Video: Terrifying Lap at Spa in the Porsche 956

The eighties were a good time for motorsports. Turbocharged engines became the norm, excess was fashionable, downforce made huge strides forward, four wheel-drive was adopted, and the rules were still relatively relaxed. With huge budgets poured in from all corners of the globe, motorsport was in a golden age — and the Porsche 956 one of its key players. A hugely sophisticated car for the time, the 800 horsepower its 2.65-liter flat-six engine was harnessed with the ground effect, and the result was performance not far off that of the Formula One machines of the day.

The ground effect which gave the 956 its incredible high-speed cornering performance wasn’t totally understood when Porsche began developing it. Porsche began their approach along the lines of the Formula One-inspired sliding skirts, but with the wider platform of the sportscar, it wasn’t effective. Porsche engineer Norbert Singer noted, “we needed the air going from the side of the car into the tunnels,” so they implemented specialized tunnels on the underbody that would expand the airflow and suck the car to the ground.

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Pursued by a Lancia LC2, the sleek 956 flashes its iconic Rothmans livery in the rain.

With that much grip, the drivers could thrash the big 956s through high speed corners, and they would simply hang on. Note how Jochen Mass hustles his Porsche through Eau Rouge, darting left and right without a hiccup, despite using aggressive steering inputs. It was this predictable speed combined with an incredible durability that made it the sportscar to have in the 1980s. There were quicker cars — like the Lancia LC2 which do a bit of overtaking in this video — but it was Porsche that had the best overall package.

The 956 evolved into the safer 962 towards the end of the eighties, which pushed the front axle line ahead of the driver’s feet to prevent the common leg-crushing accidents which befell the 956’s pilots. It was an old-school car still, but marked an era in which aerodynamics and driver comfort started to push the direction of sports car development. Without a doubt, it was the sports car which dominated the decade, and helped ensure Porsche’s reputation for building some of the fastest, most technologically advanced racing cars out there. It didn’t look too bad, either.

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The distinct aerodynamics gave the 956 a huge advantage in the days when downforce wasn’t well understood.

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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