Hillclimbing the Porsche 961 It ran around the Circuit de la Sarthe for 24 hours in 1986. Now, Total 911 climbs behind the wheel of the 961 for a short, albeit exhilarating drive.
Goodwood Festival of Speed: Porsche 961 hillclimb
Distraction, that’s what I need, and it comes in the form of artist Stefan Marjoram. He’s sketching a Rothmans-sponsored Porsche, specifically a 961, the 959’s short-lived racing spin-off and little-known endurance racer relation to those more familiar Paris-Dakar 959s. There’s just one of them, and it’s here being recreated in virtual ink on Marjoram’s iPad. It’s calming to watch him. We’re at Goodwood, it’s sweltering hot and I’m in my too-large black race suit trying to wear it like the pros. I’m not sure how convincing I am, but I feign nonchalance as the man from the Porsche Museum comes up to me and says it’s time to get in.
One of one, it came seventh overall at Le Mans in 1986, the first car home that wasn’t a Porsche Group C car. A class winner, its promise was enormous, it clocking 204.4mph on the Mulsanne Straight and averaging 133.3mph over its fastest lap at the famous French event. To put that into context those Group C cars it followed home managed a 148.8mph average speed over a lap. It would race again in 1987, before an off caused extensive rear damage and a ire which put it out of the race after 16 hours of running.
The 961 project was shelved afterwards. With the rulemakers’ categories in disarray this Group B machine had no place to race, so Porsche rebuilt it and put it away in its Museum. I’ve seen it there a couple of times, but today it’s not a static display, and I’m the one in the driving seat. To say it’s attracting a lot of attention is something of an understatement. I hear snippets of conversation, whispers of ‘Le Mans’, ‘959’ and ‘what’s that?’, all while watching a thousand photos being taken as I wait for the opportunity to get in and drive it.
The marshal’s whistles blow; there’s a rush of activity and a wall of sound as drivers jump in their cars, racing engines are started and the cars part the crowds and head to the holding paddock. I’ve not even sat in the car yet, and I’m expected to jump in, start it and pull out with people standing no more than a metre or two away. No pressure then, the 961 starting by simply lipping down a kill switch and pressing a starter button. It might be a 959, but the interior has no luxury: a simple racing bucket seat, a sturdy cage and the sort of functionality common to competition cars… nothing superluous. This is a machine where everything has a role. There are a bunch of warning lights, toggle switches and an extinguisher pull among the more familiar Porsche instrumentation, a simple Momo steering wheel, three pedals and a stick.
Its vintage means it’s fairly simple. It’s four-wheel drive – the first permanent four-wheel drive car to compete at Le Mans – the engine’s the same 2.85-litre turbocharged flat six that’s in a 959, though with the turbos working in parallel, not sequential as the road car. Its specification essentially Group C, its output a not-insubstantial 680hp, it geared for the lengthy expanse of the circuit at Le Mans, not a tight, 1.16-mile dusty thread of difficult tarmac in East Sussex.
Any luxuries in the 961 are gone in the pursuit of weight saving, the suspension more a conventional adjustable race set-up than that of the 959 road car. The brakes do without ABS, the steering is unassisted and the body largely made of composites. All that means the 961 was about 330kg lighter than the 959, or just under 1,170kg. The clutch is heavy, but progressive. The brakes are fine, the steering not too weighty. It’s quick, the interior buzzing with the ferocity of that flat six, the vibrations shimmering everything, the boost kicking in from about 4,000rpm when the 961 really starts to fly.
There’s a quick turn-around at the bottom of the hill, the 961 mixing with Porsche’s racing royalty, a Carrera RSR 2.1 Turbo ahead of me, the starting marshal beggining the countdown once it’s disappeared up the tree-lined start. I’ve gotten here with no issues. Not stalled, then as soon as the starter’s hand drops the 961 trickles forward, initially thinking I’ve pulled third. I check, I’ve not. The revs rise, the boost builds and the 961 starts to gain speed. Lots of it, though the gearing is such I could run the entire hill in second. The first corner is tentative, though after that I’ve one hit at this, and I’m going to make it count, so foot to the floor it is.
It feels better with more speed, more natural, though the Molecomb’s ahead, so an early brake to avoid the bales and bills, the first big corner for the 961 seeing it hang on gamely despite pretty old rubber on it. Then there’s the delight of the climb, it tricky and tight, but the 961 feels so alert, so communicative and predictable that even here on a short run it’s possible to tell it would be a joy to race.
The chequered lag waves and the run is over. Getting out at the top among the great and the good of Porsche racing, I chat to Walter Rohrl about it. He says he’d have loved to have raced it at Le Mans, describing it as ‘beautiful to drive’. He’s not wrong.