Wins at Le Mans are a win for Porsche’s production models

Much of what Porsche learns in motor racing benefits the production models and thus the customers. The story of the sports car manufacturer is full of notable examples, as clearly illustrated with turbo technology and the 24 Hours of Le Mans through to the new 911 Carrera GTS T-Hybrid. The latest 911 model variant reaps the benefits of the insights that Porsche gained with the 919 Hybrid and currently with the 963.

Atlanta. Innovation and motor racing go hand-in-hand at Porsche. The development of turbo technology is a prime example. In 1974, exactly 50 years ago, the 911 Turbo, Porsche’s first turbocharged series model, celebrated its world debut. Producing up to around 260 HP, depending on the market it was brutally powerful for its time. The roots of its cutting-edge engine lay in racing. Turbocharging technology was used for the first time in the Porsche 917/10. Today, the system output of the latest 911 variant reaches 532 HP. The 911 Carrera GTS is also powered by a turbo engine but combines it for the first time with a T-hybrid system. The engineers once again benefit from the knowledge Porsche has collected in motorsports. From 2015 to 2017, the technologically sophisticated 919 Hybrid won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times and swept the title in the FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC). Porsche now targets its 20th overall victory in the world’s most famous endurance race with the 963 hybrid prototype.

The beginning of Porsche's turbo technology lies in the USA

It was the summer of 1970. Porsche had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the first time with the 917 KH and was looking for its next challenge: victories in the North American Can-Am series. However, with its comparatively small, 571 HP 4.5-litre twelve-cylinder engine, the 917 faced tough competition from the big-block American cars. Plans for a 16-cylinder powerplant were drawn up. At the same time, the idea of achieving the needed performance boost from an exhaust turbocharger was also evolving. The problem, however, was that the constant braking and acceleration on the twisty Can-Am tracks required a high-revving turbocharger with as little lag as possible. The innovative solution was a boost pressure control system on the exhaust side. This control system prevented unwanted excess pressure in partial load or overrun operation by expelling excess exhaust gases via a bypass relief valve and a wastegate. This limited the boost pressure and kept it at a constant level. It also allowed for a smaller turbocharger, lower rotating masses and improved responsiveness.

In late July 1971, an open 917/10 Spyder with a turbocharged engine turned its first laps at the test track near Porsche Motorsport headquarters in Weissach, Germany. Instead of a large turbocharger, Porsche opted for a smaller turbo on each of the engine’s two-cylinder banks. This improved the responsiveness and produced around 838 HP.

The stage was set, and the Can-Am success was monumental. In 1972, Porsche’s partner team Penske Enterprises won six of the nine races as well as the Can-Am Cup and the drivers’ title with George Follmer. In 1973, the 5.4-litre 917/30 Spyder put out a staggering 1,084 HP. Only changes to the regulations could stop the Porsche winning streak…  but they did not halt the march of turbo technology, especially in motorsport.

The turbo engine revolutionizes Le Mans

After Can-Am, Porsche continued to use turbos in racing versions of the 911 and specially designed prototypes. The first racing car equipped with a turbo engine at Le Mans came in 1974 with the Porsche 911 Carrera RSR Turbo 2.1. The RSR Turbo turned laps during practice with hissing noises. Its 2.1-litre flat-six power unit making just under 500 HP already featured intercooling. The system allowed for the air to be cooled as it left the turbocharger but before it entered the combustion chambers. The cooler air was now denser and thus more oxygen-rich further increasing performance. At the 24-hour race, it achieved a sensational second place finish overall. Once again, the transfer of technology to series production quickly followed, with the intercooling migrating into the 911 Turbo in 1977. This boosted the power output of the series model to as much as 296 HP, depending on the market.

The turbocharged 2.1-litre engine yielded the first two outright victories for a turbo racing car at Le Mans. In 1976, the open-body 936/76 Spyder initially produced around 512 HP and achieved a top track speed of 224 mph (360 km/h). A year later, the 1,543 lbs. lightweight – now featuring two chargers and producing approximately 532 HP – clinched victory again. In 1978 and 1979, technical problems interrupted the winning streak, but Porsche learned from its defeats and demonstrated formidable ambition and stamina. In 1981, the 936 Spyder, now with over 600 HP, tackled Le Mans again and bid farewell to the factory team with a third victory.

In the meantime, in 1979, Kremer Racing achieved the first overall Le Mans victory with a racing version of the 911 Turbo, the Porsche 935. Even then, customer racing formed the basis of Porsche’s racing commitment. The development of the vehicle culminated in 1978 with the 935/78 “Moby Dick”, which was used solely by the factory team. Its 3.2-litre biturbo engine was the first to feature water-cooled multi-valve cylinder heads and delivered up to 833 HP.

Porsche 935/78 „Moby Dick" (1978), Porsche AG
Porsche 935/78 „Moby Dick" (1978)

The beginning of a special Le Mans era: Porsche 956 and 962 C

Porsche 956 and 962 C racing prototypes won the 24 Hours of Le Mans seven times between 1982 and 1994 – thus writing a unique success story. They heralded a revolution in aerodynamic design and many other innovations that are reflected in Porsche production vehicles today. The ground effect of the specially shaped underbody enabled very high cornering speeds, provided stability on the straights and shortened braking distances – an effect that has long been featured in numerous production models. The development of fully electronic engine control units such as the Motronic from Bosch also yielded huge progress in efficiency in terms of the consumption limit stipulated in the Group C regulations at the time.

Another cutting-edge innovation was the Porsche dual-clutch transmission (PDK). The racing department had been experimenting with the system since the autumn of 1984. PDK enables swift gear shifts with virtually no interruption to power delivery. It worked reliably from 1987 onwards. Today, the sports car manufacturer delivers most of its production cars with PDK rather than the traditional “H-pattern” manual gearbox. Under the name DSG, it has also been implemented in many divisions of the Volkswagen Group and other car manufacturers.

Porsche 962 C LH (1986), Porsche AG
Porsche 962 C LH (1986)

The 3.0-liter twin-turbo six-cylinder engine of the 962 C also powered the open cockpit TWR Porsche WSC Spyder, which Joest Racing drove to overall victory at Le Mans in 1996 and 1997. At the same time, the factory team, also known as the “works” team – put its faith in the Porsche 911 GT1. The traditional 911 architecture now featured its six-cylinder boxer engine mounted in the front of the rear axle. Its 591 HP, 3.2-liter twin-turbo engine represented a technical development that was introduced into series production in 1997 with the 996-generation 911 as the first fully water-cooled road-going Porsche 911. In 1998, the Porsche 911 GT1-98 clinched a one-two victory at Le Mans.

Enter the hybrid era: The racetrack as a unique test laboratory

The 919 Hybrid underlined how effectively Porsche uses motorsport as a development platform for cutting-edge technologies. The Le Mans winner of 2015, 2016 and 2017 is still the most complex racing car the sports car manufacturer has ever built. Its compact, highly efficient V4 engine with Porsche-developed direct fuel injection represented state-of-the-art technology. The 2.0-litre gasoline engine produced approximately 493 HP with an electric motor driving the front axle at times with an additional 394 HP.

The lithium-ion battery recuperated energy partly via braking and partly through a technology used only by Porsche in the World Endurance Championship. A second turbocharger – with variable turbine geometry – incorporated within the exhaust flow, powered a generator. Another particularly innovative feature was the 800-volt system that Porsche had developed from scratch for the 919 Hybrid. This was used for the first time in a production model – the Porsche Taycan unveiled in 2019 – and is one of the key technical features of Porsche's first purely electric sports car.

Brendon Hartley (NZ), Timo Bernhard (D), Earl Bamber (NZ) (l-r), Porsche 919 Hybrid, 2017, Porsche AG
Porsche 919 Hybrid (2017)

The full potential of the high-tech racing car was underlined in 2018 by the Evo version of the 919 Hybrid. Freed from regulatory constraints, two-time Le Mans winner and Porsche brand ambassador Timo Bernhard turned a lap of the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 5:19.55 minutes. The video of the spectacular record lap has now been viewed over nine million times on YouTube.

Porsche 963: 20th outright win in sight

Since 2023, Porsche has again been represented with a hybrid vehicle in the highest class of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GTP class here in North America and in FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) which includes the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Development of the 963 began in 2020. It combines a 4.6-liter V8 engine whose roots go back to the Porsche RS Spyder and the 918 Spyder super sports car, with two small turbochargers and a hybrid system added in the 963. Based on the LMDh regulations, the prototype produces a total output of around 690 HP.  

Porsche 963, Porsche Penske Motorsport (#6), Kevin Estre (F), Andre Lotterer (D), Laurens Vanthoor (B), FIA WEC, Prologue, Quatar, 2024, Porsche AG

The job of the 963 is clear, score the 20th Le Mans victory for Porsche and showcase the potential of the manufacturer’s sports cars. Fifty years after the world premiere of the 911 Turbo in Paris, this would be the 18th outright win for a Porsche racing car with a turbocharged engine.

For more information, photo and video material please look at our press kit: 50 Years Porsche Turbo.

Related Content