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Archive: The mothballed racer that became a double Le Mans winner

Back in 1996 the Joest team took an unwanted car and won Le Mans for Porsche. The result was essentially the catalyst for it becoming Audi’s team of choice, a partnership that would go on to claim 13 wins in the 24-hour race. Autosport looked back 20 years on in the 2016 Le Mans supplement at the start of something big

1996 Le Mans 24 Hours Joest Porsche WSC 95

Audi didn’t have to look very far when it came to finding a race team for its debut at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1999. Joest Racing would have been top of anyone’s list after back-to-back victories in the French enduro in 1996 and ’97. But how it came to be in that position – one that has resulted in 11 Le Mans wins with the German manufacturer – is a complex story of chance and intrigue.

Joest, also a double winner of the 24 Hours in 1984 and ’85, had been out of sportscar racing since 1993, save for loaning some mechanics and equipment to Porsche for its successful Le Mans campaign the following year. It was in the midst of what turned out to be a four-year programme with Opel in the DTM and then the International Touring Car series, but boss Reinhold Joest hankered after a return to Le Mans.

He'd visited the 24 Hours in 1995, a year that Porsche was meant to have been present with its WSC95 prototype. The machine, developed by TWR Inc in the USA out of the Group C Jaguar XJR-14, was intended for an attack on the triple-crown sportscar enduros at Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans, only to be mothballed courtesy of a late rule change before the first of those races. The canny Joest saw the potential of the cars now gathering dust.

Sitting behind Porsche research and development boss Horst Marchart, the board member responsible for motorsport, at the manufacturer’s end-of-season prizegiving, he had an idea.

“I asked Herr Marchart what he was going to do with those cars,” remembers Joest. “I said to him, ‘Would you be interested in renting me them for Le Mans? I think I can win Le Mans for Porsche’.”

Joest Racing’s Ralf Juttner, then its technical director, takes up the story: “Reinhold persuaded Porsche by saying that they didn’t know how ready they were going to be with their new 911 GT1 [plans for which had been announced in November 1995], nor how good it was going to be. That was when both GTs and prototypes were running for the overall win.”

What became the car to beat at Le Mans in 1996 and 1997 nearly never saw the light of day

What became the car to beat at Le Mans in 1996 and 1997 nearly never saw the light of day

Photo by: William Murenbeeld / Motorsport Images

Juttner remembers the cars – one a new-build, one a converted Jaguar – “being in a terrible state”. More than that, the original design that involved grafting a Porsche 962 rear end onto a Jaguar tun sans roof barely added up to a raceable machine.

Norbert Singer, who led Porsche’s side of the development of the WSC95 at the end of 1994, recalls an incident in testing on the Michigan ‘roval’ that highlighted the original car’s deficiencies.

“Scott Goodyear was driving the car and came on the radio and said, ‘Look what I can do!’, but I didn’t see anything as he came past the pits,” said Singer. “The second time I realised that he was turning the steering wheel left to right and the car was going straight!”

When Singer belatedly put one of the WSC95s in Porsche’s wind tunnel, the results were disastrous.

"We did a lot of tyre testing because I wanted to be able to do triple stints, which wasn’t really common at Le Mans at that time. We had an 80-litre fuel tank and the GT1s had 100 litres and I thought we could overcome that disadvantage by doing triples" Ralf Juttner

“The first car had something like 95 per cent of the downforce on the rear,” says Juttner. “Maybe I’m exaggerating, and it was 85 per cent. Anyway, it wasn’t good.”

The developments – new front and rear bodywork and a one-piece floor – weren’t so much designed as “just built”, he continues.

“We didn’t have CAD [computer-aided design] in those days and there weren’t even many drawings. We did it in the old-school way,” says Juttner. “We gave it to DPS [the composites company set up by team owner Dave Price] and they did it all for us.”

There was also a new cooling, a revised fuel system and, very significantly, a major testing programme with Goodyear.

Joest oversaw significant revisions to the car which were deployed to excellent effect at Le Mans

Joest oversaw significant revisions to the car which were deployed to excellent effect at Le Mans

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The rules for GT1 cars and the prototypes were written to give each an equal chance. But the two types of car achieved their performance in different ways. The GT1 had more power and a bigger fuel tank, but narrower tyres and a higher minimum weight than the prototypes.

“We did a lot of tyre testing because I wanted to be able to do triple stints, which wasn’t really common at Le Mans at that time,” explains Juttner. “We had an 80-litre fuel tank and the GT1s had 100 litres and I thought we could overcome that disadvantage by doing triples.”

Juttner was bang on the money. The WSC95 was at least as quick as the two Porsche 911 GT1s and only went one lap less on a tank of fuel. Triple stinting – a tactic it adopted through the daylight hours of the race – gave the winning car, shared by Manuel Reuter, Davy Jones and Alex Wurz, the lead as early as the first hour.

From the second hour on, the car led all but a handful of laps. Its only problem was a loose oil catch tank that required replacing. It would be the only time the bodywork came off the winning WSC95 over the course of its two Le Mans victories.

The story of the WSC95 might have ended there, but for two things: the first was Porsche’s failure to agree to the sale of a pair of customer 911 GT1s to Joest for ’97; and the second an unlikely agreement made between Joest and Marchart months before.

The end of the ITC in 1996 had left Joest without work.

“We were trying to put together a GT1 programme,” says Juttner. “It wasn’t our favourite, but it was the only thing that looked feasible. Reinhold and I actually went to Weissach [Porsche’s motorsport HQ] to sign a contract.

Joest won again with the WSC 95 in 1997, as Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson were joined by Tom Kristensen

Joest won again with the WSC 95 in 1997, as Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson were joined by Tom Kristensen

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“We’d made an arrangement so that our guys could build the cars in our workshop to get to know them better. It was a little bit cheaper and we had better terms for spare parts. But once we got to Weissach, we were told that we couldn’t do this special deal. So we told them to forget it.”

That left the team with just a solo WSC95 in its workshops – Joest had cut a deal with Marchart that if he won Le Mans, he could keep the car. Yet there were still obstacles to clear to run it at the 24 Hours again.

Porsche opted not to continue its support, which had included the supply of engines and gearboxes in ’96, because it wanted to win Le Mans with the updated 911 GT1 Evo. What’s more, TWR wouldn’t supply parts this time around after re-entering the sportscar arena with Nissan.

There was also another unlikely hitch: Joest forgot to enter the race! The team had been granted a guaranteed place on the grid courtesy of its victory the previous year, but it didn’t realise it had to follow the normal entry procedures. A series of frantic phone calls from Germany to France resolved the situation after an eagle-eyed journalist alerted Joest to its error.

Its only problem in 1996 was a loose oil catch tank that required replacing. It would be the only time the bodywork came off the winning WSC95 over the course of its two Le Mans victories

The story of Joest’s Le Mans victory in 1997 – and its late decision to give a young Formula 3000 star by the name of Tom Kristensen his first start in the 24 Hours – has been told over and over again. A less interesting tale is the return of the two WSC95s to the factory fold in ’98 with revised front aerodynamics and the rear end from Porsche’s new 911 GT1-98. It wasn’t a success.

There was one final race for WSC95 at the inaugural Petit Le Mans 1000-mile enduro at Road Atlanta in October 1998. Audi Sport boss Wolfgang Ullrich was present that weekend and was regularly seen around the Joest truck, forcing the team to bat off the inevitable questions from the media.

Days later, what became the most successful relationship between a manufacturer and a team in the history of the Le Mans 24 Hours was announced.

Two updated WSC 95s were run by the factory in 1998, but neither saw the finish

Two updated WSC 95s were run by the factory in 1998, but neither saw the finish

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch / Motorsport Images

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