There was a fantastic array of classic cars and bikes on display at this year’s Race Retro, but the star attraction came in the form of one of the greatest endurance racing cars of all time – the Porsche 956.
Thirty years on and the 956’s evocative design still has the ability to make sportscar fans go weak at the knees. It is wonderfully-timeless and the works cars’ Rothmans livery perhaps rivals even that of the legendary Gulf 917s of the 1970s.
Part of its allure also stems from the fact that it marked the beginning of what was an illustrious and fascinating period for the German marque, as the potent 956 dominated international sportscar racing in spectacular fashion.
Built to comply with the FIA’s revised regulations for the World Endurance Championship in 1982, the 956 was the first all-new Porsche racer in over a decade and marked a dramatic departure from the all-conquering 936, with only the proven flat-six engine being carried over.
Around this engine, Norbert Singer designed and built a car that was not only aerodynamically efficient – thanks to ground effects – but was also frugal on fuel.
The new Group C regulations permitted the use of ground effects, but, they explicitly stated that between both sets of axles each car should be completely flat. However, the rules failed to mention what should happen beyond this, and so, the 956 incorporated large venturis (air tunnels) between the front wheels that were angled back through to the tail and complemented the large downforce created by the rear wing.
The 956 also featured an aluminium monocoque – a first for Porsche – which provided rigidity in order to maintain its aerodynamic devices. The turbocharged engine was also produced from the same material but, in order to tackle the fuel consumption restrictions set by the FIA, some clever engineering was required.
The rules allowed a maximum of 100 litres and were introduced so that the technology would eventually filter down to road cars. Porsche had decided that their flat-six engine would run smaller turbos than in previous years, but they could be adjusted at any given time. Effectively, this meant that the drivers could control the output of the engine, whose range was anything from 580bhp up to 620bhp when in race trim.
Driven by Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx, the 956 made its racing debut at the 1982 Silverstone 6 Hours event. Almost immediately, Bell knew he had something extraordinary at his disposal. Although, it wasn’t all plain sailing…
“The car itself was just phenomenal,” he told Evo magazine. “When we went to that first race in May at Silverstone, Jacky went out and did a 1:15.3 or something, which put us on pole, about a second ahead of the Group 6 Lancias. And then, on race morning, [Porsche racing director] Peter Falk came up to me and said ‘you are not going to win the race.’ And this coming from Porsche – usually so quietly confident. I asked what he meant, and he said ‘well, we didn’t calculate on the fuel.’”
Bell continues: “Jacky had never done a fuel stint before. Nor had I. So he went out and did the first hour and then came in and Falk said to me, ‘Derek, you’ll have to start lapping in the 1:21s or you’ll run out of fuel.’ So I’m cruising round Silverstone in fifth gear and downshifting for the chicane and Becketts, just to try and salvage a position at all.
“It was the most desperate way to go racing and I was very outspoken afterwards. It was never really written that Porsche had made ‘a bit of an error,’ only that it used the race to calibrate fuel consumption. Which of course, they soon got right. But, at that point, it was a major cock-up.”
That gaffe cost Porsche the win at Silverstone as Bell and Ickx finished two laps behind Lancia. But any disappointment would soon vanish, however, as the 956 would go on to dominate endurance racing like no car had done before.
Bell and Ickx led Porsche’s attack of the 1982 Le Mans 24 Hours and, after seeing off the challenge from the Rondeau machine, the race for victory became a straight fight between the three works Porsche 956s.
Following their success at La Sarthe, Porsche sold customer versions of the 956 to a host of privateer teams, and a total of ten works cars were supplemented by no fewer than 16 outfits that included the likes of Joest, Kremer, John Fitzpatrick and Richard Lloyd.
As a result, the 1983 Le Mans 24 Hours was, once again, all about Porsche, who filled the top eight spots. Privately-entered 956s then clinched the top seven positions the following year, and they also took the chequered flag in ’85, by which time the 956’s natural successor – the 962 – had emerged on the scene.
For all intents and purposes the 962 was the same as the 956, bar a couple of features.
Firstly, it had a longer wheelbase, and secondly, to comply with the IMSA GT Championship rules in America, the pedal box was revised such that the feet of a 956 driver were situated behind the front axle. Otherwise, it was the same beautiful, clean-looking, racing car that it always had been, and would remain competitive until the mid-1990s.
The 956 was a truly remarkable machine and defined Porsche’s exceptional record in motorsport. Between it and the 962, they took 132 victories – seven at Le Mans and six at the Daytona 24 Hours – making it the most successful prototype vehicle ever produced. And with statistics like that, it’s no wonder drivers and endurance racing fans simply adore it.
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