Image credit: designerget
Race cars can be ugly beasts at times. The current state of Formula One illustrates this all too well. But every once in a while, a design comes along that is not only fast, but also looks like a million bucks. The March 90P (also known as “the Pancake” ) was one of these designs.
The story of Porsche’s involvement in Indy car racing is one of unrealized potential; given their dominance in other areas of the sport, this is something of an anomaly. But they did win one race in 1989, so 1990 could have been a breakthrough season. Much has been written about the behind-the-scenes politics that stymied Porsche’s progress that year. At one point they were given permission by CART to build an all-carbon fiber monocoque — only to have that permission rescinded later. In spite of these challenges, Porsche produced a truly unforgettable car for 1990 (“8W – What? – March 90P”).
Image credit: 8W
The monocoque was built by March, but this was hardly a cookie-cutter car. No one else in the field used the chassis; it was just for the Porsche team (the March 90CA, powered by an Alfa Romeo V8, was a separate effort). On site, the 90P was just flat stunning — and I use the word ‘flat’ quite literally. The car was so low to the ground that it was nicknamed “the Pancake.” Add to this the needle-nose and the teeny tiny mirrors, and you had a package that at least looked fast. TV commentators raved constantly about how beautiful the car was. But looks were only the beginning of what set the 90P apart. Beneath the skin, there were some truly inspired packaging choices. For better weight distribution, the turbocharger was located between the cockpit and the engine itself! An exhaust port came poking out the left-hand side with a large metal plate behind it to shield the cowling from heat. At high speed — particularly at Indy — the car made a very interesting exhaust note. Unfortunately, the novel layout led to some unintended consequences. The turbocharger was now right next to the 90P’s fuel pump. At the Detroit Grand Prix, the intense heat from the turbo actually caused the methanol to percolate! Under these conditions, the V8 engine couldn’t run properly, so the team tried to cool down the fuel pump with fire extinguisher foam. Embarrassing, to say the least.
In Denver, however, things looked much better. Teo Fabi put his 90P on the pole and led the opening laps. But the Pancake’s moment in the sun was short lived. A brake failure sent Fabi head on into a tire barrier; he was lucky to walk away without injury. After a year plagued with design problems and DNFs, the Porsche Indy program came to an end. But 1990 was also a year of what ifs: What if the all-carbon fiber chassis had been allowed? What if the packaging issues had been worked out? Yet another tantalizing glimpse at what might have been.