Ingram's Flat Spot On: Porsche back to Le Mans?

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Flat Spot On by Jonathan Ingram Porsche Back To Le Mans? The American Le Mans Series finale at Laguna Seca was a blogger's dream. There was a twisted rumor behind every gnarly tree on the hills and outcroppings surrounding the northern ...


Flat Spot On
by Jonathan Ingram


Porsche Back To Le Mans?

The American Le Mans Series finale at Laguna Seca was a blogger's dream. There was a twisted rumor behind every gnarly tree on the hills and outcroppings surrounding the northern California circuit. The dry lake bed down below that comprises the paddock at the heart of the scene was awash with theories of who's doing what in 2009 and beyond.

Porsche, it seems, is doing something. But precisely what is another question. I met a painter, the oil and canvas type, who was charged with capturing one of Penske Racing's maize yellow Porsche Spyders for posterity in the run-up to Saturday's race start. I ran across a friend of Roger Penske's wife who acknowledged this may be a good thing, because she confirmed his LMP2 Porsche Spyder team is history after Laguna. A longtime friend who owns an ALMS team further confirmed a conversation about Penske's plans for next year, which do not include the ALMS.

So why was Hartmut Kristen, director of Porsche's motorsports division, so adamant that Penske and Porsche are not going their separate ways? Because they're not. Hence the dancing shadows behind the trees on the hillside, taunting those in the paddock trying to sort racing fantasy from serious sports car racing. This includes the blogosphere that has Penske jumping into bed with Toyota and its rumored hybrid project, starting with a Lexus-powered entry at the Daytona 24-hour in the Rolex Series, a race which has much to do with American sports car competition but nothing to do with Le Mans.

This is how I read the oak leaves:

Porsche and the rule makers at the Le Mans 24-hour appear to be on the same page at long last. That page is the next one in the world history books as well as rulebooks at Le Mans. Gasoline engines and diesels must all compete at smaller sizes to promote not only equitable racing, but development projects that manufacturers find worthwhile in an age of high carbon emissions and shrinking fossil fuel resources.

These details were sorted out at a meeting between Porsche's Kristen and journalists that took place in Marion's Hospitality on one of the intermediate steppes above Laguna's paddock. In other words, on firm neutral ground. Porsche's representative cannot speak for the Le Mans rule makers, he said. But it appears that Porsche will commit to an LMP1 car if the outline for the rules for 2011 first broached at Silverstone in September comes to fruition at Le Mans.

We pause to add here that Dr. Wolfgang Ulrich at Audi seems to think smaller engines is also the right direction for the Le Mans rulemakers when he was asked about it in Audi's hospitality area in the paddock. Needless to say, Acura is already building a P1 car for ALMS competition starting next year to be revealed in November. (Look for a coupe with a V-8 turbo.) So Honda, always into relatively small power plants, is on board with the concept as well.

And if Porsche goes to Le Mans, why not go with a team from the American Le Mans series, where development is anticipated to be very intense among Audi and Acura? Wouldn't it be logical after the success of Penske Racing with the LMP2 Spyder to proceed on the road to Le Mans with the same vaunted American team?

It's easy enough to read between the lines of conversation with Kristen. The problem for Porsche is how to spend its money in the short term, in the first year of a three-year program that starts in 2009.

Kristen must convince the board of directors at Porsche AG to approve a hefty budget for Le Mans for the first time since 1998. That's when the German manufacturer went to ground, building its paying customer program for uprated Porsche 911's, which were run in spec series all over the world as well as GT categories. Having been spoiled by all the money made on those 911 Carrera Cup and Super Cup and just plain ol' Cup cars made on the assembly line, the Porsche board now expects racing projects to pay dividends.

It pays to remember the Spyder program budget for the ALMS came from Porsche Cars North America, not the tight-fisted board in Germany. And, six cars were subsequently sold to customers for 1.7 million euros in addition to the three now in possession of Penske Racing. So Kristen has to come up with a program that will pass muster as relevant to Porsche's goal to remain the most profitable vehicle manufacturer in the world as well as an endurance racing champion.

It seems to me this means dropping the Penske squad into an R&D role for the short term, which includes helping to pay a budget of roughly $500,000 for Penske Racing to run the Daytona 24-hour. (The cost would be considerably lower if Penske did a full-season deal with Pontiac, hence saving Porsche money. Those dollars once again could come from Porsche's North American operations, which sell a lot of 911 race cars built on the assembly line in Germany. Please, let's not talk about how Porsche probably plays the exchange rates.)

For 2010, the Penske team becomes R&D for the new P1 program, possibly re-appearing at Laguna with an LMP1 chassis as early as the fall of ... 2009. The tub for the current LMP2 car, it should be noted, can become the basis for an LMP1 entry.

No wonder Rob Dyson was so anxious to talk when contacted in the paddock! In furiously rumorous times like these, journalists and the information they carry back and forth between different on-the-record conversations are popular indeed. Could it be that Porsche will pony up more dollars to Dyson Racing, which currently enters two privateer LMP2 Spyders, to keep developing its newborn direct injection engine on the track in 2009?

Dyson, of course, has an offer from Mazda to run the new Lola coupe with an AER engine next season. But given the choice of a low-budget deal from Mazda or an engine deal from Porsche, who ya gonna call?

The same would be true of Penske. Once you're hooked up with the lads from Porsche, even when everything is not a bed of roses while you're getting your fenders pounded by Acura due to a budget that may now be re-directed, it's difficult to break up. Mr. Kristen, in fact, was adamant that Penske was not necessarily out of the picture for 2009.

"How do you know he's not coming back?" the square-jawed German said with his usual intense, understated thunder.

Oh yes. Penske Racing likely will be back. With a Porsche that can win over-all, take names and kick some fenders at Le Mans.


    Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jonathan@jingrambooks.com.

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