On the day Porsche unveils its newest race car, SPEED.com looks back at the legacy left by one of its most successful prototypes…
John Dagys | Posted January 10, 2011 Chicago, IL
Looking back on the past decade of sportscar racing, there have been many iconic prototype and GT cars that helped shape the era that was filled with close competition and technological innovation.
While Audi will be remembered for its R8 prototype, arguably considered the most successful LMP car of its time, and later conquering Le Mans with diesel-powered machines, the German manufacturers’ sister brand, arguably boasting an even deeper racing pedigree, also left a significant mark in the 2000s.
Seven years since fielding a factory prototype in sportscar competition, Porsche returned to the LMP ranks with an all-new contender in 2005. While many expected the RS Spyder, Porsche’s first purpose-built prototype since the GT1-98, to raise the bar in the evolving LMP2 category, not many could have predicted the level of success it actually achieved.
With 13 overall wins, 35 class victories and 12 championships during its five-year run in the ALMS and select outings in the European-based Le Mans Series and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the RS Spyder may have not racked up the accolades of the R8, but some could argue it made an even larger impact on the sport.
As the legacy of the venerable Audi R8 was coming to a close, the story of the Porsche RS Spyder was just beginning. Unveiled in early 2005, the German manufacturer’s re-entry into the prototype ranks proved to be no second-class effort, despite building the car to the second-tier LMP2 specification.
With full works support and famed American entrant Penske Racing running the operation Stateside, there was no shortage of talent from the driver or personnel side. Porsche had entrusted Sascha Maassen and Lucas Luhr, two of its veteran GT factory drivers, and multiple-time ALMS champions, to help develop the RS Spyder, with then-rising stars Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas also handling testing duties by years’ end.
“When we started to test the car in 2005 we found a lot of problems,” Maassen said. “Everything in the car was new. The engine, the gearbox, the chassis, etc. But the progress we made before the first race was the biggest, even so nobody outside of Porsche realized.”
“The first race was special,” Maassen said. “We finally had to perform after all the work that was put into the project. I remember having to drive for three hours in the race and my back was hurting as the g-forces were amazing. But I didn’t want to get out of the car! We had pole position, fastest lap and won the LMP2 class that weekend.”
Maassen and Luhr recorded a fifth place finish overall, a feat relatively unheard of for a category that was generally a last-man-standing affair up until Porsche’s arrival. While there may have been a general lack of competition at the program’s start, Penske’s future success arguably helped transform it into category that was stronger and more diverse than LMP1.
Built with a clean sheet of paper at its motorsports base in Weissach, Germany, the car was one of the first new-generation prototypes built to the ACO’s evolving regulations. But with all of its development done in Europe, there were certainly some uncertainties heading into the RS Spyder’s first full season of competition.
“We were all eager for this project,” Bernhard said. “Right from the beginning you could feel the enthusiasm of everybody involved. It showed me that we would be successful. But driving wise, I felt right away that the car had not only big potential but it had already a great balance, which was a great base to start from.”
Prototype racing was also something new for three of its lead drivers, which perhaps turned into Porsche’s advantage. While Dumas boasted a handful of starts for Henri Pescarolo’s outfit and a few races with the Team Nasamax Reynard, the Frenchman knew from his first test at Monza at the end of 2005 that the RS Spyder was in a different league. Dumas credited veteran engineer and former driver Roland Kussmaul for being instrumental in their transition from the 911 to the RS Spyder.
There were ups and downs through the car’s first full season. Mechanical issues at Sebring and a double-DNF on the streets of Houston put a sour note to their championship ambitions, but Penske’s strength shined through in the following round when history was made.
Bernhard and Dumas claimed overall honors at Mid-Ohio, leading home a Penske 1-2 in the first race won by a lighter and lesser powerful LMP2 machine in nearly three years. While it ended up being the duo’s only overall victory of the season, the two-car effort combined for additional six class wins.
While Maassen and Luhr were crowned drivers’ champions in 2006, work was already underway for the next generation of RS Spyder, which debuted at Sebring the following year. It was the same race which Acura took to the stage with its new LMP2 contender. Penske and Porsche’s competition was about to get a whole lot stronger.
RS Spyder Reborn
With a solid chassis, engine and drivetrain but aerodynamics that were lacking, Porsche rolled out with an evolution of its RS Spyder for 2007. Boasting engine developments and a complete overhaul of its bodywork, the RS Spyder ‘Evo’ was instantly on the pace and quicker than its predecessor from the get-go.
Dumas, who shook down the updated car early that year at Porsche’s test track in Weissach, knew there was something magical just after completing a few installation laps.
“I looked at Kussmaul and asked him, ‘Was that a dry time?’ and Kussmaul was laughing so much. Neither of us could have believed it. We were both incredibly surprised.”
That first rollout proved to be a good indicator of things to come for the car, which debuted at Sebring in March. While neither Penske nor the two customer RS Spyders from Dyson Racing would take home top honors, it was the only round a Porsche failed to win that year.
2007 proved to be Penske’s most successful season, with the yellow DHL entries of Bernhard/Dumas and Maassen and new recruit Ryan Briscoe scoring eight overall wins, crushing the opposition from Audi more times than not.
With the ‘Evo’ boasting a massive increase in cornering speeds, the lighter and more nimble prototype managed to outpace the heavier LMP1 Audis on many of the tighter circuits.
“At that time everybody thought that the Audi was too good to beat,” Maassen said. “But this was wrong. Our car was so much easier to drive. I guess a lot of the drivers were very jealous. Then the battles with Acura and Audi started and it got a lot more difficult to win, but it was even more fun to do so.”
While the Penske cars didn’t necessarily have an outright pace advantage at every round, many wins could have been credited to the men atop the pit box. With Tim Cindric and ‘The Captain’, Roger Penske himself calling strategy, the RS Spyders often had a tactical advantage over its competition.
While Maassen remembers he and Briscoe’s come-from-behind overall victory at Miller Motorsports Park in 2007, where Penske decided to pit their car early in order to leap frog the Audis, one of the biggest feats came at Long Beach that year. Dumas and Bernhard cruised to an overall win, thanks to Cindric’s call of running the 100-minute race on the same set of Michelin tires, coupled with a perfectly timed driver change that got Dumas out ahead.
“It was the time when Acura brought their top IndyCar drivers to Sebring and Petit and you could see they enjoyed the battle with us. It was interesting and nice to see that they had high respect of us and knew we were hard to beat. In 2008, the ALMS was on the way to the top. Unfortunately, it didn’t continue like that.”
Dumas and Bernhard went onto claim back-to-back drivers’ titles in 2007-08, in what was considered the height of ALMS factory prototype involvement. With Acura joining the fray and returning with an even stronger package in 2008, the competition in LMP2 and the fight for overall honors couldn’t have been better.
While Dumas, Bernhard and Emmanuel Collard re-wrote the record books with their historic overall win at Sebring in 2008, the RS Spyder faced some of its stiffest competition from the Acura contingent, which expanded to a four-car operation by mid-season.
Acura’s rapid accession effectively forced the accelerated development of the RS Spyder through the season. A major overhaul of its 3.4-liter V8 power plant, featuring direction-injection, debuted at Lime Rock in July on the No. 6 car. The DFI engine, which was outfitted on both Penske cars by mid-season, yielded a five percent increase in fuel mileage, yet produced 25 additional horsepower. That extra power and efficiency helped Bernhard and Dumas win at Mid-Ohio.
“The new aero that we raced since the beginning of 2007 was scheduled into the project from the beginning, as was the DFI engine,” explained Hartmut Kristen, Head of Porsche Motorsport. “The most important steps were the ones that were not visible. In 2008 our team of engineers worked very hard to improve the mechanical grip by all kind of suspension modifications. They were little steps here and there, but very successful.”
Development continued through the end of the season, culminating with a three-car factory effort at the Petit Le Mans and season-ending Monterey Sports Car Championships. With the LMP2 championship on the line, Penske scored an historic 1-2-3 finish in the 1,000-mile Road Atlanta enduro, with its IndyCar veterans Helio Castroneves and Ryan Briscoe taking the class win.
For American Porsche factory star Patrick Long, who had stepped up as a full-time RS Spyder driver in 2008 after competing in a handful of starts since 2006, those final two races showed the level of Porsche’s commitment in securing another manufacturers’ title.
“It was certainly the heyday of ALMS prototype racing over those last few years,” Long said. “I think it pushed us as a team, not only drivers but engineers. That second part of the season in ’08 had us digging very, very deep. Those final two races, in what we found in pace and physical updates on the car was unbelievable. The guys at Weissach did things that not many could do.
“I was completely taken back when we showed up to Petit Le Mans and we had progressed so much in that one month between the last race. It wasn’t just that the circuit suited us a little better or we spent more time tuning the car. There were hardline developments made, and that was really cool to be a part of to feel all of the success. And I think that’s what ultimately decided the championship.”
While Porsche’s factory prototype program was brought to a close in 2008 following its third consecutive LMP2 championship, the RS Spyder lived on through various privateer outfits in America and Europe.
Making its debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2008, the RS Spyder proved to be a dominant force at La Sarthe. Van Merksteijn Motorsport scored top honors in its LMP2 debut that year while Team Essex cruised to victory in 2009. While both Le Mans-winning squads also enjoyed success in the European-based Le Mans Series, with the Dutch Van Merksteijn squad taking the P2 title in 2008, the RS Spyder remained undefeated at Le Mans in its two attempts.
While other squads such as Horag Racing and Team Goh also made select appearances through 2008-2009, the RS Spyder’s customer program actually began one year earlier. It was Dyson Racing that first campaigned a RS Spyder under its own banner in 2007, enjoying mixed results at best in its two-car ALMS program. The veteran prototype squad often struggled with the car’s setup, compounded with the strength of the LMP2 class at the time.
“Arguably, we never really got it 100 percent in the window like what Penske did,” said Guy Smith, who teamed with Chris Dyson in the No. 16 machine. “We had days when it was extremely fast and a joy to drive and days where it was a handful and we couldn’t get it to work… That was something we struggled with. We never got the consistency out of the car like Penske did. If they did lose the way, they could always find a way back rather quickly.”
(Watch below as Guy Smith describes driving the Porsche RS Spyder from 2007.)
While Dyson walked away with a handful of podium finishes, a significant achievement given the half-dozen factory entries they were up against, the Poughkeepsie, N.Y.-based team abandoned its RS Spyders for a different prototype program for 2009.
However, it didn’t take long for one of Dyson’s RS Spyders to resurface. Less than six months into the 2009 season, veteran Trans-Am racer Greg Pickett re-entered the ALMS with a partial-season program with his Team CytoSport organization.
At a time of a depleted prototype grid with the absence of the factory Audi and Porsche squads, CytoSport quickly rose to the forefront as one of the leading teams. After recording a string of podium finishes in its debut season, Pickett and co-drivers Klaus Graf and Sascha Maassen kicked off 2010 with an impressive class victory at Sebring.
As the season rolled on, the strength of the team kept building. Pickett and Graf broke through to give Porsche its first overall ALMS victory in over two years at Lime Rock. But from the highest of highs came the lowest of lows when the 63-year-old Pickett suffered a devastating accident in testing at Mid-Ohio, forcing the team to withdraw from the event while in the midst of the championship fight.
While Pickett miraculously escaped serious injury from the 120-plus mph shunt, and the Geoff Carter-led team built up an entire new RS Spyder in time for the next round at Road America, CytoSport needed some relief drivers. And through the continued assistance of Porsche, called upon some of the sport’s best.
“When I saw the unfortunate news that Greg Pickett had an accident and they would need drivers, I was so happy Porsche contacted me to do one more race,” Dumas said. “I knew it was a chance again to drive again.”
Nearly two years after last sitting in the RS Spyder, and less than three months after winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans while on loan to Audi, RS Spyder stars Bernhard and Dumas were called up to fill in for the injured Pickett. While the German ace teamed with regular ace Graf at Road America, Dumas handled the driving duties at Mosport, regarded as one of his favorite circuits.
“When I went to Mosport, after a few laps I pitted and the team asked me what should be done to the car, knowing that they trusted me,” Dumas explained. “I said, ‘Listen, do nothing. I just have to re-adapt to the speed of the car because the car is so quick!’ I kept running just to increase my speed because the car was so unbelievably quick.”
However, it didn’t take too long for the veteran Frenchman to re-adjust to the RS Spyder as he and Graf dominated the entire weekend, including Dumas’ impressive opening stint which he nearly put the entire field a lap down.
It were those type of performances that proved the RS Spyder still had some life left in it, despite its aging chassis that many would have rendered obsolete years earlier. But with a growing shortage of parts for a customer program that was extended for an additional year to begin with, Porsche concluded support of the RS Spyder at the end of the year.
That decision, though, wasn’t handed down until the week of the season-ending Petit Le Mans. And except for team owner Pickett and long-time co-driver Graf, the news remained a secret to the CytoSport team until their Muscle Milk RS Spyder took the checkered flag.
“So for Greg and me, it was particularly special,” Graf said of the RS Spyder’s final race. “We were going out there to enjoy the last race and have a good time. That’s what we did, even though we had to run on seven cylinders for ten hours! Even with that, it was fun to drive. I can only imagine how much fun of a race it would have been if we were on full song against Highcroft.
“It was important that we made it all the way and made it across the start/finish line after ten hours. I think with what we had, in terms of technical possibilities, we gave it a maximum effort and brought it home. It certainly leaves me with good memories of the car.”
Engine issues aside, it was a fitting end to the legacy of the RS Spyder in that both Maassen and Luhr, the two pilots who took the LMP2 contender to victory in its very first race some five years earlier, were also a part of the lineup in the car’s final professional outing.
While the legacy of the RS Spyder will continue to live on in the hands of private collectors and historic racers, the 1,000-mile Petit Le Mans marked an end of an era for one of Porsche’s most successful prototypes.
Despite possibly being overshadowed by the diesel-powered prototypes of its day, the sportscar history books will likely look back on the Porsche RS Spyder as the car that took the fight to the big boys and won. But imagine what it could have done to the sportscar racing world if was a LMP1-spec machine.
The RS Spyder was certainly something special, but it could have left an even bigger impression on the sport.
“Looking at that program itself, it was an iconic car for Porsche,” Long said. “It was their long awaited return to prototype racing. And to do it with Penske and such an iconic name and team… I think it was humbling and an honor to be involved at any capacity for everyone that was involved. It was a car and a time period that will be talked about for a long time.”