Friday favourite: The last Penske-Porsche partnership that sets expectations for 963

It may have 'only' been an LMP2 car, but the Porsche RS Spyder regularly punched above its weight and repeatedly humbled the more powerful Audi LMP1 cars during a three-year stint when the cars were run by factory partner Team Penske. Programme stalwart Sascha Maassen reflects on his favourite car in Autosport's ongoing weekly series

Friday favourite: The last Penske-Porsche partnership that sets expectations for 963

The band is back together. Penske and Porsche have teamed up to run the new 963 LMDh car in both the World Endurance Championship and IMSA SportsCar Championship. And expectations are rightly high after the huge success enjoyed by their last collaboration on the RS Spyder LMP2 project, which yielded American Le Mans Series class titles in all three years that the factory programme ran.

All who raced the RS Spyder recall it fondly. With less power than the LMP1 Audi turbodiesels but less bulk too, which it used to good effect in the corners, it famously won the 2008 Sebring 12 Hours outright on a day when Audi and guesting Peugeot dropped the ball. But that was just the most famous of its overall ALMS victories – it managed eight in a row during its competitive zenith in 2007, before Acura turned up the wick in 2008 and made it a more equal contest.

As the driver who took the RS Spyder to its first race win, on debut at Laguna Seca in 2005, and delivered Porsche the title at the first time of asking the following year there was little doubt that Sascha Maassen would choose it as his favourite car. The 1994 Macau Grand Prix winner was heavily involved in developing the V8-powered machine, Porsche’s first bespoke prototype since the LMP2000 was canned, and ultimately won seven times – including twice outright in that hallowed 2007 campaign – in the ALMS aboard Penske-run RS Spyders.

“You can ask any driver, and they will always say how good this car was,” says Maassen, who praises Porsche’s work on a revised car for 2007 that was estimated to be 20% more aero-efficient. “Especially the 2007 and ’08 car, it was even much easier to drive and much faster. That was amazing how much they made in one year.”

Having won three titles in as many years together with Lucas Luhr between 2002 and 2004, two in the ALMS GT class and the third after switching to FIA GT in the secondary N-GT division, the German pair were odds on to race the RS Spyder and had a key early involvement in shaping the cockpit functions.

“Sitting in the beginning in a wooden box and designing where the buttons go – for me, it was like, ‘Why are they asking me?’” says Maassen. “I was so honoured.”

The Penske-run Porsche RS Spyders regularly upstaged Audi in 2007, winning outright eight times in a row

The Penske-run Porsche RS Spyders regularly upstaged Audi in 2007, winning outright eight times in a row

Photo by: Dan Streck

Not wanting to scupper his chances of getting to drive the car for the first time, Maassen sought permission from the Porsche hierarchy before having the hernia operation he required after a training accident, knowing it would put him out of action for around a fortnight.

He takes up the story of how he came to give the car its first shakedown on Porsche’s Weissach test track: “And I think four days after my operation, they called me and said: ‘Look, the car is ready now, it’s a little bit early. Are you okay to drive?’ And I was on crutches, I could not walk, and I said, ‘Yes, of course, I am ready to drive!’ I had a little problem getting into the car…

“This is one of my most memorable moments, when I drove for the first time with this car on the development centre. When you drive out, nobody is there. And then the people must have heard the different engine sound because it was not a six-cylinder boxer Porsche engine, it was a V8. Then more and more people were coming to watch! Also the boss [Hartmut Kristen, then head of motorsport at Porsche] came, and asked me about how the car was. I will never forget that, that was really cool.”

Persistent problems with the lightweight transverse gearbox caused the RS Spyder’s planned debut at the 2005 Petit Le Mans to be postponed. And even after Maassen stuck the car on class pole at Laguna Seca, he and his mechanics had little expectation that it would last.

"They split us because they were afraid of DNFs, and we never had anymore! We both had the same points and we became co-champions" Sascha Maassen

“A sensor was showing us a high temperature on the steering rack,” he recalls. “I remember, my mechanic was strapping me in and said, ‘Enjoy the half-hour maybe you have, the temperature is so high, you will not have more than half an hour’. So I was going into the race with the expectations of just doing half an hour, but the problem was not the steering rack, the sensor was just broken.”

The car ran uninterrupted for the duration. And due to a communication error, Maassen remained at the wheel for two hours and 55 minutes – five short of his maximum driver time – before finally handing over to Luhr, who brought the car home for a class win on debut. A splash-and-dash fuel stop, five minutes from the finish, dropped it from fourth to fifth overall.

“After that race I asked for a new seat,” Maassen chuckles. “But we won, that was lucky.”

Maassen and Luhr won the LMP2 class on the car's belated debut at Laguna Seca in 2005 after a marathon stint from the former

Maassen and Luhr won the LMP2 class on the car's belated debut at Laguna Seca in 2005 after a marathon stint from the former

Photo by: Sutton Images

Gearbox problems caused early exits from the first two rounds of 2006, as Penske scaled up to a second car for Timo Bernhard and Romain Dumas, but come round three at Mid-Ohio the RS Spyder gave a demonstration of what was to come.

Friday favourite: Bernhard on Dumas

Bernhard and Dumas headed a Penske 1-2, beating the venerable Audi R8 that would bow out with a 50th outright ALMS win at Lime Rock. It was to be the only outright win for the RS Spyder in 2006, and reliability remained patchy – to the point that Porsche decided to split Maassen and Luhr for the final four races to avoid putting all their eggs into one basket.

“In 2006 we were struggling a lot,” confirms Maassen, who was joined by Bernhard as Luhr paired up with Dumas. “With four races to go the #7 car was out of contention for the championship and our [#6] car with Lucas and myself, we were not leading because we had so many technical problems. So they did actually split us, ‘because if you guys are going to DNF one more time then we’re not going to win the championship and that would be a disaster for us’.

“I remember the call that I got from [Porsche engineer] Roland Kussmaul, and his attitude before he actually said something was so humble and thoughtful, I already knew before he was starting to talk.”

Maassen asked Kussmaul to promise that if reliability improved and the RS Spyders made it to the finish of all remaining races in 2006, that Penske would ensure he and Luhr still got to share the title.

“And in the end, exactly that’s what happened,” he says. “They split us because they were afraid of DNFs, and we never had anymore! We both had the same points and we became co-champions. I didn’t want to be alone champion, it was never my goal, I just wanted to be champion and I found it nicer to share it.”

Several factors meant Porsche could challenge Audi more regularly in 2007. The turbodiesels had a nine-litre reduction in fuel tank capacity, while until the Lime Rock round LMP2 cars weren’t required to run the five percent power reduction mandated by the Le Mans 24 rulebook. Audi also didn’t bring its 2007-spec R10 until Mosport, while Porsche made its aforementioned improvements to the bodywork that simultaneously increased downforce and reduced drag.

After claiming the LMP2 title with Luhr in 2006, Maassen and new partner Briscoe won three times in 2007 but missed out to their team-mates

After claiming the LMP2 title with Luhr in 2006, Maassen and new partner Briscoe won three times in 2007 but missed out to their team-mates

Photo by: Michael L. Levitt / Motorsport Images

Bernhard and Dumas found another gear and went on to take the 2007 title with eight wins from 12 races, as Maassen forged a new partnership with Ryan Briscoe. He regards the Australian as “the strongest team-mate I ever had”, although results often didn’t go their way. Maassen feels he lost out to Bernhard in the weight stakes.

“Compared to Timo, I was like 20 kilos heavier and that is always a little disadvantage,” he says.

“Little things that all came together” played a role too. Both cars were severely delayed by electrical gremlins at Sebring, although the #6 crew had already suffered a fractured brake line and so finished way down on the sister car. It had to make an early stop for a puncture at Long Beach (where Dyson Racing’s customer RS Spyder completed a podium lockout), the pits were closed when Maassen was just about to come in at Houston, and they had to make a long stop at Road America to clear carbonfibre debris from under its nose.

"On the first day I was the fastest Dunlop car overall – there were LMP1 cars with Dunlop, but they were all behind! That was really cool" Sascha Maassen

Incidents in traffic at Detroit (for Briscoe, Maassen later clattered by Stefan Johansson’s Acura) and Petit Le Mans (Maassen) also cost ground. But they took LMP2 spoils at St. Petersburg despite Briscoe incurring a penalty for knocking Marino Franchitti off, then won outright both at Utah’s Miller Motorsports Park with a well-executed strategy and at Lime Rock as Briscoe used fresh tyres to pass Bernhard.

Maassen was joined by a third (fourth counting the four alongside Bernhard in 2006) different team-mate in the form of Patrick Long for 2008. Dumas and Bernhard defended their crown against stiff competition from Acura, which won six races to Porsche’s five – including a podium lockout at Detroit. New direct injection engines underlined Porsche’s commitment to ongoing development.

The final year of Penske’s three-year deal with Porsche wasn’t a vintage one for Maassen. On the day that the RS Spyder programme peaked at Sebring, Maassen’s car was conspicuous by its absence after leaking fluid – which a change of oil pump couldn’t solve – caused the engine to overheat, already putting he and Long at a points deficit from the off.

“From then on we were already way behind in the championship,” he laments.

Long had an eventful race at St. Petersburg before leading at Long Beach until a puncture dropped them to third. And another badly timed safety car just as Maassen was passing the pits at Lime Rock also saw a potential win go begging. He missed Detroit, before returning to complete an RS Spyder LMP2 podium sweep on the factory programme’s farewell at Petit Le Mans headed by an additional entry of Briscoe and Helio Castroneves.

A puncture dashed hopes of victory at Long Beach in 2008

A puncture dashed hopes of victory at Long Beach in 2008

Photo by: Richard Dole / Motorsport Images

Maassen didn’t win at Le Mans with the RS Spyder, but finished second in 2008 with Team Essex – after a puncture and a misfire which necessitated changing the fuel injection system and engine electrics left it seven laps down on the Van Merksteijn Porsche – and was on course for a repeat in 2009 with Team Goh when 2004 winner Seiji Ara crashed with a little over an hour to go.

His 2008 experience of outpacing Van Merksteijn’s Jos Verstappen – and several fellow Dunlop runners in LMP1 – on the opening day is a prized one before a puncture-induced scare at the Porsche Curves meant he was unable to match the Michelin-shod Dutch entry.

“On the first day I was the fastest Dunlop car overall – there were LMP1 cars with Dunlop, but they were all behind!” he remembers. “That was really cool. They had all these qualifying tyres, and I remember they gave me two sets. The first set I used up too early, so when I came to the Porsche corners the tyre was already done.

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“I came back to the pits and said, ‘Please do not warm the rear tyres anymore, I can warm them up on the track’. I was sent out with cold rear tyres, but it worked very well. I did the fastest lap that day and only in the second lap I lost a little bit and I decided before the Porsche corners to let it go, so I braked 50 metres earlier. And that’s when the read tyre blew up! I was so lucky that I had this extra 50 metres to catch the car because I would have crashed big time.

“I came to the pits and they said: ‘You want to have another set?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t want to have another set! I’m really scared right now!’”

Maassen took second at Le Mans in 2008 aboard the Team Essex RS Spyder he shared with John Nielsen and Casper Elgaard

Maassen took second at Le Mans in 2008 aboard the Team Essex RS Spyder he shared with John Nielsen and Casper Elgaard

Photo by: Jeff Bloxham / Motorsport Images

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