Prince Leopold Of Bavaria: The Porsche Racing Royal

In 1984 a German Prince drove a Porsche to fourth place in the Le Mans 24 Hour. Here is his incredible story…
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In 1984 a German Prince drove a Porsche to fourth place in the Le Mans 24 Hour. Here is his incredible story…

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The big three: Indy 500, the Monaco Grand Prix and Le Mans. These are the motor sport events. Effortlessly glamorous, steeped in history and uniquely challenging; the names of those who have competed, never mind those who have done well, reads like a list of motor racing royalty.

There’s a term that’s thrown around rather a lot: name a sport, add the word ‘royalty’ and you know the cream of the crop is the topic. But what about actual motor sport royalty? Not figurative, but literal. Surely no one with servants and a title would bother themselves with the oily, sweaty side of one the world’s most glamorous sports. They belong in the paddock, with the champagne, the hors d’oeuvre and the lanyards, not clambering, half-deaf and soaked through with sweat, out of a 50 degree cockpit at 3am; shouting ‘brakes are shot, there’s a vibration at 230mph, but she’s running ok’ through two layers of helmet vaguely in the ear of their pilot-duty relief at toughest car race on the planet. Right?

Wrong, apparently. Motorsport has long been the preserve of the already rich and often already famous: aside from anything else, it’s a great way of getting rid of large sums of money in exchange for large sums of fun. The only way to make a small fortune in motor sport, after all, is to start with a large one. For the most part these gentlemen racers, as they are affectionately known, are simply hobbyists; decent drivers (often through nothing more than practice and the lack of a need to worry about the expense of ending up in a barrier) but there purely for the enjoyment; the thrill.

This isn’t always the case though.

Prince Leopold of Bavaria was raised by his grandparents on Schloss Umkirch, after his parents separated, with his similarly-aged uncle Prince Ferfried of Hohenzollern, and it was alongside this brother-figure that a love of motor racing developed. With the money to turn the love in to an obsession, he started his career in rallying. But it wasn't until a change to closed circuit racing in 1969 that fun turned to success.

1972 saw the Prince competing in, and winning, the North American Championship touring car series for Porsche, but his most notable result is almost certainly the one achieved at the world-renowned Le Mans 24hr race in 1984. The Prince had secured a drive in a Porsche 956, one of the very first that the German marque allowed out of the factory's hands, run by legendary privateers Brun Motorsport. It was a fitting choice of car for the lead sponsor: a simple and elegant design classic in the same vein as the coffee machine whose name it wore proudly as part of a beautifully simple livery. The Gaggia logo, with Italian red and green stripes on a white base.

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The name 'Porsche 956' will have immediately piqued the interest of a racing fan reading this, but for those not well-versed in motor sport history, it's worth spending a moment contemplating the importance of this car in the landscape of motor racing lore. It's hard to exaggerate the status of this vehicle, or properly convey just how out-of-this-world it was when it arrived on the scene in 1982. The 956 produced 635bhp, not a vast amount by today's standards, but hopefully I can put that in to context. This year's Formula One cars boast 750bhp, or thereabouts, a 2012 Porsche 911 GT2 RS (widely regarded as being completely bananas), roughly the same as the 956, while the most powerful 911 on sale in 1984 produced 230bhp. If Porsche wanted to widen eyes in 2012 in the same way that it did in 1984 with the 956, its next racing car would have to develop 1,778bhp. No race series would allow it, yet here is a member of the German aristocracy willing to strap himself into a mid-eighties equivalent, with none of the safety measures we've come to expect in modern racing, and hurl himself in to what is, alongside the Isle of Man TT, one of the most dangerous races on the planet. I wonder if he needed any of the free coffee to keep himself awake?

So fast was this car, in every respect, that in the hands of Stefan Bellof during qualifying for the 1983 1000km Nurburgring, it was driven to a lap record of the Nurburgring Nordschleife that still stands today. The chassis was so good, Porsche used it as a test bed for the TAG-branded Formula One motor that would power Alain Prost and Nikki Lauda's McLarens to Drivers' Championship glory in '84. '85 and '86. Iconic just isn't really a sufficient adjective.

Prince Leopold's team of 1984 Le Mans hobbyists, which included team owner Walter Brun and businessman Bob Akin (who, four years previously, had bought a Porsche Carrera RSR because he thought it 'would be fun to race the 12hr of Sebring') saw off, amongst many others, 1980 Formula One Champion, Alan Jones and future Le Mans podium winner, Tiff Needell. They brought their 956 home just nine laps off third place, in a race that most teams arrive at simply hoping to finish.

It was an incredible effort, and surely one of the finest amateur drives in the professional era.