We associate many things with the word Porsche – chief among them engines where luggage compartments should be, vast rear wings and durability – but one of them is not informality. The brand-organisation of Stuttgart’s finest is one of order and regimentation: all dealerships are one of four designs, everything is done according to a manual. Done the right way.
You have this in mind when a very kind man you’ve met just ten minutes earlier drops you off at the Bahrain International Circuit, so you can spend some time around the WEC Porsche LMP1 team as they begin an intensive five-day test of the 2015 919 Hybrid. I expect security guards, fussing, secrecy and formality. As we breeze past the first security guard who merely waves at the Saudi registered 997 GT3 RS, I assume there must be some inner-gated area to keep the riff-raff away, but there isn’t. We mooch straight into a paddock area that looks something like Silverstone by Four Seasons and park where the density of Porsche street cars seems unusually high.
I jump out, grin at the disappearing burble of Akrapovic GT3 RS exhaust and text the Porsche PR person. She wanders out and offers me a drink. This is unnerving. I have been here more than three minutes and no-one has taken me aside to tell me the rules, laws and things I will most probably get wrong. Instead we grab a cool Cola and Heike, the cigarillo smoking PR lady natters about the test and then, after several minutes, mentions that I will not be allowed to photograph the new 919 in any state of nakedness. I wait for this order to usher forth the usual flurry of other rules and regulation, but instead Team boss Andreas Seidl wanders over looking far too young and stress-free to be running a major motorsport team.
The Porsche LMP1 unit is the calmest, most relaxed, most accessible race team I’ve encountered.
‘We started from nothing, and this was a big challenge but it also meant we could make the team just as we wanted it – the people, the processes.’
Seidl himself embodies this new way of thinking for Porsche coming from a long period with BMW in both F1 and DTM. The company has traditionally run its motorsports projects from the same buildings, using the same people at its Weissach R&D facility, but the enormity of the LMP1 challenge forced a change in direction.
‘We still recruited heavily from within Weissach, around forty percent of the team came from there, but we needed new people, people who were hungry to go and win. You need that motivation if you’re going to keep people motivated for a full five-day test like this.’
He then strolls with me around a garage with no sneaky cordoned-off areas or covering screens.
‘This is exactly the same lay-out as a race weekend. We must have identical systems here as for a race weekend because that’s the only way we can test ourselves under pressure.’
There’s the usual banks of data screens and Penfold-noses squished up against them. The 2015 919 is circulating as we speak, its every minute movement being scrutinised by 25 data acquisition engineers who then feed all information to two primary data engineers, who then feed a summary of those data to the race engineer, who is the only person allowed to speak to the driver. Siedl defined the process and his body language suggests he both likes it and is proud of it.
‘Last year we were very conservative with our strategies,’ he says. ‘In fact we didn’t have many options because we had to focus on the basics – in many ways this was a good thing because we didn’t become distracted, but for this year we can push harder with the race strategies.’
Marc Lieb completes a scheduled pit-stop as we wander out of the garage and Siedl has to peel away to do some grown up work, then along comes Alex Hitzinger, the Technical Director for the 919 Hybrid project. As a man who began his career at Toyota’s World Rally Team in the late ’90s, resisting the temptation to talk Sainz and rear-glass strength is difficult. When he says the 20,000rpm Cosworth V8 was ‘his project’ I resist the urge to hug him.
Hitzinger is the archetypal motorsport engineer in that he is the master of understatement. I ask him how similar the car is to last year’s 919 ‘It’s really an evolution for 2015,’ he says with the vague suggestion that he wishes it was more radical. So how many components have been carried over? He shrugs a little as he ponders: ‘Maybe some components on the rear brakes.’
I stammer something along the lines of ‘You mean it’s an evolution but completely new?’ and he coolly nods. ‘The concept is an evolution, but we have developed every aspect of the car. Last year we were a little over weight, this year we will be on the minimum.’
And when he says everything is new, he means it. The carbon tub, the suspension components, the transmission, the motor – in fact for this test the main carry-over parts are the 2014 spec tyres. To me it seems curious that the car is still called a 919 and looks so similar, the obvious counter-argument being that a 917 from 1970 didn’t share much with its 1972 offspring.
Lieb is out of the car now, replaced by Force India driver Nico Hulkenberg who, minutes earlier, was very keen to know just how firm the ride on his new company 991 GT3 might be on the road: ‘I don’t want it too stiff, I like it to be comfortable. Normally I drive SUVs! But I watched the video and I’m really excited about getting the GT3!’ He then saunters off to speak to his engineer. Nico Hulkenberg watches internet car videos. I like that.
I kill the minutes waiting for Marc to un-bash his body trying to absorb the sheer scale of these race teams. Compared to a Formula One operation it’s still a modest affair, but the amount of kit they lug around the world is still eye-popping. Again, the entire logistics operation was defined from new, and that resulted in the largest containers being 180kg lighter than those of any other race team. Think of them as RS containers.
And that’s the way with the Porsche LMP1 racing team. The interview with Marc Lieb is here.