► 550bhp, 970kg GT1 monster
► The last ‘road car’ to win Le Mans
► Porsche Museum lends us the keys
Pull yourself together, James, come on. This car has managed 2,972 miles of Le Mans at an average speed of 124mph and you’re worried about taking it on a 1.16-mile run up a glorified driveway in West Sussex? Well, yes, I am actually. For this isn’t a mass-produced press car like you usually see adorning the cover of CAR magazine, but something altogether far more precious.
Invaluable, irreplaceable, legendary – the Le Mans winning 1998 Porsche 911 GT1 belongs to Porsche’s Museum in Stuttgart. A jaw-dropping artifact from another era that dates back so far as to look and sound like nothing of the modern day, but recent enough that most of us can remember its fabled tale. The last production-based car to win at Le Mans, a perfect 50th birthday present to Porsche and an evocative icon to motorsport fans around the world.
The weight of its history – one that far outstrips the mass of its state-of-the-art carbon tub and surrounding ancillaries – sits heavy on my shoulders as I ready myself on the start line of the 2023 Goodwood Festival of Speed. For the next 20 minutes or so, this rolling requiem to radical racing cars is under my care and boy am I feeling the pressure.
One mistake on this slimy, wet hill climb (thanks British summer) and the stone-cold cut slicks will drop any form of purchase faster than I can get a decent curse in. And with the wet grass and unforgiving hay bales lining the course, that will be that. I won’t have just damaged a car, I will have broken the dreams and childhood memories of millions – including my own.
The Porsche GT1 wasn’t the fastest car at the 1998 running of Le Mans, nor was it the most outrageous (the Toyota GT One took those honours), and yet through dogged determination, teamwork and superior reliability it took the flag of the 66th running of the famous race, finishing a whole three laps ahead of the nearest non-Porsche challenger.
Following its last Le Mans win in 1994 with the Dauer 962, Porsche knew that it needed to be bold in order to remain competitive. Following draft designs that began in ’95 and then early incarnations through the next couple of years, the 1998 911 GT1 took a whole new approach.
A carbon-fibre monocoque chassis was brought in, while quarter-scale models were tested in order to finesse the aerodynamics. Weight and rigidity was also drastically improved, the 1998 car coming in at 940kg compared to 1,050kg for the ’97 version. This all materialising after team boss Herbert Ampferer convinced Porsche engineering director Horst Marchart to give the project another year to try and conquer Le Mans.
As it was, the winning car could only manage 5th place in qualifying, almost three seconds off the fastest lap of the no.35 Mercedes-Benz CLK-LM. It was clear that both the Merc and Toyota GT-One had more pace than the GT1 and this held true at the start of the race, where the former duo battled for the lead.
However, after just over an hour, the no.35 CLK-LM (piloted by a driver line-up that included a young Mark Webber) retired with a water pump failure, its sister car suffering from the same issue shortly afterwards. With the Porsche pair up to 3rd and 4th, Toyota were in a strong position for the win. However, subsequent issues for both Toyota entries meant that, with 16 hours remaining, Porsche took the lead for the first time.
What followed was a fierce tussle for the lead between the no.29 Toyota and both Porsches. Indeed, with around eight hours remaining the German entries had to simultaneously dive into the garage with mechanical issues, handing the lead back to the Toyota. Then, with around 1.5 hours left and the no.29 car holding a slender lead, Belgian Thierry Boutsen climbed in to take the final stint, all the while being hunted down by Allan McNish in the number 26 Porsche.
Boutsen maintained the lead, but eventually the pressure told on what was a largely untested racing car and transmission issues put them out of the race. This allowed both Porsche entries to cross the line in formation and take a famous 1-2 finish in what was Stuttgart’s 16th Le Mans win. Sadly, the Porsche GT1 would never race at Le Mans again following the demise of the GT1 class, with Porsche’s next outright win coming almost two decades later in 2017.
As the marshal readies himself to calmy wave me off the line, I take one last deep breath, look up towards the Goodwood Gods and build the revs to 4,000. Here goes everything. The clutch comes out and the rear wheels spin up immediately. I’m not sure what I was expecting with 550bhp coursing through cut slicks on a start line buffed to the point where it wouldn’t feel out of place in an Olympic curling session, but this is it.
I grab the brushed metal gear-lever to my right and short-shift to second. Clutch in for up changes and down changes, it’s not like any sequential box I’ve driven before. The engine whines as I stretch it up to the first corner, wipers flicking from left to right as my eyes pirch on stalks.
Time for another leap of faith. With no practice attempts I’m going in blind to T1, this next turn of the wheel defining my entire run. Crikey the steering is fast. Really fast. This thing must have been utterly sensational through the Porsche Curves at Le Mans. A quick adjustment on the steering angle and I’m through T1, then T2. Time to stretch it out down the closest that Goodwood’s driveway has to a straight.
The steering is bursting with information, my fingertips alive with the tarmac telegraphed almost instantaneously through to my parietal lobe. So much so that I can feel the tyres struggling for traction as I tentatively flex my right foot. My decision to turn the boost down before the run may have felt like a cop-out at the time, but now it feels entirely vindicated.
Braking down to the infamous Molecomb corner (a Hyundai EV ploughed straight on here only the day before) the car feels more stable, it’s front end biting into the apex and the rear staying in check. A short squirt up to the flint wall and then down from 3rd to 2nd. Snap. The rear steps out and with all the fear-filled reflexes of a parent grabbing their infant child from oncoming danger I get it back under control. A silly micro-mistake, too quick letting the clutch out on the downchange, but one I’ve gotten away with.
As ridiculous as it sounds, this is my very own Le Mans 24h right here. It may only be a minute-and-a-half long, but the concentration, emotions and sheer determination are palpable. One more corner to go. On a sunny day this downforce demon would take the final left-hander flat, but today it’s a safe lift before entry and then balance the throttle through mid-corner and exit.
As I give the GT1 one final burst of power to bring us across the line, my whole body relaxes. 90 seconds of pure adrenaline and joy simmer down inside me. Bursting out from under the trees into the holding area, all eyes turn to the GT1. An instantly recognisable bubble of beauty bursting full with the dreams of millions, it’s swooping form and haunches once again settle to a halt – another race won, another memory made.