The Weekend Read: Moving Mountains

Porsche casually tosses us the keys to its track-honed 935 and GT1 race cars and points to the Mt Panorama circuit. We oblige

Porsche 935 GT1

MOST OTHER people’s dreams might involve skinny-dipping with Queen Elizabeth II or dining with dead rock stars, but mine have always seemed pretty reasonable.

My dreams have simply been a life-long saga of sports-racing cars from the 1960s and ’70s and Formula One cars from the ’80s. With me driving them.

Klaus Bischof steals my dreams and lives them for real. He can even add the fantasy dinner guests that have included fallen heroes like Pedro Rodríguez, Jo Siffert and Stefan Bellof, and that still include Jacky Ickx, Derek Bell and Walter Röhrl.

As curator of the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart, Bischof spends his year choosing which priceless Porsches he’ll take on his world travels. In recent months Bischof, who joined Porsche in 1968 as a race team mechanic, has tripped to the Mille Miglia with a 550 Spyder, the Dominican Republic with the 1976 Le Mans 936 and his beloved Targa Tasmania with a 1963 356B Carrera GT.

“That’s the most problem,” Bischof shrugs. “To jump from one century to another.” (We’re not sure if he means the cars, or Tasmania).

I’ve shared the dream a few times, even just two years ago in a selection of Porsche Museum road cars on Austria’s Grossglockner Pass. But the highlight so far occurred in 1999, when Bischof came to Phillip Island with three special guests: road and race-winning (#26) examples of the previous year’s GT1-98 Le Mans car, and one of the latter’s drivers in Scotsman, Allan McNish.

So here, in 2010, was Bischof at Mt Panorama for a Porsche Clubs gathering at the Festival of Sporting Cars. And who’s this? The GT1-98 strassenversion – nice to see you again! And, well-hellooo … a car I feel I know inside-out but have never come close to driving – the fabulous 935.

But this happy scene was merely the prologue to a Dynasty-sized betrayal. My joy would soon be ashes in my mouth. Bischof would drive a wedge between me and a friend of some 25 years standing. I would drive, er, nothing.

I may never erase from my memory the smug, sneering countenance of that great, gangly git Peter McKay in his glistening Martini overalls.

Let me at least tell you I’ve driven the 911 GT1-98 Strassenversion before. For about 50 metres, before I broke it. Any sadness over that was forgotten within minutes by my getting to drive something even better. So (and how’s this for blasé?) the white GT1-98 at Bathurst – the only one of its kind ever built, a genuine road-registerable Le Mans winner – just didn’t, uhh, float my boat. The traitor McKay could drive it all the way back to Sydney for all I cared.

Nope, for me this day was all about the 935. Or wasn’t.

It’s either my age or the longevity of the 911’s shape, but the 935 still seems like a thoroughly modern race car to me. Fact is, Porsche developed the 934, 935 and 936 to contest the FIA’s new-for-’76 sports and touring car classes (in, respectively, Group 4, 5 and 6) the very same year it launched its first 911 Turbo road car.

Porsche built just 20 works 935s, between late-1975 and early-1980. The works cars were built at the Weissach racing department, with Bischof there in the thick of it. With engine capacity creeping up from 2.8 to 3.2 litres, the 935 would largely dominate five years of endurance racing and be capable of top-three finishes at Le Mans.

With a fairly conventional steel shell beneath wildly-winged fibreglass bodywork, the 1976 version’s 2.8-litre, single-turbocharged flat-six engine offered around 440kW. Despite having only a four-speed gearbox, it was capable of 0-100km/h in 3.2 seconds and a standing 400 metres in less than nine. A top speed of 340km/h put it among the fastest of anything in F1, Can-Am or Indy.

The car Bischof brought to Bathurst is one of three works cars built for 1977. It had stepped up to twin KKK turbochargers, helping it to develop 470kW at 8000rpm beneath larger, smoother bodywork. Tyres were little kangaroo-paw 265 x 16-inch on the front, and whopping 360 x 18-inch (originally 370 x 19) at the rear.

With tricknology like titanium driveshafts, cockpit-adjustable, coil-over-damper Bilstein suspension (replacing the 911’s torsion bars) and 917-derived, bias-adjustable four-piston brakes, the 935/76 came in at 80kg under the Group 5 weight minimum of 970kg.This allowed Porsche to ballast the car to its ideal 40/60 front/rear weight distribution.

In the cockpit of my mind, the 935 has always been a swirl of perceptions, like its haunched rear end and needle-like nose; massive horsepower combined with primitive turbo technology. I’d imagined the 935 to be outside the capabilities of any mere mortal.

This car wasn’t. While the prototype-class 936 won the 1977 Le Mans race outright, this very same #41 935 of Manfred Schurti and Rolf Stommelen (later to lose his life in a Joest 935) expired ingloriously at the five-hour mark with a broken engine.

Bischof fixed this car’s engine and changed the wheels and tyres (nobody makes 19in racing tyres any more). And here it sits. “Most cars are [restored] in the race department where they came from,” he says. “They still have the [supplier] connections, and in Weissach, of course, we make the parts by ourselves, like we did in those days.

“It’s still the chassis, completely, the brake discs, the [bodywork], the engine – okay, new piston rings, it’s just serviced but not made new – but the crankshaft housing, camshaft, it’s all original.”

Just as it raced in my dreams, then.

Well, if I can’t drive a 935, I can at least speak to someone who did. And not bloody McKay.
Nine-three-fives are no strangers to Australia. In 1982 the first Aussie owner was, appropriately, Alan Hamilton, whose family company imported Porsche from 1951-’92. Hamilton’s collection already included a 934 and the awesome 917/30 Can-Am.

Hamilton had signed homecoming king Alan Jones to drive for him in the reborn Australian GT Championship for 1982. Hamilton became anxious that his factory-promised parts for a 944 Le Mans Turbo replica would not arrive in time.

“I started fishing around for an alternative, and [German property baron] Georg Loos was selling his 935, I believe the last works 935 built,” Hamilton recalls. “I was in Stuttgart at the time, and Georg agreed to meet me. They cleared out the carpark at Werk 1 and he landed there in his private helicopter – as you do. We transacted the deal on the spot.”

The 935 was flown out – by which time the 944 was in fact ready. Jones simply walked off with every one of the nine rounds, with Colin Bond usually not far behind in the 944.

Despite Hamilton’s 3.0-litre example having around 520kW for 1025kg, it was, he says, a much easier car to drive than his 934 (raced in 1980 by Allan Moffat, who would also share a 935 K3 at Le Mans the same year).

“I think [the 935] would still, with modern tyres, comfortably see off V8 Supercars,” Hamilton says. “The power-to-weight is better and the handling would have been superior as well.”

Melbourne’s Rusty French had run a De Tomaso Pantera until, after seeing Hamilton’s car in 1982, “my sponsors decided they’d like to sponsor a 935.”

The only other 935 in the country was a 1977 Kremer K3 owned by Bruce Spicer, and driven by former 911 RSR racer, John Latham. For French, buying the 935 was the beginning of an affair that lasts to this day; he currently has four 935s, including his matched pair of K3s, and is something of a world authority on 935 historic racing and parts engineering.

“I had never driven a Porsche before of any sort and I went straight into a 935,” French chuckles now. “Bruce said to me, ‘take it up to 8000rpm and take your foot off the clutch…’ It took off like a dragster, you couldn’t see the pits for smoke! That’s not the correct way to get ’em off the line, as we found out later.”

At the close of the 1982 season, French bought Hamilton’s car and did to the 1983 GT championship what Jones had done the previous year.

“Until you get used to it, they’re a bit hairy,” French says. “They tend to be a bit tail-heavy.
“To describe the power … Coming onto the [old] main straight at Winton in second gear, they’d actually mono up the hill. They’d lift the front wheels off and if you didn’t have them pointing in a straight line, because of the spool in the diff, they’d just sort-of head off towards the crowd.”

French races his “pigeon pair” Kremer K3s each year at the Monterey historics in California, where they’ve won against 35-car, IMSA-pedigree fields.

Here’s cheers to the 935, a car that customers could buy from the factory in 1976 for US$75,000 (just under three times the price of a 911 Turbo, and double a 934) and put themselves immediately at the pointy end of international sports and endurance racing.

One-third of a century later, 935s are still making magic on the racetrack. And some of us are still watching, like dreamy teenagers, from the sidelines. Hmpphh.

DRIVING THE 935 - by Peter McKay

Driving old cars is a bit like revisiting old girlfriends; you’re invariably doomed to disappointment. But with certain racing cars, there should be exceptions. One is the Porsche 935. Legend.

Flashback to 1980, at the 24 Heures du Mans. I was there doing a fly-on-the-wall story about Allan Moffat in his first Le Mans. He was driving a 935 with Bobby Rahal and a bloke whose name I’ve forgotten.

In the middle of the night, in the pitch dark, I’m perched at the end of the Mulsanne Straight (in the era before chicanes) watching the 935 arrive at close to 360km/h, braking ferociously, musically dropping a couple of gears, and then arcing hard into the right-hander, all with a piercing light show and snap/crackle/pop from the exhaust on overrun. I was in lust.

Thirty years later, desire and dreams and rare opportunity fall my way … I’m getting behind the wheel of a 935 at Mount Panorama.

Many years beyond my prime, such occasions are not contemplated without a dash of trepidation. To use a museum piece to re-shape the scenery at Bathurst is a horrible thought.

The Martini 935 is not just valuable; as the winner of the World Championship of Makes, it’s irreplaceable. Yet I’m stunned by Porsche museum curator Klaus Bischof’s unfussy attitude. His briefing takes about 10 seconds; “Start it like this (twist and push), simple H-pattern with four forward gears, the tyres take a bit of warming up, get aggressive with the locked diff … oh, and the brakes are not so good. Enjoy!”

One of the hardest moments to absorb in this whole unlikely sequence, is the hang-dog, “it shoulda-been-me” look on the face of Stahl as, in my borrowed Martini racesuit, I buckle into that left-hooker 935 seat, the seat that has in years past accepted the Nomex-clad backsides of Porsche heroes Jacky Ickx, Jochen Mass, Rolf Stommelen, Manfred Schurti…

Gurgling and shaking up pit lane, I scan a cabin that has many familiar old 911 cues (gauges, switchgear, windscreen, doors…) I realise Kasual Klaus hasn’t even given me a rev limit. I settle on a conservative 6500rpm (later he says 8000 would have been okay).

Bischof has told me that with normal boost, there’s 630 horses to play with, in a car that weighs 970kg. A fiddle with the overtaking boost knob alongside the seat would introduce a further 50 horsepower to the equation. I’m not going there…

The first time down Conrod, I roll off the throttle over the humps, visions of those aviating Mercs at Le Mans dancing into my consciousness.

It feels so, well, wonderful. Effortless. I wasn’t pushing it to the point where I could tell you it needs a tyre pressure adjustment. The torque is fat and glorious, arriving with some subtlety initially around 5000 and then thickening up progressively along the
two straights…

The gearing is tall. Gotta be the Le Mans diff ratio. It’s so tall that I decide to grab first gear at The Cutting and again at Forrest’s Elbow. The power-down capabilities are stunning – it squats and fires – though the 935 doesn’t like the track’s ripple strips. And at speed, the car wanders, the fat rubber following the imperfections in the asphalt.

Soon I’m smiling like a fool, easily spinning the engine to my self-imposed 6500rpm in fourth down the hill into The Chase. Bischoff tells me later this equates to 280km/h or so.
He’s right about the brakes. The rotors feel like they’ve had a hard life, like a touring car in the last hour of the Bathurst 1000. But we’re not chasing a world championship here, so it doesn’t matter.

So easy to drive, really. Like a 1980s touring car, except with greater steering tactility and more urge. Not at all like the light-switch power delivery I’ve imagined for three decades…

DRIVING THE GT1 - by Peter McKay

If only Porsche had created its GT1 Le Mans cars around Hans Stuck or Walter Röhrl, men of sensible, lofty proportions. Instead, in designing its 1998 GT1, Porsche carefully reduced the Batmobile silhouette to snugly accommodate the pint-sized 165cm, 58kg Scot, Allan McNish, who, let it be said, went on to win the 1998 Le Mans with similarly undernourished driving colleagues Laurent Aïello and Stéphane Ortelli.

Trying to concertina a 187cm me into that alarmingly confined space behind the chopped steering wheel of the homologation special GT1 strassenversion (street version) which formed the template for the car that ate Le Mans, proves do-able – but only just. Knees are jammed under the dash, size-nine race boots only just find accommodation on the pedals, and the helmeted head is cranked at an uncomfortable angle beneath the carbonfibre turret.

Being nominally a road car, the white GT1 doesn’t get the garish livery or race number of the track version. It’s even got a lap/sash belt. But the high-downforce bodywork, bitumen-hugging scoop spoiler and integrated roll-cage are cues to its focused intent – which in ’98 was to win the world’s best-known sports endurance race.

First impressions: this is a big sucker. At nearly five metres long and two metres
wide, it dwarfs the taller, louder, brighter 935 alongside it.

With the door open – up and inwards – the driver surprisingly limbos in on the right side of the car, the sequential shift lever to the right.

Rearward vision is rubbish – a mirror the size of a mobile phone is perched on each front guard, the right side one conveniently obscured by a hefty A-pillar. There’s no interior mirror. This may not be a concern when you’re the dux of the class on Mulsanne, but when you’re finding your way among a flotilla of unknown Porsche drivers at Mount Panorama…

Onto the circuit, and another design problem manifests itself on this warm morning; there is no fresh-air ventilation, other than a tiny, indolent fan which seems to work inversely to the engine performance. However my neck is aching so badly over the bumps, and I’m worried about scratching a car worth as much as my house, I care not a whit about stuff like ventilation.

The sequential ’box, I’ve been warned, needs plenty of muscle. Understatement. It needs an almighty wrench, simultaneously using the clutch pedal. There’s no electronic assistance. And still there is reluctance. Initially, I’m missing more gears than I’m finding, my lovemaking way too gentle. Only when I get angry and aggressive does it come together cohesively.

On the straights, it’s a sweet thing, the engine effortless and energetic. I’ve been told to use 6500 to 7000 revs, and at the top end the GT1 offers up that glorious irrepressible surge, like an aircraft just before lift-off. Ah, yes, which reminds me of that sobering YouTube clip of a GT1 driven by Yannick Dalmas executing a clever, if unscheduled back-flip at Road Atlanta during the ’98 Petit Le Mans.

The 1998 GT1 race car’s water-cooled, twin-turboed and intercooled 3.22-litre flat-six is mid-mounted, makes about 640 horses (480kW). The road car doesn’t seem to have that much. Maybe 500. The exhaust noise via the twin copper pipes poking out the rear is surprisingly subdued, inside and out.

The brakes are stunning, as in most Porsches, the steering surprisingly light, although heavier in high-speed turns when the inherent downforce kicks in.

In the end, I get just two laps of Mount Panorama, head cocked at a mad angle, helmet bouncing off the roof, enjoying only selected (smooth) bits of the journey. A pox on short-arsed Allan McNish’s uncooperative gene pool. Maybe that short-arse Stahl would have been a better fit…

Body steel, 2 doors, 2 seats
Drivetrain rear engine (north-south), rear-wheel drive
Engine 2867cc flat six, dohc, 24v twin turbochargers
Power 470kW @ 8000rpm
Torque 590Nm @ 5400rpm
Transmission 4-speed manual
Size l/w/h 4681/1971/1265mm
Wheelbase 2271mm
Weight 890kg
0-100km/h 3.1sec (estimated)
Price US$75,000 (price of customer car in 1976)

Body aluminium, 2 doors, 2 seats
Drivetrain mid engine (north-south), rear-wheel drive
Engine 3164cc flat six, dohc, 24v twin turbochargers
Power 400kW @ 7000rpm
Torque 600Nm @ 4250rpm
Transmission 6-speed sequential
Size l/w/h 4710/1980/1173mm
Wheelbase 2700mm
Weight 1250kg
0-100km/h 3.7sec (claimed)
Price DM1.5m (new, 1998)

Have you bought our media-rich iPad edition yet? Kings of the Mountain was originally published in August, 2010.


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