Simanaitis Says

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WHAT WITH the Le Mans 24-hour race coming up this weekend, June 18 – 19, it’s not inappropriate to celebrate automotive aerodynamics as practiced by the good folks of Zuffenhausen. This isn’t the first time Porsche aero has been a subject at, so think of today’s missive as a remembrance of things past as well as the present.

Ferdinand Porsche’s first job was with Lohner-Werke, a luxury coachbuilder in Vienna. There in 1898, at age 22 he designed a horseless carriage with rear-mounted electric propulsion. In his next design, Porsche incorporated twin electric motors in the car’s front wheel hubs. In 1900 came a series hybrid, with a gasoline-engine generator supplying charge to the batteries, and electric motors in all four hubs, front and rear.


From left to right, the 1898 Egger-Lohner, the Lohner Porsche and 1900 Lohner Porsche Mixte Hybrid.

In appearance, the Egger-Lohner was definitely a horseless carriage. Porsche’s next designs, though, exhibited a modicum of wind-cheating aerodynamics, at least in their rakish noses.


1938 Volkswagen, designed by a team assembled by Ferdinand Porsche.

Ferdinand Porsche’s team designed the 1938 People’s Car, the Type 60 Volkswagen. What came to be known as the Beetle traced much of its aerodynamics to wind tunnel testing, hitherto used primarily for aero design.

Even more radical was the Porsche Type 64, a car designed for a race that never took place. In 1936, Hitler and Mussolini formed a Rome-Berlin Axis coalition. In recognition of this political and military link, a 1938 Berlin-Rome race was planned. However, the Sudeten Crisis, leading to Nazi takeover of Austria and Czechoslovakia, caused the event to be canceled.


1938 Porsche Berlin-Rom racer. Images from

A 1939 Berlin-Rom race was planned, and Porsche saw a streamlined Type 64 entry as a public relations ploy. Again, the race was canceled, as were subsequent attempts in 1940 and 1941. Reflecting the 1940 alliance of axis powers, a Berlin-Rome-Tokyo rally was even considered, but didn’t happen.

Years later, in 1956, Michael May, a talented German-born Swiss enthusiast applied his aerodynamic prowess to his 550 Spyder race car. Indeed, to the embarrassment of Zuffenhausen.


Michael May’s idea for a winged Porsche, 1956.

Winged race cars had been assayed before, but the adjustable device on May’s 550 Spyder fed its loads directly to the car’s center of gravity. This improved grip made Michael and his privateer entry fourth quickest time during practice for the 1956 Nürburgring 1000 Kilometers event.

This prowess put the May 550 considerably quicker than other 1500-cc entries. Porsche strong-armed organizers into recognizing alleged safety implications of May’s device: It would block the view of those behind, all the more distressing given that among those in arears would be Porsche’s new 550A entries.

Beginning in 1969, the wing was on the other foot, er rear of the car, in Porsche’s innovative use of movable aero devices in its Le Mans entries. The Porsche 917 is memorable for Ferdinand Piëch’s oneupsmanship played with the international sanctioning body of the era. Also relevant were the car’s elevons, flaps of its rear wing acting selectively and directly upon the car’s rear suspension.


The required number of 917s gave the car its homologation. The 917’s elevons were lever-actuated, keyed to rear suspension movement.

The Porsche 917 was victorious at Le Mans in 1970 and 1971; other variants dominated the Can Am competition. Movable aerodynamic devices were not without controversy during this period; some Porsche race cars were allowed their elevons, others were not.

Now, in the 21st century, Porsche’s latest Le Mans entries have come full circle in the company’s history. Like the 1900 Lohner Porsche, the Porsche 919 is a hybrid and aerodynamic.


Porsche 919 Hybrid.

The Porsche 919 Hybrid is designed for the Le Mans Prototype 1-Hybrid (LMP1-H) class, the top of Le Mans endurance race cars. In 2014, its first year of competition, the 919 Hybrid was third overall in World Endurance standings. It dominated the 2015 season and it’s currently first in points in 2016.

As reported in Racecar Engineering, May 7, 2016, and originally in 2014, the Porsche 919 Hybrid “was billed as the most complex competition car the firm had ever built…” Among its aero nuances noted by Racecar Engineering is its “legality bump” in the roof, there to meet 2014’s minimum height regulation. Other subtleties of winglets, ducting and diffusion have undergone evolution since the car’s 2014 introduction.

In April of this year, team driver Mark Webber cited aerodynamic packages designed for particular race circuits. For example, the Silverstone endurance race uses its 3.7-mile Formula One circuit, and the latest 919 Hybrid has a high-downforce package optimized for its high-speed corners. By contrast, even with its two artificial chicanes splitting the famed Mulsanne Straight, Le Mans puts a premium on all-out speed, and a low-downforce configuration is used.

When watching this weekend’s Le Mans, give a thought to the pointy noses of some of Ferdinand Porsche’s first designs. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016

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