Unlucky and Unprepared - The Porsche 2708: Porsche's Attempt and Indy Glory
When you think about Porsche in Motorsport, most think of their long and storied history in Sports Car racing, but throughout the 1980’s, the story was their craving to get into CART and have a shot at Indianapolis.
It started in mid-1979. Porsche secretly developed a car to enter at Indianapolis in 1980. The engine was developed off the 935 endurance racing flat-six because it wouldn’t take much tweaking to get it within CART rules. Danny Ongais took the car up to an unofficial track record at a private test at Ontario Motor Speedway, a 2.5 mile track in Ontario, California designed after Indianapolis. The 2.65 liter engine would allow for higher boost under USAC and CART regulations, and it was poised to dominate.
However, USAC caught wind of this and abruptly changed the rules for the 1980 Indy 500, making Porsche’s car useless. This left Porsche with a bad taste in their mouth, and they went off to Europe for Formula 1.
Porsche again attempted to enter CART in 1987 again. However, this time it would be a full factory effort, chassis and all. The car had an aluminum-plastic monocoque chassis attached to a 2.6 Liter, 800 whp V8. Information gained from their 1980 bid would be used to build the car. This was their first mistake. Indy had stepped up their game over that seven year span. The pole speed at Indy had advanced from 192 mph in 1980 to 215 mph in 1987. It was a different world. Yet, Porsche’s goal was to enter the car in the final two races of the 1987 CART Season, with four time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Sr. at the wheel.
When the team arrived in Laguna Seca in October, the optimism from Porsche and the fear from the other teams echoed throughout the garage. However, when the car got out on track, it was a different story. The team struggled with the chassis all weekend and Unser qualified the car 21st out of 24 cars. In the race, the team didn’t even have a chance to finished well out of attrition, as a water pump failed after only seven laps.
Miami ended up worse for the Porsche team. Unser quit the team’s bid midway during the three week break between the two races. Al Holbert, the lead manager in the project, ended up trying to qualify for Miami in the Porsche, but didn’t qualify fast enough to make the race. It was an embarrassment.
Porsche had a lot of work to do in the off season. The chassis was an absolute mess to drive, and there was no way they were going to be quick with it. Porsche decided to adopt a March 88c chassis that was resized and reworked to fit in the back. Not only did the car have to be ready by the first race in Phoenix, but they still needed a driver. Former Benetton driver Teo Fabi was tapped to drive the car. Fabi had CART experience, running in the 1983 Atlanta race for Forsythe Racing. With Fabi the program was then, finally, good to go.
When the series arrived in Phoenix in April of 1988, it was a real question how the Porsche would do. The 2708 had never been run on an oval before, and neither had Porsche. It would be a completely new experience for the constructor. The driver had driven on ovals before, and was considered one of the best at any track he went to. Fabi was the one who was going to try to make the Porsche competitive.
Fabi did better than expected in qualifying, putting in a 9th place effort. However, he fell back early and the car struggled. Fabi brought the car home in 7th, but only after many front runners had trouble. Danny Sullivan’s Penske had oil pressure issues on Lap 15, while Rick Mears was taken out while lapping Randy Lewis on Lap 22. Emerson Fittipaldi, Al Unser Jr., Bobby Rahal and John Andretti all had issues while in front of the 2708. It was a good showing, but it wasn’t what it seemed it was.
Long Beach was the next round, and it was a disaster by all means. Fabi, a great road course driver, struggled with the car all weekend. He placed the car 24th out of 26 cars in qualifying. When the race start, his Porsche powerplant struggled on the start, and he fell back to last. The only Porsche made bit on the car, the engine, then promptly expired on Lap 4.
The next race was Indianapolis, Porsche’s main goal. However, the car struggled throughout the month, and Fabi put the car 17th on the grid. The race wasn’t much better. Fabi hovered around 20th position throughout the beginning stages of the race. Fabi pitted under caution on Lap 34, and disaster struck. During his stop, the left rear tire changer didn’t get the wheel nut secured. When Fabi lit up the tires to pull away, the wheel came off, sending Fabi spinning. The car scraping on the asphalt caused an oil leak in the car, and it was retired immediately.
The Porsche program struggled throughout the season. Fabi managed a best of 4th at Nazareth, Pennsylvania. When the car had no issues, it was mediocre, but the issues were plentiful. At Cleveland, the 2708 suffered gearbox issues. At Meadowlands, it suffered a race ending water leak. At Michigan and at Pocono the car also suffered mechanical issues. The only retirement out of the seven on the season that wasn’t the car’s fault was after a seven car shunt in the first turn of the first lap. They ended the season 10th in CART points, with Danny Sullivan taking the Championship.
The Porsche team suffered a large loss during the 1988 season as well. The lead American on the team, Al Holbert, passed away in a light aircraft accident in October of 1988. Without him, there would be no American voice on the team to guide what the team needed for Indianapolis and the dynamics involved. Derek Walker was signed to the position for 1989.
Porsche entered the season again in 1989. They revamped their turbocharged V8 over the offseason and attached it to a new March 89P chassis. Although the new chassis was improved, the car was again unreliable. Fabi finished 4th at Phoenix, but was slowed on Lap 2 at Long Beach due to Radiator issues. Then they arrived to Porsche’s gain goal, Indianapolis.
Again, they entered with optimism, but left with heavy hearts. Fabi managed to qualify the car 13th for the race, but retired after only 23 laps because of ignition issues. Indy was a failure. Although Indy was a failure, the season was a success. Fabi netted the first victory for Porsche at Mid-Ohio, and finished 4th in points with an average finish of 9th.
As their 1989 bid had been so successful, the decision was made to field two cars in 1990, one piloted by Fabi and the other by John Andretti. The cars would be built on the new March 90P chassis. The cars looked futuristic, too futuristic.
CART promptly banned the chassis, citing driver safety was at risk to due how low the car was to the ground. Although this is thought to be more down to the USAC/CART politics of the time, as it was shown in later crash tests that the chassis was actually safer than the Lola and Penske chassis.
This sent March into a frenzy to redesign the chassis. They finished just in time for the season to start, but there was almost no time for preseason testing. When it debuted at Phoenix, it was shown just how bad it was. At a test, Fabi took the car out and came back dissapointed and frustrated, cursing the car. Andretti’s reaction was surprisingly positive, but stated the car needed work.
Porsche was very dissapointed with the tests and decided it would be better for the team to run the older 89P chassis and both Phoenix and Long Beach. At Phoenix, Fabi’s engine expired on the pace lap, while Andretti had a halfshaft break on Lap 139. At Long Beach, Fabi finished two laps down in 10th, while Andretti had radiator issues on Lap 63 and retired, finishing 21st.
Indy 1990 was easily Porsche’s worst effort. Fabi qualified a sorry 23rd, while the veteran Andretti could only muster 10th. As what become commonplace with Porsche and Indy, the race was a disaster. Andretti ran an uneventful and slow race before hitting the wall off Turn 4 on Lap 135, causing him to spin in Turn 1, he finished 21st. Fabi ran a completely uneventful race before retiring due to transmission issues on Lap 162, he finished 18th.
Both Fabi and Andretti suffered retirement after retirement with the 90P. The car was a lemon, to say the least. The high point of the season was Teo Fabi’s pole position at Denver, but the race was less than extraordinary. Fabi was shuffled back at the start and his brakes failed on Lap 15, causing him to crash into the barrier. Andretti finished 10th in points while Fabi finished down in 14th.
The failure of 1990 led to Porsche deciding to pull the plug on their Indy program after three years, rather choosing to invest in the Footwork Arrows Formula 1 Team for 1991. With the introduction of the DW12 chassis into IndyCar racing in 2012, it was thought that Porsche may enter back into American Open Wheel Racing, but nothing ever came about, and Porsche hasn’t return to Indianapolis since 1990.