Partnered: Contrasting Contemporaries: Revisiting The Porsche 953 And 962C With Jacky Ickx

Contrasting Contemporaries: Revisiting The Porsche 953 And 962C With Jacky Ickx

Alex Sobran By Alex Sobran
October 10, 2018

Photography by Alex Sobran

I’m nervous, excited, wiping the sweat off my palms on my pants for the umpteenth time, failing to stay figuratively and literally cool in preparation for a chat with one of the most successful and humble racing car drivers in history. Jacky Ickx is quick to shift credit to co-drivers and the teams of engineers and mechanics behind his cars’ development and in-race upkeep, but there’s no escaping the facts of his success—someone needs to drive the thing over the line.

Starting out with small-capacity motorcycles in the early 1960s, the Belgian began his career on four wheels like many of the great European drivers of his day: as a teenager competing in touring cars. His success in series like the Belgian Saloon Car Championship (which he won in 1965) saw him earning early attention from teams with single-seaters, and after an auspicious start in lower-formula cars under the guidance of Ken Tyrrell he moved up to the sport’s top rung near the end of 1967 for a few drives with Cooper before his first full season the following year.

Not many people can claim to have been signed to Enzo Ferrari’s F1 team at the tender age of 22, and even fewer—only one, in fact—have won the 24 Hours of Le Mans as many times as Ickx’s six. But then again, Tom Kristensen hasn’t finished first in the gauntlet that is the Paris-Dakar (when it was still in Africa, no less). The truth is that Ickx’s time spent in racing cars would require a book to properly cover in chronological order, and at the recently passed Rennsport Reunion his time was booked fuller than the hotels in Monterey. As a guest of Chopard though, I was given the opportunity to sit down with Ickx for a few minutes that I’ll be forever grateful for.

The din of flat-sixes and eights and twelves surrounding us made it hard to keep the flow going, and given his compressed schedule I thought it would be best to keep things focused rather than attempt to delve into his life history in full. Earlier in the day the sight of the Porsche 953 sitting in the pits next to the 962C—both in works Rothmans stripes—caught my attention, and the pair offered the perfect mix: both were driven by Ickx in the same era, both were successful factory race cars, but beyond that they are about as wildly separate as possible while still wearing the Porsche crest on their noses. One built for Group B, one for Group C. One a heavily modified road car meant to carve new paths along sand dunes in Africa, the other a purpose-built prototype that would chip its teeth on anything but a dedicated racing circuit.

1985 Porsche 962C

By 1976, Porsche had hired Ickx as a factory driver during the dawn of their dominance with turbocharged endurance cars: the 934, the 935, and the 936, the latter of which he won Le Mans with three times. I asked him if, back then, it felt as special as we who look back on it believe it to be.

These cars have achieved a mythical status today, but at the time he says it was just another natural step in engineering: “[Turbo]chargers were invented a long time ago, but the techniques or the materials were not quite ready—the ideas were there though. We have a lot of cars with chargers today because they have been constantly developed since before the war. There is nothing outstanding about the Porsche turbos in that sense, they didn’t come from nowhere like it may seem—it’s just the evolution of technique and materials. We are talking about engineering.”

After asking about his career at Le Mans and how he viewed the changes over that period of time (his first was in 1966 when he shared a Mk1 GT40 with Jochen Neerpasch, his last in 1985 when he and Jochen Mass paired up in a 962C much like this one), he notes a much more significant change than that brought on by the new turbos: downforce.

Referring to the differences between the 936 and the 956/962 that followed, Ickx reiterates: “They’re totally different. With that downforce [on the 956] you can change your philosophy on racing. For example, at Le Mans in the ‘60s, early ‘70s, the key was the speed on the straight. But after that when the high-downforce cars were created, everybody understood that it was much more interesting to be fast through the corners than winning a few yards on the straight. So yes, the technology changed, the people changed, and the rules changed as well with these.”

Ickx, a renowned night and rain driver, seemed equally at home in either type of machine though, seeing as he won the race with both the GT40 (another Mk1, driven this time with Jackie Oliver in 1969) and the 956 (in 1982 with Derek Bell). Though four of six wins came with Porsche, he’d long raced against the cars from Stuttgart, and often with their main competition, like the works Ferrari 512S in 1970, the year of the 917’s first win. “You know, I had a long racing life and before I joined Porsche I was often against Porsches in all the cars I drove. So it’s very amusing to have been on one side and then after … When Porsche was there in those days [the 936 to 962 era], there was no real opposition. The only opposition was coming from the other one in the team.”

That leads us nicely back into the 962’s story. Together with the 956 (of which the 962 is more or less the same, barring the IMSA-dictated position of the front axle in front of the driver’s feet and other updates like a steel instead of aluminum safety cage), these Porsches are arguably the most successful sports cars in history. They won everywhere they went—Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen, Monza, Brands, Spa, Fuji, name it—and between the two models they conquered the Le Mans seven times, six of them in a row. A Dauer-modified 962 even won in 1994 with a clever loophole that allowed it to compete, a decade after the original car made its French debut in 1984.

Ickx and Mass shared the chassis pictured here—the second-ever works 962C—for the 1985 season of the World Sportscar Championship, where the pair drove it to three victories in the ten-race series. It’s not his most well-known car, but it carries its own significance in his legacy: this was the last Porsche that he ever won a professional race in. At the Selangor 800km race on December 1st, 1985, the last of the 1985 WSC season, Ickx and Mass brought it to victory. Less than a month later, before his birthday on January 1st, Ickx retired. He kept up an interest in motorsport though, and while he didn’t compete on tarmac and asphalt anymore he maintained his keen interest in the ultimate test of automotive endurance racing: the Paris-Dakar, which brings us to another Rothmans Porsche.

1984 Porsche 953

The 953 is a strange car. Also known as the 911 SC/RS 4×4, it was technically a Group B car (before the FIA dropped its plans for a circuit series based on the class, Porsche had plans for its upcoming 959 to compete), and though it only ran the event one time as a factory effort it probably wouldn’t have happened at all without the urging of Ickx. The interview’s audio gets washed out by a nearby RSR warming up, but we have a few snatches of time between it stalling to talk about the 953.

Ickx had won the rally in 1983 on his third attempt—in a Mercedes-Benz 280G with French actor-racer Claude Brasseur who he’d first partnered with in the 1981 event—and seeing as Porsche was working with Audi to develop the all-wheel drive system that would propel the legendary Quattro cars to come, he urged them to put together a works team to pursue the outright win at the race he’d come to love.

“I was very involved, and I think in total humility I was the one or among the very few who got them to do it. I had the chance to have Porsche’s ear, and I got them interested in the race and the answer came to a ‘yes’. And they answer yes because the East African Safari car already existed, so half of the job was done already. The second reason why they said yes was because they were working on their very first all-wheel drive transmission, not for themselves but for Audi. That’s the reason it worked.”

As it happened, thanks in large part to Ickx’s idea and the money he brought from Rothmans, Porsche entered a trio of 953s in the 1984 event as they continued to develop their 959 supercar, and the one pictured here is from Porsche’s museum collection—the car that Ickx drove is thought to be owned by a private collector, which we’ve featured in the past.

René Metge and Dominique Lemoyne took the car to victory in the automobile class (as opposed to the motorcycles, the only other class that year), but Ickx and Brasseur experienced issues with their 953 and despite winning nine stages they finished in sixth. His car was entered again in 1988 under a privateer team as the story goes, but by that time the 959 had already come and gone (and won), and Ickx was driving Ladas. Including a run in 2000 wherein he competed alongside his daughter, Ickx has raced the Dakar 14 times, completing it 10 times, with one win and two second-place finishes. Considering the massive length of the rally added to his nearly two decades in F1 and sports cars, and two runnings of the 84-hour-long Marathon de la Route at the Nürburgring, he may well be the man with the most motorsport mileage under his belt.

For all that he’s done though, Ickx calls the Paris-Dakar incomparable to anything else: “You can compare endurance racing from yesterday to modern endurance racing—everybody knows that endurance racing today is groundbreaking. You have to go flat-out nonstop and the one who has no troubles wins the race. In the old days, you had some strategies, you have to save the car. The Dakar is something totally different than either though, because it’s off-road racing. It’s the toughest race you can do, something like three times longer than Le Mans, in the desert where nobody is around you. In Dakar you cannot go flat-out because the roads are so bad, you want always a large margin in front of you. And even driving like that you can easily destroy the machine.”

The 911 wasn’t so easily destroyed though, and the 953 ran admirably with just a basic 3.2 Carrera motor from the period with its compression lowered to cope with the lower-grade fuel available in the area. The Safari 911 “fad” might be close to jumping the shark with all the half-assed examples being thrown together on top of long-travel suspension kits, but nothing can tarnish the provenance earned after some 13,000km of grueling racing across some of the harshest territory on the planet.

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Bryan Dickerson
Bryan Dickerson

What an awesome opportunity Alex! I’ve had a bit of a fascination with Ickx ever since, as a kid, I read his name in the program for the 1972 Watkins Glen 6-hours of Endurance and the USGP that same year.

Dennis White
Dennis White

Jackie Ickx calmly walked across the Le Mans track to his car for the start of the race. He said it was a 24-hour race so why not?

Harv Falkenstine
Harv Falkenstine

I will never forget watching him win the 1969 Le Mans on TV as an Army Brat in Germany. You were fortunate to meet a giant of motor racing history. If someone had told you two or three years ago that you would be interviewing Jackie Ickx for an article with your own pictures…