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Walter Röhrl Honored By the FIA Hall of Fame

 

Röhrl’s affiliation with Porsche began with a handful of races in 1981—including the San Remo Rally, in which he used a 911.

Few have risen to such prominence in rallying to become a near-household name like Röhrl, who began his rally career fifty years ago. Within three years of amateur rallying, he became a factory driver with Opel. His career launched then and there, and throughout the seventies and eighties, he went on to drive just about anything under the sun. With wins at Le Mans, Pikes Peak, and most WRC stages, he’s a unique driver with the versatility and mechanical sympathy to climb to such levels in the most dangerous decades of motorsport. This is why the 6’6″ German ace, though never having competed in Formula 1, is one of the few rally drivers/non-F1 champions to have the privilege of being inducted into the Motorsport Hall of Fame.

Röhrl won the Monte Carlo Rally four times in total, driving four different marques, and was world rally champion twice.

Has affiliation with Porsche started in 1981, when he entered the German Rally Championship in a 924, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in a 944 LM, and the San Remo Rally in a 911. Even when leaving his fourth decade,the time at which most retire from racing, Röhrl remained involved in motorsports—mainly through development.

Röhrl, one of the few who could drift the Carrera GT confidently, helped in the development in all of Porsche’s flagships for the last thirty years.

With his touch and sensitivity, he helped develop the 964’s four-wheel drive system, as well as Porsche’s greatest flagships including the Porsche 959, Carrera GT and 918 Spyder. Years of bold but methodical driving helped make these machines the masterpieces they were, and for that alone, Röhrl deserves to stand among the best.

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Porsche 911 on safari

Did you know the Porsche 911’s first ever race was, in fact, a rally? The year was 1965, and Huschke von Hanstein, race director and Porsche PR officer, was keen to show off the dexterity of the company’s new sports car, which could be driven on the road and raced at weekends. Herbert Linge and Peter Falk were thrust into a 2.0-litre 911 for the legendary Monte Carlo rally, driving the car from Bad Homburg, Germany, to the Prince’s Palace in Monaco, finishing a creditable fifth overall. A 911 would win the notorious event outright in 1968 in the hands of ‘Quick Vic’ Elford, the first of many key rallying successes which forms an important part of the 911’s 30,000 overall race victories to date.

Meanwhile, alongside the sport kits which formed the basis of Porsche’s famous Sports Purpose manual in 1966, the company offered a rally kit – option 9552. Comprising of a pair of Recaro seats, roll bar, a 100-litre fuel tank with front hood filler, adjustable Koni shock absorbers plus subtle engine modifications, the kit was intended for customers who wished to participate in long-distance rallies.

Notable success on the rally stage has continued throughout the 911’s history. Who can forget the heroics of the factory-supported Prodrive SC RSs in the 1980s, a precursor to the 1984 Paris-Dakar-winning 953 and, later, the 959, which was built for the very purpose of rallying before the demise of Group B just before its release. The air-cooled 911 remains a regular participant in global regulation and speed rallies, with most notable success courtesy of British Porsche specialists, Tuthills. They have campaigned all manner of classic 911s in various rallies of considerable magnitude right around the world, with the late, legendary rally maestro Björn Waldegård often found at the wheel right up until his death in 2014. Current works driver Romain Dumas, meanwhile, developed his own 997 GT3 RS R-GT which competed alongside a rival 997 – again from Tuthill – in the 2015 WRC, with Porsche itself testing a Cayman GT4 Clubsport R-GT in 2018 with a view to joining the WRC series. As you can see, rallying isn’t a mere offshoot of the Porsche 911 – it’s forever been part of its DNA.

Meanwhile, safari 911s have well and truly captured the imaginations of wider enthusiasts in the last two to three years, catapulted into the limelight by pro racing driver and Porsche enthusiast Leh Keen’s imaginative safari builds. Others have since joined the market with their own off-road expressions of the 911, but what are these cars really like to drive? Today we’re going to find out, thanks to an invite from Makellos Classics to test their most remarkable project to date. Matt Kenyon, owner of the San Diego-based company, explains: “Safari cars are popular right now so we wanted to try our interpretation of it. Some cars have the look, but we wanted to build a car that you could legitimately take off-road.”

The 911 in question is a 1978 European SC, which Makellos acquired in April 2018 with 125,000 kilometres on the clock. As Matt describes, its spec was perfect for the project at hand: “When we came across this 911 SC it had a pretty cool factory spec. It had sunroof delete, lower console delete and radio delete. It just screamed at us to build a rally spec 911.” Work started in May and was completed by mid-September, an incredible feat when you consider this was a passion project which Matt, manager Greg Bartley and the rest of the Makellos team had to fit around a busy stream of paying client jobs.

After a strip down the team began with crucial fabrication work to the 911’s chassis, which entailed custom bracing all over the car as well as reinforcement of the rear strut towers. The front strut towers were custom braced, and custom front and rear skid plates were added too.

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Will This Cayman R-GT Concept Go Into Production?

Privateers have been rallying Porsche’s Cayman GT4 in FIA R-GT class racing for a couple seasons now—it was 997 GT3s before that. Now, Porsche is putting a corporate a toe in the water to investigate whether the company could sell a ready-made Caymany R-GT to the buying public.

Next weekend in Germany, Porsche will unveil a specially-built GT4 Clubsport to run as the course car, sweeping each stage to make sure it’s clear and safe for the Rallye Deutschland competitors to race. Porsche is calling this a critical test under real conditions, and has said that a decision will be made as to series production of an R-GT class spec Cayman GT4 Clubsport later this year.

Romain Dumas has been racing and rallying just about anything with wheels for his entire career, and that continues, as he is the development driver for this project. For the last twelve years he’s been contesting rallies all over the world with his own rally team. He’s also a four-time Pikes Peak International Hillclimb champion, including setting the outright record this year in Volkswagen’s all-electric I.D.-R. Similarly, Porsche factory drivers Richard Lietz and Timo Bernhard are also seasoned in the art of rallying, and were involved in the GT4 Clubsport concept rally car test program.

The R-GT Cayman runs essentially unchanged from the already-available GT4 Clubsport package, with a naturally aspirated 385 horsepower 3.8-liter flat six engine mounted in the middle and mated to a PDK gearbox. Obviously, in preparation for rallying, the wheels, tires, and suspension have been optimized for the discipline, and full skid plates have been added to the underbody of the car, as well as energy-absorbing foam, as used in WRC cars, added to the doors.

Dr. Frank-Steffen Walliser, Vice President Motorsport and GT Car:

“We’re looking forward to seeing how the rally world responds to our FIA R-GT concept study. I would like to invite every interested driver and team principal to visit the service park and take a close look at our rally concept car. Based on the feedback and the interest from potential customers, we will then decide by the end of the year whether we’ll develop in the mid-term a competition car for near-standard rallying based on a future Porsche model.”

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Romain Dumas Drives a Rally-Spec Cayman GT4 Past the Limit of Adhesion

Getting to see a Le Mans ace and outright record holder at Pikes Peak behind the wheel of anything is special. It’s even better when those visuals are complemented by one of the most glorious exhaust notes in the world of motorsport.

Dumas uses all his talent to execute a tidy, efficient, drift to point him in the right direction a little sooner.

Romain Dumas has mastered most vehicles with four wheels, and as he’s a curious, old-school kind of driver who delves into new environments and excels immediately. Dumas has won twice in the R-GT class in a 997 GT3, but has since started developing the newer, better balanced contender for R-GT: The Cayman GT4 R-GT.

This snarling little beast is stripped and pared down to make it even more agile. Fixed windows with sliding ports trim weight but make the cabin a sauna, so a roof snorkel is implemented to keep the temperatures bearable. No official specs are available yet, but Porsche is reportedly developing this car for WRC competition, so expect some wild figures.

The Cayman GT4 R-GT will debut at Rallye Deutschland next weekend, and if it does well enough, Porsche may consider building a factory version based upon a future model. We wait with bated breath.

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The Joys And Stresses Of An Air-cooled Breakdown

Stranded at the side of the road is never a good feeling, especially when you’re dealing with an unfamiliar and seemingly phantom electrical problem. I’ve driven my 1976 912E about 25,000 miles since I purchased it in August of 2016, and it’s been absolutely faultless in all that time. It’s a little finicky sometimes, but has never left me stranded. That is, until last weekend.

Last weekend, I attended the Driving While Awesome! Coastal Range Rally, which is an awesome point-to-point enthusiast rally with no timing or scoring. It’s been lovingly referred to as ‘Summer Camp for Big Kids’, because it’s three days of driving with about 100 of your favorite car friends. As with last year, I brought my trusty 912E for a weekend of awesome driving on awesome roads. This time, however, it briefly failed me.

Here’s what happened, and how we managed to pull out of it unscathed

Thursday morning I drove over to SFO, from my home base of Reno, Nevada, to pick up my co-driver Adam Hove -who flew in from San Diego for the event. I80 crosses the Sierras at over 8600 feet above sea level, and the snow was coming down inch after inch. The road was closed to all drivers without snow chains. Luckily I had a set in my Porsche’s Mary Poppins-esque front trunk, so I chained up and kept rolling. A few hours later I was parked up at SFO waiting for Adam, arriving just minutes after his plane landed.

That night we checked into our lodging and scooted into town for a relaxing coffee and a chat about what we were looking forward to in the coming three days. Once caffeinated, we climbed back aboard the good ship Porsche. That was when the problems began. No matter how long I would crank the car over, it would not fire to life. My 912 wasn’t particularly low on fuel, but it was on a slope, so we tried to rock the Porsche while cranking to see if the fuel pickup wasn’t working. The fuel pump was certainly running, but it was dark and our capacity for diagnostics was minimal.

Before tromping down the street to pick up a fuel can and a few extra gallons, I remembered that I’d brought a can of starting fluid, so we squirted a few dabs of that good juice into the intake trumpet, and my 912 fired to life. Hmmm, curious. The Porsche has been running finicky at low altitude since I got it, which I think is related to a vacuum leak that I have yet to trace down. It’s usually no more than a minor inconvenience, and had never caused anything like this. Oh well, time to motor on. By the end of the night, the non-start issue had evaporated. The Porsche fired like normal, and didn’t need starting fluid again. I bought a nearby AutoZone out of their stock, just in case.

Friday went off without a hitch, with maybe 10% of our stops for the day requiring a bit of starting fluid to get the little 2-liter rumbling and spitting to life. The roads were great, and the weather was chilly, but dry. We were having a riot giving this car the full beans. We’d started the day in Hollister, California and wound our way down some of the greatest driving roads the state has to offer to get to Paso Robles for our overnight stop. We went to sleep happy and tired that night. The camaraderie between rally attendees was stellar, and I was getting along great with my co-driver (which doesn’t always happen).

Saturday started with another cold but great day ahead

I handed the keys to Adam and had intended to let him drive for much of the day. We hopped across the Carrizo plain out to Soda Lake for a group photo, and then it was a short section up and down the twisty and curvy Highway 58 from Santa Margarita to McKittrick before lunch, so I requested the keys back for this section, one of my favorite driving routes. I was winding my way up the 58, pulling hard in fourth gear at 4500 rpm, hounded by one of the Sharkwerks cars behind, trying to keep up with a friend’s hot Carrera 3.2 ahead, when it happened. As we rounded the final corner of the uphill section and the road flattened out to the plateau before winding down again, the tachometer dropped to zero and the engine conked out. Fear gripped my soul tight as I coasted to the side of the dusty lonely road.

As happens when your Porsche breaks, a million possibilities flood your brain, and it’s impossible to think straight. After a half dozen other rally participants pulled over to help out, we set about attempting to diagnose the issue. There was a fuse burned out, but it was totally unrelated. We tried the starting fluid, and the 912 would stumble to life momentarily, pop, fart, and stumble back to slumber again. It was a curious case. Time for a test light.

We first set about checking that there was power to the coil, which there was. When we tested that the spark plug wires weren’t firing a spark, a pair of extremely kind women offered up the new spare Bosch coil from their 356. The new coil didn’t fix the issue, it would still stumble to life, then pop a bit and die again. Dejected, I began the process of calling AAA to get the 912 towed into town. There was one bystander who could get one bar of signal to his cell phone, and the call was placed.

Most of the folks who had stopped were saddling up again to rejoin the rally, leaving me to my flatbed truck fate. I said my thank yous and goodbyes and some of them helped push the Porsche to a more tow truck-friendly site. A few offered up snacks and bottles of water for our wait, and we settled in for the long roadside wait. One incredibly kind soul, fellow automotive writer Jason Cammisa, offered to stay behind to wait with us for the tow truck and continue diagnostics as long as we had nothing better to do.

Once it was down to just Jason, myself, and co-driver Adam, we set to work. We used a test light to see if the fuel injectors were firing, they were not. We swapped and re-swapped the ignition coil to no avail. We checked and re-checked the distributor cap and rotor, both in great shape. Figuring the worst, that the 912’s EFI computer had fried itself, we got a little down in the dumps for a bit. None of us had really much experience with this primitive mid-1970s mix of mechanical ignition and electronic fuel injection.

« Well, the only spares I brought are an ignition rotor, a set of points, and a set of spark plugs. We could just replace parts to see if it makes a difference, » I offered. We ruled out spark plugs, as all four wouldn’t go bad at once. The rotor seemed in good shape, but we replaced it anyway with no change. Enter the points. None of us had dealt with points before, but we quickly jumped in to figure it out. By putting the Porsche in gear and rocking it forward, we could see the curve of the distributor shaft and where the points follower should be riding. Even at the maximum point, the gap wasn’t separating at all. Problem found, lets get it out of there!

The follower is a little piece of delrin-like plastic that rides on the distributor shaft to push the points open and closed four times per revolution. The follower on the old set of points had bent over to the side, and wasn’t giving enough of a gap to create the spark. The points trigger is also what tells the computer to fire the fuel injectors, which provided us our confounding no-fuel issue. While none of us had any experience of how to set the points gap, the old hot-rodder’s addage of using a business card clamped between the two sides to set for optimal spark was ingrained into our collective brains.

Once the points were replaced and the ignition system was buttoned up again, we held our collective breaths as I climbed into the driver’s seat and hit the starter again. Ruh-ruh-ruh-pop-poppity-pop-brrrrrrrrrmmmmmmm. The Porsche fired right up and settled into its familiar uneven choppy idle. That was the biggest relief I think I’ve ever felt in my entire life. Jason urged me to get the 912 on the road as long as it was running, and we would stop in the next town to see if everything was running okay. I shoved the lever into first, and rumbled onto the pavement with trepidation. After about a mile of motoring, the Porsche felt stronger and more confidence inspiring than it had all week. As the weight eased itself off of my shoulders, I placed it on the accelerator. Jason followed behind in his Mercedes 190E 2.3-16v at a generous pace.

I had intended to call AAA to cancel the truck coming to pick us up, but we actually met the drivers coming down the hill. I waved at them, they waved at me, and we both pulled over to discuss the next steps. They were happy my Porsche was intact, we shook hands, and they went back to the shop with a fun story to tell. It probably cost me one of my AAA tows for the year, but it was worth it to not have to suffer the humiliation of seeing your vintage car sitting backseat on a flatbed.

The three of us, in two low-power German creations, caught up to the tail end of the rally participants as they stopped for lunch in Lebec once we’d found our way to the 5. For the rest of the day, and through Sunday, the Porsche ran flawlessly, giving us another day and a half of incredible roads with some incredible friends. For the second year in a row, CRR has proved to be among the best automotive events on my calendar. I’ll certainly be one of the first to sign up next year.

Once the rally was over, we were about 5-hours south of our starting point, so we still had quite a lot of driving ahead of us. Instead of just succumb to the boredom of the freeway, Adam and I decided we hadn’t had enough fun yet, and detoured down State Route 9 to Skyline Drive for a run up to the famous Alice’s Restaurant, then a sprint down LaHonda back to the highway. We stayed in San Francisco that night at a friend’s house, and I dropped Adam back at SFO. It was a whirlwind weekend, but one that I wouldn’t trade for anything, perhaps even because of the breakdown, rather than in spite of it. We got to experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows of vintage car ownership, and thankfully we were able to fix it and get back on the road without too much kerfuffle. Here’s to another 25,000 trouble-free miles.

[Some photos provided by Keiron Berndt]

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