Dramatic Dissident - 2000 Porsche 9R3 LMP900
By the end of the 20th century, German sportscar manufacturer Porsche had grown to become the single most successful brand ever to compete at the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans. With tremendous machines like the record-setting 917, the ever-evolving 936, the brutal 935, the virtually unbeatable 956/962 siblings, their Dauer nephew and the shameful TWR-Jaguar/Porsche WSC-95 half-breed, Porsche had amassed 15 victories at the most famous endurance race of all.
Porsche’s image soared during this time, as their cars completely dominated the 1980’s and Group C. Different categories came and went, but the brand managed to win in almost every one of them. Spanning six categories, seven cars and 26 years, Porsche Le Mans career was the stuff of dreams. With this in mind, it was no wonder the company added a sixteenth Le Mans win with the 911 GT1-98 at the absolute pinnacle of the extreme GT1-era.
But Porsche’s joy was short-lived. The GT1 category had already been shelved for 1999, since the designs Toyota, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Panoz and Porsche had produced were in complete contradiction with the original intent of the category.
GT1 was meant for production-derived sportscars, not racing-derived production cars. [Toyota] upped the ante with the TS020 GT-One when it claimed the fuel tank could function as the mandatory luggage compartment, to which the FIA and ACO were forced to agree.
By this time it had become painfully clear that GT1 was getting out of hand, so the focus was shifted back to full-blown prototypes. As a result the 911 Gt1-98 had become obsolete, and Porsche was forced to think of something else.
Coincidentally, the company was already running a full prototype alongside their GT1-program. However, this LMP1-98 had a very questionable family tree. It was nothing more than a reworked version of the Jaguar-based WSC-95 which had won in 1996 and 1997. Porsche was unable to repeat the freak success of the original car despite the extensive redesign, and the car’s origins meant it the actual structure of the car dated back to 1991.
Evidently, simply running the LMP1-98 for another year just wouldn’t cut it. Mercedes-Benz, Panoz, Nissan, BMW, and newcomers Audi were all going to field brand new designs purpose-built for the new LMP regulations, while Toyota would simply carry-over the already blindingly quick TS020 GT-One into Grand Touring Prototype. Faced with this utterly titanic level of opposition, Porsche had to come up with something better.
In these troubled times, the Germans stoically stuck to what they knew best: the turbocharged Typ 935 flat six. The unit could trace its history back to all Le Mans winning Porsche’s since the 917, but continuous incremental improvement and different configurations had seen it remain as one of the most competitive engines available. Because of this impressive lineage, Porsche’s design team immediately started to draw an LMP-car around it.
The design work started immediately after the 911 GT1-98’s victory in June 1998. five months later, the plans were complete. Yet Porsche decided against building the car. The decision was due to speculation from Porsche Motorsport’s head of design, Dutchman Wiet Huidekoper. Going against all the company stood for, Huidekoper suggested the decades-old flat six was maybe not the best choice for the next Le Mans weapon.
Through his private business Motorsports Design Consultants, he had been contracted by Porsche to convert the ground-effect 962 into the flat-bottom Dauer 962 GT1 machine. Following the success of the Dauer, he was asked to collaborate on the 911 GT1 project from 1995, until he was hired as head designer of Porsche Motorsport in 1997.
Although controversial within Porsche, Huidekoper's statements did make a great deal of sense. To prove his case, he compared the flat six to a conventional large capacity V8. Under the new rules both engines would be allowed to make around the same horsepower and torque, but the V8 would be much lighter, and its layout would enable it to be mounted as an integral part of the chassis, thereby improving rigidity.
Huidekoper had made his point, and with the fierce competition from various high-paying factory entries fresh in their minds, Porsche’s management canned the flat-six LMP just three days after Wiet Huidekoper made his comments. That wasn’t the end of it though, as Porsche invited him back in March 1999. Mindful of his opinion of the flat six, Porsche showed Huidekoper the fully operational prototype of a 3.5L Formula One V10.
The engine was the result of an ill-advised and ill-fated 1991 jump into the 3.5L F1-era with Footwork, formerly known as Arrows. Porsche’s initial contribution to that project had been the shockingly bad 3512 V12. This enormous lump of uselessness was nothing more than two old TAG-Porsche turbo V6’s stripped of their turbines and stuck together to form a gigantic block of disappointment.
Overweight, underpowered and unreliable, the engine was so horrible Footwork dropped it and the Porsche-contract mid-season in favor of customer Ford DFRengines. Unfortunately for the Germans, Footwork had cancelled their agreement just as they were designing a true F1 engine to replace the 3512 horror show for 1993. With pneumatic valve-gear and a 3.5L V10 configuration, it followed the much more successful recipe of Renault’s engine program.
Not content on simply giving up because of the objections of some silly F1-team, Porsche decided to finish the V10 even without a car to race it in. Relegated to a few dyno tests with admittedly promising results, the engine never moved an inch under its own power. With no direct purpose, the engine sat waiting in a dark corner of the Porsche Motorsport workshop, until Wiet Huidekoper laid eyes on it six years later.
Despite being a mothballed project, the F1 V10 still held a ton of potential. As it was a Formula One design, it was slightly ahead of endurance technology, which meant its age wasn’t really a factor. By any means it was lightyears ahead of the old flat six.
More importantly, it had an answer to all the problems Huidekoper had mentioned. It was much lighter than the flat six, had the potential for the same amount of power and could be mounted as a stressed member, which made the overall package much stiffer.
In an effort to teach the frantic F1-style engine some manners, it was stretched out to 5.0L and stripped of its pneumatic valve system. Since the FIA mandated intake restrictors, the engine would never operate near its full capacity anyway, so the pneumatic system had become redundant. Because of this, Porsche decided to abandon it in favor of a simpler, easier to maintain and more reliable conventional system.
Even though the engine had already been stretched from 3.5 to 5.0L, its design still permitted more, which saw Porsche eventually settle on a 5.5L maximum capacity. A six-speed sequential transmission took care of the maximum allowable 600 horsepower. Minimum weight was set at 900 kg (1984) lbs, which the 9R3 easily met.
Aerodynamically, the car took much of its design from the original 1999 flat-six machine. This resulted in a boxy and largely unremarkable design to the naked eye. As per the regulations, the car was a “two-seater”, with minimal room left to the left of the driver to simulate a passenger seat.
This was principally done to differentiate Le Mans Prototypes from single-seater racers in the eyes of the FIA. In the interest of weight distribution, the driver was situated on the right, as Le Mans’ Circuit de La Sarthe featured more corners turning to the right than to the left. With more weight on the inside of the corner, the car would be better balanced and able to attain higher speeds.
The project was going along swimmingly, and the 9R3 looked like a true contender for the 2000 endurance season. Yet its chance at defending the title would be taken from it before it was ever completed. Like many cars before it, the Porsche had been a victim of dirty back-door politics.
At the time, Porsche had been struggling to keep its road car business afloat. Sales had been disappointing, and the company found itself teetering on the edge for most of the 1990’s. It was clear the brand needed something beyond the ubiquitous 911. The solution to this problem was found with former collaborators Volkswagen.
The two firms had previously worked together on the 914, 924 and the mad Audi RS2, but this time VW was in the better position to negotiate. Smelling blood, the huge conglomerate pinched Porsche for the rights to jointly produce an SUV, a type of vehicle that was becoming remarkably popular at the time.
VW knew Porsche needed the sales potential of such a car, so it struck a terrible restrictive and devastating deal. As VW-subsidiary Audi had only joined the sport the year prior, VW did not wish to have a formidable force such a Porsche to stand in their way to total domination.
With this in mind, VW closed the deal for the SUV-project under one strict condition: Porsche was to stop all development on their LMP project, and was forbidden from competing at Le Mans for a further decade. Because they had literally nowhere else to go, Porsche accepted the terms of the deal.
During these negotiations however, the 9R3 was still being completed. In spite of its cancellation, the company decided to complete the nearly-finished car and subject it to a few short tests to ascertain its potential. The 9R3 was subsequently tested by veteran Bob Wollek (FRA) and 1998 Le Mans winner Allan McNish (GB), who both reported very positive findings. Their efforts were of course all in vain, as the project had already been condemned to a silent life in total secrecy.
The Porsche 9R3 was the logical follow-up to the success of the 911 GT1-98. With GT1 banned and new regulations favoring true prototypes again, Porsche had to go back to the drawing board. Because of the brash statements of Porsche Motorsport’s head designer, the company did something totally unexpected: it abandoned a proven engine concept in favor of something new.
Sadly the cancelled F1-engine the eventually decided on would prove to be of little use despite its massive potential, as a high-stakes political jousting game between Porsche and Volkswagen killed the 9R3 before it could turn a wheel in anger. Porsche’s desire to stay alive was much bigger than its desire to win, which saw their most innovative prototype in two decades sacrificed in favor of a thinly veiled VW SUV-clone.
In the end it helped the company as we know it to survive, but the unexplored potential of the 9R3 still pains motorsport enthusiasts and engineers alike to this day. Luckily the heart and soul of the project later found its way into the savage Carrera GT supercar, and its basic architecture was used for the Le Mans-winning RS Spyder LMP2, which in turn lent its engine to the innovative 918 Spyder.