Porsche returned to the top echelon of sportscar racing this year for the first time since its wildly successful 919 Hybrid programme came to a conclusion in 2017. And on this occasion, Porsche’s presence goes beyond just a factory team, with a number of privateers running the 963 LMDh in the World Endurance Championship and IMSA SportsCar Championship on a customer basis.
LMDh rules were devised in a way to enable manufacturers to supply their cars to independent teams, and Porsche was very clear from the beginning that it would be a core part of its project. But running a customer car programme is far from an easy task, especially when the factory team takes up so many resources.
Porsche found that out early when supply chain issues meant it had to delay its first batch of customer deliveries. It wasn’t until the end of April that the first two 963s bound for customers were finally handed to Jota and JDC-Miller, a few months into the start of the 2023 season.
However, the cars that Porsche supplied could be entered into a race immediately, without the need for prior testing. That meant Jota was able to debut its 963 at the Spa WEC round in May, with JDC-Miller taking its car to IMSA just a few weeks later at Laguna Seca. Proton joined the fray from July onwards and scored the first podium for a customer 963 at Road Atlanta last weekend in IMSA’s Petit Le Mans season finale.
To operate the 963, Jota, JDC-Miller and Proton all receive a handbook from Porsche that contains all the information they could possibly need to run the car. From basic technical know-how to specific details about the changes they are allowed to make, it serves as the go-to guide for teams running the 963 on a customer basis.
“We have a catalogue that we give to the customers,” Porsche’s LMDh director Urs Kuratle told Motorsport.com. “When the customer gets their car the first time, we give them a base set-up so that they do not start on a blank piece of paper. They have exactly the same car [as the factory Penske], exactly the same tools, and they also have access to simulators.”
The 963 is designed to be plug and play for customer teams to run with minimal testing and race against the works cars
Photo by: Porsche
To further assist their operations on a race weekend, Porsche also has a dedicated customer support team that is handled by its chassis partner Multimatic. Operating in a similar fashion to any major manufacturer’s GT3 programme, Porsche supplies two Multimatic engineers and one mechanic to customer teams at every WEC round. They are currently shared by Jota and Proton and it ensures there is a direct line of communication between customer teams and Multimatic.
Porsche also has an operations team back at its headquarters in Weissach that can be called in for additional support, with Multimatic again serving as the intermediary between the German manufacturer and its customers.
“First of all, for customer support, direct support and direct approach once they get their cars in the hands, it’s the Porsche customer LMDh support team, which is done by Multimatic,” Kuratle explains. “So if Jota and Proton have a problem they will consult and sort themselves. They work with the customer support people, who are dressed like Porsche guys but they are coming from Multimatic. That’s their first [point of] approach.
“If then the Multimatic people cannot solve the problem, we have the operations room back in Weissach where there are a bunch of engineers, combustion engine guys, gearbox guys, suspension guys and software guys.
“Ideally the team by themselves can solve the problem. If not the customer support people, ideally they can. If not, it goes back to Weissach, to that bunch of people, who are also supporting [Penske] here” Urs Kuratle
“If the engineers in here [at the track] don’t find a solution, they have these guys back home as well. So back in Weissach, there is one office that supports Porsche Penske Motorsport and they support Multimatic, not directly the customers but Multimatic.
“Ideally, the team by themselves can solve the problem. If not, the customer support people, ideally they can. If not, it goes back to Weissach, to that bunch of people, who are also supporting [Penske] here.”
This arrangement means that Porsche Penske Motorsport does not interfere with other Porsche teams, giving customers the freedom to run their teams on their own. But the factory team can intervene if circumstances warrant its involvement.
“If a customer team would struggle big time, if they are a second off, and the customer including Porsche AG back in Germany cannot explain why this is, then we approach the customer team and say, ‘are you happy that we check with you the data?’” Kuratle explains.
Customer teams have support systems in place that means they don’t have to direct troubleshooting requests to the works team, Kuratle explains
Photo by: Porsche
“Only then can they get the data from the customer team and then we make sure that they are not last, because what wouldn’t fit is one Porsche is at the front and the other one is at the back. But we need the team to allow us to do it.”
If running an LMDh car that includes a complex hybrid system has proved tricky for manufacturers so far, then one can only imagine how difficult it will be for a privateer team to have their way around them. For Jota, which has extensive experience of running prototype machinery in the WEC’s LMP2 class, the move up to the Hypercar class with the Porsche LMDh was a major learning curve.
“It’s very complicated, really,” Jota team principal Dieter Gass told Motorsport.com. “It’s a big step from the P2. I would say [there is] nothing to compare really.
“You have so many possibilities on the systems that you can and you want to explore that need a lot of analysis and a lot of inputs. This is really the big, big difference. The rest, let’s say the conventional part of the car, is not too different.
“The Porsche offers a lot of adjustment possibilities which is good on one side. But this has downsides as well. There is a risk that you get lost in all these different possibilities. But even though we have more possibilities in the mechanical set-up, the big, big difference to the P2 car is really the systems and that is something that took us a while to get in control.”
Given that there are so many manufacturers competing in WEC this season, with more to follow in 2024 including Alpine, BMW and Lamborghini, one would think that privateer teams won’t have a shot against their better-funded rivals. But Porsche’s LMDh programme has been designed to provide equal equipment and facilities to customers, and both Jota and Proton have high ambitions in WEC.
Gass, who previously headed Audi’s motorsport department, feels there are several benefits of running a smaller, leaner privateer team, even as there are some downsides to not designing and manufacturing the car on your own.
“In a smaller organisation, you have a lot more flexibility and very clear lines of communications and responsibilities,” he says. “Being a small team and a pure racing team, everybody is very much focused on the job and making the car go faster.
Jota’s Gass says there’s not a great deal of data exchange between the customer teams and works squad
Photo by: Porsche
“If you have a good group of people, which we do have, you can really make progress on the car. It’s just enjoyable to work in the team with the people that we have. The disadvantage is there are some restrictions in the budget. We have a good budget we can work with but, as we say in German, the trees do not grow into the sky.
“So there are some more limitations than you have in a factory team. You have some things that you would like to try and you would like to do but you can’t – some things because it’s part of the homologation and you are linked to the homologation, but other things as well because it’s not part of the customer package.”
While there is a fair degree of cooperation between the factory team and the customer outfits, there is also a healthy rivalry between them as they try to outdo each other using the same equipment.
“We as Porsche AG, we want Porsche in front,” says Kuratle. “Porsche Penske Motorsport group people working here in the garage, they want to be the first Porsche. Jota wants to be the first Porsche.
“As Penske have their experience and their knowledge, we grow our [own] knowledge. For the time being everybody is keen to keep their knowledge” Dieter Gass
“If you look at the one IMSA race in Mosport, we had JDC in P4 and our [factory Penske] cars were P5 and P7. So Porsche Penske Motorsport finished the race behind our customer. Penske side and the Porsche Penske Motorsport, they didn’t like it. They want to be the fastest Porsche.
He adds: “It’s a two-way street. It’s a two-way street because if it’s too open [between teams] it doesn’t work. I always ask, if you as Jota would find something which brings you two-tenths tomorrow, would you share it with us? Quite often the answer is no.”
The rivalry between Porsche squads means that there are restrictions on data-sharing between Penske, Jota and Proton unless there is a serious technical issue that needs to be addressed.
“We strive to have a very close cooperation, which we do,” Gass says. “But on another basis, we are not really exchanging data. We do support them with information and we are ready to supply as well data in case of problems for example and we do that obviously.
Proton trio Bruni, Tincknell and Jani claimed the first customer 963 podium at Petit Le Mans
Photo by: Porsche
“But in terms of performance development so far it’s really a matter of being the opposition. As Penske have their experience and their knowledge, we grow our [own] knowledge. For the time being, everybody is keen to keep their knowledge.”
Porsche is currently supplying four customer cars across WEC and IMSA. Jota and JDC-Miller operate one 963 in WEC and IMSA respectively, while Proton fields one car each in both championships. Both Jota and Proton are planning to expand their presence in 2024, which will mean there will be a significantly larger number of Porsches on the grid next year, particularly in 24-hour races at Le Mans and Daytona.
However, while Porsche is preparing to expand its capacity for next year, no other marque so far has come forward to supply its cars to customers. Porsche is hoping that other manufacturers will follow its lead and start their own customer LMDh programmes in the coming years.
“We always know [there is] a little bit of talk in the pitlane and also there is quite an open friendly discussion we have with all the other OEMs,” says Kuratle. “I’m sure they will be able to do it, they are willing to do it and they will have customers.
“There are not 100s of customers being able to operate an LMDh programme but there are customers out there and I’m sure and I hope they do it. I hope they do it, that is good for the sport.”
Whether more manufacturers decide to take the leap and make their cars available to privateers in the future remains to be seen, but customer teams have already added an extra dimension to this new era of sportscar racing. Jota leading the Le Mans 24 Hours on only its second Hypercar outing remains one of the most memorable moments of 2023, one that wouldn’t have been possible if Porsche had decided to put all its focus on its factory team….
Jota thrilled by briefly leading at Le Mans on only its second Hypercar outing, and the customer cars have already added a new dimension to the new era
Photo by: Marc Fleury