Though Porsche 962s would ultimately lose out to the Silk Cut Jaguar XJR, Sauber-Mercedes C9 and the Mazda 787B in the Le Mans races that followed, Porsche still had one ace up its sleeve. Having secured victory with Joest Racing in 1996 and 1997 with the WSC-95 prototype, Porsche debuted the 911 GT1 for its official return to top-flight sportscars. Mating the front of a 993 911 with the rear of a 962, the GT1 blew the opposition away with its twin-turbo flat-six and clever weight distribution, taking a podium on its Le Mans debut in 1996 and several BPR Global GT Series (nee FIA GT Championship) victories en-route. Revised aerodynamics – and a bit of luck – meant the new GT1-98 took a historic victory at Le Mans in 1998 with Allan McNish, Stephane Ortelli and Laurent Aiello. Pace alone though wasn’t the secret to victory.
“Before Le Mans in 1998, somebody – our race director, I think – said ‘Toyota can change their gearbox during the race in ten minutes’. So we were asked, ‘how quickly can you change the gearbox?’ And I said, ‘I’m not sure, but minimum it will be half an hour. And if it is hot, which mid-race it will be, it will take longer’. He said, ‘it is impossible! We will never have a chance’.
“At that time we had a very old gearbox with a syncro-mesh. But it was reliable, and we didn’t expect any problems with it. And actually this decided the race. The Toyota on Sunday morning with which we were fighting” – the GT-One/TS020 of Thierry Boutsen, Geoff Lees and Ralf Kelleners – “had a gearbox problem, but the driver could not come back to the pits. Changing the gearbox in ten minutes is fine if you can get back to the garage, but if you can’t, then that’s it.”
Next year Porsche returns to the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time in 16 years, having already run its new prototype at the team’s facility in Weissach. Though long since retired from the hot seat (“the contract I had stated that at 65 years old, you automatically leave the company, and in fact I did one month longer [Laughs]”), and despite the company’s enviable record at La Sarthe, Norbert still believes Porsche will face difficulties with ‘Project 2014’.
“For Porsche it’s very important for them to come back to Le Mans, but it’s a big challenge. Even if they are not successful – which for the media it will be a drama! – it’s a learning curve. Every time I was at Le Mans, it wasn’t always successful. And that’s just part of racing. For some people racing is winning, and that’s fine. But also racing is losing!
“Things are now a little more complicated than they were in the past, but you grow into these problems. Now for instance hybrids are coming up, and this for an engineer is very interesting. You wonder what is possible via the regulations, what is possible with the technical resources you have. And of course, you discover – not everyday but from time to time – new doors where you think, ‘ah, okay, let’s try and go through that’. Sometimes it’s not successful, but it all adds to the experience. Sometimes when you try a – let’s say – non-successful route, later you realise, ‘ah, that’s why this wasn’t working. Now I know. Now I can probably use it.’”
Now part of Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s consultancy team for Le Mans – a position he has held since 2010 – Norbert will have a front row seat next June for Porsche’s hotly-anticipated return against old rivals Toyota and current tour de force Audi. While few would blame him for taking it easy after nearly four decades of loyal service, that’s not what the likeable Norbert Singer has in mind.
“Yeah, there were one or two situations where I thought of leaving the company, and I did speak with a few other companies. But in the end, I decided to stay, and now when I look back I think it was the right decision. I was lucky that I had a lot of freedom from my bosses. When you have some success, some people say ‘he is a crazy man, and he has silly ideas, but he’s successful!’ Now I’m slowing down, but I still want to be involved. I want to have the information and I want to know what’s happening on the racetrack.”
The secret after all is in the details.