Behind-the-scenes skullduggery with Porsche’s Group C racers
Did teams racing Porsche’s 956 sports-prototype step the wrong side of the line between technical ingenuity and cheating? And while the 956 and its successor, the longer-wheelbase 962, appeared to bring equal opportunity to many privateers, were some of these cars in fact more equal than others? Time usually has to pass before team owners or drivers are prepared to talk candidly about such things – and now that it has, one of the most successful of all privateer Porsche 956 and 962 entrants, John Fitzpatrick of John Fitzpatrick Racing (JFR), spills a few beans.
It is true that Porsche was unusually egalitarian in offering to sell its Group C racers to privateers, whereas other manufacturers kept their cars exclusively with their works teams. True, too, that an extraordinarily large number of 956s and 962s were produced, 176 in total, and at the time of manufacture almost all appeared identical. Porsche even permitted outside fabricators to construct copies of these all-conquering machines, so that over the years 57 were built independently. These cars became so numerous they could sometimes make the World Endurance Championship look like a one-make series. Identical cars with identical chances of victory. Or so it seemed. But serious racers sought “the unfair advantage” by pushing to the outer edges of the regulations, and some were willing to go even further, abandoning any sense of fair play. The first time that team owner and driver John Fitzpatrick raced a 956, he learned this the hard way.
Before running his new car in the opening round of the 1983 World Endurance Championship at Monza, Fitz gave it an outing in a German championship sprint race at Zolder, Belgium. This event was of one hour’s duration, which was about as long as a 956 could run with moderate turbo-boost before its fuel tank ran dry. If the boost was turned too high, precious time would be lost in the pits, just before the hour passed, having to refuel. There was no obvious way around this because maximum tank capacity of 100 litres was defined by the Group C regulations and easily policed in post-race scrutineering.
Throughout that race at Zolder, Fitz found he had no way of matching the pace of the leading Joest Racing 956 of Bob Wollek. Out of the corners the Joest car could pull away by 20 to 30 metres, suggesting it was running higher turbo-boost and would have to stop for fuel. And yet it turned out that Wollek had no need to stop for a splash-and-dash, whereas Fitz did. “We had the speed,” Fitz recalls, “but not the fuel. There was a lot to learn and this would be a recurring problem throughout the 1983 and 1984 seasons. We gradually learned the tricks, but some we were not prepared to use. We wanted to win fair and square, and in my opinion, there were others who played by different rules.”
One of those tricks, shunned by John Fitzpatrick Racing but practiced by others, was to feed more fuel to a car during a race than the exact amount allocated to it beforehand by officials. For this, though, you needed the budget to be running a two- or three-car team. It worked like this: by refrigerating the fuel to reduce its density, more could be squeezed into the tank; fuel vent bottles caught excess fuel on the opposite side of the car to the filler, signalling that the tank was full, and with this bottle a multi-car team could give additional fuel to one of its cars at a pit stop. Fitz recalls that if bigger teams such as “Joest or Kremer ran a slower second or third car which was using less fuel, it would be overfilled, and the excess passed on to the faster car, dumped through the vent bottle.”
The FIA eventually caught on to this. As author Mark Cole explains in his compelling new book John Fitzpatrick Group C Porsches – The Definitive History, vent bottles were colour-coded and given each car’s number from 1984, so that pit-marshals could spot any rule-bending. But there were other ingenious ploys, of course, and some played by the works Rothmans Porsche team to prevent privateers from matching its pace. One “unfair advantage” the works cars had was a different Bosch Motronic fuel injection system, which gave them sharper throttle response out of the corners and more outright power through the engine’s higher compression ratio. Another advantage of the factory cars was that they had Speedline alloy wheels, while customer cars got BBS rims – and, as Fitz’s team discovered at the 1983 Silverstone 1,000Kms, when suddenly there were only three wheels on its wagon, the BBS’s centre-nut had a nasty habit of working loose. The only solution was to torque-wrench the nut so tightly that it was difficult to remove during pit-stops, costing precious time.
Eventually John Fitzpatrick Racing would devise clever but legal tricks of its own. The smartest of these proved enough, at the Brands Hatch 1,000Kms in 1983, for the team to score victory over the two works Rothmans Porsches, two works Martini Lancia LC2s, a semi-works LC2, and four other customer 956s. On this occasion Fitzpatrick was sharing his 956 with Toleman F1 driver Derek Warwick because his regular partner, David Hobbs, was busy at Sears Point, California, defending his TransAm Championship lead.
Fitz explains: “The 956 had a small set of louvres in the [suction-creating] underbody tunnels to let in air to the engine to aid cooling. For qualifying these louvres were covered by plates to seal the tunnels and this was worth a second a lap with the improved downforce, but could only be done for three laps or the engine would overheat.” But JFR found a way of running the car with these louvres permanently closed, by using side ducts and a turbo-driven cooling fan. The cooling fans drew power from each of the two turbos, but this was an affordable loss because Brands Hatch wasn’t a ‘power circuit’, and more affordable still when in the race it rained.
Warwick started the race from the second row, behind the two works Porsches of Jacky Ickx/Jochen Mass and Derek Bell/Stefan Bellof, but he was in the lead by lap three, and by lap 20 the five frontrunners – Warwick, Wollek, Bellof, Ickx, and Lancia’s Michele Alboreto – had lapped the entire field. Mid-way through his second stint, after the first routine pit stop, Warwick had lapped everyone, even second-placed Bellof in a car running a new high-downforce undertray.
Derek recalls: “Fitz had told me that, if it was wet, I would start the race and do two stints behind the wheel, so that’s how we played it. But at the end of the first stint I was just bursting for the loo, and after an hour in really heavy rain I’d had enough. I just wanted to get out! So I was just unstrapping the harness and on the point of getting out when Fitz opened the door and said, ‘You don’t want to get out, do you, Derek?’ and slammed the door, bang, and ran away. He later told me there was no way in the world he was going to get in that car after I’d come in with a lap lead!”
Immediately after this victory, Porsche engineer Norbert Singer, who was mostly responsible for the 956’s body design, wandered over to the JFR car. “He was very interested to see what we had done to allow us to run with the sealed-off tunnels,” Fitz remembers. “We had the back off the car and he had a good look, before giving me one of his wry smiles. ‘Sehr gut, Fitz,’ he said, and he meant it. He was a great innovator, and loved to see others do it too.”