As Porsche’s 70th-anniversary year draws to an end, we celebrate the magnificent exhibition currently at the 24 Hours of Le Mans museum (until 24 February 2019) with a series about the emblematic marque. In part eight, we look at 2008, the year of the triumphant return of a Porsche prototype at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Though in the LMP2 class, the RS Spyder reminded everyone that the culture of successful prototypes was still firmly entrenched in Porsche's DNA at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The RS Spyder is a subtle combination of history and modernity. History in terms of its lineage as a reference to the iconic 550 RS Spyder from the 1950s and its successors like the 718 RSK that claimed the first podium finish for Porsche at the 24 Hours in 1958. Modernity reflected in its technical innovation: for the first time in Porsche's history, a motor designed for endurance racing adopted a V configuration in the 3.3-liter V8 atmospheric engine.
Adding efficiency to history and modernity, in 2005 in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) endurance championship, thanks to Roger Penske (one of the most powerful American team owners) the RS Spyder took on LMP1 prototypes. Three years later, at the wheel of an RS Spyder, Timo Bernhard, Emmanuel Collard and Romain Dumas went up against Audi and Peugeot at the 12 Hours of Sebring, considered one of the top endurance races in the U.S. and internationally.
2008 also saw the Porsche RS Spyder cross the Atlantic for its first European appearance in the Le Mans Series (predecessor of today's European Le Mans Series which allowed LMP1 prototypes at the time) fielded by Van Merksteijn Motorsport (Netherlands) and Team Essex (Denmark), also at the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans that year.
At the legendary race, the two teams clearly dominated the LMP2 class. Peter van Merksteijn-Jeroen Bleekemolen-Jos Verstappen (winners) and Casper Elgaard-Sascha Maassen-John Nielsen (second) finished with 21 and 14 laps, respectively, on the Pescarolo shared by Pierre Ragues, Matthieu Lahaye and Cong Fu Cheng (Saulnier Racing, later renamed OAK Racing) that rounded out the class podium. Among the six RS Spyder drivers at the 2008 24 Hours figured a previous overall winner: John Nielsen, victorious in 1990 representing Jaguar along with Brit Martin Brundle and American driver Price Cobb.
The Dutch and Danes also won in the Le Mans Series: Van Merksteijn Motorsport (four victories) won the title ahead of Team Essex (one win) and Horag Racing who also fielded an RS Spyder in the 2008 Le Mans Series.
In 2009, Team Essex won its second consecutive LMP2 win with the RS Spyder at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Casper Elgaard shared the car with his fellow countryman Kristian Poulsen and French driver Français Emmanuel Collard.
That year marked the final appearance of the RS Spyder at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Porsche's return to the LMP1 class was punctuated by three wins in a row for the 919 Hybrid (2015, 2016 and 2017), but it was the 911 that saw fit to celebrate the German marque's 70th anniversary with a victory in 2018. More on that in the next installment in this series.
PHOTOS (Copyright - Archives/ACO): (Top) in addition to its LMP2 win, the Porsche RS Spyder of the Van Merksteijn Motorsport team finished 10th overall. (Below) second in 2008, the following year the RS Spyder of Team Essex (center) won the LMP2 class and finished 10th overall. Team Felbermayr-Proton (#77) and Flying Lizard Motorsports (#80) scored the best results for the 911 at the 2008 24 Hours of Le Mans.