but the result is world-beating
The mountain circuit was invaluable then, but in order to drive faster and more powerful cars like the incoming 917 at suitable speeds and with a good rhythm, the racing department soon needed an upgrade. The new 2.53 km Can-Am circuit used the old track but added speed and jeopardy, with a fast right-left section and ultra-fast lefthand bend alongside a white-knuckle crest that even Ferdinand Piech, a man famous for his bullish and uncompromising approach to sports car development, deemed highly risky.
Every modern Porsche racing car ever since has driven its first kilometres on the Can-Am circuit, ushering in numerous new eras in motorsport. On 30 July 1971, Porsche’s first turbocharged racer debuted there, the 850PS 917/10 Spyder driven by Jo Siffert. Another defining moment came on 27 March 1982, when the revolutionary ground effect prototype 956 clocked its first laps at Weissach after just nine months of development. In March the following year, Jacky Ickx set a record Can-Am lap time of 45.7 seconds aboard the new car, which would go on to utterly dominate both Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship.
This shot, from around 1968, shows woollen threads being used as part of the aerodynamic testing of a 908 long-tail Coupé.
That record would keep tumbling, however. In February 1984 Niki Lauda drove the 720-PS Porsche-powered McLaren MP4 Formula 1 car around the Can-Am circuit in 44.6 seconds. This car and driver combo would go on to take three Drivers’ and two Constructors’ World Championships. Then in 1989, Porsche developed a 3.5-litre V12 for the British Arrows Formula One team and Italian Michele Alboreto lapped it around Weissach in a stunning 41.8 seconds, the high point for Porsche’s Formula racing endeavours in the period.
A return to sports cars in the following decade saw the 911 GT1 capture Porsche’s first outright Le Mans win in over ten years in 1998. Its radical new drivetrain and aerodynamic package were once again proved at Weissach, but despite the advances in engineering know-how, Albereto’s record time around the Can-Am circuit looked to be untouchable.
April 1972: the test track seen from the air.
There was a chapter as yet unwritten, however. Porsche returned to the World Endurance Championship and Le Mans with the 919 Hybrid in 2014, Timo Bernhard first testing the highly advanced and top secret prototype at Weissach before it went on to dominate the series in 2015, 2016 and 2017. To celebrate this remarkable run of success, Porsche created the derestricted 919 Hybrid Evo, making 1,160 PS against a weight of just 849 kg, and with 50 per cent more downforce than the World Championship car. It would smash lap records at Spa and the Nürburgring before attention was turned to Weissach’s Can-Am circuit. Here, veteran 919 driver and now Porsche Brand Ambassador Timo Bernhard recorded a time of just 40.625 seconds, easily thrusting the Evo to the top of the time sheets. And there it remains, until the next one …
Porsche power for the McLaren MP4 Formula 1. Team principal Ron Dennis (right), race director Peter Falk (third from right) and engine designer Hans Mezger (left) on the track in 1983.