Motorsport History: Mezger and the diesel connection

Porsche Racing History: Part 5 1
Engineer Hans Mezger ponders a question. I initially create all my questions in the MacBook, record the answers on the two digital voice recorders, and make notes along the way. Photo by Randy Leffingwell

Renowned author and photographer and Excellence contributor Randy Leffingwell was asked by Porsche to research and write the official book of its motorsports history. Join him along the way.

May 10, 2011:

Our original plan to interview Norbert Singer yesterday fell through (to be done at a later date), but how can you feel cheated when you get two hours with Hans Mezger, the Engine Maestro of Porsche? But with Hans, we barely got started, and soon after we began we hatched a plan to follow up with him next week.

Hans Mezger, the Engine Maestro of Porsche, ran the Race Car Development Department. His work started before — and included creating — the 917 that Herrmann drove at Le Mans and the 936 that Jacky Ickx drove in the 125 Years of the Automobile parade.

Before working at Porsche, Mezger had completed his graduate degree in engineering and he had 25 job offers. Ironically not one was from Porsche. So he came here and knocked on the door. His reception was good news and bad. His career with Porsche began with the assignment to work with Mr. Wulf in engine design, but Mr. Wulf was in charge of diesel engine design for Porsche’s tractor division. Wulf told Mezger he would be designing new valve gear. Mezger admitted that he really had hoped to go into racing engineering and Wulf sent him home. But two weeks later, Egon Forstner, the head of technical calculation for Porsche, called Mezger and hired him. There his first job was — again — valve gear, but this time it was to revise the legendary Fuhrmann Type 547 four-cylinder Carrera engine. That complicated engine set Mezger up for the rest of his career.

Following Mezger, we met Eugen Kolb, an unsung — and un-interviewed — engineer who is considered the father of long-tail aerodynamics. Kolb joined Porsche in 1953 after working at neighboring Reutter Carrosserie, preparing body panels for a prototype Studebaker that Porsche was building.

When Kolb moved around the corner to Porsche, the company put him straight to work turning the 550 “Buckelwagen,” the “humpback” prototype, into the racing car everyone knows and admires. His body-building skills kept him in the racing department, and as Ferry Porsche’s nephew Ferdinand Piëch arrived in 1965, Piëch’s interests were in minimizing drag and achieving the highest top speeds. His philosophy was that tapered long bodies could accomplish that feat best. Those extraordinary-looking racers with the back ends stretched out and tapering to a sliver are the work of Kolb. His cars — which included 906s, 907s, 908s, and 917s in the 1960s — routinely went 20 to 30 mph faster along the Le Mans Mulsanne straight than the cars with the close-cropped tails. Later he provided aerodynamic tricks to improve the top speed of 956 and 962 coupes in the 1980s.

Today we renewed an acquaintance with Porsche designer Tony Hatter. Tony styled the 993 version of the 911, the last of the air-cooled models from 1994 through 1998. The racing department decided it was time to win Le Mans again and to do so with a car that reinforced the brand identity of the company — meaning the 911. So Tony was tagged to design the 911 GT1, a sleek, futuristic space-ship of a car that looked pretty much like the 993 from the front and like no 911 you ever have seen from the rear. Tony stayed on to do the 1997 and 1998 versions of the car, which won Le Mans in June of that year.

We ended the day with more than two hours with Helmut Flegl. He was the young, talented engineer assigned to manage the 917 project from the start. He was 26, and he had to tame its challenging aerodynamic problems. He told us stories of dealing with John Wyer and his team to improve the body shape that helped to keep the racer on the ground at speeds of up to 380 kilometers (236 miles) per hour. Flegl also directed development of the luxurious and powerful 928 (which another of our interview subjects, Walter Naher, took to Bonneville, Utah, and supervised its official run to 170 mph on the salt). Flegl then got drafted to take on ailing Indianapolis projects twice. It gave him a sour view of USAC the first time and of his own management the second time. Then, of course, that management was dismissed, and Flegl stayed on.

May 13, 2011:

First the statistics: By 5:00 PM this Friday afternoon, we’d completed our 21st interview. We have five to go. I’ve recorded slightly more than 46 hours on two nearly identical Olympus digital voice recorders. And we have learned and learned and learned so much, and we have heard such stories!

Wednesday, May 11 began with Tilman Brodbeck. Tilman headed Porsche Exclusive during his final years at Zuffenhausen. Having started his career as a body engineer specializing in aerodynamics, he was the man responsible for the tiny chin spoiler underneath the front bumper of 1972-and-later 911s and the stylish (and often imitated) “bürzel,” or ducktail spoiler, on the rear of the 1973 Carrera RS 2.7. During the 1970s, he worked on developing the 924 as a Volkswagen project and then continued on with it when it returned to Porsche’s management.

Restless at the end of that time, he contemplated leaving the company but instead transferred to the front office as executive assistant for Ernst Fuhrmann and then for Peter Schutz. These two were the Yin and Yang of the 911’s future, with Fuhrmann wanting it gone and Schutz re-energizing it. Our conversation with Tilman centered mostly on Porsche’s philosophy of racing during these times. He told us that perhaps the only sentiment Fuhrmann and Schutz shared was that “Racing is the most important thing for Porsche.”

We also met Christof Dimter who was one of the developers of the racing PDK transmission in the early 1980s. As a Master Mechanic inside Porsche, Dimter assembled the first 928 four-valve engine, and he told us that “Porsche throws you in the water to see if you can swim. They won’t let you drown, but if you can’t swim, you’re not a Porsche person.” He described developing the PDK as similar to every other project at Porsche: “Things are thought out to eighty-five percent. And the rest happens in development.” His particular development led to a miniaturized version for Formula One. But rule makers outlawed it before it ever raced!

The afternoon wound up with current motorsports head Hartmut Kristen. He gave us nearly three hours of his time. Kristen worked first in marketing and has graduate degrees in engineering and economics, so he brings a wide, worldly perspective to motorsports past, present, and future. When he became 911 product planning chief in 1985, he understood the Porsche philosophy clearly: “Change as much as necessary but as little as possible.” Before we got him around to racing, he added, “Ongoing development of the 911 keeps life interesting. A perfect 911 would be almost boring.” He characterized one of the most significant contributions that motor racing makes to any automaker. “You have a clear challenge and a clear deadline: The next race is in two weeks.”

On Porsche’s new thrust toward hybrid power in its race cars, he told us some board members have been hesitant. “Does it have a future?” they have asked him. His answer: “It is THE future. If we don’t do something creative now, there is no future. The question for us is this: How do we get the same performance out of less energy? If we improve efficiency, we can’t help but improve performance.”

Yesterday, we made a road trip up north of Cologne to meet another legendary racer, Willi Kauhsen. Willi raced many times in the U.S. so his English was better in some cases than ours. And his sense of perspective and sense of humor merged in a way that had tears streaming down our cheeks as we listened to him explain how it was racing 917s and taking government officials for rides through city streets.

Kauhsen drove in 1970 and 1971 for the “alternate” Porsche factory team, the one run out of Salzburg, Austria, by Ferry Porsche’s sister Louise Piëch. Kauhsen watched time and again as Porsche racing engineers made suggestions and recommendations to the “official” factory team run by John Wyer. But Wyer had his own engineers and his own ideas, so Porsche’s went on to Salzburg. His stories of how this worked contribute a lot to understanding how Porsche racing functioned from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

When I did my first Porsche book in the early 1990s, Porsche Legends, many people I met told me I should interview Gunther Steckkonig. I missed him then, and again, and again until this morning. He was worth the wait. He started at Porsche in 1953 as a mechanic, but one with special talents. A few of his bosses watched him and pushed him, even so far as out the door to learn from Mercedes-Benz, so Porsche could hire him back with experience different from every other Porsche mechanic.

“In that time,” he told us, “technical specialists did the whole car. That gave us a big volume of knowledge.” That vast wealth of information turned him into a technician and a consummate racing and test driver who held the record at Weissach’s test track many times in many different cars. One of his most interesting experiences was an 84-hour endurance race that started in Liege, Belgium, went to the Nürburgring to run 10,000 kilometers, and ended back in Liege. He brought with him the final engineering report on the event, a “big volume of knowledge” that particularly appealed to my colleague on this project, Jerry Reilly. Jerry owns the marathon-winning car from that year, and in Steckkonig, he found answers to dozens of long-vexing questions.

We ended the day with an old friend, Norbert Singer. Norbert is one of the most creative racing engineers anywhere in motorsports. Not only is he extremely imaginative but he also has a talent to read racing regulations. He can understand not only what is printed but also what is not. As a result, many of his cars in past years have pushed the boundaries of what a car could be and do at that moment. I’ve interviewed him three times before but always left with some questions unanswered or some holes in those things we covered. This was the opportunity to tie up loose ends, and Norbert generously walked us through obscure bits of his history for more than two-and-one-half hours. What we learned could…well, it will, fill a book.

Follow Leffingwell’s Porsche Motorsport History blog and Of Note series for updates.

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