While the final appearances of Audi and Mark Webber have understandably dominated the headlines in the build-up to the FIA WEC Six Hours of Bahrain, the event also marks the final appearance of the current-generation Porsche 911 RSR GTE as a works-supported entry in the GTE-Pro class.
The car is due to be replaced next year by a mid-engined version of the 911 RSR, which was unveiled at the LA Auto Show on Wednesday.
While it has struggled against newer opposition in GTE-Pro this season, the outgoing Porsche achieved significant success in its lifespan, winning on its first two 24-hour race appearances at Le Mans in 2013 and Daytona in 2014.
Richard Lietz was the common denominator in both successes and was also part of the lineup which took outright victory at Petit Le Mans in 2015, although he didn’t get to drive when the race was red-flagged early amid torrential rain.
The 911 RSR’s crowning glory came a year ago in Bahrain, as Lietz became Porsche’s first WEC GT Drivers Champion and also helped the marque to win its first GT Manufacturers title.
“I know how hard all of Manthey tried to finish it like this, how hard it was for the factory after three years of no championships, so this was basically mission complete,” Lietz told Sportscar365.
“When I look at the pictures of winning Daytona or winning Le Mans in 2013, the faces that look the happiest is last year in Bahrain. Every team member was so satisfied.
“Endurance racing is about the team you have behind you and everybody was just so happy. This is a race I will remember forever, I think.”
The car began life in disappointing fashion in 2013, as Lietz and Marc Lieb struggled to fourth and fifth place finishes in the first two races at Silverstone and Spa.
However, their season – and the car’s legacy – would be transformed at Le Mans, as Lietz, Lieb, and Romain Dumas led home a Porsche 1-2 after a close fight with Aston Martin.
“It was a really big step from Porsche Motorsport in GT, really more far away from the street car than the cars before – it was a proper race car,” Lietz said.
“We struggled in the beginning. In the first two races, I remember we had a very big problem with the rear which we could solve basically for the first time in Le Mans with the Le Mans aero package.
“We had less front downforce, so it was more balanced, and therefore it was also the first real success from the car and everybody involved in the project.
“It was a very touching, very bad race because Allan Simonsen died in that race, so we really didn’t care about any result – I remember we just said, ‘Ah let’s finish the race and that’s it.’
“It was really hard mentally and with the rainy conditions it was driving-wise very difficult for us, but Le Mans is like this and in the end, we could finish P1 and P2 which was perfect for us, but we all felt very sad for Allan.”
At the end of 2013, Lietz and Lieb scored what would be the 911 RSR’s only WEC GTE-Pro class pole in Bahrain, as the car tended to show stronger pace over a race stint than a single lap.
This was evidenced again at Daytona, as Lietz, Nick Tandy, and Patrick Pilet stroked to victory in the first IMSA race following the merger between the ALMS and Grand-Am.
It would mark the beginning of a successful foray into IMSA with the CORE autosport-run Porsche North America operation, as Pilet went on to win the title the following year, winning four times in five races at the end of the season.
Manthey withdrew from the WEC this year to focus on developing the new 911 RSR for 2017, but Lietz argues that in their place, the Dempsey-Proton crew have executed to the best possible standard.
Lietz and Michael Christensen are the only full-season GTE-Pro drivers not to finish on the podium this year, with a best result of a fourth at Spa.
“This year, honestly the car isn’t as bad as it looks like, but we don’t have enough power, it’s out of balance,”Lietz said.
“Unfortunately the last race they didn’t change anything to our car, so it will be again the slowest car on the grid. It’s a little bit sad that a very successful car and a very nice rear-engined car has to end its career like this.
“If you look from outside, for sure it’s easy to say it’s not a works team, so okay it’s slower, but we know the setup, we have good support from Porsche, we have good people. Definitely, it’s not the team and also not the drivers.
“I drove a lot of years with the Proton team and a lot of people are still there. This year with Dempsey-Proton, of course, we had new people but it’s a second family, it’s always like this. I know how hard they tried to get us in the front.
“I looked at them training yesterday, they were sweating and everything and they smiled at me and said, ‘Even if we have no chance, we still give our best.’
“In Shanghai when we had the fight with the No. 71 Ferrari, we came out in front of them in the box, but if you are two seconds slower, it’s a success not to be lapped two times.”
While future of the current generation of 911 RSR in the GTE-Am class remains unclear, Lietz is encouraged by the opportunity to start from fresh with the 2017-spec 911 RSR, the third project he has been involved with from the very start.
“I joined Porsche in 2007 with the 997 having its first year. I was not involved in developing, but I drove the car from the first race until the last race, so it’s the second time I have a complete circle of a model,” he said.
“Next year we have the latest evolution which I was involved with a lot in the development, so it would be nice to also finish this until the end of its lifetime.
“The engineers put a lot of ideas on a white sheet of paper and did the best they can do.
“The only thing we can have is we have to trust the ACO and the FIA that they are doing the best they can do to balance everything and then we have four brands fighting for victories and championships and everybody has a chance if they do everything correct.
“If you have good pitstops, good tires, everything in the window, then you should also be able to fight for the podium. This is motorsport.”