A race where everyone is at full throttle most of the time, 13.65kms in total track length and 24 hours of endless nerve-wrecking challenges, this is what Le Mans has in store for all participating teams. Its a place where speed, power and dependability is key. However, Porsche thinks that going lightweight is what matters the most, and this is why they’re here to seize their 18th overall win. Bobby Ang takes a short tour from the beginning, and till the very present moment.


orsche in Le Mans 24 — the decision as to whether to race at Le Mans in 1951 weighed heavily on Ferry Porsche’s mind. After all, his eponymous company had only built its first car as recently as 1948. Being invited must have given him a warm glow of satisfaction, but simultaneously raised the stress levels; could they really afford it? Ferry decided they couldn’t afford not to go, and history records his was the right choice. A class win and 20th overall for the tiny, 1.0-litre 356 was a stunning achievement, and served notice that Porsche wouldn’t fade away like the countless other cottage sports car constructors emerging in post-war Europe.

A 356 won its class the year after as well, proving the ’51 result had not been simply beginner’s luck. Porsche was now on its way, but to progress would require a dedicated racing car: enter the type 550. Originally a coupe, although most will picture that pert bare aluminium Spyder body, those first 550s featured a 1.5-litre flat four rated at 78bhp mounted within a spaceframe chassis.


Another class win followed, and Porsche began selling the 550 to customers, the beginnings of a successful business practise that Porsche has continued through to this day, building more competition cars per year than anyone else. The next milestone occurred in 1957, when Porsche finished fourth overall. Suddenly the little underdog from Stuttgart was threatening to move into the big circle. Porsche’s RSK Spyders, powered by the exotic little four cam flat ‘four’ were still the minnows compared to the big capacity sports cars of the established brands, but lightweight design and efficient aerodynamics still meant the Spyders could reach 257km/h on the famous flat-out run down to Mulsanne corner.

Yet it was the 1960s that really saw Porsche established as a serious force on the international motorsport scene. In a decade of incredible technical advancement Porsche was at the apex of change.The 904 Carrera GTS set out the path. Its delectable shape monopolised the higher reaches of the top ten in 1964, and when it gained the new 2.0-litre flat ‘six’ the year after, recently debuted in the all-new 911, the result was another fourth overall. It’s successor, the 1966 906, or ‘Carrera 6’, was another leap forward. Wildly futuristic in shape, it was the first in a series of cutting edge prototype racers that would culminate in the legendary 917, and outright victory five years later. That same year a 911 made its Le Mans race debut, winning the 2.0-litre GT class, and writing the first page in a story of success that continues to this day.

The 906 in turn begat the 910, and quickly the 907, able to exceed 290km/h while still retaining a 2-litre engine. A 907 finished second overall in 1968 while Porsche prepared to make the next big step: outright power. The three-litre, flat ‘eight’ 908 elevated Porsche to a front-running team during the final years of the decade, but victory slipped from the team’s grasp by mere yards in 1969. Tomorrow we take a look at the car that demolished the opposition once and for all.

Auguste Veuillet was the owner of Sonauto, the Porsche importers into France. These days we might call him an ‘early adopter’, for he recognised the potential of the little Porsche 356 from the start, and that would pay handsomely in subsequent years. Along with co-driver and friend Edmond Mouche, the car they were to drive was specially modified for battle at Circuit La Sarthe, but not by much.

This was a golden era for motor racing, and sports car competition in particular: cars that could exceed 350km/h, and match or even exceed F1 lap times; extreme and often treacherous circuits, from the steep banking of Daytona to the 5.5km straight of Le Mans and the tortuous mountain course of the Targa Florio; hero drivers, facing the ever present prospect of serious injury or worse, the whole vibrant madness immortalised in the film ‘Le Mans’, the ill-fated brainchild of Steve McQueen.

The 917 should have won in 1969 but it didn’t quite yet have the stamina for the job. A year later, seven 917s lined up to face 11 Ferrari 512s in the battle of the century. In a race of brutal attrition, compounded by torrential rain, Porsche finally secured outright win number one, just 19 years after making its debut with the 356, the 917K of Richard Attwood and Hans Hermann taking the flag.

The 917 repeated the feat in 1971, before the big prototypes were outlawed at the end of the season. Porsche then re-grouped. When it returned it was with a very different car: the turbocharged 911. 1974’s pioneering 911 Carrera RSR Turbo was an experiment to see just how far the factory could push a 911 with Porsche’s new turbo tech, and the 500bhp car nearly caused an upset by finishing second overall that year against effectively F1-cars with closed bodywork.

What did mark the winning number ‘22’ Martini-liveried car out was its chassis, for instead of the usual spaceframe of narrow tubing made from aluminium, it used magnesium instead. This made the car even lighter overall: with a kerbweight of around 765kg in Le Mans trim, it had a 50kg advantage over the regular 917s. Porsche took very seriously the potential frailty of the new chassis, eventually subjecting it to 1000km of running over the ‘destruction course’ at Weissach and experiencing no problems.

In other respects, chassis no.53 was a fairly standard 1971 917K. It had the flared out body and high, vertical fins rising from each corner of the rear deck like other factory K-body cars in ‘71, and lined up for the start with the 4.9-litre 600bhp engine — as did all the factory cars at Le Mans that year. The full 5-litre engine used elsewhere that year was said to be good for 630bhp, some 50bhp more than the car had appeared with during 1969. Unlike the silver Martini-sponsored long tail machine, it wore white paint beneath the Martini stripes. Out of the 49-cars entered, 33 were Porsches of one description or another.

The no.22 917 didn’t hit the front until breakfast time on the second day, but was never headed from there on in. It’s relatively inexperienced driver duo — Van Lennep was 29, Marko 28 — recorded an average speed for the 24-hours of 222km/h.

Meanwhile, during the early- and mid-1970s, a series of S/T and Carrera RSR 911s monopolised the GT classes. In fact, since the late 1960s the lower echelons of the Le Mans grid had been awash with 911s, Porsche’s iconic sports car rapidly becoming the default choice for the amateur racing driver and independent racing team.In 1976 the rules changed, and Porsche was ready. It had a car for each of the leading categories. For Groups 4 and 5 it presented two 911 Turbo-based racers, the 934 and 935. While the wildly be-winged, 650bhp 935 had the potential to win outright, it was the Group 6 entrant, the 936, that was the fastest of the trio. An open cockpit pure racing car, the 936 was originally powered by the little 2.1-litre turbo ‘six’ that had been used during 1974.

The 936 won Le Mans in 1976, and in 1977. In 1979 the 911 proved that there was no limit to how far its concept could be stretched when a privately entered 935 K3, built and entered by the Kremer Racing Team, took outright victory, with another 935 in second place. Porsche ‘Turbo’ was now a household name.

The race-winning 917K of Helmut Marko and Gijs Van Lennep may well have recorded the furthest Le Mans distance to date in 1971 (at 3,315.203 miles, a record incidentally that stood until 2010), but it wasn’t the fastest 917 in the race. As a short tail or ‘Kurz’ (K) car it couldn’t match the 395km/h top speed of the long tail 917s, which had been refined considerably over the all-white car entered for Elford and Ahrens the year before. That 1970 Langheck had retained at least some of the high-speed skittishness that blighted the 917 in its inaugural (1969) season, but by ’71 the extravagant long tails were a much more secure proposition.

The 919 Hybrid consists of a very light but strong carbon fibre structure, with two main elements to the powertrain. The first is the internal combustion engine, which in the case of the 919Hybrid is an unusual 90-degree V4 engine with a capacity of 2.0-litres. This very light, sophisticated, turbocharged engine delivers almost 500bhp and powers the rear axle.

The electrical component of the drivetrain powers the front axle of the 919 (making the car effectively four-wheel drive). The kinetic energy produced at the front axle under braking is converted into electrical energy, and is combined with energy harvested from the exhaust stream by a turbine. This energy is temporarily stored in state-of-the-art lithium ion battery cells, and amounts to almost 400bhp in addition to the combustion engine.

That means the 919 Hybrid for the 2016 Le Mans race produces around 900 hp in total and is able to sprint from 0-200km/h in just 4.8 seconds. Drive is sent to the wheels via a seven-speed sequential gearbox with hydraulic activation.

Every aspect of the car has been fine-tuned for 2016, with detail improvements right down to elements like the new headlights, with significantly more LED within the familiar four-spot design. It may be more akin to an alien spacecraft when compared to something like the old 917K from 1970, but in the speed and reliability it has shown makes it a true Porsche racing legend. And from what the world witnessed in the gruelling race two months ago, it takes perseverance, engineering superiority, weather, wit and intelligence, and lastly, luck and reliability to win at Le Mans. And the latter is especially true and heartbreaking for Toyota Gazoo Racing.

For all of 24 hours, Toyota's immense pace, flawless strategy, total commitment was the only thing that kept all of Porsche's 260 staffs wide awake throughout the night. With only 30 seconds separating the 17 times record holding Germans from the comparatively rookie Japanese team wanting to match their peers hailing from Hiroshima, (Mazda still is the one and only Japanese car maker that has won Le Mans) the pressure is immense for both teams.

Seemingly without warning, at the very last lap, the leading Toyota Gazoo Racing team's car broke down with only one lap to go, that last 30 seconds of advantage gained over 24 hours of extreme racing must've seem like an eternity for Kazuki Nakajima trying in vain to restart his Toyota TS050. The harsh reality might have seem like it handed over the podium to arc rival Porsche, but truth be told, this only further cements the unbelievable effort, the know how in making sure things do not fail before the checkered flags are waved.

Some may call it 'Luck', but to be able to win a record 18 times in the world's most challenging race is nothing short of sheer brilliance. A total authority in every single aspect of what makes a car with a sporting heart fast, reliable, fuel efficient, and outright dominating.

The 356 was the first Porsche. Originally mid-engined in prototype form, it had switched to the famous rear-engined configuration by the time it made tentative production towards the end of 1948. Its basis in Volkswagen Beetle components, both in the chassis and engine, was an entirely pragmatic decision: like many small sports car companies, before and since, Porsche simply used what it had realistically available as a starting point, modifying it where necessary and continuing to evolve parts over the years until the car became increasingly bespoke.

For the race, Porsche decided to take an aluminium bodied 356, left over from the formative months of the company’s history when still based in Austria. Lighter than Stuttgart-built steel bodied cars constructed from early 1950 onwards, further weight was then removed from the car. The Austrian-built cars were narrower anyway across the roof, reducing the frontal area, but additional aerodynamic modifications were made including fairing in all four wheels with metal wheel spats, and replacing the rear side windows with steel sheet.

An 18-gallon fuel tank was installed to improve the 356’s range, the extra capacity gained by extending the original tank forward and wrapping it around the spare wheel. The tiny 1,086cc flat ‘four’ was actually detuned mildly from 49bhp to just 46bhp, in the interests of reliability over the 24-hours. Even so, the slippery 356 — with a higher back axle ratio — could crack 160km/h when flat-out on the Mulsanne straight, which was definitely making a lot of what little it had. The duo averaged 118km/h over the entire race distance, scooping the class win and finishing 20th overall. Their best lap time was 5,44.7 at an average speed of 140km/h, illustrating just how far Porsche made 46bhp go, and how quick the post-war Le Mans track layout certainly was.

It had been a last-minute decision to pull the two 936s out of the Porsche museum and prepare them for the 1981 Le Mans 24-hours, but a win for Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell after a faultless drive more than vindicated new Porsche boss Peter Schutz’s decision. However, 1982 brought a completely new set of rules, and Porsche’s response was to create one of the most successful racing cars of all time: the 956/962 family of cars.

The Group C formula was built around fuel consumption, the FIA’s way of curbing power outputs and promoting efficiency in the new decade. To build a car for the new regulations would mark a major departure for the engineers at Weissach; this new Group C machine would use an aluminium tub structure, not the familiar tubular spaceframe that had been the preferred method since the 906. It would also be a ground effect car, generating a significant part of its downforce via venturi tunnels underneath, as well as a large rear wing.

At least Porsche had a suitable engine: the 2.6-litre twin turbo flat six, with air-cooled barrels and water-cooled cylinder heads, originally developed for the unused Indycar project and used in the last of the 936s the year before. It was powerful, yet efficient — ideal for the job, its 620bhp giving the 840kg car very senior performance.The Porsche ‘works’ team entered three 956s into the 1982 Le Mans race, and the cars finished one-two-three in a crushing display of dominance. No other marque had got to grips with the new rules in anything like the same way, and it would take years for a convincing challenger to appear beyond Lancia’s fast but fragile LC2.

The 956 went on to win Le Mans again in 1983, 1984 and 1985. In 1986, its closely related successor, the 962c, defeated the new opposition from Jaguar, a feat it then repeated in 1987. Only in 1988 was the car finally beaten just by the much newer Jaguar design. By now the (longer wheelbase) 962c featured a fully water-cooled 3.0-litre twin turbo engine with over 800bhp available, and speeds on the Mulsanne headed towards 402km/h again.

Although a multiple World Sports Car Championship winner, the big Porsche was always especially at home at Le Mans, even in its old age. In 1989, a privately-run 962c entered by the formidable Joest team, challenged for victory for much of the race before settling for third; another privately entered 962c equalled that position in 1990, and yet another member of the Porsche privateer pack so nearly scooped second place. Perhaps just as great as its Le Mans victories — arguably more so for the health of the sport — was the sheer ubiquity of the 956/962c; over 170 of the type were built, and a significant proportion of the grid at Le Mans consisted of them throughout the 1980s. They were fast and reliable, and became the backbone of endurance racing, delivered via Weissach complete with an ignition key.

The beauty of the 956, and what kept it so successful for so long, was that it combined elements of genius thinking with sheer pragmatism, along with hard-won experience of surviving and winning at Le Mans. In a departure from previous Porsche endurance sports cars, the 956 was built around an aluminium tub chassis that was both stiffer and offered more driver protection in the event of an accident. All 956s were right-hand drive, the gear lever mounted on the right-hand sill, with access to the cockpit via a door and side window one-piece assembly that hinged up and forwards from the front.

What really took Porsche the time to develop were the aerodynamics, because in 1981 this was untried territory. In F1 it was the era of ground effect and the ‘skirts’ (outlawed at the end of the 1982 season), but skirts weren’t allowed in Group C and the father of the 956, Norbert Singer, soon learnt that a big, wide sports car required totally different thinking in any case. The team’s solution was to run two channels under the car, beginning aft of the front wheels, but gaining in depth as they exited at the rear.

Another opening near the front of the underside channelled air away from this area. The top surface of the body was purely functional, but surprisingly beautiful. This time, two bodystyles were offered for the same car — although as they were the same length it’s not accurate to call them ‘short’ and ‘long’ tails, more like high downforce and low drag. The nose was slightly different for the low drag car, and the rear wing much lower.

Thankfully, Porsche had a suitable engine almost ready to go. This had its basis in the 3.2-litre flat six first seen in the wild ‘Moby Dick’ 935/78 that could exceed 355km/h at Le Mans in 1978. Said to produce up to 900bhp, this revolutionary turbo engine had, for the first time, water-cooling — but only for the new four-valve cylinder heads that couldn’t be cooled by air alone. It was a smaller derivative of this engine that had been dropped into the two 936s that appeared at Le Mans in 1981. A new gearbox was designed, unusually, with full synchromesh.

When the Porsche 911 GT1 of Allan McNish, Stephane Ortelli and Laurent Aïello crossed the line to win the 1998 Le Mans 24-hours, it marked Porsche’s 16th overall victory. It would be the last time for a while that Porsche fielded a car capable of winning at Le Mans, but that’s not to say the manufacturer wasn’t well represented in the intervening period.

A year after the GT1’s win, a new 911-based racing car made its debut at the race. This was the GT3R, based on the new 996, and homologated with the new GT3 road car. From then on, the GT3 became a mainstay of the GT class, progressing through R, RS and RSR variants of the 996 body style, and then onto the 997 RSR in 2005, scoring numerous class wins along the way. In 2013, the Porsche factory team debuted the new 991-based RSR, and came away from Le Mans with another class victory. In 2016 the 991 RSR will be fighting it out again in both the GTE Pro and GTE Am classes.

Porsche’s long hoped for return to the top class occurred in 2014, and came about due to a significant change in the prevailing regulations. In a bold move, sports car racing embraced technological advancement, in particular hybrid technology, creating a set of rules that gave manufacturers the framework and freedom to explore relevant new forms of propulsion.

Porsche’s response was the 919 Hybrid, a hugely advanced racing car for the new LMP1 Hybrid class. Its innovative powertrain combined a small but very powerful V4 turbocharged petrol engine with a battery-based hybrid electric system, running in the 6MJ class.

Porsche entered two team cars for the 2014 Le Mans 24-hours and showed strongly from the start of first practice. Starting the race in second and fourth positions, the 919 Hybrids even led at certain points, but eventually succumbed to mechanical issues. The number ‘14’ 919 Hybrid of Marc Lieb, Romain Dumas and Neel Jani finished ‘best Porsche’ in 11th place, but great promise had clearly been demonstrated.

In 2015 Porsche was back, and although the car was still known as a 919 Hybrid, it was a thoroughly re-worked machine. Porsche had moved up to the 8MJ class, the most powerful for hybrid energy recuperation, and also had three cars: one retained the white with black script livery used throughout the season, but for Le Mans there were black/white and red/white 919 Hybrids as well.

The 2015 race was a classic, with Porsche locked in combat with the factory Audi team. While all the 919 Hybrids showed strongly, it was the team’s third car, the white machine of Nick Tandy, Earl Bamber and Nico Hulkenberg that, through a faultless drive and particularly quick night laps, took the flag first. The other 919s finished in second and fifth positions, a very convincing performance as Porsche secured its 17th overall victory, 46 years after its first, cementing the marque’s position as the most successful manufacturer in the history of the race.

The 919 Hybrid was a bold new concept for a set of regulations that have put sports car s back at the forefront of motor racing. Right from the start, Porsche focused on having a very efficient and powerful hybrid element to the package. The LMP1 rules restrict the flow of fuel into an engine, and allow a maximum amount of fuel per lap in direct correlation with the amount of electrical energy that can be harvested and used. For the 2014 season Porsche competed with a 6MJ (mega joule) car, but since 2015 have run in the 8MJ class, the maximum for electrical energy.