You could be forgiven for thinking that the car you see here is little more than a ‘mere’ Porsche 959, Stuttgart’s first ever supercar and the ultimate example of mid ’80s ‘technofest’ engineering, but it isn’t. No, the truth is that this is the 961, an altogether more rarer, more exotic and less well known car, and evidence of Porsche’s ill-fated attempt to create a production based Sportscar to sit just below its all-conquering 956 and 962 Group C racers.
First though, some history. Group B was intended to be an all-encompassing formula and had been designed to encourage car makers to go either racing or rallying, or, in the case of Porsche, both. We all know how Group B rallying panned out and how it was cancelled at the end of the 1986 WRC season, but less is known about its influence on the world of racing. The sad fact was that the tragedies which befell rallying rather spoilt the party for everyone else, with the upshot being that Porsche was the only car maker to produce and campaign a Group B inspired race car – the 961.
It was clearly based on the 956 road car, the homologation variant mandated for it to qualify for Group B, and was intended to face-off against the Ferrari 288 GTO. The latter was of course built and sold as well, though with the demise of Group B Ferrari opted not to bother producing a race version. Interestingly enough, Porsche actually rallied the 959 as well, with a suitably toughened version giving a good account of itself in long haul rally raid type events like the Paris Dakar.
Yet the relevenace of Group B to the world of circuit racing waned as the 959/961 programme matured, causing Porsche to scrap its planned customer race car programme and instead focus on building and selling 959s. This meant that there would only ever be a single 961 racer, and also meant that Porsche could press ahead with more extreme, homologation flouting measures as a result.
The influence in the fraying of the tether between the 961 and Group B could be seen in its engine, which while still an air-cooled flat-six with the same basic architecture as the 959, also boasted a bespoke one-piece water cooled head, one per cylinder bank. Such a system was essential now that the engine would be developing between 640 and 680bhp (with the help of a pair of massive KKK turbos), but it was also quite unlike anything found Porsche’s road car range. Porsche therefore GTX class. More on that in a moment.
Other elements were more clearly rooted in the 959, including its all-wheel drive system. This was essentially the same as that found beneath the road car, though it was modified to send a greater percentage of torque to the rear axle than the front in order to improve drivability and reliability. It was the first all-wheel drive car to compete at Le Mans.
As befitted a high-end, ultra-exclusive Group B car, the 961 made extensive use of composite materials in order to reduce its weight as much as possible. Carbon fibre and Kevlar pieces littered its construction, while the road cars wings, front splitter and rear spoiler were all extensively modified for a life spent hammering down the Mulsanne straight.
Only one 961 was ever built, the car debuting at the 1986 running of the Le Mans 24 Hours with Rene Metge and Claude Ballot-Lena charged with driving duties. The modifications covered above meant that the 961 was the lone entry in the GTX class, but it was nonetheless competitive. The pair qualified 26thand finished in 7th. Not bad, particularly when you consider the scale of the Group C opposition.
A year (and an ill-fated trip to the Dayton Speedway’s steeped banking) later, and the 961 lined up at La Sarthe once more, this time sporting Porsche’s oh-so-eighties Rothmans war paint. Metge was joined by Claude Haldi and Kees Nierop this time out, and though the trio began the race from a disappointing grid position they were able to make progress by dint of the 961’s reliability.
It all went wrong deep into the race, around 10am on the Sunday morning, the time when drivers are invariably at their tiredest and their reactions dulled by fatigue.Nierop made the tiniest of gear-selection errors midway down the run towards Indianappolis corner on lap 199, downshifting from 6thto 2nd. At well over 180mph. The Dutchman rammed the clutch back in as quickly as possible and saved the ‘box in the process, but the almost-but-not-quite cog-swap caused the rear wheels to lock up, sending the car sideways and into the barriers.
Ever the racer, Nierop wasted no time in checking that the car – engine still running, was drivable. He then set about nursing it back to the pits, only stopping when his team radioed to tell him that the rear of the 961 was ablaze, its damaged bodywork now pressed into contact with the pair of glowing hot turbos slung out of its back! Nierop jumped to safety and the car, now well ablaze, was abandoned to its fate.
That was it as far as the 961’s race career was concerned, though the chassis was restored to race ready condition by Porsche in the years following the 1987 race. It has since graced the Goodwood hillclimb and stands as a monument to one of motorsport’s great ‘what might have beens.’