The legend that is the motorsport history of Porsche is indelibly written on the tarmac of iconic places like Le Mans and the Nordshief but its rallying days when winning the Monte Carlo three times in a row and Rene Metge twice took Paris Dakar honours in the Rothmans 959, seemed to be consigned to history. It’s been a long, long time since the top flight of the WRC heard the angry bark of a 911 through the forest, a generation ago in fact, but on the recent Rally Finland Porsche was finally brought back to sideways action on the gravel.
There were a couple of tarmac spec cars on the German and French rounds and with a name like Delacour behind the wheel there was always going to be press coverage but for Excellence magazine I braved the wilds of Lapland to find out what the Finnish GT3 Rally Team had to do to turn a 997 GT3 Cup track car into the world’s only gravel spec WRC Porsche. It was built for no less an event than the Rally Finland, known the last time Porsche competed on it, as the 1000 Lakes.
The workshop is on the grounds of the Porsche Winter driving centre where customers come to learn how to drift on ice and snow. It’s also a normal rally school so straight away I see that mixing the two and making the 997 into a WRC car actually makes great business sense. For the project to succeed there probably isn’t a more qualified team for building rally spec cars.
The hospitality suite is a welcome haven of luxury away from the inclement autumn Finnish weather and the first question I have for team manager Pekka Savela is what differences there are on the R-GT car compared to the original GT3 Cup car. The way that he sighs tells me that this is not an easy question to answer. “The gravel of Rally Finland is a lot different to the asphalt on the rallies the other teams did and so to describe what work we did it’s easier to just say that we changed everything that can be imagined,” he smiled. “For tarmac the suspension has to be stiff to keep the car stable but for the forest roads and jumps of Rally Finland it needs to have as much flex as possible, as it literally needs to fly, as well as going through corners sideways. As you know, if you are sideways or in the air in a track car you are doing something very wrong but in Rally Finland if you are not in the air 20 times during the stage you are doing something wrong! This is why everything had to be changed.
So the biggest difference is that we have a completely bespoke wishbone / control arm system made for us by a company called Bigen. The shape of the components is different of course and because the design is totally original we had to go through a couple of evolutions to get it perfect. We also have special uniballs at the end of the arms which are much stronger than the original parts and with these we can change the camber of the wheels. This is important because it makes a big difference with grip in the corners. And it is very easy to adjust so it allows us to fine turn the camber for different types of gravel.
The shocks are 3-way adjustable, tailor-made ones for this project by Bigen but they fit into more or less original mountings. The upper mounts are aluminium.
The transmission is all standard GT3 Cup parts but for the WRC we need to run on 15 inch tyres so the massive GT3 disks and callipers are far too big. We had to ‘downgrade’, if that is the right word, to much smaller ones from a 911 Carrera, so went down from 355mm front discs to 298mm. It’s a really big difference, even compared to a road car, never mind a GT3, and this was another big reason that missing testing was a problem.
Another important element for rallying are the guards underneath. They are heavy but the engine, gearbox and exhaust system all need to be really well protected. The car stands at 1351kg and 70kg is just from the protection plates. The rest of the extra weight is in the roll cage. The factory mounted one is not enough for the WRC and R-GT cars need the new homologated 2014 cage, which has more protection around the co-driver, additional crossings behind the crew and tubes that go through the firewall to attach to the front suspension mountings. The tubes are also much thicker. When we started this project there was no company making one for a 997 but we eventually found Custom Gauges in the UK who were able to do it and get it homologated, although that was just two weeks before the rally. We got it installed and fitted on the Sunday with two guys who flew over to do it… and the crew started the reccy on the Monday. ‘Cutting it fine’ I think you say in English… but unfortunately it meant that there was no time for testing.
There’s also a strange rule WRC where the side of the cars must have impact covers, which is basically 120 litres of car bumper foam between the side of the driver and the doors. It’s quite a small cockpit in the 997 so getting all of this in actually turned into a very complicated issue. When we filled the doors we still had over 80 litres of the stuff left to fit. The only thing we could do was cut it into smaller pieces and fit them in individually which certainly isn’t the way you’re supposed to do it. Thankfully the FIA accepted the way we managed it.
Additional lights, and mud flaps are also mandatory items and we needed to carry two spare tyres ao knew that there was going to be some trouble getting them to fit in. In the front boot there is space of course but the rally wheel is much taller than a tarmac racing one so we had to ‘manipulate’ the area available. This was possible when we changed to a smaller 65 litre fuel tank that had the right shape. The second wheel fitted easily on the rear roll cage but we had to replace the rear window with a plastic one with four fast sockets so we could get to it easily.
Of course we think we did a pretty amazing job to get a completely new car ready for the WRC but all the time spent engineering solutions to the problems that came up didn’t leave any time for any testing. We all know that this is not the way it should be done, especially for such a unique car but unfortunately there was no alternative, so the first time the driver Jani Ylipahkala drove the car was off the start line of the first stage. At the end we were all laughing because he told us he’d never been so scared in his life as he had no idea how it would react in corners and the reaction of the suspension after jumps. He didn’t know the power of the engine, the breaking capabilities and also he’d never used a sequential gearbox before… But actually maybe there is no better driver than Yani for this as he is a professional stunt driver and holds the Guinness World record for going the fastest on two wheels!
We also had a bit of bad luck early on as after a hard jump the car landed on its nose and we think some stones went through the middle radiator. That slowed us quite a lot but everything was OK, we were still going and learning… until the second day. When a team manager asks the driver if anything happened he always says, ‘no I didn’t touch anything, I didn’t hit anything, I don’t know what happened,’ but we think he hit a stone or something at the side of the road which broke the rear suspension arm and that in turn punctured an oil pipe… The oil went over the engine, ignited and caused a serious fire that took three extinguishers to put out. We got it back to the service area and were thinking about trying to get it ready for Rally 2 the next day, but the harness, ignition coils, ECU and sensors were all burned and we didn’t want to rush and do half the job and have it fail the next day, so unfortunately that’s how the rally ended.
But it was a great event to know that the car was a success. Everyone absolutely loved seeing and hearing it on the stages and we have lots of videos where spectators were actually shouting out when we came by. Also at the service park there were always a lot of people wanting to see us. We will soon have stronger suspension arms and obviously we’ll need some more protection around the rear which we’ll design and fit so the same thing doesn’t happen again. In the near future there will be a couple of local Finnish championship rallies but the next big one for us will be whether or not we do the Rally Wales. The conditions there are similar to Finland, but much slippier, so we need to be very confident in how the car handles before we decide to do it.
But in the winter things will be more straight forward for us. The car will be at the winter rally school for people to come and drive. We have a 996 already prepared and plan another couple of 997 for rally teams to rent. Now we have a FIA passport and the parts already designed, so, in comparison to the first build, it’s easy to make the cars.”
Photos: Arctic Media