The 2007 Detroit round of the American Le Mans Series provided a snapshot of one of this decade's great sports car rivalries. The battle between the Porsche RS Spyder and the Audi R10 TDI, two very different cars from across a class divide, produced some of the best racing the ALMS has ever seen. And there was no better example than the battle that played out between the walls of the Belle Isle circuit that September.
The light and nimble LMP2-class Porsche, with its 3.4-liter V8, was the faster car around the 2.07-mile circuit, but the LMP1 Audi V10 turbodiesel had a huge power advantage. That allowed it to blast ahead of the Penske-run RS Spyder on three separate restarts in the closing stages at Detroit.
Each time after the safety car pulled in, Romain Dumas came back at Audi driver Emanuele Pirro. The Porsche nipped past the big R10 with five minutes to go, but the wily Italian wasn't giving up. He drafted back into the lead on the back straight, only to overcook his braking and allow his rival past for good. It was thrilling stuff with a hint of contact along the way.
Dumas and Timo Bernhard notched up a fourth consecutive ALMS victory that weekend, the eighth for Penske and Porsche against the might of Audi. Yet Penske didn't have things its own way. Just look at the margin of victory at some of those races: a second and a bit here, under two seconds there.
The Porsche was never meant to win ALMS races outright, or at least, it wasn't the intention of the Automobile Club de l'Ouest when it came up with the LMP2 class. The category was conceived for privateers, which was one reason why the French organization cut the power for P2s for 2007 by five percent.
IMSA, the ALMS's sanctioning body, opted not to enforce this move, at least not until midseason, but the change that certainly did make a difference in America was a reduction in fuel capacity for the diesels. The Audis lost nine liters (nearly two gallons), which would prove crucial in the cut and thrust of the tactical gunfight that is the ALMS. At the same time, Porsche arrived with an improved version of the RS Spyder, and the Penske team now had a full season of sports car competition under its belt, after joining the ALMS at the final round of 2005. Suddenly the stars had aligned to create some brilliant racing.
The Champion team, installed as Audi's factory squad when the R10 ran a part season in 2006, knew that the Penske Porsches would be in the mix the moment the evolution Spyder turned up at Sebring for the winter test in early 2007. “No brake lights at Turn 1, and just a breathe on the throttle,” remembers Brad Kettler, technical director at Champion at the time. “That car had such poise and balance, I knew straight away that we had a fight on our hands.”
Dumas remembers his first test in the revised Spyder in the 2006-'07 off-season. “I was testing the car for the first time at the Weissach test track and was told to do three laps,” he explains. “I knew the best time of the old car and, as I came in, I was already a second up on that! The team had to confirm that the dashboard readout was right! I couldn't believe it.”
The Spyder 2, as the drivers like to call it, wasn't a new car, although aerodynamicist Michael Pfadenhauer, who had joined from Audi, is understood to have wanted to start from a clean sheet of paper. Instead, he got the chance to revise the aero package, which required a new top section of the RS Spyder's carbon-composite monocoque.
The original aerodynamics of the RS Spyder had been developed in the same quarter-scale wind tunnel that had spawned the legendary Porsche 956 Group C design nearly a quarter of a century before. The snub-nosed Porsche wasn't the prettiest thing on the grid and would suffer an inherent understeer problem, so Porsche didn't get it right the first time with the Spyder – but it was on a steep learning curve with the project.
That sounds like a strange comment about a manufacturer with 16 Le Mans wins to its name, but Porsche had been out of the sports prototype game for a long time. It had withdrawn from top-line sports car racing at the end of 1998 and its first planned comeback in 2000 was stillborn when the LMP 2000 was canned after only two tests at Weissach.
Pfadenhauer's arrival brought Porsche's aerodynamic expertise up to date. And, in the same way that Audi uses Dallara's facilities in Italy, its German rival went to Formula 1-standard Aerolab facility in Italy. It's also important to remember that the RS Spyder wasn't conceived as a tool with which Penske could challenge for outright honors. The intention was that it would be a customer car.
“The RS Spyder is in the tradition of the 956 and the 962 Group C cars, which were successfully raced by the factory and privateers,” says Uwe Brettel, motorsport boss of Porsche Cars North America at the start of the project. “It gave our customers, who were running the 911 GT3-RSR, a goal, a car to aspire to.”
Brettel insists that the RS Spyder was a success as a customer vehicle, even though no one stepped up from the GT ranks to run it. However, Dyson and CytoSport ran cars in the USA, while four teams represented Porsche in LMP2 in the Le Mans Series in Europe and at the Le Mans 24 Hours. The car was undefeated in LMP2 in eight starts, including two victories at Le Mans.
The RS Spyder never challenged for overall honors in Europe. Faster tracks had a lot to do with it, but as Penske technical chief Nigel Beresford points out, “You needed a team like Penske to get the best out of the car.” The European teams – Verschuur, Horag, Essex Racing and Team Goh – were all true privateers.
Beresford expands on his theme. “When you work for Penske, nothing other than winning is acceptable,” he says. “Setup was our responsibility, and we put a huge amount of effort into operating the car. We put a lot into understanding how the differential worked, we improved the refueling and with Roger [Penske] and Tim [Cindric] on the pit wall, we were pin sharp strategically.”
Eight wins during an amazing summer for Porsche and Penske was the result. It was the defining season for a prototype that stands comparison with some of Porsche's greatest racecars.
Spyder men reflect
Sascha Maaseen, first roll-out of the RS Spyder at the Weissach test track – June 8, 2005
I got to do the very first laps in the car and I'll always remember that it seemed like the whole of Weissach was watching. I think there were something like 2,500 people who worked there and I reckon there wasn't much work being done at that moment. I think everyone heard an engine fire up, realized it wasn't a flat-six and rushed out to see what was happening. It was a very special moment for me.
Klaus Graf, victory for CytoSport with Greg Pickett at Lime Rock – July 24, 2010
That victory, our first one with the car, was so hard-fought, which made it all the more rewarding. I'd pulled something like 20 seconds on David Brabham in the Highcroft HPD, but then the cloud came over and it changed the race completely. When it was hot, I'd been really strong and David was struggling. It switched around when the temperatures dropped and he came back at me. It all boiled down to the final 10 minutes. It was all pretty dramatic and we made contact on the front straightaway.
Uwe Brettel, victory for Romain Dumas, Timo Bernhard and Emmanuel Collard at the Sebring
12 Hours – March 15, 2008
It has to be the Sebring victory, and not only because it was the biggest win for the car. A Sebring victory for Roger Penske completed his team's record in the big American sports car races. It was the one missing from his résumé. It was an emotional event for everyone involved.