Porsche and racing in the same sentence usually stems from one model– the 911. As the backbone of Porsche’s motorsport heritage, the legacy of the first 911 Carrera RS that dominated 70’s motorsport is carried by the latest RSRs owning it at Le Mans.
The 911, with decades of success, cannot be disputed as king of the sports cars on track.
Make no mistake, this is not necessarily the easiest car to go fast in. Early 911 models were a handful to drive. One look at the 70’s Carrera RSR’s huge rear spoiler and copious amounts of tyre width gives you an idea of how much effort went into ensuring that the infamous rear-engined layout didn’t catch drivers off-guard at the time.
Despite all these enhancements, the massive weight bias at the rear meant drivers needed to manage the car beautifully to avoid low front-end grip and snap oversteer. The reward was always worth it, as the finest 911 pilots dominated the competition as the car got into its groove.
Even at club racing level, the 911 has seen great success. Cars were less modified, sporting narrower standard bodies that made handling a lot trickier. As with the top-level racecars, the drivers that managed to exploit the 911’s quirks into an advantage always came out on top.
Times have moved on and the modern 911 has become more manageable and quicker. Seemingly endless demand for air-cooled 911s has skyrocketed the value of these cars. They used to be regular contenders at Killarney in classic car racing, but have now vanished to be kept safe in collections instead. Sad, unless you’ve owned one over the years of course.
It seemed like Porsche had vanished from club motorsport altogether, a victim of its own success. But, in the shadow of the 911, another Porsche has gained significant popularity at Killarney and other circuits in South Africa – the 944.
Always seen as the “poor man’s Porsche” with limited racing heritage other than the 924 Carrera GT, the 944 initially seems a highly unlikely candidate for fully-fledged racing. With more drivers lining up on the grid in the 944 across the country, I decided to investigate. After driving a 944 S2 and 944 Turbo around Killarney, I quickly realised why the 944 is finding favour.
Firstly, the price. 944 values have remained stubbornly low over the years, which makes sense as the 944 was introduced as an affordable Porsche. This enables many more people to experience Porsche engineering at a manageable price point. This makes it a perfect base for a historic racecar project (provided you choose the right model), as entry cost is relatively low compared to many other options.
Secondly, the drive. Let me start off by saying that there are only two 944 models really suited to racing – the S2 or the Turbo. Anything else would be a waste of time as the base cars were underpowered. The S2 sports a 3.0L naturally aspirated straight-four, providing a decent 210bhp in standard trim. With a couple of tweaks, it can easily be pushed over the 250bhp mark and should be sufficient for most drivers looking to have fun on track.
The Turbo is however where the real potential lies. Sporting similar horsepower to the S2 but with more torque-induced grunt, this is the one you want if you want to go fast. Also, with a bit of tweaking, these cars can easily do 350bhp. The class restricts turbos to 1.0 bar boost to keep things reasonable.
So, what are they like to drive?
The S2 and the Turbo share the same underpinnings, which means excellent brakes and a beautifully balanced package. Unlike the 911, the 944 is front-engined and has its gearbox in the back. Porsche purists might hate this, but the result is near-perfect 50-50 weight distribution. With uprated power and a stiffer racing setup, the 944 is a gem around any circuit.
Front-end grip brings confidence on corner entry, while the well-planted Porsche makes you feel like you are never dancing with the devil through the twisties. This isn’t a light car (a massive rear glass windshield doesn’t help at the back), but the balanced chassis creates reassurance rather than frustration, despite feeling the overall weight around corners.
With the S2, you really need to wring its neck to get to and stay in the powerband at high revs, but power delivery is silky smooth and won’t catch you off guard when the red mist kicks in.
Predictably, the Turbo is unfortunately not so forgiving. Like most classic turbocharged cars in the 80’s, there is significant turbo lag that will bite you if your wheels aren’t pointing dead straight on the exit of a corner when you plant your foot. If you can avoid spinning and learn to manage the Turbo, you will blast past most naturally-aspirated historic racecars on exit. Torque is your friend.
Reliability is crucial in motorsport. Being a Porsche, and provided you aren’t hell-bent on pushing its engine north of its breaking point, reliability is a word you can say out loud when talking about a 944. If you are comfortable with driving the car modestly and well within its limits, you should have trouble-free racing for most of the time.
One 944 driver, Piet Matthee, drives his S2 from his home in Stellenbosch straight to Killarney, races his car and then drives it home after every race meeting. If that’s not testament enough I don’t know what is.
The Millstock Classic Car Club at Killarney sports a healthy roster of 944s on circuit, making for exciting racing as different variations of car and driver battle it out among a variety of classics in the field.
Ironically, thanks to the car that isn’t credited with Porsche’s success, the marque is alive and well in classic club racing. I can’t help but laugh as I imagine the look on old Porsche executives’ faces if they saw the 944 (intended as a cheap GT-focused car) shredding it up on track while 911 models of yesteryear are kept as garage queens, rarely showing their faces.
Perhaps this shows just how deeply Porsche’s motorsport DNA permeates their offering. Attending a race at Killarney will quickly put any doubts to rest about the 944’s abilities.
There is a nagging fear that the 944 follows the same path as the 911 as values rise, eventually being banished to the corners of the garage under an expensive cover. One cannot predict the future, but you can make sure you experience the magic currently on offer by attending the spectacle of 944 racing in the Millstock Classic Cars class at Killarney.
For the very best exotics and luxury cars in the country, be sure to check out Millstock Cars at www.millstockcars.co.za