Since Porsche first started racing at Le Mans back in 1951, the company has sought to field the smallest engine feasible to compete in each particular case. With this philosophy, engine downsizing at Porsche racing has become second nature as we shall see.
Starting with the first Porsche 356 SL back in ’51, Porsche used the smaller capacity engine (1086cc) that they had available. And by fitting wheel covers and boosting output to 46bhp, the diminutive car could exceed 100mph. In this format, the lone 356 SL finished 20th overall and first in the 1100cc class that year, but in 1952 they fared even better, scoring an 11th place overall. 1953 saw the introduction of Porsche’s first full-blooded factory racer, the 1488cc Porsche 550 Spyder, a race car that quickly earned the nickname of the ‘giant killer.’ It was for good reason that it earned this nickname, because the 550 regularly beat cars with much larger capacity engines.
One of the pillars on which Porsche sports and racing cars is built, was established by Ferry Porsche. This was, to build lighter, nimbler cars, that could out-manoeuvre larger and heavier front-engined cars of the day. This principle was clearly demonstrated when the twin-cam 550 Spyder finished third in the gruelling Carrera Panamericana in 1954, behind two works Ferraris. In 1956 Porsche finished fifth overall with its 550A/1500 RS Spyder at Le Mans. The 550 would go on to be further developed with the 718 RSK and 718 RS61 producing more excellent results.
1960 – 1969
The 1960s saw probably the greatest decade of race car development by Porsche, as models that followed included the 718/8 WRS (Grossmutter), and the 904 Carrera GTS which finished fourth overall at Le Mans (fitted this time with a 6-cylinder 2-litre engine). In 1966, a 906 finished fourth at Le Mans, while a 907 finished fifth and a 910 sixth in the 1967 Le Mans. In 1968 Porsche crossed the line in second place with its 907 (a 3-litre 8-cylinder engine) and the 908 finished in third place. This was against the likes of the mighty 5-litre V8 Ford GT40, with the backing of the Ford Motor Company. The following year, a Porsche 908 finished second once again to the Ford GT40 in what is still to this day the closest finish in the history of this great race, when the two cars were separated by just 75 yards at the chequered flag. That year a 2-litre 911 S finished in tenth place, showing the potential of this car in the future. All of these cars were powered by engines much smaller than their competitors in class, in keeping with Ferry’s philosophy.
This meteoric rise up the performance ladder played right into the hands of Ferdinand Piëch, whose 917 project had already shown great promise, although it DNF’d at Le Mans that year. The first victory for the 917 came at the Österreichring in ’69.
1970 – 1979
It was, though, in 1970 and 1971 that the 917 began its dominating run. This was of course with a 4.5- and 5-litre flat-12 engine, Porsche largest engine to date. 1970 was a great year with Porsche finishing 1-2-3-7-9 at Le Mans, these cars being a 917-917-908/2-914/6-911 S. The winning 917 was of course the famous #23 orange/red car entered by Porsche Austria, and proving the successful design started by Piëch back in 1968. The 911 S mentioned here was entered by Kremer Racing and was powered by a 2.3-litre flat-six engine. In 1971 a 2.4-litre 911 S finished a credible sixth, and the following year the 2.5-litre 911 S/T came home in thirteenth place.
1973 saw the beginning of the rise of the 911 to a position in motor sport not foreseen a decade earlier when the model was first launched. In the Sebring 12-Hours that year, the 911 RSR, a 3-litre full-blooded racer, won the event and was followed home by another 911 RS. At Le Mans that year, the 3-litre RSR finished an incredible fourth behind three factory prototype racers.
In a whole different racing arena, the American/Canadian Can-Am series saw some of the most powerful turbocharged Porsche 917 racers in the world. The well-known Penske Sunoco 917-30 driven in 1973 by Mark Donohue, was a 5.4-litre 1100bhp projectile that saw Donohue dominate the series that year in the most comprehensive manner.
Porsche’s turbo era really kicked off in 1974 with the 2.1-litre RSR Turbo, the Martini-sponsored 500bhp car driven by Mueller/van Lennep that forged the company’s success in this area for some years to come. The five years between 1975 and 1981 saw the growth of the Group 4 and Group 5 GT turbocharged racers rise to prominence around the world with the 934s and 935s, as they once again swept aside the much bigger-engined competition. At the 1975 Le Mans 24-Hours, positions 5 through 11 were occupied by RSRs and RSs. For 1977 Porsche built the 935-2.0 or ‘Baby’ as it became known, based on a 1425cc flat six engine built specifically to compete in the under 2-litre class of the German Championships. To qualify for the under 2-litre class, the 1425cc engine capacity must be multiplied by a factor of 1.4 to allow for the turbocharger, thus giving an equivalent 1995cc. This was Porsche’s smallest engine since those early days back in the 1950s. It only competed in two races, at Norisring and Hockenheim, retiring from the first race and winning the second convincingly in the hands of Jacky Ickx, before it was wheeled into the Porsche Museum. This, though, was the period of the much-loved Martini Porsches, the Jaegermeister and Vaillant Heating 934s and 935s, and of course the Numero Reserve Kremer Racing 935 K3 that won the 1979 Le Mans race. This 740bhp 3.2-litre monster gave Porsche its first privateer victory at Le Mans.
1980 – 1989
Engine sizes gradually diminished through the 1970s, from 5-litres right down to the turbocharged 1.4-litre ‘Baby.’ As the 1980s dawned and Group C replaced Group 5, it ushered in an era of sports car racing the likes of which had never been seen before, or since. It was a period of innovation and development that made sports car racing as popular as Formula 1, and so, inevitably, Bernie Ecclestone changed the rules in the early 1990s to ensure that the manufacturers found it difficult to comply, and turned their attentions towards Formula 1. But taking the lessons learned during the 911 Turbo era, Porsche created the utterly dominant 956 and 962 models. Once again, Porsche took a relatively modest engine capacity of 2.65-litre, and by turbocharging the flat-six engine, got as much as 640bhp out of it. With the introduction of the 962 in 1985, power was increased to 700bhp but in the hands of some privateer teams, power was boosted to as much as 800bhp, and more. This sort of power was coming from what was a standard 911 crankcase, which was stipulated by regulation, but of course the rest of the engine contained the very best of Weissach’s wizardry.
1990 – 2010
For a decade Porsche dominated sports car racing like no other, but as quickly as it had started, it was all over. In the 1990s it was the Porsche privateer teams that ruled the circuits, as the factory largely withdrew from official participation, apart from 1994 when a works Dauer Porsche finished first and third. Despite dabbling in 1996 and 1997 with the 3.2-litre GT1 where they finished on the second and third step of the podium, it took a mighty effort from the factory in 1998 to win Le Mans again, this being their 50th anniversary year. We shouldn’t forget the RS Spyders of 2008 and 2009 which won their LMP2 class at Le Mans in both years, but these were privately entered although supported by the factory.
2011 – 2015
There was a fifteen-year gap though between their 1998 victory at Le Mans and the factory’s next outing as an official team, this time in the GTE Pro class in 2013 with their 4-litre 991 RSR. This represented the largest capacity flat-six engine that had ever powered a 911, but we are today seeing a decrease in the capacity of the roadgoing 911 engine, and this trend will no doubt soon be seen in their race cars too. In 2014, Porsche again entered the top echelons of sports car racing, and they made their intentions very clear quite early that season. It would though, take the whole season before the Porsche 919 Hybrid would claim a race victory, but this triumph served only to bring back that old hunger for winning, as the works team won the 2015 WEC Manufacturers’ Championship. And the engine driving the 919 Hybrid, why it’s a puny turbocharged 2-litre V4 petrol driven unit, hardly worth noticing some might have said. But that V4 engine alone pumped out just over 500bhp, and when combined together with the hybrid unit, the total output was just over 1000bhp.
So when Porsche says that it is downsizing its engines, don’t take that to mean a drop in performance, because the results speak for themselves. Given Porsche’s experience in turbocharging, expect them to continue in 2016 where they left off in 2015. And the downsizing of the 911 roadgoing engine from 4-litre to a turbocharged 3-litre unit…it could soon be on the race tracks of the world, so watch this space.
This weekend sees the first round of the 2016 WEC season, so don’t forget to book your seats in front of the TV for Sunday’s race. You will find a full round-up of the weekend’s activities in words and images… right here, on the VMP blog, as well as our Facebook and Twitter pages. Enjoy!!
Written by: Glen Smale