A Fair Advantage: How The Porsche 962 Dominated The “Greatest Era of Racing”

They say racing never gets more expensive. It’ll just always take everything you’ve got. But there was a time when everything that small, modestly funded teams had was enough to race at sports car racing’s highest level and the Porsche 962 dominated that era.

The Porsche 962 won the 1985 and 1986 World Sportscar Championship, the 1985-1989 IMSA GT Championships, the All Japan Sports Prototype Championship from 1985 until 1989, and won Le Mans in 1986 and 1987 (and then again in 1994 as a highly modified Dauer 962). It also won Interserie championships from 1987 to 1992, every single Supercup series, and more.

It was among Porsche’s most successful race cars–which is saying something when you consider Porsche’s history. It was enormously reliable and ridiculously long lasting, but best of all, it gave underdogs the opportunity to compete against even the best-funded teams.

People talk a lot about unfair advantages in racing, but if you ask the people who raced and owned the car in its era of dominance, Porsche treated every one of its customers with totally fairly. And that was its advantage.

The 962 was the followup to Porsche’s long-time-Nurburgring-lap-record-holding 956 and was designed to qualify for IMSA’s new set of rules in the early-mid ‘80s.

Mark Raffauf, who has been IMSA’s Director of Series Platforms since 1974, told an audience at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance that the idea behind the ruleset was, indeed, to make an affordable prototype race car.

The rules necessitated a steel roll cage (as opposed to aluminum cages that were being used in Europe), a driver whose feet were behind the front wheels, and fuel-usage limits, among other things.

The 956 C

Porsche had developed the 956 for sports car racing just a few years earlier and could effectively modify its chassis to make it eligible for IMSA. But development didn’t stop there.

Alwin Springer, who helped provide American race teams with Porsches and Porsche parts between 1975 and 1996 says that Porsche was constantly updating the 962.

“Not three weeks went by without a change to the aero or the engine or whatever,” said Springer. “We made small pieces, tested them with Derek [Bell] and Jacky [Ickx] and then sold them to the teams.”

And that’s impressive because Porsche felt no need to deprive its customers of good parts to keep its factory team ahead. In F1, nobody running a Mercedes engine beats Mercedes. But Porsche was happy to have its customer teams be just as fast as its cars were.

That’s not to say that its factory team didn’t get the parts first, though. But as Derek Bell puts it, the team was just “testing them out.”

Rob Dyson, who raced and managed his own team of 962s in the ‘80s attests to Porsche’s equitable treatment of its teams.

“When a new part came out, we had access,” said Dyson. “The factory would win races when the new parts were good,” he admits, but “then teams could buy them.”

And being the first to try the new parts cut both ways. When the parts turned out not to be good, Porsche’s factory team would lose. Of course, as Fifth Gear’s Tiff Needell shows here, teams were also eager to upate their own cars.

But Porsche’s commitment to its customers meant that small-time teams could compete at the front of the grid.

Dyson, for instance, was able to run a two-car team with just one truck because Porsche brought all the spare parts he might need. That allowed his plucky little team to compete with the best Jaguars and Nissans, despite being far outspent by them.

Helping the whole machine along was the 962’s reliability and simplicity. According to Justin Bell, Derek’s son and also a former race car driver, the car is simple enough that anyone could jump in and drive away—albeit slowly—as Chris Harris proved back in 2013.

But as Norbert Singer, the car’s designer, explains to Harris, Porsche was used to making endurance racers. Since 1970, they had been at the head of the endurance racing field and that experience bled into the 962.

Every car was designed to last 24 hours, so for those racing shorter races, reliability was hardly an issue. As David Hobbs, the legendary broadcaster and race car driver put it, you didn’t really have to treat the 962 like a race car.

“It was a tremendously reliable car,” said Hobbs. “You could leave it idling next to the truck after a 24-hour race, drive it in [then] take it out two weeks later and start it right up to go racing again.”

As a result of its reliability and affordability, the list of notable drivers to have raced the car stretches from Derek Bell to his son Justin, Mario Andretti to his son Michael, and runs the spectrum of European, American, and Japanese legends.

Even in a series famed for its legendary cars, Group C, the 962 stands out. And despite teams eventually overtaking it, the 962 raced it from 1984 until 1992 and even after that teams still couldn’t let it go.

In 1994, Jochen Dauer managed to get a highly modified version of the 962 into Le Mans’ GT1 class and drove it to an overall victory, a full ten years after its first race.

For drivers lucky enough to race it, the 962 helped make the ‘80s a golden era of sports car racing.

“It was the greatest era of racing because anyone—within reason—could go out and buy one,” says Derek Bell. “Just ask Rob [Dyson]. For a few hundred thousand dollars you could go racing. Rob tried to buy an Audi and the engine program alone was a million dollars.”