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The 919 Hybrid: Porsche’s Epic Return to Le Mans

Jeepers creepers, those are terrifying peepers.

Porsche won the entire race (not just its class) 16 times over three decades.

To say that Porsche has a healthy involvement in motorsport wouldn’t be doing it justice. For as long as the 911 has been around (longer, actually), the stalwart from Stuttgart has been focused on passing the checkered flag behind nobody. Its stomping ground used to be the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race, but it’s been years since the automaker has participated. The 919 Hybrid seeks to remedy that.

For the first time in decades, Porsche has built a prototype with the express intent of entering it in the 24 Hours, a day-long endurance race that demands the utmost from both the cars and their drivers. Things will go wrong – parts will fail, people will make mistakes – but if you’re fast enough, you get to hold the trophy high for yet another year. The 919 is built to stress the endurance portion, and the result is quite the vehicle – and quite the pretty face, we might add.

Porsche 919 Hybrid

Look! They’ve put it through a wind tunnel! That means it must be good.

The gas-powered portion of the 919 Hybrid is a 2.0-liter V-4 engine, capable of 9,000 rpm. It’s mated to two different energy recovery systems, both of which combine with the gasoline engine for a combined output of 500 horsepower. The first system uses a generator to store energy recovered from hot exhaust gases.

The second system, similar to the one used in the 918 Spyder hypercar, recovers energy from braking, storing it in a battery. When that battery is full, it can be used to provide power to the front wheels, effectively making the car all-wheel-drive for a short burst of time. It’s an instance where road cars help develop technology for race cars, a process that’s usually flipped around the other way.

Porsche needs to get back to Le Mans. For the unaware, Porsche is actually the winningest constructor in Le Mans history. The automaker won the entire race (not just its class) 16 times over three decades: 1970, 1971, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1981-1987, 1994, and 1996-1998. It did so using seven different cars: 917, 936, 935, 956, 962 (including the Dauer 962), TWR Porsche WSC-95, and the 911 GT1.

The 917 was Porsche’s first Le Mans winner, capturing the top podium spot in both 1970 and 1971. It was powered by a flat-12 engine, and reached 60 mph in 2.3 seconds – two-tenths faster than a Bugatti Veyron, a car with nearly twice the horsepower, built nearly four decades later. You may recognize the 917 from its role alongside Steve McQueen in Le Mans.

The 935 and 936 swapped victories in 1976, 1977, 1979, and 1981, with the former winning three of the four years. The 936 was a purpose-built prototype for the FIA’s Group 6 category, whereas the 935 was a factory racing version of the 911 Turbo, constructed for use in FIA Group 5.

JLP-3 935

The JLP-3 is the winningest Porsche 935 in existence. (Photo Credit: Jeremy Cliff)

Between 1982 and 1985, Le Mans belonged to the 956. The 956, a prototype built for FIA Group C racing, completely dominated the track in 1982. The 956 led the race for all 24 hours and finished 1-2-3 on the podium, setting the stage for back-to-back-to-back victories in the same model. At this point, Porsche had won Le Mans for five straight years.

Next came the 962, which was built to directly succeed the 956. One of Porsche’s most hallowed racing cars, the 962 came out of the box running, scoring another two victories at Le Mans in 1986 and 1987. That gave Porsche a seven-year run of first-place finishes, a record that stands to this day. The car came back to win again in 1994, after Porsche customer Jochen Dauer got the 962 back into the race (in the GT1 class) by creating some road-legal variants.

Porsche returned to the top of the race results in 1996 and 1997, thanks to Tom Walkinshaw Racing. TWR took a Jaguar XJR-14, replaced several vital components (including the engine, which was replaced with a Porsche flat-six), and the TWR Porsche WSC-95 was complete. Only two were built.

While the TWR Porsche WSC-95 dominated the overall race, Porsche’s 911 GT1 was busy winning its class. The 911 GT1 had the front end of a 993-generation 911 road car, with the rear end from the 962. The race car was built before any road-going versions, a stark contrast from every other competitor in the GT1 class, including McLaren and Ferrari. The rule book was stretched to its extreme, but it wasn’t enough to secure an overall win – until 1998. Despite being slower than the competition, a number of mishaps and breakdowns meant Porsche went soaring past everyone else, winning the overall race.

Since then, though, Porsche has stayed out of Le Mans. In that sense, the 919 represents a true return to form for the automaker, which still has plenty of offerings spread all across the motorsport universe. The race isn’t for a little while, but until then, we’ll keep drooling over the 919’s beautiful body, including a headlight arrangement that’s mirrored in Porsche’s road-car daytime running light design. In a perfect world, another Jochen Dauer will come around and build a roadgoing 919 Hybrid; street-legal 962s are pretty much the coolest thing ever:

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Written by Lewis Shaw

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