Fever Machines: Porsche 956/962
In the spring of 1982, Porsche unleashed the Group C-spec 956 on the World Sportscar Championship. Its debut race, the Silverstone six hours in May, marked the start of something very big for the German giant.
And it also triggered something in me, an impressionable 11-year-old who, despite such tender years, loved – and knew a lot about – sportscar racing. I decided on the spot that this machine, with its stripy, blue-and-white Rothmans cigarette sponsorship colours, would join a very elite club of racing cars about whose shape, colour and mind-warping speed, my junior expletives knew no bounds.
For the 956 transcended the ‘long, low, wide and fast’ stereotyping associated, at my then age, with racing cars. Sure, grand prix cars in 1982 were utterly mega, too, with stubby noses, fat slicks and aircraft carrier rear wings. But, hell’s teeth, the Porsche 956 could do 245mph, had a windscreen and, at a squeeze, could carry a passenger, too. They’d have to have had 11-year-old’s dimensions, mind. No, I never got a ride in one – then or since – although it wasn’t for want of trying.
It wasn’t very long, of course, before Porsche realised that its new baby was so good that it could capitalise on the advantage and make customer versions. That way, Porsche would get the kudos – and the results – and make some handy extra dosh, too. As it turned out, there were plenty of ‘customers’ who fancied sharing some of that initial glory. This idea met with my approval, wholeheartedly of course, because, having seen these factory Rothmans 956s at Silverstone, I recall thinking how mega it would be to have a whole grid full of them – all in different colours – turning up to play.
My prophetic requests were answered soon after thanks to the likes of Reinhold Joest, Walter Brun, Erwin and Manfred Kremer, John Fitzpatrick, Richard Lloyd, Preston Henn, Vern Schuppan and Charles Ivey. Many of these guys were former racers and knew a good thing when they saw it.
Cars were bought, teams were established and the best drivers – many of them grand prix stars – were recruited. Trying to predict the outcome of a race between these Porsche superteams was impossible, as they fought tooth and nail to usurp the factory in the ‘big three’ – the 24 Hours of Daytona and Le Mans and the Sebring 12 Hours – between 1982 and 1988, not to mention countless other international sportscar events around the world.
Development pace and regulation changes spawned the natural successor to the 956, the 962, in 1984. Physically similar, but more potent than its elder brother, the 962 continued to clean up in WSC and its American counterpart, the IMSA GTP series.
Looking back now on the fabulous Porsche Group C racers, many of them appearing in historic events of today, it seems crazy that they arrived on the scene when I was still in short trousers and kept winning – dominating, even – until I was almost rid of my ‘teenage’ tag. So many motor racing enthusiasts recall wistfully the 956, such was its impact.
If you too are a 956/962 fan you’ll surely have had the ‘favourite livery’ debate with fellow worshippers? Everybody has their favourite 956/962 paintjob so, in case you’ve not yet decided, here’s a bit of help:
Rothmans, Kenwood, New Man, Skoal Bandit, Marlboro, Boss, Canon, JDavid, Hawaiian Tropic, Warsteiner, Gaggia, Schiesser, Coke, Jägermeister, Dallas, Rollei, Bob Jane T Marts, American 100s, Barclay, Torno, Fortuna, Spirit of America, Löwenbrau, Miller, Luiqi Moly, Taka-Q, Primagaz, Leyton House, Lui, Blaupunkt, Shell/Dunlop, Repsol, Camel, Hydro Aluminium, From A, Wynn’s, Sachs, Take Fuji, Alpha, Mizuno, Omron, Fuji Golf, Momo, Nisseki, 0123, Axe, FATurbo Express.
Mine? It’s got to be the works cars’ Rothmans livery. The shape/colour combination is as evocative of the period as the Gulf 917s of a decade earlier. And when you’ve seen a trio of them running in formation at Le Mans, driven by the likes of Ickx, Bell, Stuck, Mass, Bellof or Wollek, you’ve witnessed Group C combat at its very best. Sportscar racing, without Stuttgart’s most potent weapon ever, has not been, and will not be, the same again.
The results have been staggering too, particularly at Le Mans. The 956 had a 1-2-3 at La Sarthe in 1982, a 1-2-3-4-5-6 the following two years, and the 956/962 filled the top five places in 1985 and ’86. Incredibly, the mighty Porsche was still winning in Dauer production-car form in ’94.
Overall wins at Le Mans: 1982, ’83, ’84, ’85, ’86, ’87, ’94. Overall wins at the Daytona 24 hours: 1985, ’86, ’87, ’89, ’91. Overall wins at the Sebring 12 hours: 1985, ’86, ’87, ’88. No other sports car has won more races.
With statistics like that no wonder the drivers loved it, too. John Watson, who drove a 962 to 11th at Le Mans in 1990, sums it up best after his first experience of the car: “I can remember thinking, ‘fucking hell, this is quick!’”
More Feature stories here
1. Documentary about the 956/962 part 1
2. Documentary about the 956/962 part 2
3. Highlights from the 1985 Le Mans 24 Hour
4. On board with Vern Schuppan at Le Mans in 1986 during the first few laps