RACING CARS FROM THE EIGHTIES
PORSCHE 956 (1983)
My recent testing experiences with a Porsche 956 plus knowledge gained from previous long distance sportscar racing in a Porsche 924 and, on one occasion, a Ford C100, provides a good basis for discussion of the driver's role in the World Endurance Championship during the coming season.
More and more these days, involvement with setting the car up before racing is becoming a vital part of being a racing driver. Whether it is in sportscars or single seaters, the difference between the ultimate lap and one that can be regularly reproduced may only be 0.5 sec. On the other hand, a carefully set up car may be 1.5 sec faster than the car from which one started.
There are many reasons, though, why this setting up is unlikely to be optimised for a Group C car. Optimisation equals specificity, and whilst it may be possible to set up a car that will lap 0.7 sec faster on a dry track on empty tanks with Joe Blow driving, the fact is that it has got to be able to complete 1000kms or whatever in the minimum time. One has to make allowances for possible wet conditions, change of wind, which may cause over-revving with a previously ideal fifth gear, and the driving styles of the other driver, to mention just a few points.
Furthermore, at the race meeting there just is not the time to do other than a few basic changes, apart from which one really doesn't want to pound around too much before a six hour race anyway.
Unlike any other form of racing though, there is another factor to be brought into the pre-race set up equation; fuel consumption. Few can be unfamiliar with the intent of the Group C regulations - to make efficient use of fuel essential. The effect of this will be seen in two areas; setting up and controlled lap times. The former includes such aspects as tolerable turbo boost, and it is this point which should distinguish turbo car qualifying performances from those of normally aspirated cars to a greatAr degree than in Formula One. In qualifying, the boost and therefore power can be increased to as high a level as the (unlimited capacity) engine can tolerate, which in the case of a 2.7 litre Porsche 956 might provide a 100bhp advantage over a 3.9 litre unblown Cosworth DFL equipped rival, for example.
But enough of the theory. Come and drive the Porsche 956. As you approach it you cannot fail to be impressed by the sheer bulk of the car, especially the vast expanse of bodywork to the rear that you make a mental note of before climbing in. The 956 even has a lock on the door, the opening of which extends well into the roof panel. It is only after you have stretched across the eighteen inch wide side pontoons that you appreciate the necessity for this - it is useful to stand on the seat before sliding down into it!
If you didn't need the key to get in you will need it to start it - none of your toggle switches here! The interior is beautifully laid out and presented. Adjust the Recaro style seat for fore-aft position with the lever at the front. The six positions make accommodating varying driver height combinations very straightforward. Everything comes conveniently to hand, the left side of the upholstered dash curving round towards the driver. Seat belts fastened, pull down on the chunky plastic rods around each shoulder belt tensioner and relax.
We'll assume the 2.7 litre 650bhp turbo charged flat 6 is warm. With no throttle, just turn the key. It burbles instantly into life, with the typical low speed flatness of a turbocharged engine. Pull the lever into first and trickle out of the pits. No need for much more than idling revs, though you will need a lot more effort on the steering which is really quite heavy at very low speeds.
You manage to kid yourself that you can see enough behind to know that it is clear to pull onto the circuit from the pit exit road. After changing into second you give it a healthy prod on the throttle. Hmmm, it does step away quite we . . . Christ, does it go! As the boost comes in strongly to 1.2 bar above 6,OOOrpm the Porsche really lunges forward, hurling the car forward till 8,OOOrpm is reached and it's time to take third. Not grab third, note. The fabulously slick Porsche-made gearbox is a delight to use, but as with any big sportscar, changes are made with a gentle forcefulness.
With Le Mans gear ratios installed, at the maximum 8,500rpm second is good for 105mph, third 140mph (virtually flat out in an F3 car!), fourth 180mph and fifth 220mph. It is the way that such a large car can be accelerated that is so impressive. And, compared to a single seater, the most striking feature is the top speed of the car. Though the Williams FW08 Formula One car feels and does have more vigorous slow speed acceleration (up to, say, 140mph) the Porsche 956 still charges on and on, relentlessly gathering momentum with the almost leisurely effortless beat of the turbo flat-6. At 175mph or so the screaming Cosworth just can't push the Williams through the air any faster. A comparison which reflects the relative degrees of aerodynamic drag of the cars.
The roadholding of the big Porsche is surprisingly good, its ground effect aerodynamics obviously working well. It is the first car I have driven that has been on the limit through Abbey, the fast sweeping left hander before coming under Silverstone's Daily Express bridge. It was flat - but I needed to use every foot of the track as it exited at 170mph.
Apart from the smoothness of controls and engine, it is the harmony with which the car works that makes the Porsche 956 so impressive. It really is quite a docile car, there being (with Le Mans bodywork) progressive transition to power oversteer through even the fast Stowe and Club corners, from an initial gentle entry understeer. Once settled into the car, it is a real speed shrinker. No engine screams, rattles, bumpy jolting ride. More like a fabulous road car than the ultimate sportsracer.
Comparing World Endurance Championship rounds with Formula Two races, the driving objectives are rather different. Predictably, lapping consistently with careful regard to conservation of all parts of the machine is vital, though even so, contrary to popular belief, one really does have to drive pretty hard. Avoid coming close to locking wheels under braking or provoking significant understeer or oversteer or using maximum revs or snatching gearchanges all costs surprisingly little time yet is vital to prolong pad, tyre, engine and gearbox life. Bear in mind that nine out of ten race results could have been better but for mechanical problems.
I feel that the interesting problem of coping with lapping slower traffic is one of the greatest skills of a top class sportscar driver, as is so ably demonstrated by Messrs Bell and Ickx. Though initial reactions suggest one should not rush such overtaking manoeuvres in a six hour race, this is not necessarily so. Being held up behind a slower car may cost 0.5 sec per corner, so when you consider that once the race is under way three or four cars may be lapped per lap, you can see how lap times can easily slow by two to three seconds.
Swift, safe, decisive overtaking will save many minutes throughout six hours.
Driving can be more of a technical exercise in sportscar racing than in a single seater race. Instead of fighting against the opposition one is fighting against the clock. It provides a surprisingly rare opportunity to learn circuits. Where else can one lap a circuit with an unchanged car for three hours? Boring? Not at all. Glancing at the rev counter exiting' most corners warns of any sloppiness and possibly encourages a new technique. Temperatures and pressures are checked each lap and there are all those cars to be lapped as well. The pitboard may show that one has gained another place after a retirement ahead to brighten up the journey, too!
Fatigue is considerable, more so than in Formula Two, though not up to Formula, One levels. There are three main causes; firstly, the cars are heavy to drive due to the braking and steering loads; secondly, the fully enclosed cabins are like greenhouses; and thirdly, the repeated driving stints can wear the body down. To be well hydrated before the race is vital, and one must also replenish lost fluid between driving sessions despite the indigestion that inevitably occurs after driving. Partial paralyticileus - a dozy gut - is a consequence of previous high adrenalin level whilst driving. Satisfactory fluid and glucose replacement will minimise the physical problem.
For a driver, pit stops can be mildly disorientating. From having been pounding round in a world of your own, the necessary sudden change of environment leaves one feeling slightly distant, particularly in the middle of the night during a 24 hour race. If there is no driver change, once back on the circuit the experience reminds me of being on call at night as a hospital doctor and being woken up to go and see a patient briefly before going back to bed. In both situations there is a heightened sense of awareness and concentration that subsequently leaves a dream-like quality to the interruption.
After a driver change it takes around three laps to settle down into a rhythm again and a quick instrument check may indicate any developing problems, such as progressive overheating. It is surprising just how quickly each session goes and often by the time one has settled in the pit board is showing the countdown for the next pit stop.
To me, endurance racing comes into its own at night. There is something totally absorbing about big powerful sportscars wailing by with their headlights picking out the road ahead and the glowing turbochargers throwing out multi coloured flames on the over-run. It is the relentless pounding round and round that is so impressive, and that brings home just what a true test of not just driver, but team organisation, expertise and machinery, endurance racing is.
I really enjoy night driving. Like the outside spectacle, there are minimal distractions from the focus of attention. Instead of daylight showing up everything around, two beams of light are, the only extension of the driver's cockpit environment; he feels insular and purposeful. Rhythm now is particularly important. Braking and corner boards become important markers now, for the dark track surface can be indistinct. Dazzle from the cars behind can be a problem if one looks in the mirror then tries to look ahead with consequently constricted pupils - it all seems black momentarily.
After a session, one tends to first hover around the pit for a few laps to observe that there are no major problems and that things are settling down sensibly. A chat with the crew is important and interesting, both to pass over information regarding the car, and to get some idea of the race as a whole, the developments within other teams, and your own progress and situation.
Then it is back to the motorhome and change out of hot waterlogged overalls to hopefully clean, dry replacements. A winding down thirty minutes or so then follows as one relaxes and replenishes fluid and glucose. It's then time to get back out to the pit counter and see what's going on prior to taking over again.
One of the great things about endurance racing is that the success that we strive for is shared between and attributable to the whole team. Though this applies to single seater racing too, it is not to quite the same degree. The team and I are all determined to do our utmost to put our car ahead of the works Porsches this year, and while every member of the team has a big responsibility, the rewards are in proportion.