How does one possibly compartmentalise almost a century of Porsche motorsport masterpieces to a list of just ten? Well, here we go…
The 10 best racing Porsches of all time
Porsche 550 Spyder
As a small bore sportscar, the 356 had won friends through its sheer reliability. Never particularly fast, and less than easy to drive, it astounded by invariably being right up there at the finish. People soon recognised Porsche punched above its bore and stroke, emphatically so, the longer and tougher the challenge.
Having ‘dabbled’ in motorsport in the 1930s, for the first race car to bear his name, Herr Porsche reverted to a familiar layout – the one he’d pioneered with Auto Union. Unlike the ‘People’s Car’-based 356, the 550 Spyder’s motor was slotted into a ladder frame ahead of the rear axle, itself attached via trailing arms and swing axles. Advanced only in a pre-war sense, its lower centre of gravity at least ensured it handled way better than a 356.
The marque’s early reputation for reliability was maintained via the complex four-cylinder, four-cam boxer motor and a sublime four-speed transmission featuring Porsche’s patented synchromesh. With 111PS in a tightly wrapped alloy body, its power-to-weight-ratio touched upon the then magical 200PS/tonne for a 1.5-litre racer. It wasn’t terribly fast and it didn’t handle flawlessly, but it was sufficiently fast and agile enough. Most importantly it rarely broke down.
Launched in 1953, it won its first ever race – suitably held at the challenging Nürburgring – and went on to record class victories at Le Mans and what is often described as the world’s most arduous race, Mexico’s La Carrera Panamericana.
It was special, not because it was the first pure race car to bear the Porsche name, rather because the completeness of its design set new standards. It wasn’t jewel-like, in the way of contemporary Italians, rather it was special because it was a thoroughly engineered tool from tip to tail – meaning a privateer could use and abuse with abandon an ocean away from the factory. It was special, too, because its layout pre-dated those clever but fragile small-bore, bitsas built in Surbiton and Tottenham. It also revealed Porsche’s now legendary, dogged determination and drive to continually develop and improve performance.
Porsche’s ethos delivered ever mounting success through 1954 to 1957, with wins in the 1.5-litre class at the 1,000 km Buenos Aires, the Mille Miglia, Le Mans and the Carrera. Though outwardly similar, the 550A received a lighter, stiffer spaceframe chassis allowing for a yet lighter body. Now packing 137PS, Porsche secured its first overall win in a major sportscar racing event at the 1956 Targa Florio. By this time, it was clear nothing in its class could touch the agile 550 and even the more powerful competition was no longer safe!
With the 550 and its mid-engined layout, Porsche formed the foundations for the next five years of development in the 718 and many Le Mans winning vehicles like the 917 and 956.
Porsche 718 RSK
Very few race cars have been conceived to double as a single-seat ‘formula’ car and as a sportscar. As far as I am aware, only one can boast of success in both guises – and that’s the Porsche 718 RSK. It sounds like a fool’s errand, but when in ’57 the FIA allowed F2 cars to run with all-enveloping bodywork it made sense!
Derived from the spaceframe 550A it possessed the same 1.5-litre quad-cam Fuhrmann-designed motor, now putting out 144PS. Initially, to pass scrutineering in F2 the mechanics merely removed the spare seat and wheel. Three works' cars raced in that year’s German F2 race. Meanwhile, it raced at Le Mans, but crashed out.
For ’58 the RSK Mittellenker or centre-steer emerged for F2. Visually it was little different from the sports racer, the seat, shifter and pedals being centralised and the cockpit fitted with a large fairing. That the handbrake remained dead centre – between the driver’s legs –was off-putting for some, especially in the days before any sort of seat belt. Either way the sleek Mittellenker – surely one of Porsche’s prettiest creations – was fast enough for Jean Behra to take victory in the F2 race at Rheims and Masten Gregory to win the F2 class at the Avus GP, both ultra-fast circuits. It’s straight-line speed and utter reliability also enabled Behra to scoop class victory at Le Mans. Moreover, the RSKs finished 3rd and 4th overall, mixing it with the ultimate sports racers of the day from Ferrari and Aston Martin, powered by engines twice the 718’s capacity.
Thus, by the end of ’58 the dual-purpose concept looked like a stroke of genius, but the results just kept coming. For ’59 the 718/2, the F2 car, featured a traditional, slender cigar-shaped single-seat body and even started the Monaco GP. Meanwhile Edgar Barth blitzed to overall victory on his RSK in the Targa Florio.
Entering its fourth season, another victory in the Sicilian classic followed at the hands of Jo Bonnier and Hans Herrmann. Now christened the RS60 it possessed an enlarged 1.6-litre motor and double wishbones and coilovers at the rear. Development continued, but further victories were restricted to the European hillclimb championship – the car won the championship from ’58 through ‘62. A similar picture emerged in America, with the 718 clinching SCCA titles from ’58 through '63, making this the most successful racing Porsche.
The 904 is perhaps the best-looking Porsche race car ever made. Introduced in 1963, it signalled the beginning of a long line of ‘plastic’ bodied Porsche racers and sparked a program of development that would eventually culminate in the 917. Tipping the scales at a diminutive 655kg, the extremely lightweight 904 could accelerate to 60mph in less than six seconds while its low drag coefficient of 0.34 helped it top out at 160mph. Originally intended to be powered by flat-six from the upcoming 911, hampered development meant it actually received uprated version of the all-familiar 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine. Whilst still complicated to build and assemble, the engine remained invincible, having proved itself across Porsche’s successful racing career thus far.
What made the 904 so special was its sheer versatility. It secured overall victory in the notorious Targa Florio, along with many class victories in endurance racing, including at Le Mans. However, its second-place finish in the snow covered 1965 Monte Carlo Rally served to really underline the breadth of its talents.
If the little four-cylinder isn’t enough, you’ll be happy to know that two of the works 904s were upgraded with a 2.0-litre eight-cylinder engine from their Formula 1 efforts – 904/8s –and later in ’74 the 911’s flat-six finally made its appearance in the 904/6.
Of course, the iconic flat-12, Le Mans-winner (fictional or otherwise) had to be included. Most famous in its 917K form in Gulf colours – for obvious reasons – the Porsche 917 was developed into multiple butt-kicking variants over the years. The beautifully proportioned Langheck and the experimental low-drag Pink Pig 917/20 did much to push the boundaries of knowledge in aerodynamics. The ultimate 917 though? It would have to be the mega-powerful 917/30 that proved so successful in the American Championships they were termed "Can-Am killers". Anyone who attended the 77th Members’ Meeting would understand how compelling these cars are in person!
Porsche 911 Carrera RSR Turbo
C’mon, there couldn’t not be a 911 on this list. As tempting as it was to add the legendary 935 to this list it is probably best to go back to its genesis and the beginning of Porsche’s turbocharged story. Forced induction had proven the key to Porsche’s domination in the unlimited world of Can-Am in the early ‘70s and so, logically, Porsche turned to turbocharging a 911 for competition. European competition rules however were more restrictive than those in the US. To enter a turbocharged car into the 1974 3.0-litre category Porsche were forced to comply with the equivalency factor of 1.4, effectively limiting turbo cars’ displacement to 2.1-litres. The result? The muscular, be-winged 1974 2.1-litre 911 Carrera RSR Turbo. This car spearhead Porsche’s turbo era and interestingly it was the first turbocharged car to compete at Le Mans.
Weighing in at just 820kg and punching out 507PS at red line the Carrera RSR Turbo was able to reach 186mph on the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans. The #22 Martini-liveried Carrera RSR Turbo of Gijs van Lennep and Herbert Müller, famously finished in second place overall in the face of losing fifth gear at around the 18-hour mark. Porsche’s successful foray with the turbo 911 in 1974 gave them the basis to develop the dominant 935 for Group 5 regulations by 1976. Not only was the Carrera RSR Turbo one of the most dramatic-911s ever created, it laid the foundations for years of success in motorsport for the marque.
Porsche 924 Carrera GTP
Far from a ‘baby’ Porsche, the 924 Carrera GT was the pinnacle of the front-engined, transaxle project tipped as the replacement for the crusty, rear-engined, flat-six 911 under the Ernst Fuhrmann chairmanship. Already known for its handling and reliability, this über-924 was widened and lightened substantially, whilst increased turbo-pressure and compression gave a boost up to 213PS. It came complete with a deliciously aggressive hood scoop and a tasty flared body kit.
Fuhrmann saw this as the homologation base upon which a Le Mans-winning successor to the 934/935 could be built. Hence, in 1980 three race variants – 924 Carrera GTRs – were fielded at Le Mans, replacing the usual works 934/935 entries. These were even lighter and wider than the road-going car, with more aggressive performance upgrades: kicking out up to 324PS and capable of reaching 180mph plus! Having ultimately failed to build the 400 road-going Carrera GTs for homologation into Group 4, the GTRs ran in the Grand Touring Prototype Class of purpose-built race cars. Despite this, they performed admirably in a wet race, outlasting and outclassing more powerful cars, with one finishing 6th overall and 3rd in class! Whilst the 924 race cars were entered again in 1981 and 1982 with some success, Porsche’s motorsport focus had shifted towards the Group C class. Peter Schutz’ replacement of Fuhrmann in early ’81 meant development of the 911 resumed and consequently the 924 was demoted back to entry-level, road-going Pork. Still, a tip of the hat to a Porsche that punched way above its weight in competition.
Quite simply the ultimate Le Mans car. The 956 achieved four overall wins on the trot (’82-’85) and even remained competitive under its successor – the 962 – which grabbed another two successive victories. To top that off, a young Stefan Bellof solidified the 956’s place in history by setting a Nürburgring Nordschleife record that stood for 25 years until it was beaten… by a Porsche.
A replacement for the 936 in the new Group C class, Porsche’s 956 featured a number of design firsts for the company. An all-aluminium monocoque reduced weight to around 800kg whilst a double-clutch transmission – later developed for use in their road cars – was also introduced. The 956 was the first Porsche to utilise ground effect aerodynamics resulting in levels downforce up to three times that of its spiritual father, the 917. Its legacy lived on in the 962, which was effectively a lengthened 956 with a new engine. Campaigned by Porsche and its customers, the 962 won a combined 21 constructors titles in a decade, remaining competitive in modified form well past the end of Group C. The fastest ever lap of Le Mans was retained by a 962C and Hans-Joachim Stuck for 35 years! I rest my case – a deserved top 10 racing Porsche nominee.
What started as a project to develop a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system ended up with two outright Paris-Dakar Rally wins. Dubbed the Porsche-Steuer Kupplung (PSK), the sophisticated system varied the front/rear torque split ratio according to road conditions. First trialled in the 911SC or “953” at Dakar in 1984, Porsche shocked the world – as much as themselves – earning an overall win on their debut. Now tried and tested, the AWD system was repurposed for Group B and the 959 project was born.
A hiccup with homologation requirements meant that in 1985 three under-powered 911 Carrera 3.2-litre 959s debuted but retired. By 1986, two 959s fitted with turbocharged 2.8-litre engines derived from the 956/962s crossed the line 1st and 2nd. Another feather in Porsche’s hat and another trophy for the already bulging cabinet.
Though it was originally built for Group B, by the time the 959 was ready for competition, the class was made redundant by new rules. Regardless, the 959 was a Dakar victor and a hypercar of its day. Very cool. I mean, one can barely imagine Porsche developing a works GT2 RS Dakar car today…
Oh, and the fancy PSK all-wheel-drive developed for the 959 has also been realised for the road in every 911 Turbo model since the 993. How’s that for a legacy?
This rarely-raced WSC-95 was a mutant Porsche. Indeed, the birth of this two-time Le Mans-winner came after the DNA of a topless XJR-14 was spliced with a bulletproof Porsche 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged flat-six, under the supervision of Tom Walkinshaw Racing and Porsche engineers.
Originally destined to dominate the American Championships, rule changes implemented by IMSA (America’s FIA) in the year of its intended debut rendered the car ineligible. With Porsche’s GT1 well in development for the factory team’s European efforts, the stillborn WSC-95 was flushed. That is, until a certain former Porsche factory driver – Reinhold Joest –offered to take up the project to challenge Le Mans in 1996. A deal was struck where Joest could run the WSC-95 if he paid Porsche to equip it to LMP1 specification. Indeed, so confident were Porsche, they offered for Joest to keep the car should he add another Le Mans victory to his two from ‘84 and '85. Surely a prudent method of cashing in on a failed endeavour by Porsche? It proved an ill-judged move. Their very own Porsche GT1 would struggle against the might of its bastard sibling in competition.
Two WSC-95s lined up for La Sarthe in 1996, qualifying pole and seventh position alongside Porsche’s factory GT1s in second and forth. The race saw the pair of WSC-95 sit at 1-2 for most of the 24 Hours with one dropping out in the final laps. Still, an overall win at Le Mans came for Joest, over a lap ahead of the factory Porsche teams. It felt good. So good, that Joest decided to return with the WSC-95 to Le Mans in ’97 for a repeat. Another pole position came in the face of renewed opposition from the updated Porsche GT1 Evos, longtail McLaren F1 GTRs and Nissan’s new factory R390 GT1s. The race proved not only the reliability of the WSC-95, but also then-rookie Dane Tom Kristensen, who set a handful of fastest laps against ailing factory Nissan and Porsche cars. Joest’s second consecutive Le Mans win with the TWR-Porsche WSC-95 proved to Porsche factory that the car’s success wasn’t a freak occurrence and that they would gain more by co-opting it into their stable. By 1998, Porsche surrendered and fully backed Joest Racing as a factory entry with the WSC-95 as the basis for the Porsche LMP1-98… how the tables turned.
From shelved chassis to failed project car to multiple Le Mans winner. It even took on the best Porsche’s factory team had to offer for two years running. While only part-Porsche, the WSC-95 takes a deserved place in Porsche’s racing history books.
Porsche 919 Hybrid
The Porsche 919 Hybrid enjoyed three consecutive Le Mans victories and three World Endurance Championship titles on the trot between 2015 and 2017. A true endurance dominator whose performance were testament to the world class driver line-up and Porsche’s technical expertise. It unequivocally proves its worth, and deserves a spot on this list.
Moreover, the gloves came off in 2018, with the unveiling of the ultimate, unrestricted Porsche 919, dubbed the ‘Evo’. Unrestrained by FIA regulation, it broke the lap record at Spa, with a lap time of 1 minute 41.77 seconds, beating the previous record set by Lewis Hamilton pedalling his Mercedes F1 car in 2017. For reference, this was a time 12 seconds faster than the standard 919’s qualifying time the previous year. Footage of the 919 Evo’s Nürburgring Nordschleife record lap is enough to melt the brain. The speed at which Timo Bernhard can maintain through fast corners is almost more than a normal mind can comprehend, whilst the acceleration out of slow corners seems closer in sensation to a land-locked space ship than a race car. The mind-bending record was set at 5 minutes and 19.546 seconds, beating Bellof’s previous Porsche 956 record by almost a minute! By all means, an outstanding achievement. Stephen Mitas, Chief Race Engineer for Porsche’s LMP1 project, has admitted that despite the 919’s successes in competition it could never show its true abilities and that even the Evo was limited by sheer resource needed.
Is the Porsche 919 the pinnacle of the internal combustion engine era? The final hurrah? Who is to say? What is certain, is that it will go down in the annals of motorsport history as one of the most technically advanced of its era with a bulging trophy cabinet and lap records to show for it.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
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