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Monday, May 16, 2011

Friday the Thirteenth Proved Lucky for Our Side

First the statistics: By 5 p.m. this 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 astonishing stories!

Wednesday, May 11, began with Tilman Brodbeck. Tilman headed Porsche Exclusive during his final years in 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 for the stylish (and often imitated) burzel, or ducktail spoiler on the rear of the 1973 Carrera RS 2.7. 

All right, this is an unrelated photo. But I'll be posting more photos from our interviews in the days to come. Here I'm standing in front of Porsche's state-of-the-art paint center, which makes a fine background. This portrait, taken by Jerry Reilly, may wind up being the author photo in the book.

During the 1970s, he worked on developing the 924 as a Volkswagen project and then continued on with it when the 924 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."

Following Schutz, we 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 PDK transmission for Formula One. But FIA 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 the subject of 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." Regarding 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 US so his English was better than ours in some cases. As we listened to him describe racing 917s or taking government officials for rides through city streets his seasoned perspective and sense of humor merged so powerfully that he had tears streaming down our cheeks. 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 Piech (Ferdinand’s mother). Kauhsen watched time and again as Porsche racing engineers made suggestions and recommendations to the official factory Gulf-sponsored team run by John Wyer. But Wyer had his own engineers and his own ideas so Porsche’s internal thinking was generally applied to Porsche Salzburg, and often the two teams competed against one another, both for resources and for race victories. Kauhsen’s stories of how this worked contributed a lot to my understanding of how Porsche racing functioned from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. 

When I wrote 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. Steckkonig started at Porsche in 1953 as a mechanic, but one with special talents. A few of his bosses watched him and pushed him. Eventually, he was pushed out of Porsche's 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 that event, itself 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 about his car.

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 particular talent when it comes to reading racing regulations. He can understand not only what is specified but also what is not. As a result, many of his cars in past years have pushed the technical 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-a-half hours. What we learned could—well, it will—fill a book. 

Tomorrow, Saturday, we're off to inspect the competition. We'll visit Audi's museum in Ingolstadt on Saturday, and head down to Munich on Sunday to see the German Transportation Museum which has a special exhibition right now on the history of motorsports. 

I promise I'll take lots of pictures.

Stay tuned. 

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