The Porsche 962 represented Group C racing at its absolute pinnacle. Twenty years on, John Watson drives the most original surviving example and relives its spectacular performance.
When I stopped racing F1,’ says John Watson, ‘I agreed to drive some sports cars for one reason alone: to get off the motor-racing drug in a progressive manner rather than going cold turkey.’
Mention John Watson and most of us will recall his fine victory in the 1981 British GP at Silverstone. Seeing him hillclimbing with a Porsche 962 in Sussex last year, however, was a reminder of his less well-known sports car racing days. At the 2008 Goodwood Festival of Speed, Watson was back in a Porsche, the 1987 Leyton House-sponsored 962 which now belongs to Paul Michaels of leading London BMW dealer, Hexagon of Highgate.
Back in 1984, after his solid decade in Formula One, John agreed to drive for Jaguar at Le Mans. Over the next five years he drove Jaguar, Toyota and Porsche Group C cars in the world’s top 24-hour sports car race, plus a few other endurance events, as well as doing some development driving. Such is the fickle nature of 24-hour racing that he finished at Le Mans only once, in 1990 with the late Richard Lloyd’s Porsche 962C – sharing with Bruno Giacomelli and Allen Berg, he was 11th that year – but few can match his variety of experience.
‘Wattie’ remains one of a tiny handful of people to have driven many of the top cars in a golden era of Group C racing. We tracked him down to get his thoughts on the 962 and discover how it measured up against its rivals.
First of all, what was it like being back aboard a Group C car at Goodwood last summer, nearly 20 years on? ‘It gave me a good sense of the past, bringing it all back,’ says John, ‘and Paul’s car ran perfectly, doing everything it should do up the hill. I have always thought of the Porsche 962 long-tail as a supremely good car to drive.’
Wattie did have one experience of racing at Le Mans before his F1 career really got going. Back in 1973, he shared a Cosworth-powered Gulf-Mirage M6 with Mike Hailwood and Vern Schuppan. This foray to France marked his return to racing after being injured in the F1 Race of Champions early in the season. But, as things turned out, that Le Mans drive was brief; just six hours in, Vern was unfortunately caught out by an accident which flipped the Mirage onto its roof and out of the 24 Hours.
That was all a very long way back when Wattie returned to sports cars in the mid-1980s, just as endurance racing was rapidly becoming much quicker. When I asked him how different were the Group C cars from the single-seaters he was used to, his unexpected answer caught my interest.
‘Well, I don’t suppose anyone would know this but I did actually drive a 956, just once, when I was still with McLaren in F1. It was at Weissach [the Porsche factory’s own test track] and in the very early days of the Formula One TAG engine, the turbo 1.5-litre V6 that Porsche had built for us at McLaren. During the final stages of development I flew out to Weissach – it must have been August 1983 – ahead of Ron Dennis and John Barnard, and when I got there I saw a 956 development car sitting there. It looked quite rough and purposeful, like any development hack, and they had installed a TAG turbo engine in it for their test driver Roland Kussmaul to go pounding round.
‘No McLaren chassis was available but they needed to get the mileage on the engine and that’s why they used the 956. They had built the engine and they wanted to find out what it was like. They did find out but they didn’t tell McLaren, who actually owned the TAG engine, how they’d done it. When Ron saw it in a 956, it caused one almighty row. It’s amusing to remember it now but, I tell you, it was one of those “light the blue touch paper and stand back” moments.’
A 956 with a TAG turbo F1 engine in the back? The secret has long been out in the public domain but I had no idea that John Watson had actually driven it. This got my attention. What was it like?
‘Well, the thing was, I had nothing to compare it with at the time. What did interest me was that the TAG-Porsche engine seemed very impressive in the 956 but, when I got to drive it in the McLaren F1 car, there was terrible throttle lag at first. The installations were apparently identical but there’s so much more room in a sports car – I have always assumed it had something to do with that.’ Although Wattie was entered to drive the Group 44 Jaguar at Le Mans in 1984, that was no more than a toe-in-the-water first effort for Jaguar; his testing and occasional races with Porsche continued throughout the year.
‘The first time I drove a 962 was in a test down at Paul Ricard in spring 1984. I hadn’t driven a performance sports car on a circuit with a long straight for years and the thing that struck me was the amount of grunt, particularly the torque from that flat-six turbo engine, which I found very impressive.’ Although the first racing 962s had the 2.8-litre engine, with its single KKK turbo meeting US IMSA GTP regulations, this test car had the far more powerful 2649cc twin-turbo from the 956 works racers.
‘Of course,’ Wattie adds, ‘it was much heavier than an F1 car, correspondingly slow in its responses and it took much more physical effort to drive it. You needed to get up closer to the wheel, just to get the leverage, because the steering weights were much higher than in an F1 car. Then, when I got onto the long straight at Ricard that first time I can remember thinking, “****ing hell, this is quick!” But it was a very well balanced car and once you got used to the effort of it and the feel of that Porsche speciality, the spool diff that locks up, it really was nice to drive.’
Late in 1984, on September 30, there was a high point when he joined Stefan Bellof in a works Rothmans Porsche 956-83 for the Mount Fuji 1000km, a round of the World Endurance Championship. Our man was standing in for Derek Bell in Japan, as it clashed with an IMSA round in the USA, and Derek was in with a chance of winning the American championship.
‘What I remember most clearly from that race in Fuji is that, being Porsche, they’d put the seat on a nicely engineered adjustable slider, just like a road car. When Stefan came in to hand the car over to me in the race, he slid the seat right back to get out fast and I jumped in, not realising what had happened. Being of nearly the same height, we shared the same seating position. The belts were done up and I rushed away to spend the whole of my stint with my arms just about straight. It was extremely difficult to drive like that as I could only just apply the leverage required to turn the wheel.’ Modestly, he did not mention that they took pole and won the race. Bellof became the World Sportscar Drivers Champion for 1984 but was killed at Spa 11 months later.
‘At Le Mans, the long-tail 962 was about as good as it gets, in my knowledge and experience,’ says Wattie. ‘Through all those years, the Porsche was just a nice, easy car to drive, with a lovely balance. At Le Mans, where we ran with relatively low downforce to get the speed on the straights, I well remember the high centre of gravity of the Jaguar in 1987; this made it less relaxed than the Porsche. With little aerodynamic help to hold it down, that particular Jaguar felt dominated on that circuit by its great boat anchor of a V12 engine.
‘Porsche just seemed to have a better feeling of what was required at Le Mans and, even through to 1988, the 962 remained a more pleasant car to drive there. The cars were closer on lap times by then, but I think the Porsche still felt better and it was also certainly more highly developed as an effective low-downforce car.
‘In 1989, the Toyota was another very good car but they had got themselves tied up with the wrong tyre contract. Had we been able to run on Michelins, then the best tyres in endurance racing, I think that Toyota would have been very good indeed. The Japanese are very methodical, setting themselves long-term goals and not expecting to win in the first five years. The British teams, being more adaptable, can get results quicker.’
Wattie’s only Le Mans finish came with his drive in Richard Lloyd’s 962C in 1990, by which time chicanes had been added to the Mulsanne Straight.
‘With the chicanes, the character of the race had changed. There was a drop in top speed of around 20mph but, unlike before, it was held only briefly. Le Mans was well on the way to becoming a 24-hour sprint race and, naturally, the quickest cars were suddenly short-tailed sprint cars. The deal with Richard, who had been a good friend of mine since the early 1970s, came in April, I think.
‘That particular car was not one of his specially-built 962s: it was a brand new, bog-standard, long-tail customer model which needed a bit of sorting when we got to Le Mans. It was all over the place on the straights at first so we changed the springs – all straightforward mechanical stuff – and we started the race with a very adequate, comfortable car. We were not there to win – we hadn’t the pace for that – so we drove a traditional endurance race, simply aiming to last the distance, and we managed to do that.
‘I was driving it in the night when some rain came down, making the car feel very nervous and squirrelly on its Goodyears. I think it was a bit cool for those tyres but, anyway, the handling came good again as the dawn came and the circuit warmed up a bit. It was not a “wring-its-neck” kind of race car, that one, but apart from that brief spell in the dark and wet it was very good to drive.’
What other reflections does he have, looking back on the Group C days?
‘One thing I definitely don’t miss is the way that sports cars let water into the cockpit when it rains – it’s really unpleasant and they all do it. Not even the 962 was immune. But, to be more serious, if the 962 had any weaknesses, one was Porsche’s desire to stick with an aluminium chassis when others were going over to stiffer carbonfiber structures.
‘Also, Porsche’s flat-six engine was magnificent but it took up a lot of width in a critical area and that was not ideal for ground-effect aerodynamics. Such considerations were never such a great issue at Le Mans, even with chicanes, but they certainly were elsewhere. When Porsche, ever focused on Le Mans above all else, had to compete against serious opposition from the likes of Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz, it gradually became clear that ultimately the traditional flat-six engine was a drawback to aerodynamic performance when set against a V6, V8 or V12. The 962 enjoyed a lengthy racing life but Porsche probably clung on to that flat-six concept for a couple of years too long.’
The Leyton House Porsche 962C
Porsche’s 956 and 962 sports-prototypes became the most successful series of endurance racing cars ever made. By racing car standards they were mass-produced, even coming with an ignition key. The 956 dominated the early days of Group C after its introduction in 1982. To meet American IMSA rules, the design was revised in 1984 as the 962, with a longer wheelbase and a pedal box placing the driver’s feet behind the front axle line. All had versions of Porsche’s classic flat-six engine of varying capacity, the 962 with a single turbo to the IMSA rules and the later 962C with twin turbos for World Endurance events.
Constant development kept 962s competitive for ten years. Over 100 of all types were made and, with pressure on production capacity, favoured teams were permitted to construct their own modified versions, using Porsche parts. The Leyton House-sponsored car, chassis 962CK6-87 with a 2826cc twin-turbo engine, was built in this way by Kremer Racing for the 1987 Le Mans, in which it finished fourth. That was its one and only race, the car being retained in the Kremer collection until 1998. As a completely unaltered one-race original, it must be unique. Collector Paul Michaels acquired it in 2006. Preferring to preserve it, he will never drive it himself but he enjoyed watching John Watson in action at Goodwood.
Thanks to John Watson, Paul Michaels and Donington Park, www.donington-park.co.uk.