From rallying to F1 to Le Mans, Porsche's motorsport history is one of the most distinguished in the business.
Porsche was technically founded in 1931, but it would be another 17 years before production began on the first proper Porsche road car. And even though Dr. Ferdinand Porsche had designed a number of race cars for other manufacturers, genuine Porsche involvement in motorsports got off to a slow start. The Porsche racing program would pick up momentum fast starting in the mid-Fifties, and would see it as a major contender in the Seventies.
The first proper Porsche race car was the 550. Small-capacity Porsche cars had grabbed some class wins in races prior to this, but the 550 was first to really establish the Porsche name in international motorsport competition. This is thanks largely to an overall victory in the Targa Florio in 1956, and even though the 550 would be retired after this season, Porsche prototypes would dominate the race for the remainder of its years. In fact, even though the Targa Florio was run from 1919 to 1977, Porsche’s 11 overall wins stand as the most of any manufacturer to have participated.
But it wasn't just prototypes which had success in rallying, as production versions of the 911 would win the Monte Carlo Rally in 1968, '69 and '70. When the turbocharged 930 variant of the 911 was introduced, Porsche built the 934 and 935 racing versions of the car, and in 1979, would get a 1-2-3 finish from the 935 at Le Mans, with a 934 taking fourth place. The 911 would go on to be one of the most successfully-raced sports cars of all time, including successful bids from countless privateer teams in all sorts of races. But Porsche’s prototype racers were also an unqualified success.
Its first win at Le Mans came in 1970, just after the reign of the Ford GT40. The car which took the win was the 917, one which has since become almost as big a legend as Ford’s Le Mans car. But it was prototypes like the 936, 956 and 962, all of which used engines derived from the one found in the 911 Turbo, which secured Porsche’s dominance in endurance racing. We tend to think today of Le Mans being primarily Audi’s game, but there was a time when Porsche ruled La Sarthe to an even greater degree. So thorough was this dominance that even if Audi wins the next five years in a row, it will only tie Porsche's record.
Porsche participated in Formula 1 as its own team only briefly in the late Fifties and early Sixties. But through a partnership with TAG, it would become a reasonably successful engine supplier. As a supplier to McLaren 1984, ’85 and ‘86, F1 world champions Niki Lauda and Alain Prost both secured the said championships using Porsche engines. We might not think of Porsche’s cars as serious off-road machines, but Porsche once had a good deal of success in rallying, most recently with the 959. This included some Group B wins, but it was the 1984 win and the 1-2 finish in the 1986 Dakar rally that propelled the 959 to legend status within rallying.
But as significant as Porsche’s contributions to motorsport have been as a factory team, it is currently most visible as a supplier to privateer and amateur racing teams. This has tended to mean any of a number of different versions of the 911, and Porsche builds factory-ready racing 911s to meet FIA GT3 and GT2 regulations. It’s not unusual to see a GT3 class that’s half Porsche in any given race, and this is unlikely to change any time soon... even as Porsche gears up a new factory effort to reclaim its glory days at Le Mans.