Prodigal Son - 1998 Porsche LMP1-98
Porsche had seen its works 911 GT1 cars beaten twice at Le Mans by one of their own aborted projects. The TWR developed WSC-95's Frankenstein-fusion of Jaguar XJR-14 chassis and an older Porsche engine proved to be a very competitive package. The surprise success of the car lead to Porsche deciding to adopt it as one of their own again. To this end Porsche made the Joest Motorsport entered car a full works effort.
Leaving control of the team to Reinhold Joest, Porsche set out to update the car so it would remain competitive for the 1998 race. The car’s body received some minor aerodynamic tweaks, including new streamlined wing mirrors to reduce drag. The nosecone was also reworked, and received a raised section and smaller headlights to make room for winglets on the corners of the car. Furthermore, the giant air intake behind the driver was removed completely.
The biggest change however was the engine. In the WSC-95 Joest Racing had used a 3.0L version of the venerable twin turbocharged Typ 935 flat 6. Although a proven race winner with amazing dependability, Porsche opted to replaced it with an updated 3.2L unit straight from their 911 GT1 model.
Due to ACO-mandated restrictors power remained more or less the same. As much as 540 horsepower was on tap at 7200 rpm. Torque had however increased to 680 nm (501 lb ft). The new engine called for a new six speed sequential gearbox, which was also lifted from the GT1 car. All in all the car weighed just 890 kilo (1962 lbs).
Alongside the updated LMP1-98,Porsche ran the third iteration of their 911 GT1 design, dubbed GT1-98. Porsche had been hard at work improving the 911 GT1's many teething problems to avoid the embarrassment of the many mechanical failures seen in 1996 and 1997. With everything dialed in, Porsche moved the new four car team to Le Mans.
There they would find the qualifying field a bit crowded since the last time. In addition to last years’ competition, the Mclaren F1 GTR ‘97 and Nissan’s R390 GT1, there were three new full works entries. BMW had ended their works relationship with McLaren and presented an LMP1 car of their own, the V12 LM. Truly new on the scene were Toyota’s GT-One and Mercedes’ CLK LM. With such a ferocious amount of budget and expertise thrown around, things looked rather bleak in the Porsche camp.
For 1998 Porsche counted on the talents of triple Le Mans winner (1993,1994,1995) Yannick Dalmas (FRA), 1997 Le Mans winner Michele Alboreto (ITA) and Alboreto's former F1-team mate at Ferrari, Stefan Johansson (SWE) in the leading #7 car. The second #8 machine would be piloted by experienced Group C racer James Weaver (GB), former Peugeot and Toyota factory driver Pierre-Henri Raphanel (FRA) and IMSA racer David Murry (USA). The raw firepower present in Porsche's driver line-up was undeniably. Sadly the stiff competition spoiled the party, with the #7 car barely making the top 10 in 9th. The sister machine fared even worse by only making it to 20th.
Meanwhile, the 911 GT1’s development had paid off, with #25 in 4th and #26 in 5th. Ruling the roost was Mercedes’ all-powerful CLK LM, with #35 taking 1st and #36 3rd, split by the #28 Toyota GT-One. Toyota’s #29 car was in 7th, with #27 8th. BMW’s brand new V12 LM showed good pace at 6th for #2 and 12th for #1. Nissan’s big-budget R390 GT1 proved disappointing, with #31 13th, #32 14th and #33 down in 19th. Last year’s runner-up, the Mclaren F1 GTR ‘97, was thoroughly outpaced. The number #41 car only scored a 23rd time, with #40 close behind in 24th.
At the start of the race the new and lightning fast Mercedes and Toyota weapons rocketed away from the start and fought hard for the lead. But as the race progressed, their lack of development caught up with them.
Mercedes' CLK LM’s both went out with engine failures in the first few hours after dictating the pace in the early stages. One of the Toyota’s suffered a gearbox failure, with another car out due to an accident. BMW’s drivers discovered a serious design flaw in the V12 LM, complaining about violent drive train vibrations. Both cars were pulled out of the race for safety reasons. Only Nissan and Porsche’s cars were making their rounds without a hitch.
With most of the fastest cars in the field eliminated, the LMP1-98 looked set to compete for a high placed finish. Unfortunately the LMP1-98 proved not to be immune to the grueling nature of the 1998 event. After completing only 107 laps the leading #7 machine was forced to retire due to electrical issues.
With #7 out only the sister car was left to defend the team's honor. Again Joest Racing would suffer disappointment. After 218 laps the car lost control and spun into the wall. The impact had torn off substantial body mountings on the carbon fiber monocoque chassis. With nothing to attach bodywork to, the damage was too severe for the car to continue.
With chassis WSC-001's winning streak at Le Mans now over it was shipped to Road Atlanta, USA. There the car would take part in the first ever Petit Le Mans, which was meant to usher in the American Le Mans Series.
Driven by Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and 911 GT1 driver Jörg Muller (GER), the car qualified 3rd behind the #26 911 GT1-98 of Allan McNish (GB), Yannick Dalmas, Uwe Alzen (GER) and the #27 Doran Ferrari 333 SP of Didier Theys (BEL), Fredy Lienhard (CH) and Mauro Baldi (ITA).
During the 10 hour race the #26 Porsche 911 GT1-98 drop out with a spectacular backflip on lap 235. As a result the LMP1-98 inherited second place and started chasing down the #7 Doyle-Risi Ferrari 333 SP of Eric van de Poele (BEL), Wayne Taylor (ZA) and Emmanuel Collard (FRA). The chase was in vain however, and the seasoned chassis finished its last race in 2nd place.
The Porsche LMP1-98 was a mutant lost boy originally rejected by its parent. Through hard work and amazing successes it was taken back in the family, at which point the success stopped. The chassis had lived three very different lives as a Jaguar, TWR and a Porsche. It won the 1991 World Sportscar Championship and Le Mans two years in a row. But somehow, being branded a Porsche was its immediate downfall.