Bill Oursler on The Producers
Its rather like that scene in the movie INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE
where our hero, played by Harrison Ford, must walk across an invisible bridge to
find the Holy Grail. As Ford steps cautiously over the abyss, the bridge magically
appears. It is, if not quite a leap of faith, at least a step for faith. The recent
announcement that Porsche would build and develop a Le Mans Prototype 2
category spyder must be considered one of the worst kept secrets of the 2005
season. The fact that the Germans had signed American Roger Penske to race
the car for them was one of the best kept.
For the American Le Mans Series, and for Porsche, having Penske in the mix is a
coup. If the ALMS’ stock was publicly traded, its value last week after Porsche’s
very carefully worded press release (there was, interestingly, no real press
conference as such) would have soared. Yet, perhaps the most interesting aspect
of the Penske-Porsche deal wasn’t so much what was said, but what wasn’t.
I am a town…
Left out by the German manufacturer was the fact that the new LMP2 entry would
be powered by a purpose built racing only 3.4-liter V8 that has been two years in
the making. (Also left out was the fact that Penske will run the program out of
Penske's Mooresville, N.C. NASCAR complex, and that even though it's a 2006
effort, the car will make its debut at the ALMS September Petit Le Mans event with
Sascha Maassen and Lucas Luhr as the primary drivers.) Still the biggest
question is simply: “what comes next?”
Given the attitude of Porsche’s management about spending money, or lack of,
on motor sports, one has to wonder why the company invested in doing a new
competition oriented powerplant when, under the LMP2 regulations a destroked
version of the 4.5-liter Cayenne V8 would have been more than enough to get the
job done. Further, if one looks at the history of Roger Penske’s involvement in the
racing industry, it is hard, if not impossible to find him linked to any program that
wasn’t aimed at the highest levels of the sport, which the second banana LMP2
most certainly is not.
So, if Porsche has put its Euros into a new V8 that it otherwise might not need,
and if Penske is a “First Cabin” individual why are they together in what Porsche
says is an effort aimed just at the North American ALMS tour, and nothing else?
The answer is quite simply that there is more, but what?
A stake in the ache…
For certain, not only will the factory’s North American customers enjoy their LMP2
Porsche-built contenders in 2007, but so too will be their counterparts in Europe
and elsewhere. More importantly, there is some potential that, under the right
circumstances, the Porsche LMP2 spyders could even challenge their supposedly
better performing LMP1 counterparts from Audi and Peugeot for the overall
honors. However, looking back into the past, even that doesn‘t seem enough.
So where can Porsche make good use of its investment, as well as satisfy
Penske’s needs? Well, one place would be in LMP1, an arena that in its previous
incarnations has been a comfortable and winning home for the company on so
many previous occasions. Indeed, earlier rumors had Porsche doing an LMP1
version of the LMP2 car. After all, much of the basic engineering to create that
spyder, including the V8 could be carried over to any LMP1 entry (particularly if the
V8 were to be turbocharged). Unfortunately, in this day when no one wants to risk
losing, and thus risk losing face, Porsche has opted not to get into a battle for
LMP1 supremacy with the likes of Audi and Peugeot.
But if Porsche has decided eschew LMP1, where might it go? Why not the
Indianapolis 500 and the IRL? For Tony George, whose family owns Indy and is
the main man behind the IRL, the single seat, open wheel, North American
competition racing universe has proved to be a less than perfect place in which to
As of this moment, there is the very real prospect that the Indy 500 may well not
have a full 33-car field. Moreover, it has already lost one of its three current engine
suppliers, Chevrolet, which will cease its present relationship with the series at
the end of the year. Additionally, there suggestions that Toyota, whose powerplant
portfolio includes Penske racing, may quit George’s championship in favor of the
Nextel Cup in ’07, something which would leave only Honda on board.
Of course there are options for the IRL, such as going to a Detroit push-rod V8
formula, a choice that would clearly eliminate any potential supply worries, but that
probably not enhance its attractiveness to its fan base, nor serve to distinguish it
from NASCAR, both of which are critical to its ultimate success. For George,
having Porsche would elevate the status of the IRL and, most likely keep Honda in
the fold. Perhaps just as importantly, it might well bring other high group
manufacturers, such as Mercedes back to the championship.
Been there, done that… almost.
But, if Porsche wants to win with competition, why would it take on Indianapolis
where surely it would square off against an entrenched and experienced Honda?
The answer can be found in the rewards. While Porsche has already won Le
Mans a number of times, it has never achieved victory at the 500, the biggest event
in its largest market, North America. Its cross-town neighbor, Mercedes, has and
With Penske as a partner, Porsche’s financial exposure is limited to its
investment in developing the V8 for the IRL. The investment is offset by the
presence of Marlboro as Penske’s sponsor and by the fact that the IRL rules not
only would allow Porsche to supply other teams, but mandate such a situation
which would ultimate enhance the company’s coffers.
Brick by Brick
Lastly, the attractiveness of Indy is obviously increased by Penske’s
overwhelming winning record at Indy, a fact which gives Porsche its best potential
shot for success at the Brickyard and in the IRL. Added together, there are many
good reasons for the theory of Porsche’s presence at Indy to become the reality of
Porsche’s participation in the 500. Will it happen? Perhaps yes: maybe no. Still, I
wouldn’t bet against it.