Words by Jack Webster & Eddie LePine. Photos by Porsche Motorsport
Porsche’s Uphill Battle
By any measure, the 2020 racing season has been a challenge for everyone. From drivers, teams and manufacturers, to tracks and promoters, to sponsors and sanctioning bodies, the 2020 pandemic driven season has been a rough one.
For Porsche Motorsports, it has been a very challenging year as well. At the rescheduled 24 Hours of Le Mans (moved to September 20 from its original June date), Porsche had an uninspiring event, finishing 5th and 6th in the LM GTE Pro class. But after the race, the news only got worse for them.
Three Porsche team members tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday at Le Mans and Porsche, to protect both their employees and other competitors, elected to withdraw its entire contingent of 9 factory drivers (and any and all crew members who participated at Le Mans) from the 24 Hours of Nürburgring, which was to be held the week after Le Mans. As stated in a press release by Porsche Vice President of Motorsport Fritz Enzinger, “People’s health comes first for us. Given the current situation, it’s very clear to us that we put the needs of many ahead of our sporting goals. We’ll do everything we can to give our customer teams the best possible support in the upcoming race by providing operational personnel and available works drivers.” In keeping their commitments to the privateer Porsche teams, Porsche enlisted the help of current and former factory drivers who were not in attendance at Le Mans. Porsche’s attitude: we will find a way to keep racing.
Like Le Mans, the Nürburgring race was not a happy one for Porsche, as what was likely to transpire at a race scheduled for the green forests of the Eifel mountains in September (moved from its original June date) surely did transpire: torrential rains and fog. The race was red flagged for a number of hours due to the lack of visibility and flooding, many laps were run under caution, an untold number of cars crashed and, in the end, BMW survived for the overall win. The top finishing Porsche was 7th.
“Porsche’s attitude: we will find a way to keep racing.”
However, all of the races could not go on, as the logistics were overwhelming and the schedule very tight with Porsche racing on both sides of the Atlantic. Something had to give, and the victim was the Mid-Ohio round of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Porsche reluctantly withdrew both of its factory entries, unfortunately ending any hope they may have had for winning the GTLM championship in 2020.
After missing Mid-Ohio, the US team was back to full strength for the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship round on Charlotte’s unique Roval circuit, and like the bulk of the IMSA season had gone so far, the Charlotte race was pretty much a disaster. Both factory cars crashed very heavily in the flooding conditions, leaving the Porsche Team with a massive rebuilding job ahead of them and just a few days to get ready for one of the crown jewels on the IMSA schedule – the Motul Petit Le Mans. Steffen Höllwarth, head of Porsche’s IMSA team said: “We had big plans but then the event came to an abrupt halt for us after just 20 minutes. Both vehicles hit the barriers in heavy rain. We weren’t able to do the necessary repairs within the short time available.”
Driver of the #912, Earl Bamber said: “Not our day. Rain is always associated with difficulty for us. We had massive aquaplaning on the extremely wet track. The car very quickly ended up in one of the walls that stands very close to the track edge at Charlotte. Now we’re looking forward to Petit Le Mans. The race runs over ten hours. That should suit us better – at least if it stays dry…”
“After the problems that we’ve had this year, we would have been happy with a podium finish.”
A few short days later, the Porsche Team unloaded two fully rebuilt and race ready Porsche 911 RSR-19 race cars into the paddock at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, ready to take on the challenging Georgia circuit for the grueling 10-hour race.
With the pre-race challenges overcome, all the hard work proved to be worth it, for at the conclusion of the 10-hour Motul Petit Le Mans race, Porsche found itself on top, winning the GTLM class in an eventful race which saw Porsche at or near the top of the charts for the entire race.
Winning driver Nick Tandy: “Petit Le Mans was extremely exciting, especially towards the end. We ran a risky strategy to maintain contact with the leaders. There were one or two incidents early on in the race, but the last few hours ran perfectly. After the problems that we’ve had this year, we would have been happy with a podium finish. To see Fred (Makowiecki) cross the finish line in first place was a very emotional moment.”
Pascal Zurlinden, director of Porsche Factory Motorsport, was pleased: “What a fantastic result for our team. We’ve suffered many setbacks during this IMSA season. This victory at ‘Petit Le Mans’ is the reward for all the hard work that everyone in the team has done. That includes both the team here in the USA and our Weissach squad.”
It was the first win of the IMSA season for Porsche. It was a special victory, for 2020 is to be the factory’s last season in GTLM competition for the foreseeable future, with Porsche announcing their withdraw from the IMSA championship for 2021. With the win at Petit Le Mans now in the history books, Porsche still had two more races left on their dance card in the US – WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca and the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring.
In the meantime, there was to be no resting on their laurels for the Porsche team, as upcoming was another of the world-famous GT endurance contests – the 24 Hours of Spa. Spa would be run exactly one week after Motul Petit Le Mans!
“Loud noises suddenly started coming from the rear…it sounded as if small bombs were exploding!”
It was a tense and closely contested race in the Ardennes in very ichangeable conditions which included a fair amount of rain. The victorious Porsche 911 GT3 R with Nick Tandy behind the wheel swept into the lead early on Sunday morning, with Tandy turning record setting laps in the drying conditions. After his teammates Earl Bamber and Laurens Vanthoor put in their own outstanding stints, it was left to Tandy to bring the Rowe Racing car to the finish. In the final hour, Tandy dueled with the #66 Audi R8 LMS for the overall victory, with Tandy in the Rowe Racing Porsche coming out on top with a 4.687 second victory. IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship regulars Tandy, Bamber and Vanthoor covered 527 laps of the 7-kilometer Spa Grand Prix circuit besting the field of 55 cars with entries from eleven different manufacturers. It was a very tough race, with many incidents during the night and featured a total of 18 full course cautions and 14 safety car phases. Some corners of the circuit looked like a junk yard dumping ground as there were so many wrecked and disabled cars cast aside.
Nick Tandy: “I’ll never forget this finale. Our victory was hanging by a thread when loud noises suddenly started coming from the rear of the vehicle in the penultimate lap. It almost sounded as if small bombs were exploding. I got a fright and at the same time, the rear axle was sliding around on a trail of oil. What I didn’t realize was that the oil was coming from our car. I still can’t quite believe that the Porsche 911 GT3 R got us over the finish line. The relief and joy are indescribable.”
Project Manager Porsche 911 GT3 R, Sebastian Golz: “It was an extremely exciting finish – our hearts were racing at full revs. The last hours were simply nerve wracking. Huge congratulations to Rowe Racing and the drivers who achieved the absolute maximum.”
With all the Porsche Team has been through this season, the recent results at Petit Le Mans and the Spa 24 Hours pay testament to their “never give up” ethos. Coming back as they did from their trials and tribulations at Le Mans and Charlotte to put together outstanding back to back victories in tough endurance races on both sides of the Atlantic in such a short amount of time shows the true spirit, teamwork and the racing DNA of Porsche.
Determined to go out with their heads held high, Porsche scored its second IMSA victory of the season today, with the #912 Porsche 911 RSR-19 of Earl Bamber an Laurens Vanthoor taking the victory at WeatherTech Laguna Seca race. Bamber & Vanthoor shared driving duties in the factory Porsche, finishing first in the GTLM class at the Hyundai Monterey Sports Car Championship, beating the two championship leading Corvette C8.Rs.
Once again, persistence pays.
Porsche may be leaving the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship after this season as a factory squad, but we can hope that they will not be gone for long, as racing is the strongest strand in Porsche DNA
Porsche needs racing, just as we need Porsche to be racing. Please come back soon.