Who isn’t a sucker for an underdog? Nothing beats the thrill of watching a David throw punches at a Goliath, especially when he lands a few or even wins the fight. The McLaren F1 at Le Mans in 1995, Alonso and Alpine holding back Hamilton and Mercedes in Hungary in 2021, Penske and Porsche LMP2 showing Audi’s all-conquering LMP1 R8s a clean pair of heels at the Sebring 12 hours in 2008 to take the overall win. That winning Porsche RS Spyder Evo, driven in period by Romain Dumas, Timo Bernhard and Emmanuel Collard, was here with us at the 2021 Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard on a roster of cars representing the proudest moments of Penske’s decades-long motorsport enterprise.
How the RS Spyder conquered Sebring
Just what was the secret sauce that made the RS Spyder so great and that race such a success? What makes it one of the most memorable LMP cars overall? Will the Porsche Penske legacy pick up with the new LMdH program where this left off? We met with Vance Welker, a Chief Mechanic at Penske since 2000, who was with this Sebring-winning car in period, to find out.
“This car, we were always running 1-2 in our class,” Welker says. “There were times depending on the track and situation where we could lead overall. It was an underdog at Sebring being a P2 car but it had the right balance of performance and downforce. Pit strategy also played an enormous role in it, in terms of how fast we could fill up with fuel and get the tyres swapped. There was a bit of a loophole in the fuelling. The Audis were monsters. Anything with a straightaway, they were gobbling us up. But these cars could hold their own in the twisties.”
“I love this car in this rendition in terms of the bodywork,” he continues, as we wander around the car. “The first version was very boxy, very typical LMP. Then this new more rounded bodywork came along to create a huge amount of downforce and look great in the process. It was good when it started but it got so much better. We ran this DHL livery for the period we ran the Spyders, ’06 to ‘09. It did also run at Petit Le Mans in 2005 and won its class.
“I was talking to Romain Dumas yesterday. It was interesting. We hadn’t talked in a long time. He said ‘this is still the car that I love to drive. It was just so easy, the perfect car with the best balance and feel, even compared to the new stuff.’ If it’s a car a driver likes then that’s half the battle.”
This car and that race are points of such pride in the outfit’s storied history, Roger ‘The Captain’ Penske picked the winning RS Spyder as his drive for the Hill over the course of the Festival weekend. Ever the thorough numbers man, we’re told he texted Romain Dumas to get his record time up the Hill, so he could practice and try to beat it on the sim before flying over...
“Roger is here to drive the car,” he follows. “Obviously, he wasn’t absolutely pushing it. I know before he came he texted Romain to find out his record up the Hill. He then went on the sim to practice and try and beat Romain’s time. I think he got 41 seconds in the end. In the real thing, he took it easy at first but is getting more used to it as he goes. He’s ecstatic to be here. He’s really enjoying the atmosphere of the event and being with the Duke.”
To us, the RS Spyder really is one of the most distinctive and recognisable cars from an era of cars that the casual observer might dismiss as somewhat anonymous. That DHL red and yellow livery is such a head-turner and with the Evo bodywork, it’s so recognisably a Porsche. If ever there was an identity crisis in the LMP era, Porsche always seemed to be able to bring some individuality to the grid, from the RS Spyder to the 919 Hybrid and hopefully in the future, the LMdH cars.
Yes, Penske is still very much at the forefront of motorsport’s present and future. In 2023, it’ll be teaming up with Porsche to run its new LMdH cars, which means the RS Spyder won’t be the last time Penske has run LMP2-based Porsches. Will we see a return of the red and yellow colours? Our fingers are crossed.
“This car was totally designed and built by Porsche but Penske-run. The new LMdH stuff, there are a number of vendors, including Multimatic for the chassis, but again run by Penske. I will be involved in the Porsche DH, bringing the experience and knowledge from the Spyder program and beyond. The process and execution will carry over.
“I can’t wait to see the next rendition of what comes out. The competition will be great. To see what everyone brings to the table is going to be so interesting. The paddocks are gonna be full.”
As for the Spyder, well as is evident given it was The Captain’s wheels of choice throughout the Festival of Speed weekend, it’s well established as a legend, for both Penske and Porsche. Its work is done. What made it so great? It’s a boring answer but the whole really did outweigh the sum of its parts. It was just a honey, that was as sweet to race as it was to look at, all while being run by as crack a squad as you could hope to find. Of course it was. Because for Penske, whether running someone else’s car or building one for himself, nothing but the best would do.
Photography by James Lynch, Jayson Fong, Nick Dungan and Tom Shaxson.
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