Featured: A '90s GT Le Mans Icon: Spending Some Time With The 1996 Porsche 911 GT1

A ’90s GT Le Mans Icon: Spending Some Time With The 1996 Porsche 911 GT1

Robb Pritchard By Robb Pritchard
June 8, 2018
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Photography by Robb Pritchard

I consider myself very fortunate that writing about seriously cool cars is my day job, but very few cars I have come across over the years have the wow factor that’s created when one comes face to face with the Porsche GT1. The strassenversion road-legal cars are obviously up there in the ranks of the Mercedes-Benz CLK GTRs of the world, but in my eyes the real-deal, the racing GT1, is categorically “where it’s at.” I recently visited Jan Luehn’s workshop in Germany to see one of these legendary cars up close.

At twenty years old, the GT1 is what many would call a modern classic today. And as stunning as some of the more recent prototype WEC cars look, there will always be something special about seeing a car that’s recognizable under the wild wings of motorsport. Harking back to the halcyon days of Group 5 silhouettes when cars could be dressed in the most outrageous body kits as long as they retained the roof line, doors and “faces” of their road-going counterparts, the Porsche GT1, in my humble opinion, is one of the best looking race cars ever built. It’s even up there with the DP Motorsport-designed K3s when it comes to sheer presence.

After the end of Group C holding its sway as the top class of sportscar racing throughout the ‘80s and into the ‘90s as it evolved into unmanageability and exorbitant cost, it was the GT class that became the top sports car racing series on the world stage of Le Mans. This was the era of the McLaren F1, the Ferrari F40, the Jaguar XJ220, the Lotus Elise even… and Porsche ran their 993 GT2, which Norbert Singer, then Porsche’s motorsport director, admitted was no match for the competition.

All the cars in the series were road cars modified for racing, but strangely the rules stated that only one single road version needed to needed to be made for the race cars to be granted homologation status, and so Porsche decided to come at it from a different angle by making a thoroughbred racer, the lights and windscreen pretty much the only things resembling a road car, and then de-specced one to create the street version. And so the glorious strassenversion GT1, perhaps one of the rarest of all Porsches with tags on ’em, came into being.

The front structure was taken from the then-current model 911, the 993, but behind the driver it was basically a continuation of the Group C-dominating 962, with a 3.0L flat-six slightly bored out to 3.2L, with twin turbos and rated at 600bhp. It took 2nd overall during its debut at the 1996 24 Hours of Le Mans behind the winning Joest Racing Porsche WSC-95 prototype, despite being in the lower GT class.

For 1997 the car was upgraded. Most noticeably the lights were changed to the design of the soon-to-be-released 996 model’s, but a host of revisions were made to the bodywork for improved airflow, as well as to the engine. It was called the GT1 Evo, and this is chassis 005, the second of the works cars, the car that wore the #26 for the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans. The prototype cars in the WSC class were faster on a single lap basis, but needed more pitstops, so at midday on Sunday it was the two GT1 cars running 1 and 2, with the #26 car (with the driver line-up of Emmanuel Collard, Ralf Kelleners and Yannick Dalmas), in sight of the lead as it followed the #25.

But then the leading #25 car went out after a broken driveshaft caused a hard collision with the barriers. And so #26 inherited a comfortable lead of almost a lap over the Joest WSC, although the prototype was faster and was constantly cutting down on the deficit; coming up to two o’clock in the afternoon with just over two of the 24 hours remaining, the GT1 was running like clockwork… until just after one of the last pit stops on the Mulsanne straight when the TV cameras showed flames billowing out of the back. An instant retirement, and a heartbreaking sight.

And that was sadly as close to victory as this car got. In 1998 the all-new GT1-98 earned Porsche its 16th overall win at Le Mans, and the car pictured here, 005, was loaned to Porsche’s American works-supported team Champion Motors to race in the ALMS championship in the ‘States. At the 12 Hours of Sebring with ex-Formula 1 pilot Thierry Boutsen driving with Bob Wollek and Andy Pilgrim, the team took 3rd overall, despite running in the second-tier class below the WSC-spec prototype cars. Three more third place finishes that year meant the car finished 2nd overall in the GT1 class championship, albeit over a hundred points behind the dominant Panoz.

In 1999 with a mixture of drivers including Bob Wolleck, Alan McNish, Ralf Kelleners, Dirk Müller, and Thierry Boutsen the best result was 4th at Sebring, and they could only manage 7th in the championship in the new LMP class.

At the end of that season the car was sold to the Porsche aficionados at Gunnar racing run by Kevin Jeanette who put it into the gorgeous black Texaco livery. The car was driven by legendary driver Paul Newman in the 2001 24 Hours of Daytona, but the 76-year-old movie mogul’s race only lasted 37 laps before the car had to be withdrawn because of an oil leak. This is apparently the last race car he drove in competition.

The car was then retired from racing as well, and became part of private collections until last year when it found its way into the capable hands of Jan Luehn. With the car around twenty years old now, it needed a bit of work to bring it back to its “as new” specification, but it was nothing that Jan couldn’t manage. He did have to swap the incredibly complicated TAG engine management system with a much simpler and easier to use Motronic one.

Strangely though, what is normally the easiest part of a rebuild turned out to be the hardest. “The original white paint from 1997 was still inside the wheel arches, but we had to redo all the beautiful livery work by hand and we only had a scale model to work from,” he explains. “It took the graphics guy about four weeks to repaint it…” although that doesn’t stop Jan leaning against it with his jeans to tell such a story! The end result of all that detailed work though is just breathtaking.

There are no number plates on this car—it was never intended for the road—so as a thoroughbred race machine there’s no chance of taking it out on the street for a test drive, but it’s actually just enough to walk around it taking photos for a fan like me.

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