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Porsche Heroes Of Le Mans

We meet the men and machines behind Porsche’s remarkable Le Mans history as it returns for 2014

Ian Kuah
Mar 26, 2014 SHARE

If you ask the older members of society, they'll soon tell you that the world was a kinder, quieter place 40 years ago. It was a simpler time, with a lot less regulation. However, that also applied to the noise level of racecars. And dispelling the notion that the world was a more peaceful place, the racecars of yesteryear were very, very loud.

The noisy truth became evident when the #4 flat-nose Porsche 936/77 Spyder of Ickx, Barth and Haywood - 1977 winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans - was fired up in Hockenheim's pitlane.

As the early morning sun began to slowly burn its way through the mist, the whine of a mechanical fuel pump and the slow churn of a starter motor sliced the cool air and the silence was shattered by a sharp "whrrrappp," followed by a sustained roar as the unsilenced 540hp flat-six turbo burst into life. It soon found its singing voice as the driver blipped the throttle to keep it from stalling.

Porsche heroes of le mans 911 GT1 interior 02 Photo 2/10   |   The 911 GT1 won Le Mans in 1998 and was a huge step forward in terms of technology, aerodynamics and construction

Up to that point, we'd been admiring the collection of historic Porsche Le Mans winners, and chatting with some of the fearless pilots who had coaxed them to glorious victories in their heyday.

Drivers in attendance were the legendary Hans Herrmann, Jurgen Barth, Richard Attwood, Manfred Jantke, Manfred Schurti and Gijs van Lennep - familiar names to Porsche Motorsport fans. Heroes one and all, these men had their moment of glory on the Le Mans podium after the most gruelling long-distance race on earth.

They were reunited at Hockenheim circuit to paint a picture of their great battles, and did so most eloquently. "No ABS, no traction control and no power steering," Hans Herrmann recalled. "These were totally analog cars, and once the mechanics set them up as best as they could, it was down to us and lady luck to either win or simply finish the race!"

Porsche heroes of le mans porsche le mans drivers 03 Photo 3/10   |   The men and machines. From left to right: Jürgen Barth with the #4 936/77 Spyder, Hans Hermann and Richard Attwood with the #23 917 KH, Gijs van Lennep and Manfred Schurti with the #22 917 KH, Romain Dumas and Timo Bernhard with the #26 911 GT1

As some of the old timers climbed into their former mounts to deliver a few demonstration laps at Hockenheim, the task of providing rapid taxi rides fell to 32 year-old Timo Bernhard in the legendary Porsche 935/77.

A world-class driver, Bernhard was recently chosen to pilot Porsche's brand new LMP1 hybrid racecar in the 2014 World Endurance Championship. He already has a formidable string of victories to his name, most significantly the 24 Hours of Le Mans for Audi in 2010, the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2008, and winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2003.

When it was my turn to ride shotgun in the 935/77, I was happy the helmet filtered a great deal of the decibels because the cabin acted like an amplifier when the motor was fired. A two-hour stint at Le Mans must have been both gruelling and deafening.


The "Moby Dick" 935/78 was the ultimate evolution of the 935 chassis. It had a terrifying 845hp turbo engine and was demonstrated by Timo Bernhard, who was enjoying the challenge of its massive turbo lag.


As the 935 lurched down the Hockenheim pitlane, you could tell the period ignition and mechanical fuel injection were imprecise instruments. Its coughing and spluttering were an instant giveaway, but add a massive turbocharger, with its legendary lag, and you have a racecar that required both balls to drive and patience to tame.

Although Timo wasn't using all the revs, you felt the big hit of torque as we exited pitlane, heading for the sharp right-hand turn into the Querspange section of the Club Circuit.

At just 1.3 miles long, the Hockenheim Club Circuit is a combination of slow, medium and fast curves, linked by two short straights. As such, it's more of a handling circuit than for outright speed, and with its lag-ridden turbo, the 935/77 wasn't the easiest machine to pedal rapidly around it.

Porsche heroes of le mans 935 martini 935 and rothmans 956 07 Photo 7/10   |   It doesn't get much more epic than this: Martini 935/77 and 935/78 with the Rothmans 956

With the boost spooled up, we rocketed out of a bend and down the straight. Smooth inputs and staying on top of the turbo was the secret, with Timo putting on a command performance.

Despite being versed in modern racecars with mapped ignition and fuelling, Bernhard clearly had the measure of the recalcitrant beast. He later told us the old Le Mans racer was a huge culture shock at first, but he soon got the hang of it and relished the challenge.

Clocked at 211mph on the Mulsanne Straight in its day, the 935/77's thrust on full boost was impressive, even by today's standards. However, time moves on, and Timo can likely push the 2014 911 GT3 around Hockenheim in less time and with far less effort than this car demanded. Thanks to lessons learnt in the heat of competition, and the relentless march of progress, that's how far Porsche road cars have come in 40 years.

Porsche heroes of le mans 936 spyder 08 Photo 8/10   |   936/77 Spyder took three Le Mans victories and remains one of Porsche's most successful racecars

After the Hockenheim hot laps, we had time to marvel at the quiver of historic Le Mans-winning cars in attendance. They included the 580hp #23 and 600hp #22 917 KH Coupes from 1970 and '71, respectively. Other notables included the 845hp "Moby Dick" 935/78 from 1978, the 911 GT1 from 1998 and the 630hp 956 Coupe from 1982.

While it wasn't even a definitive collection of Le Mans-winning Porsches, it gave a great insight to the variety of cars and technology that helped the factory team fight its way to so many victories in the glorious years from 1970-98.

With 16 overall wins, including seven consecutive victories, Porsche is the consummate master of Le Mans, and long-distance sports car racing in general. So it's appropriate that Porsche was calling its build-up to the eight races in the 2014 World Endurance Championship "Mission 2014. Our Return." For Porsche fans, it's going to be a great year of motorsport.

Porsche heroes of le mans 917 cockpit 09 Photo 9/10   |   Porsche Heroes Of Le Mans
Porsche heroes of le mans porsche 917 10 Photo 10/10   |   The 917 had a fearsome reputation when it won Le Mans in 1970. Check out its basic cockpit layout
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By Ian Kuah
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