Porsche may be gearing up for a run at Formula 1
Monday, November 13, 2017
For the better part of a century, Porsche has been the world's most successful manufacturer of race cars. From the top step of Le Mans to countless local tracks, Porsche wins races and championships — and will continue to for years to come.
But when you think of a winning Porsche race car, what comes to mind might be a car like the timeless 917K that gave Porsche its first Le Mans win in 1970, the 956/962s that dominated the beloved Group C era of endurance racing, or even the modern-day 919 Hybrid that on Nov. 5 gave Porsche its most recent world championship in Shanghai.
Unlike production car rivals like Mercedes-Benz and McLaren, Porsche hasn't had its greatest triumphs of race car building or engineering in a Formula 1 or IndyCar-style machine. However, Porsche does have a history of competing in open-wheel, single-seater racing at the highest levels.
With Porsche entering Formula E — a global, all-electric, open-wheel series starting in 2019 — and rumors flying about Porsche engines coming to Formula 1 when supplier regulations change for the 2021 season, now is an interesting and apt time to look back at Porsche's history in top-level single-seaters.
It may surprise even Porsche motorsport lovers to learn that a works Porsche team was a Formula 1 winner as a constructor, albeit only for a single Grand Prix.
That one win came in the 1962 French Grand Prix at the now-defunct Rouen-Les-Essarts street circuit in northern France, in a Porsche 804 piloted by American driver Dan Gurney. However, the works team left the sport after that season, even though some privateer entries continued to enter Porsches into Formula 1 races later in the 1960s.
Porsche made a return to the F1 grid in 1983 as an engine supplier to the McLaren F1 team — albeit with a catch. The Techniques d'Avant-Garde (TAG) aviation and watchmaking conglomerate had the main branding on the engine, as a result of a partnership between TAG's Mansour Ojjeh (a McLaren investor), the McLaren team led by principal Ron Dennis and car designer John Barnard, and a Porsche engine-making team headed by Hans Mezger.
It was an extremely fruitful alliance for everyone involved, as TAG-Porsche engines powered World Driver's Championships for 1984 with Niki Lauda, and in 1985 and 1986 for Alain Prost. Additionally, McLaren took home World Constructor's Championships in '85 and '86.
Given that this was the same era of racing in which Porsche dominated endurance racing with the 956/962's flat-six, 2.65-liter engine capable of speeds up to 235 mph on the longest straights, the TAG-Porsche F1 powerplants had an interesting twist to their success. In the back of the McLarens were V-6, 1.5-liter engines that made their name on reliability and fuel economy, even as the rival BMW and Honda engines were capable of more power, greater turbo boost and faster lap times.
In particular, Prost's 1986 championship — won in the most dramatic of circumstances in the final laps of the season at the Australian Grand Prix — is regarded as an incredible triumph for upsetting the faster Williams-Hondas of Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet.
The bad and ugly
The McLaren-TAG-Porsche alliance evaporated after 1987 — a Formula 1 season in which those Williams-Hondas of Piquet and Mansell converted pace and power into dominance in the world championship.
Late that same year, Porsche began fielding chassis and engines in the CART IndyCar Series, despite a power struggle at Indy at the beginning of the decade. Legendary driver and four-time Indy 500 winner Al Unser was slow in the new Porsche IndyCar at the 1987 Laguna Seca CART race, and American Porsche sports car champion Al Holbert failed to qualify at the season finale in Miami.
Porsche abandoned the plan to use its own IndyCar chassis in 1988 and beyond, and instead used a chassis made by March with a Mezger-designed engine behind the driver. Teo Fabi, a former CART race winner and Formula 1 veteran, joined the Porsche team for 1988, grabbing eight top-10 finishes but no podiums and a bad result at the Indy 500. 1989 was the Porsche/Fabi combo's best, winning one race at Mid-Ohio en route to fourth in the championship.
The next year, however, things fell apart as CART banned a new carbon-fiber chassis March had been developing prior to the 1990 season. By the summer of 1990, the writing was on the wall for Porsche to leave IndyCar after a series of lackluster results and disappointing Indy 500s.
Porsche then went back to F1 for 1991, producing a 3.5-liter V-12 for the Footwork Arrows team, but the engine was both underpowered and overweight, and eventually abandoned by the team after six Grands Prix, none of which featured a car merely finishing a race. From then until the Formula E announcement in July of this year, Porsche has stayed out of top-level single-seater racing.
Now, the chances of a Footwork-like failure as Porsche comes back to open-wheel racing are extremely slim, especially when you consider the success of the recent Porsche LMP1 program that Formula E is effectively replacing. There's also the fact that Porsche will want to beat production car rivals like Jaguar, Mercedes and BMW — all of which now have Formula E programs.
However, the bigger budgets and entrenched players in Formula 1 may make immediate success less of a sure thing should Porsche take the plunge and go back into the sport for 2021.
That's why it's probably not surprising that further F1 rumors point to the possibility that Porsche could buy an existing strong F1 team, like Red Bull Racing. Mercedes, the current kings of the sport, went for a similar strategy when it re-entered the sport as a team for the 2010 season, buying the existing Brawn GP team that won the world title in 2009.
Even if Porsche decides not to head back to the world's most popular racing series in 2021, its Formula E program figures to give Stuttgart its most open-wheel success in a generation.
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