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Mister Le Mans: Norbert Singer

During his time at Porsche between 1970 and 2004, Norbert Singer took part in every overall victory at Le Mans. On 16 November 2019 the former racing engineer at Dr. Ing. h.c. F. Porsche AG will celebrate his 80th birthday.

The 24 Hours of Le Mans. Since 1970, a total of 19 overall victories, countless class successes and indescribable emotions have linked Porsche with the greatest and longest-established motorsport event in the world. And for decades, there has hardly been any name more closely associated with the 24 Hours of Le Mans than that of Porsche racing engineer Norbert Singer.

Involved in the first 16 overall victories at Le Mans

Norbert Singer played an instrumental role in all 16 overall victories won by both the works and customer teams at Le Mans with the racing sports cars of types 917, 935, 936, 956, 962 C, WSC Spyder and 911 GT1 98 between 1970 and 1998. Until his retirement in 2004, the qualified engineer was also project manager for most of Porsche’s race cars. As Head of Works Sports and Operations, Singer was also responsible for strategic and tactical decisions during the races.

Norbert Singer was born on 16 November,1939 in Eger in the Sudetenland, which is now the town of Cheb in the Czech Republic. Just a few days before the end of the war, his mother was run over by a German military truck, causing her to lose one leg and leaving her with lifelong injuries to the other. At the end of the war, the family had to leave their home and finally moved to Würzburg. His father, Hans, worked for a company that bred and sold seeds. He sometimes worked at home and was responsible for developing and distributing particularly high-yield cereals. “My mother Otty worked in his office and ran the home. When I was home, I could help a bit,” says Norbert Singer, remembering his childhood days.

The choice between aerospace and automotive engineering

After completing his school leaving exams, Norbert Singer began studying mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Munich. His strengths were in maths and physics and his main interest was aerospace. “I was particularly interested in rocket science, so I joined the German Society for Aeronautics and Astronautics while I was still at school. After a two-year foundation course in mechanical engineering, I signed up for automotive engineering but took the opportunity to go to lectures for the newly created aerospace degree. Obviously that didn’t leave me with a lot of free time,” says Norbert Singer, recalling his student days. In the mid-1960s, he was particularly struck by lectures by pioneering German rocket scientist Professor Hermann Oberth and by Wernher von Braun, who gave presentations on NASA’s Apollo programme. In 1969, Norbert Singer completed his studies, graduating in both aerospace engineering and automotive engineering.

The crucial advice to dedicate his career to automotive engineering rather than aerospace engineering was given to Singer by an employee at the Institute for Automotive Engineering at the Technical University of Munich, vehicle dynamics expert Hans-Hermann Braess. He told him, “You have the wrong passport for a career in aerospace. You need to be American or French for that. They invest a lot of money in aerospace there, but in Germany the government provides very little funds for aerospace, and if that funding were stopped you’d be left without a job. As a German, you would do better going into the automotive industry, as we have fine companies like Mercedes, Opel, VW, Ford and BMW that can give you a career.”
“My father saw it the same way. He and my mother had supported me up to that point, but now he wanted to retire and see me in a good career. When Hans-Hermann Braess had an enquiry land on his desk from Porsche, looking for a young engineer for the racing department in Zuffenhausen, he responded saying, “Yes, we’ve got just the man for the job,” Singer continues.

Norbert Singer already had a great affinity for motorsports at this point and spent several weekends visiting various motor races. “My biggest hobby was and still is photography. I was at the Nürburgring, but the cars would only go past eleven times on the 22.8-kilometre track at the Grand Prix. Monaco was much better, and I was able to get much closer to the track, too. I liked Monza a lot as well, especially since I could drive on the race track there for half an hour in my Opel Kadett for just 5 Deutschmarks,” he says.

Joining the Porsche racing department in March 1970

Although Norbert Singer also had an offer on the table from Opel at this point – including the possibility of being able to work in America too – he decided to apply for the position at Porsche. “The thought of being able to work in a racing department was simply much more interesting,” he confesses. In February 1970, the young engineer subsequently got an interview with Peter Falk, head of pre-series and race car development testing and test manager in series development. “The interview with Peter Falk went well. When he asked me when I could start, I told him ‘preferably in April’, because I still had some holiday I wanted to take. But the racing season had already begun, and the two races at Daytona and Sebring were then followed by the European season, so I had to start on 1st March, as otherwise no-one would have had time to give me my introductory training,” remembers Norbert Singer. Initially, he took lodgings in a furnished room in Leonburg, not far from Zuffenhausen, and travelled home to Würzburg on his weekends off “to help a little here and there”.

The racing department was housed in Plant 1 in Zuffenhausen in a building section with the so-called “express train”, similar to a railway carriage with compartments. “There were four of us in an office, and from there we could see the large racing workshop where the race cars were built and serviced. At that time there were more than 200 people working there. Mechanics, engineers, constructors,” says Norbert Singer as he remembers his early days at Porsche.

One of the first tasks: transmission cooling for the 917

Singer’s first responsibilities were on the Porsche 917. “In the beginning I had to work on the fuel supply from the 120-litre tank, and then I had to devote myself to the transmission cooling. Ferdinand Piëch rejected the idea of an external oil cooler, as that would have meant too big an opening in the body, and an additional pump would have cost more in performance too. He demanded a simple solution. Finally, I developed a solution that was good aerodynamically, with two small NACA inlets on the rear section, large air ducts and attractive outlets to the left and right of the transmission,” explains Norbert Singer. The transmission cooling proved how well it worked at Le Mans. Not a single 917 had transmission cooling problems and the long-awaited first overall victory finally came with Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood in the Sarthe.

Aerodynamic development as one of the main jobs

In the period that followed, there was a great deal of aerodynamic development on the agenda for Norbert Singer with the 917. “One of my jobs involved the short tail at the beginning. We needed to reduce drag on the one hand and improve downforce at the same time. Time and again, we developed new versions, carried out testing in the wind tunnel at Stuttgart University and finally did testing in Hockenheim. There we were able to use measuring equipment to see how the car behaved on the race track and whether my results from the work in the wind tunnel proved correct,” remembers Norbert Singer, who had already been widely accepted in the Porsche racing department during this short period. He was also involved in optimising the 917 long tail. The 917/10 and 917/30 with turbocharging, where downforce was the most important factor for the sharp-cornered tracks in the US, also benefited from Norbert Singer’s aerodynamic expertise.

From 911 Carrera RSR to Group C

In the 32 years that followed, Norbert Singer was responsible for a great many outstanding racing cars from Porsche. For example, he took over the 911 Carrera RSR project at the end of 1972, followed by the next stage of development in 1974 with the 911 Carrera RSR Turbo 2.1, which then used the turbo technology successfully introduced in the 917/10 and 917/30 and ultimately led to the 935 in 1976. “In 1977, we optimized the airflow with a higher rear end. Since the standard rear window had to be kept to comply with regulations, we constructed another rear window above it, making for much better aerodynamics,” says Norbert Singer as he explains this clever interpretation of the rules of what was at the time Group 5. One clever and systematic interpretation of the regulations that were amended for 1978 ultimately resulted in the famous 935/78 “Moby Dick”, which was reinforced with a tubular frame.

Following numerous successes with the 935 and the 936, perhaps the greatest technical milestone in Norbert Singer’s career came with the introduction of the Group C Regulations in 1982. In the development of the 956, he once again proved his tremendous expertise in the field of aerodynamics and provided the vehicle with an exceptional ground effect and thus extremely effective road holding characteristics thanks to a special underbody design with air ducts and the legendary “Singer dent”. The 956 and 962 C won no fewer than five Drivers’, three Makes’ and two Team World Championships between 1982 and 1986. They also achieved seven overall victories at Le Mans.

The spirit of Le Mans for an exceptional track record

Norbert Singer celebrated the last overall victory of his active career at Le Mans in 1998, where the two works Porsche 911 GT1 cars, equipped with a carbon fibre monocoque, celebrated a double victory. Norbert Singer’s vehicles also earned more than a dozen titles in the American IMSA series. They also clinched numerous overall victories in the US endurance classic in Daytona, Florida, as well as in the 12 Hours of Sebring in the same US state. In 2003 Norbert Singer was presented with the “Spirit of Le Mans” award by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) for his services to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and for his unique successes in the endurance classic, together with Formula 1 Champion and three-time Le Mans winner Phil Hill, with ACO president Michel Cosson presenting the award. This high accolade has been awarded since 2001, with Ferdinand Piëch, Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell being among the winners in previous years.

In demand for advice and discussions to this day

In 2004, Norbert Singer retired but continued to work for several more years as an advisor for Porsche customer motorsport until 2010. And even after that, his expert knowledge still continued to be of great value. Especially when it came to restoring racing cars for the Porsche Museum, such as recently in the case of the first 917 with the chassis number 917 001 or the 956 with the chassis number 917 005. Norbert Singer has been giving lectures at the university in Esslingen since 2006. In 2018, he was awarded the golden badge of honour by the university for his commitment and success in teaching at the faculty of automotive engineering.