A Sharknose at la Sarthe

The only 928 to ever race at Le Mans finished on the podium there in 1984.

Photo: A Sharknose at la Sarthe 1
April 12, 2018

Think Porsche and Le Mans in the early 1980s, and the utter domination of the Group C Porsche 956 racers may spring to mind. But in the Group B class reserved for GT cars, behind all the sleek BMW M1s and well-developed 911 Turbos, there was something rather unusual running. Both in 1983 and 1984, a French driver raced at the 8.5-mile la Sarthe circuit in a Porsche 928S. It turned out to be the only 928 to ever compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

After those two attempts, that shark-nosed Porsche never raced again. Instead, the car was stored for decades in the workshop of the man who raced it back in the day, Raymond Boutinaud. But in 2015, he decided it was time to pull the dust cover off of his V8-powered endurance-racing machine so that he could restore it to its former glory. After a two-year nut-and-bolt rebuild, Boutinaud invited us to Paris to be the first to see his refreshed 928. He also wanted to tell us the full, never-before-published story of his historic Porsche.

Boutinaud started building and racing Porsches back in the 1970s. He financed his on-track activity via funds generated through his own garage on the outskirts of Paris where he serviced and modified clients’ road and race cars.

Photo: A Sharknose at la Sarthe 2

In 1982, Boutinaud bought himself a brand-new 928S. He, like most Porsche owners, enjoyed the power and handling his sports car delivered at track days. But he couldn’t help wonder what the 928 would be like if it were made into a fully prepared race car. Stripped of excess weight, tuned, and set up for maximum performance, Boutinaud reckoned that the 928 could make a serious run at the 911s that showed up to Le Mans in droves. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the organizers of Le Mans like this idea since it added variety to the starting grid.

Porsche’s motorsport department was also keen on the idea of a privateer developing the 928 for competition. Racer and Porsche engineer Jürgen Barth himself became the overseer of the project. When asked today what he recalls about Boutinaud’s Le Mans 928S, Barth says: “We helped a bit at the time with the Le Mans 928 using info we had from the 928 Günter Steckkönig was driving in the VLN (Association of Nürburgring Endurance Cup Organizers) series. But Raymond mainly did it all himself.”

Turning a road car that you could drive to work into an endurance racer did pose some challenges. Porsche had already gotten the 928S homologated for Group B racing in 1982 in hopes that independent racers would run it. Even so, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest organizing entity didn’t give final approval of Boutinaud’s car—delaying the build—until two months before the race in 1983.

Photo: A Sharknose at la Sarthe 3

From Street Car to Racing Machine

The first step in readying the 928S for Group B action was pulling out all the heavy, non-essential items from the interior like the factory leather seats, the carpets, the door panels, and all the soundproofing. Boutinaud also gutted the doors and removed the inner door structure so that only the door handles and outer door skin remained. Next, most of the dashboard was taken out, although the original instrument cluster and factory steering wheel were left in place.

The entire wiring loom and electrical system were stripped out next. A custom, lightweight harness made to run just the engine control unit (ECU) and lights was then fitted in place of the factory electrics. The less complicated electrical system merited a weight savings of an impressive 66 pounds. By the time Boutinaud was done stripping the car down, the 928 had lost a remarkable 882 lbs from its 3,197-lb curb weight. (I can vouch for this car’s lightness, as it wasn’t so heavy when it rolled over my foot as we were pushing it into position for its photo shoot!) The car was so light, in fact, that Boutinaud had to add ballast to bring it up to the required 2,425-lb weight.

Up front, the engine was taken out and stripped down. The aluminum engine block was sent to parts manufacturer Mahle where the cylinder bores were coated with Nikasil anti-friction material. Mahle also made a one-off set of forged aluminum pistons for the 4.7-liter V8. These were legal to use since they were the same dimensions as the ones found in the stock engine. Next, custom camshafts were made to Boutinaud’s specifications by a local French company. The stock cylinder heads were also reworked to improve airflow to the cylinders.

Photo: A Sharknose at la Sarthe 4

For brakes, the car was fitted with the same type found on the 917 race car that won Le Mans in 1970 and 1971. The suspension was specially made for this 928S by Bilstein. Also, Porsche calculated the dimensions of the roll cage, had it fabricated from aluminum tubing and shipped it to Paris. Porsche helped with the arrangements, but Boutinaud had to pay for everything himself.

This 928 was then sent to the painter. Since Boutinaud was too busy with other things, he didn’t take much care in how the final vehicle color scheme would look. His only instructions to the body shop were “do something eye-catching.” The light green and purple design Boutinaud got back wasn’t quite what he was hoping for—and the Porsche people apparently weren’t too impressed either. “It was what it was,” Boutinaud shrugs.

The two co-drivers Boutinaud needed were easy to find. When news of his 928S Le Mans racer build spread, interested drivers lined up for a chance to drive the car. Boutinaud chose Formula Renault driver Patrick Gonin, who was a friend of a friend, and Alain Le Page who was a competent driver and, more importantly, brought sponsorship to the effort.

Photo: A Sharknose at la Sarthe 5

Le Mans 1983

Boutinaud and his team made it to the race with the strict orders from Porsche to keep out of the way of the works Group C 956s. In qualifying, the 928S put down a best time of 4:35.940, which was 25 seconds slower than the fastest Group B qualifier (a BMW M1 driven by Angelo Pallavicini, Jens Winther, and Prince Leopold von Bayern) and a staggering 1 minute 19 seconds slower than the pole-sitting 956 of Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx. Not surprisingly, this meant that the 928S was the slowest of the 52 cars entered and had to start shotgun on the field. But this wasn’t of major concern to Boutinaud.

“Everyone knows that Le Mans—especially back in those days—was a race of attrition,” he explains. So things were going all to plan…until the early evening when Le Page spun the car in the Indianapolis corner. To this day, Boutinaud doesn’t know exactly what happened since Le Page never explained the incident. Back in the pits, the crew found that Le Page’s spin had broken one of the car’s front wheel hubs.

Normally that problem would take half an hour to fix. But since the stock hubs had been machined in the center in order to accommodate larger bearings, there were no spare parts on hand. The solution—one that would take five hours to accomplish—involved finding a road-going 928 in the car park, removing one of its hubs, taking it to the on-site mobile Bilstein workshop for machining, and then fitting the new part to the car.

Photo: A Sharknose at la Sarthe 6

It was almost midnight when the 928 took to the circuit again. The rest of the race went like clockwork and the last 14 hours were a fine display of Porsche performance and reliability. Although Boutinaud and company were officially listed as “Not Classified” since they were too many laps behind the leaders to keep scoring, they crossed the finish line to take the checkered flag at 4:00 p.m. on Sunday. Back in the paddock, Porsche—who scored an overall victory with a 956 driven by Hurley Haywood, Al Holbert, and Vern Schuppan—sent the 928 team some champagne.

Le Mans 1984

Although the 928’s result at Le Mans in 1983 wasn’t great, its performance potential was enough that Porsche encouraged Boutinaud to race at la Sarthe again in 1984. Since he had already run at Le Mans once with the 928 and knew how he wanted to enhance his car, he agreed.

The main improvement Boutinaud sought was more horsepower. But that proved difficult to achieve with the fuel injection system he had to work with—especially since reliability was paramount. He also wanted, and got, a new exhaust system that exited at the rear instead of from the sides, which had proved to be uncomfortably loud. Boutinaud also wouldn’t leave the 928’s paint scheme to chance again. He took charge and chose the white-with-black-and-yellow-stripes finish that looked much better than the design from 1983. For driving duty, Boutinaud invited two friends: Gilles Guinard and Philippe Renault.

Photo: A Sharknose at la Sarthe 7

The 928S’s run at qualifying in 1984 resulted in a best time of 4:28.740, which was a respectable seven-second improvement over the previous year. This put the shark-nosed Porsche 18.8 seconds behind the fastest Group B machine (a BMW M1 driven by Lars-Viggo Jensen, David Mercer, and Jens Winther), 1 minute 11 seconds off the overall pole-winning time of 3:31.110 set by Alessandro Nannini and Bob Wollek in a Lancia LC2-84, and 54th on a grid of 55 cars. “Comme d’habitude,” Boutinaud shrugs of the qualifying run. That’s French for “As usual.”

From the start of the race, the improved lap times seemed to mean little. That’s because one of the 928’s head gaskets began leaking early on in the event. Fixing the problem would have cost too many idle hours in the pits, so the crew filled the cooling system with water every time the car pitted for fuel. To further keep the engine temperature down, the drivers ran the car at lower revs.

Naturally, this resulted in slower lap times. But the famous 2.7-mile pre-chicane Mulsanne straight was long enough that higher engine rpms weren’t bad since so much air was rushing through the cooling system at higher speeds. The trio of 928 drivers were able to hit a top speed of 186 mph on that section of track. In comparison, the Group C cars were maxing out at around 211 mph.

Photo: A Sharknose at la Sarthe 8

Boutinaud is a reserved and rather humble guy. He apologized that I wouldn’t have any bumper-to-bumper battles to write about. The only nail-biting action there was, he said, was just hoping that he and his co-drivers could nurse the car around for the full distance. Constantly nervous about the leaking head gasket, the team made it to dawn and managed to carry on to midday. By then they knew they had a shot at finishing.

Four hours later, the 928S crossed the finish line in 22nd place overall—last among the cars still running. Significantly, however, they came home 3rd in class—on the Group B podium! Despite the fact that a 956 scored another overall victory at Le Mans with Klaus Ludwig and Henri Pescarolo at the wheel, the 928 team did not need their champagne. This year, the bottles of bubbly were supplied by the Le Mans circuit.

Porsche was interested in Boutinaud continuing to compete with his 928. They even had some development parts for him to install…at a price. But after not seriously contending for a class win with Porsche’s grand tourer at Le Mans, Boutinaud decided to follow the route of least resistance and went back to the tried and tested 911. But his 928 always held a special place for him, which is why—despite being parked up and taking space in his workshop since the mid-1980s until a few years ago—it was never pilfered for parts or pushed outside to decay.

Photo: A Sharknose at la Sarthe 9

Back to Life

Three years ago, Boutinaud decided that it was time to give his pride and joy some love and began tearing it down for a full restoration. The bodyshell was pretty much in perfect condition, but the paint was old and in need of refinishing. So, it was stripped down to the bare metal and recoated in the same color scheme that ran at Le Mans in 1984. The roll cage looks to be the same one from 1983, but the original was replaced with a new one made from steel since safety rules have changed quite a lot in the last three decades. A set of 18-inch 996-gen 911 Turbo wheels were also fitted.

The old and long-overheated 4.7-liter V8 wasn’t in any state fit for a rebuild, so it was replaced with a four-valve 5.0-liter V8 from a 1987-1991 928 S4 that was bored out to 5.5 liters. It may have taken over 30 years, but Boutinaud finally got the extra power he wanted! It hasn’t been run on a dyno yet, but he hopes it will produce around 450 horsepower.

This restoration has reached the stage of only tending to the final small details. The only significant part that is still missing is a bespoke flywheel needed to mate the newer 5.5-liter engine to the 1982 928S five-speed gearbox. Once everything is complete, the car will be tested with the goal of returning to the track at Le Mans in June this year for the Le Mans Classic. Just like 35 years ago, it will be the only Porsche 928 there to race.

Photo: A Sharknose at la Sarthe 10
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