In 2014, Porsche made its first official start in the top class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 16 years. Hype and expectations were through the roof for the former 16-time winners. But as crankandpiston.com found out when we sat down with Head of Porsche Motorsport Hartmut Kristen, the fabled win number 17 remains a long-term project.[Not a valid template]
Why come back?
It’s a question that, amidst the euphoria of Porsche’s much-celebrated and historic return to the top class of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, seems to have been swept under the rug. With 16 victories, using six different models and encompassing 28 years at La Sarthe, Porsche today boasts the most impressive record of any manufacturer at Le Mans as well as several other records into the bargain: not only have a record 812 different Porsches been entered at Le Mans, the company still holds the fastest average speed ever set during qualifying (251.45kph). Motorsport can be a cruel battlefield though, and amidst the fairy-tale endings and heart-warming underdog performances lie heart-breaking last lap retirements, career ending accidents, and underwhelming top level returns (step forward Michael Schumacher). Why then was Porsche so keen to put its reputation and its record on the line when it had so much to lose and so little to prove?
“You can only live from your heritage and what you have achieved for a certain amount of time, but not for ever,” explains Head of Porsche Motorsport Hartmut Kristen. “And we felt that we had been away from our second home long enough.”
We’re currently sitting in the Porsche hospitality area at the 2014 24 Hours of Le Mans, and as much as Herr Kristen is invested in our conversation, his eyes begin to dart from my notepad on the table to the bank of flatscreen TVs fixed over my right shoulder. As we talk, we begins flipping his mobile phone over and over with both hands, although never once does he look at the screen. It’s clearly a tense time for anybody wearing a white ‘Porsche’ monogrammed polo shirt. The 12-hour mark has been and gone, and in an event already packed with emotion, both Porsche 919 Hybrid prototypes are in the running for a potential podium. No matter how much the issue has (understandably) been downplayed by the company, the illusive ‘17th win’ isn’t far from anybody’s minds. Hartmut though is quick to dismiss this.
“Winning here at Le Mans is not just expertise and all that. You always need a certain amount of luck. If you only count experience, then Audi would definitely be the top-runner. If you only consider this year’s results, then Toyota [which currently leads the 2014 WEC standings] would be favourites. It’s not a simple case of ‘turn up and win’.
“Another thing you have to take into consideration is that regulations have changed since last year’s Le Mans. These new rules work in a way that has more connection with future road cars, and that was another reason why 2014 was the right year for us to return. But we’re not looking for miracles. This year we’re just looking to compete on an equal level. And we know we can do that.”
It’s an emphatic comment, and a valid one. Already the 919 Hybrid, in only its third official race this season, has demonstrated genuine competitive pace. In its race debut at the World Endurance Championship season opener at Silverstone, UK, the new prototype took a podium finish after six hours of racing that saw barely half a second per lap difference cover all six entrants in LMP1-H. Those vibration issues that beset the team during the 919’s initial roll-out at Weissach last year – an issue that led to a major redesign of the V4 engine at the eleventh hour – have clearly been left behind. More so than its return to top level motorsport after a near two-decade absence though, the 919 Hybrid’s appearance at Silverstone this April marked a historic moment that many thought would never happen: Porsche and Audi on the road to Le Mans, together as equals. And rivals.
As far back as 1999, with Porsche insisting that it would return to Le Mans after a (then) one-year sabbatical to replace its out-dated GT1-98 GT, sister company Audi took on La Sarthe for the first time with the R8R and the vastly experienced Joest outfit. Together, they finished third. One year later and now with the innovative R8, Audi dominated, taking the top three steps a full 20 laps ahead of its nearest competitor. It was a result that marked the start of a new era, one that has seen Ingolstadt’s cars beaten only twice to victory road since 2000.
Porsche meanwhile, after an abortive attempt with its LMP2000 project and a decision to concentrate attention on American Le Mans Series honours with its LMP2-category RS Spyder from ’05-’10 – acknowledged that a return was still on the cards. If, of course, parent Group Volkswagen would allow Porsche and Audi to go head-to-head on-track.
“The board decided in 1998 that Porsche would have to set its priorities differently, and so more focus went into strengthening the road car division,” Hartmut continues. “We had to prove that Porsche was capable of developing and producing more than just sports cars for the road. And when you look at what’s happened since then and what has been created, like the Cayenne model range and the Panamera, then we have…oh, and the Carrera GT, which we developed right after stopping our top level motorsport program. And the GT3 R Hybrid. Thanks to all of them, the company is on much more solid ground compared to where we were in the early ‘90s. You have to set your priorities if you want a company to survive profitably.
“But when you look at Audi’s record and ours, together we have created a great history at Le Mans. And the board understood this, understood the importance. As long as the decision makers in the car group feel that this kind of competition is what can bring the group forward, they’re all for it.”
To the surprise of many, and with speculation mounting that Porsche – or indeed Audi – might enter Formula 1 to leave the La Sarthe path clear for its sister brand, the VW Group gave the go ahead for Porsche’s emotional return. Under the proviso, however, that the two brands would not compete against each other directly. Consequently, whilst Audi would continue to run diesel-powered engines – used to great effect since 2006 when the R10 TDI took the first ever outright victory at Le Mans for a diesel-powered car – Porsche’s new contender would use a 2.0-litre petrol single-turbo direct injection V4. Two marques, two fuels, two separate target audiences out in the real world. The battle lines had been drawn.
Timing once again though was everything. While heavily revised technical regulations – and thus a re-levelled playing field in LMP1 – meant 2014 was an ideal time for Porsche to make its historic return, the wheels had already begun turning with the creation of the World Endurance Championship, the first officially recognised world title for endurance racing in a generation.
“That definitely was a very important part of our decision,” Hartmut continues, his hands once again spinning the mobile phone on the table. “Spending that much money on just one race might not be the wisest choice. But with a global championship, the highlight of which being the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it made sense. And with the RSR, we definitely want to compete for the championship.”
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