Synonymous with endurance racing prowess and instantly identifiable by its iconic blue-and-white Rothmans livery, the Porsche 956 wasn’t just a great-looking racecar but considered a feat of engineering upon its debut in 1982. Today, 40 years later, it’s a bona fide automotive legend, a purpose-built vehicle that has influenced a host of racecars that have come in its wake.
Where Porsche 956 history began
The 1980s was a new era of motorsport. Ushered in as a result of engine, weight and fuel regulations set out by the authorities who governed the sport, the Group C era – of which the mighty Porsche 956 was one of its greatest ever cars – was born out of the need to produce vehicles that satisfied these new conditions. For Porsche, that meant creating a car that could be mentioned in the same breath as the Le Mans-winning 917 and 935, which had both been outlawed as a result of the new rule changes.
The move towards producing a more GT-focused racecar meant that the development of the 956, which was led by acclaimed Porsche race engineer Norbert Singer, progressed as covertly as possible. As the prototype construction went through the design and wind tunnel testing stages at the Weissach Development Center, the team of engineers conducted their work away from the public at the famed Centre of Excellence. Such was the need for secrecy, the vast majority of Porsche employees had no idea what magic was being woven behind its closed doors.
The 956 was powered by an engine derived from a version of the much-vaunted Porsche twin-turbocharged, flat-six engine, which previously had powered the Porsche 936 to victory at Le Mans in 1981. At a punchy 620PS, the engine’s power output made the 956 fierce competition while also meeting fuel efficiency stipulations, in accordance with the new rules.
On 16 May 1982, the Porsche 956 made its competitive debut at the 6 Hours of Silverstone. And what a start it was, securing Porsche an overall win in the Group C category. Here, on its maiden outing, the 956 gave a hint of the greatness that was yet to come.
Becoming a Le Mans legend and beyond
If this early impact wasn’t memorable enough, there was much more to come. At the blue riband event of endurance car racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 956 dominated, taking the top three places at the Circuit de la Sarthe. The winning co-drivers that weekend – motorsport greats Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell – would also propel the 956 to the World Endurance Championships manufacturers title that year, with Ickx the overall driver’s champion and Bell third. It was nothing less than a phenomenal debut season.
The following season, in 1983, the Porsche 956 retained the manufacturers’ and driver’s title – through Ickx – once again. Qualifying in pole position for the 1000-kilometre race at the Nürburgring, German driver Stefan Bellof completed a record-breaking lap of 6 mins 11.13 seconds – a time so astonishing that it remained unbroken for 35 years. In fact, even those present at the race itself were at first doubtful that the time could be correct, with one spokesperson famously explaining that the timer must have been stopped too early. When you consider that it meant Bellof had maintained an average speed of 200km/h throughout, it’s perhaps easy to understand why the feat left officials initially scratching their heads.
It was during this season that the Porsche works team’s 956 cars underwent further development under the guidance of Norbert Singer, which included spending significantly more time back in the wind tunnel. This commitment to detail and development would ensure that the 956 became the defining car of the Group C era. The 1983 season would continue to be an astonishing one for the 956. The highlight was perhaps the securing of the first eight places at the 24 Hours of Le Mans that year for the car – a quite unprecedented achievement.
In 1984, Porsche withdrew from Le Mans in protest about last-minute rule changes. As the FIA had introduced new fuel regulations in 1983, Porsche worked on creating the 956 B electronic fuel injection in the year before the 1984 Le Mans. But just three months before the race, this new rule was discarded after all. In fury, the factory team boycotted the race.
But even when Porsche boycotted the 1984 Le Mans, the 956 nevertheless won a third title when Reinhold Joest’s privately-entered 956B, driven by Henri Pescarolo and Klaus Ludwig, took the chequered flag first. Klaus would go onto reprise his win using the same 956 chassis at the 1985 24 Hours of Le Mans event. That year, the Porsche works team sent out a 962 C – the successor to the 956 – piloted by Hans-Joachim Stuck and Derek Bell. However, despite Stuck clocking the fastest-ever lap of Le Mans at the time during qualifying (a record which would not be beaten for another 32 years), the 962 C came home in third behind a privately-run 956 driven by Klaus Ludwig, Paola Barilla and Louis Krages.
Remembering the record-breaking Stefan Bellof
While several of the great 956 drivers, like Ickx, Bell, Stuck and Mass, are still with us to drive and tell us about the majesty of this car today, there’s one who no longer is. Stefan Bellof is considered one of the greatest racing talents to have come out of Germany. The holder of the fastest-ever lap on the Nordschleife at the Nürburgring for more than three decades (it was eventually broken in 2018 by Timo Bernhard in a derestricted Porsche 919 Evo), Bellof made a name for himself through a succession of spectacular drives in the 956. Tragically, he would lose his life driving the car on 1 September, 1985, following an accident at Spa-Francorchamps while battling Jacky Ickx up the infamous Eau Rouge hill.
As well as his records, Bellof is still remembered today for his carefree attitude, determination and ferocious racing abilities. One story that underpins his character comes after he crashed a 956 on the Nordschleife during the ADAC Nürburgring 1000 km in 1983. He took the formidable Pflanzgarten section flat out at over 200 km/h, causing the car to get airborne and flip. The car was destroyed. And Stefan? Completely unharmed. In fact, his first port of call was to immediately make his way towards a group of shocked fans to sign autographs. It’s a story that has gone down in racing folklore and one that helps keep his legacy alive to this day.
What did the Porsche 956 feel like to drive?
So how did it feel to climb into the cockpit of the 956 – the first racing car to have an aluminium monocoque chassis and ground effect, which reduces the space between the car and tarmac, helping create greater downforce? What emotions raced through each driver as they steered a car that so relentlessly outclassed its rivals? One of the first to put the prototype class Porsche 956’s pedal to the metal was Derek Bell, back in 1982. “It was fantastic – the car was perfect,” he recalls today. “It was incredibly fast in the corners and was very stable.”
Among the other great 956 drivers was Jochen Mass, who was similarly staggered by its power and precision. “It was so different to all the other racing cars before it,” he says. “It had so much more downforce and was efficient in every detail. So many corners just weren’t there anymore. The car was so good that it was possible to drive them at full throttle. It was also very comfortable to drive – not least on longer runs, because the seats were cushioned, and you sat well in them.” It was this combination of legendary drivers, the car’s super-efficient turbo-charged engine and revolutionary aerodynamics that leant the Porsche 956 its extraordinary status – one that would endure for an entire decade.
Inspiring the next generation of Porsche racecars
Unsurprisingly, when it was eventually time to retire it from top-class competitive racing, the 956 went on to influence many great cars of the future. Introduced at the end of 1984, the Porsche 962 C was based on the 956, but 120mm longer and built around an extra lightweight aluminium monocoque frame. It too would take motorsport by storm. One of the highlights was when the incomparable trio of Hans-Joachim Stuck, Derek Bell and Al Holbert brought home overall victory at both the 1986 and 1987 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Together, the Porsche 956 and its successor, the 962, roared to five consecutive World Championship manufacturer’s titles and won every one of the great endurance races, many several times. The list of honours includes seven overall wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, six Daytona 24 Hours titles and four victories at the Sebring 12 Hours. It won 39 World Championship events in total and 55 IMSA races too.
More recently, the design of the 2022 Porsche 963 harks back to the classic profiles of the 956 and 962, while its white, red and black colour scheme is a homage to some of the most successful ever Porsche racing cars. From 2023, the Porsche Penske Motorsport-developed vehicle will look to get on track and emulate the many achievements of its forebears.
A 40-year Porsche reunion
Recently, several examples of this most successful of Porsche racecars were reacquainted with the drivers that helped immortalise it. At the Porsche Experience Center in Leipzig, Derek Bell, Hans-Joachim Stuck and Jochen Mass gathered to celebrate the many milestones and qualities of the 956. Fully restored by the Porsche Museum and returned to original liveries, the 956-002 and 956-005 were also joined by the 1984 IMSA-spec 962-001 and the 1987 Supercup-winning 962-009. Four decades on from the Group C era, appreciation for the mighty Porsche 956 is stronger than ever.