OCT 09th 2015

Thank Frankel it's Friday ‑ Porsche's lesson in lightness

There are those who will tell you straight-faced that the current crisis engulfing VW is some kind of terrible revenge wreaked upon the company by Ferdinand Piech, its autocratic ousted former boss. You may remember he went head to head with Martin Winterkorn in a ‘him or me’ boardroom battle and many, including me, were stunned to see Winterkorn stay and Piech leave. If Piech had ever lost a battle before, I was unaware of it. But now Winterkorn has been fired and faces possible prosecution over what he might have known and some think Piech blew the whistle. For the avoidance of doubt, I don’t. But thinking of Piech makes me think also of another probably rather less complicated era of his life when he passed the time designing Porsche racing cars.

Of course his masterpiece was the 917. When I used to edit MotorSport magazine during the back end of the last century, I organised a poll of every famous and influential motor-racing authority I could find, to identify the world’s greatest racing car. Even Bernie chipped in. And the 917 beat them all, even the F1 machines.

This is not about that car, but another Piech creation: less well known, far less successful but to me at least, even more extraordinary.

Back in the late 1960s, hillclimbing was not the niche sport it is today. The top teams in the world, by which I mean Porsche and Ferrari, made dedicated hillclimb cars, created factory teams around them, and employed specialist drivers to get the most out of them. These tiny machines, designed to run for no more than a few minutes at a time, were some of the most extreme and imaginatively engineered competition cars ever created. And none more so than Prof Piech’s Porsche 909 Bergspyder.

Before the Bergspyder’s creation Porsche was already the dominant force on the hillclimbing circuit, and in Gerhard Mitter it had probably the best hillclimber of his generation. He’d won back to back titles in 1966 and ’67 in the Porsche 910 but Ferrari had announced it would field an all new car, the 212E Montagna, for 1968 and Piech felt the need to respond.

So he commissioned the Bergspyder, a monument in automotive form to one man’s obsession with weight reduction. By comparison, Colin Chapman’s efforts in this area appear almost half-hearted.

Where to begin? The car needed to be lighter than light because its 2-litre flat-8 engine, derived from Porsche’s old 1962 Formula 1 unit was never going to be as powerful as Ferrari’s V12. So the Bergspyder was built up around a spidery lattice of aluminium – not steel – tubing, which was clothed in polyester bodywork that was in places less than 1mm thick.  The engine was placed in the middle of a car so short that the front anti-roll bar passed above the driver’s thighs. The front crumple zone was his ankles.

Then Piech started wheeling out the expensive stuff. The springs were made from titanium because it’s damn near as strong as steel but half the weight. The wiring loom? Silver thread, because pound for pound it does the job better than copper. Throwing away the alternator was an easy choice because even a tiny battery could generate enough sparks for one run up a hill, but the fuel pump? How’d you do without one of those? Piech’s solution was to put the fuel in a rubber bag and encase that bag in a titanium shell filled with pressurised nitrogen, forcing the fuel through to the engine. And no, I am not kidding.

But I think it is the brakes that best illustrate just how far Piech was prepared to go in his quest. He forged the Bergspyder’s discs from beryllium. On most levels it makes a great deal of sense: beryllium is very strong, unbelievably light and more than capable of dealing with the thermal demands of a very light car which already had gravity to help slow it down. Yes it was, and remains, a hideously expensive material – a single disc would cost tens of thousands of pounds today – but when did mere expense ever stop a man like Piech getting his mitts on the material he needed? No, the only real drawback with beryllium is that it kills you. Like other metals used as braking materials, beryllium discs give off dust under heavy use. Unlike other metals, however, if you are exposed to sufficient quantities of beryllium dust, it can have life-compromising, or even life-terminating, pulmonary consequences. Which is why it now labelled as a category one carcinogen, alongside other such charming substances as asbestos, benzene, mustard gas and plutonium…

The result was a car that tipped the scales at 385kg, and there are human beings that weigh more than that. But it was, er, a trifle undeveloped. Mitter drove it once in practice and got straight back into his 910, leaving the Bergspyder to be driven by Rolf Stommelen, who described it as “lethal” at high speed. He drove it twice, coming third and second in events won my Mitter in the slower but more stable 910. As for the dreaded Ferrari, it never showed up, allowing Mitter to claim his third consecutive hillclimb championship.

And that was that. By 1969 Piech had his hands rather full with the 917 programme so Porsche withdrew from hillclimbing and the Bergspyder never competed again. Which is a shame for many reasons, not the least of which was that the Ferrari 212E Montagna did finally make its entrance, entering nine of the ten championship rounds and, with Peter Schetty driving, winning every damn one of them. Had he competed against Mitter or Stommelen in a fully developed Bergspyder the result could have been one of greatest Porsche/Ferrari battles of all time, played out not on concrete race tracks but across the majestic mountains of Europe.

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