The Porsche 956 - Blitzkrieg
With a Nürburgring record left unbeaten for nearly 35 years, it's hard not to call it legendary.
It's impossible not to associate The Nürburgring with Porsche. Over the last decade, three of the brand's production road cars crossed the 20,600-meter circuit in under six minutes, the benchmark for most manufacturers aiming to make their mark.
However, Porsche's dominance didn't last only this decade. In 1983, during the qualifying session of the 1000 kilometers of Nürburgring, Porsche entered Stefan Bellof. In his favor, the stars aligned in one of his laps. He managed to pull off a record lap time of 6:11:13 through the 20,832-meter Grand Prix circuit, even longer than the usual circuit configuration for production car lap times. His teammate, Jochen Mass, came second fastest with a lap time of 6:16:85. Bellof's record would remain unbeaten for nearly 35 years.
The cars they were driving? The Porsche 956.
Porsche in Endurance Racing
The legendary Porsche 935. (Source: WallpaperUp, BelleDeesse)
Porsche dominated the Group 5 class of the World Sportscar Championship. Their 935 "Moby Dick" was running circles around the competition, winning over twenty times in Group 6. However, they weren't willing to rest on their laurels. They wanted to expand their already great motorsport influence and in the 1980s, Peter Schultz, the CEO of Porsche North America, had plans to enter the brand into Indycar racing.
A 2.65-liter twin-turbo engine was developed for the new race car, but sudden changes in CART regulations rendered it useless, forcing Porsche to withdraw. Despite that setback, the new engine wasn't wasted, finding its way into the open-top Porsche 936 which won the 1981 24 Hours of Le Mans.
On that same year, the FIA announced the Group C class. It turns out that Porsche had just the right engine lying around to enter, the same 2.56-liter Indycar engine used in the Porsche 936. Now all they needed to do was to build a car around it.
A clay modeler sculpting the Porsche 956. (Source: Rareforms, Vince Rago)
The FIA set a weight limit of 800 kilograms, along with a fuel consumption limit. These regulations posed a challenge to Porsche's development team because to win Group C, you'll have to balance every variable in developing a car so all its parts can work in perfect harmony. There are a million different possible configurations, but only a tiny few can land you a spot on the podium.
Porsche appointed Norbert Singer, the man behind the 935's extended lifespan, to be in charge of developing the new car. His team was tasked to build a successor to the 956 in compliance with Group C regulations. Because of the rule set's very last-minute release, many teams were speculative on what kind of car was allowed to be raced. Unfortunately for BMW, they guessed wrong and had to withdraw.
Three months into the development program, the car wasn't built yet. Three more months, still little progress. The team had to work to their absolute limit from dusk to dawn for the new car to see the light of day in time for the 1983 season.
A cross-section of the Porsche 956. (Source: Porsche)
Downforce plays a major role in how a race car performs. In 1981, Singer and his team decided to experiment with something new, ground effect. It was proven effective in Formula 1 race cars, so they wanted to apply it to endurance racing cars.
You can observe ground effect at home by taking a tarp and lifting it parallel to the ground on a windy day. As the tarp gets closer to the ground, the cross-sectional area between the ground and the tarp decreases. Air pressure beneath the tarp decreases, and above the tarp, it stays the same. This will cause the tarp to be drawn to the ground thanks to a net downward force. This same principle applies to cars.
The first car finally rolled out of development in 1982. Chassis 001 was painted in a plain white livery with some sponsor stickers on it. It served as a test vehicle, used for real-world tests at Weissach, driven by Porsche test driver Jurgen Barth.
Porsche 956 Chassis 001. (Source: Porsche)
Chassis 001 made its first racing debut in the 6 Hours of Silverstone, now painted in its iconic Rothmans color scheme. Driven by Belgian legend Jacky Ickx and British racing driver Derek Bell, one of the two drivers set the fastest lap times during qualifying, over a second quicker than the Martini-Lancia LC1, the second-fastest car in the race. Group C cars had a disadvantage compared to Group 6 cars, the class the LC1 was in, as fuel restrictions were held. The Lancia won the race overall, but Ickx and Bell came in a respectable second place, also winning in its class. The 956's debut victories proved to the competition that the car was no slouch.
After Silverstone, Chassis 001 became no more than a test car. It served as a testbed for Le Mans simulations, often spotted running around Weissach, Germany. The car was also tested at Circuit Paul Ricard for an extended period to refine its bodywork. 001's test results served as valuable data for Chassis 002, the car Ickx and Bell would win with at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Porsche would also win a 1-2-3 photo finish with chassis 003 and 004.
Chassis 001 made its final competitive appearance at the Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft at the Norisring. The weather was far from favorable, with torrential rains covering the circuit. Jochen Mass, the man driving Chassis 001, would secure a very narrow victory. He won the race within less than a second to the second-place car on the final lap.
001 continued its life as a test car once again till its retirement, providing valuable data to its sibling cars. After its retirement, Porsche refurbished it and gifted the car to Jacky Ickx after his massive contribution to the brand's endurance racing success. He sold the car to Bruce Zeigler, who resides in California, in 1993.
Nobody's Perfect. (Source: Porsche)
In 1982 and 1983, Porsche won FIA World Sportscar Championship titles, both driver's and manufacturer's titles. In 1983, Porsche filled 9 out of 10 places at Le Mans, all of which were 956s. Only the Sauber-BMW C7 broke their streak at ninth place. That victory is where the infamous "nobody's perfect" poster came from. Thanks to the car's ground-effect, speeds of over 350 km/h (217 mph) were recorded at the Mulsanne Straight in Le Mans during every race.
1984 was unusual, as the Porsche factory team refused to race at Le Mans because new fuel regulations served as a disadvantage to the 956. However, the new regulation didn't apply to rivals. Still, Porsche built some examples of the 956 for customer teams, and the one belonging to Joest Racing won the 1984 24 Hours of Le Mans despite the handicap. Seven other 956s finished in the top 10. And despite its absence from Le Mans, the Porsche factory team still won the drivers' and constructors' championship that year.
King of the 'Ring
Stefan Bellof setting the 956's lap record at the Nürburgring. (Source: Porsche)
On May 28, 1983, during the 1000km of the Nürburgring, Porsche and many other teams were practicing before the race during the qualifying session. Six 956s were entered to race for laps around The Green Hell, but one of them would leave its mark for years to come. The bumpy circuit roads weren't friendly towards the car's ground-effect aerodynamics, with Derek Bell describing driving the 956 around the Nürburgring as a constant struggle, saying "With ground effect, we had a lot of trouble keeping the car on the road,
However, Chassis #007, driven by Stefan Bellof, had bigger 13-inch front wheels and had upgrades fitted to the car to improve its handling. He was determined to leave his mark, aiming to beat Jochen Mass's lap time of 6:16:85, the fastest at the time, also set in a 956. Bellof pushed the car to the limits and set a jaw-dropping lap time of 6:11:13, five seconds quicker than Mass's time. 5 seconds might not seem like a lot, but in terms of racing, it's a substantial difference.
During the race, Bellof pushed himself further than any other driver could, leading the race by 36 seconds in front of Jochen Mass despite driving the same car. Keke Rosberg, the leading F1 driver at the time who was also driving a 956, was even further behind Bellof, two minutes to be exact. Bellof set the race record with a time of 6:25:91, then would fly too close to the sun, and crash at the Pfianzgarten at 257 km/h. Jochen Mass took the overall winning title of the race.
It was thought that beating Bellof's lap record would be impossible due to how advanced the 956 was compared to any other car at the time. The circuit configuration where Bellof set his lap record was only used for the 1983 race, then changed to a total of 25,960m in length the following year, a 5-kilometer increase.
Bellof's lap record would remain untouched for nearly 35 years until in 2018, Porsche sent their 919 Evo non-series race car and set a lap time of 5:19:55 around the same circuit setup, beating it by almost a minute.
The Porsche 956C and its spiritual successor, the 919 Evo at the Nürburgring. (Source: Porsche)
The Porsche 956 was one of the most influential race cars of its era. Its innovative ground-effect aerodynamic design landed Porsche victory after victory at endurance racing championships including Le Mans, along with a record lap around the Green Hell left untouched for nearly 35 years. The 956 was the most successful Group C car to ever compete in endurance racing. Its successor, the Porsche 962, was an evolutionary design from the 956, with many of its features trickling down into the 962, including its aerodynamics.
956 Chassis 107 served as a testbed for Porsche's P01 Formula One engine, which would be badged as TAG and used exclusively by McLaren. The 956's test conditions largely resembled a Formula One car thanks to their similar ground-effect aerodynamic designs. The new engine would land McLaren 25 Grand Prix wins between 1984 and 1987, along with two Constructors' and three Drivers' Championship titles.
Porsche also tested the first iteration of their iconic Porsche PDK dual-clutch transmission in the 956. Its successor, the Porsche 962, also used the PDK transmission, and would eventually make its way into production Porsches in 2009 with the 911 997 Carrera and Carrera S. Porsche's PDK transmission is still used widely today throughout Porsche's current lineup.
The man behind the Nürburgring lap record, Stefan Bellof, was regarded to be a likely future Formula One champion. Sadly, during the 1985 1000km of Spa race in the 78th lap, Jacky Ickx's Porsche 962C collided with Bellof, causing him to spin and crash head-on into the barriers. The entire ordeal was recorded by an on-board camera in Ickx's 962C, which was facing towards Bellof's burning wreck after spinning. At the Nürburgring, track officials renamed the Pfianzgarten, the turn where Bellof crashed during the 1000km of Nürburgring, into the Stefan Bellof S.
He died driving a 956.
The Porsche 956. (Source: Porsche)
It is no doubt that the Porsche 956 is a legendary car. With its innovative ground-effect aerodynamics and first-time technologies still being applied to Porsches sold today, along with the car securing many victories at endurance racing championships, you can tell that the car has truly done wonders for the brand.
Despite the record being recently beaten, Bellof's legacy at the Nürburgring lives on...