Le Mans 24 Hours

Ninth victory for Porsche

Even when they announced their boycott of the Le Mans 24-hour race in March, Porsche must have known that success was assured. Did not they take the top eight places last year, humbling every rival who showed his face? Possibly, after practice, the Stuttgart men began to harbour some doubts. It was not just that the Lancia-Martini team annexed pole position and the second fastest time (that was entirely predictable), rather the manner in which it was done. No blow-ups, no crashes, no bungling, not even any spring changes or aerodynamic adjustments. For this race the Italians had prepared very thoroughly, testing for 20 hours at Mugello (with the Silverstone cars, almost as they were when they retired) and then four more at Monza concentrating on the high speed adjustments. Lubrication to the turbochargers had been improved and other minor modcations carried out, but their new-found form was largely the result of painstaking preparation so often lacking in the past year.

Bob Wollek looked happy after recording 3 min 17.11 sec (154 mph) for pole position. It was half a second slower than Ickx's pole time last year, but the Alsace driver had been baulked three times by slower cars and knew that the Lancia was capable of a 3 min 14 sec in perfect conditions. He and Alessandro Nannini would not be able to run at that speed in the race with lower boost from the turbochargers and harder tyres, but undoubtedly they had the fastest car and, therefore, had more in hand. Paolo BariIla, Mauro Baldi and Hans Heyer shared the second Lancia which recorded 3 min 20.47 sec — and then the private Porsche teams jostled for the next rows on the grid. Stefan Johansson, partnering Jean-Louis Schlesser and Mauricio de Narvaez in one of Reinhold Joest's three New Man sponsored Porsche 956s, was third fastest overall with a time of 3 min 26.10 sec. Perhaps, though, Joest would pin his hopes on the second car, that of previous winners Henri Pescarolo and Klaus Ludwig, in which Ludwig recorded 3 in 28.42s.

Erwin Kremer is perhaps the most experienced Porsche privateer, having prepared the winning car (for Ludwig) in 1979, and the 956 which went so well for the Andrettis last year. This time he pinned his hopes on a brand-new car for Alan Jones, last year's winner Vern Schuppan, and Jean-Pierre Jarier. Then there was the Canon team which did so well at Silverstone, Jan Lammers partnering Dr. Jonathan Palmer who even missed the Canadian Grand Prix to be at Le Mans. All these, and John Fitzpatrick's Skoal-sponsored 956 for David Hobbs, Philippe Streiff and Sarel van der Merwe practised at below 3 min 30 sec, the standard (if not the actual speed) that would be needed to run at or near the front during the race. In the low 30's, too, were Fitzpatrick's second entry, a new 962 — though with a 956 engine — for Guy Edwards / Rupert Keegan / Roberto Moreno, Kremer's Dallas sponsored second entry for David Sutherland / Tiff Necdell / "Rusty" French, two French WM-Peugeots which are always so quick along the Mulsanne Straight, the Gaggia sponsored 956 of Oscar Larrauri / Massimo Sigala Joel Gouhier, the "Team Australia" 956 of Larry Perkins / Peter Brock, and Walter Brun's 956 shared with Prince Leopold von Bayern and Bob Akin.

British hopes, and certainly those of the enormous contingent of trippers across the Channel, rested fair and square on the Jaguars and Aston Martins. Never mind that Aston Martin has been kept alive by American finance, or that the Jaguars are American prepared and built . . . they are unquestionably British at Le Mans. Viscount Downe's Nimrod team wanted so badly to beat the Jaguars that they even resorted to fitting qualifying tyres on Ray Mallock's 580 bhp, normally aspirated car for the first time, rewarded by the 10th fastest time overall at a stirring 3 min 33.14 sec (2½ sec faster than the Northampton driver went last year in the same car). No doubt, then, that the Nimrod was the fastest non-turbo and, with its better fuel consumption, perhaps a dark horse for the race.

The Bob Tullius team exudes professionalism. They don't seem to have as much fun as the Aston Martin team, and showed studied ignorance of the challenge coming from further up the pits lane. With no previous Le Mans experience to draw upon with the XJR-5 they concentrated hard on gearing (too long to begin with), springing (too soft at the start of practice) and aerodynamics, for the cars looked anything but stable at the Dunlop Curve. They improved greatly, of course, for drivers Brian Redman / Bob Tullius/ "Doc" Bundy and John Watson / Claude Ballot-Lena / Tony Adamowicz, to finish up 14th and 19th fastest overall.

Of all the races on FISA's calendar Les Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans, the grand prix of speed and endurance, must be the most international. The Americans were there in great force, but the Australians seemed to outnumber them. There were dozens of Japanese around the two Masdaspeed rotary engined 727C entries, and around the Dome which Stanley Dickens crashed heavily on Thursday evening. The French were heavily outnumbered in their own race, though Preston Henn's two-Porsche team included Jean Rondeau, the constructor who won the race in 1980, in return for which they had use of his facility 400 yards from the track in which to prepare the 956 and the new 962 immaculately. After all, preparation is of supreme importance for this race; with 16 almost identical Porsches taking part, the one which had a decent turn of speed, reliable drivers and spent the least time in the pits was going to be the winner.

The French were ecstatic for the first 12 minutes of the race, and Roger Dorchy became an instant hero as he led the Lancias across the line. The WM-Peugeot, which no-one had seriously taken into the reckoning, was ahead of Wollek's Lancia on the opening lap, in its slipstream on the second, and ahead again on the third. This "hare" of the French team was using all its redoubtable speed along the long straight to assert a lead, and might have continued to do so had not Dorchy missed his braking point for the Mulsanne Corner the fourth time, locked up and slewed into the barrier on the left. The car returned to the pit with the nose missing, and all the brackets needed to fit a new one, and spent an hour in the pits being rebuilt.

The first pit stops for refuelling came sooner than anticipated, Schuppan in the leading Porsche stopping after just 40 minutes with the others not far behind. Team managers were playing safe and calculating the fuel consumption on race speeds, rather than practice speeds, since there is no longer any limit to the number of times the cars may stop. Even the Jaguars ran only 50 minutes in the first stint and couldn't find a real advantage, but the stints were extended to around 70 minutes later as the engines loosened up. The main problem for the Jaguar drivers was maintaining concentration, since they had a planned schedule of lapping at 3 min 42 sec while the cars wanted to run at 3 min 38 sec!

The Schuppan / Jones / Jarier Porsche fairly dominated the leader board for the first five hours, though rarely with a lap in hand over the Lancias, the Hobbs / Streiff / Moreno Porsche, the Canon entry, and Preston Henn's 956 which moved up well when the talented John Paul was at the wheel.

After three hours no more than 12 seconds covered the three leading cars, the Porsches of Schuppan and Jones, and Wollek's Lancia. Hobbs and Barilla were a lap down in Porsche and Lancia respectively, while Watson's Jaguar had moved up impressively to sixth place, Redman's being twelfth though on the same lap. The Palmer / Lammers 956 had dropped right down to 29th place when the right-rear suspension link broke (as it had at Monza) and suffered again when the same part on the left side sheared off. And during the night the rear body section flew off into the darkness, adding to this team's misfortunes.

At the three-hour mark, too, Pescarolo and Ludwig languished in 16th place, having made an unscheduled stop as early as the second lap to have an over-rich fuel injection setting remedied, and another with a rear suspension failure which took only five minutes to rectify. They were, at this stage, three laps behind the leader with 21 hours to go. . . .

The Lancias of Wollek and Barilla, in first and third places, sandwiched the Skoal Porsche 956 at quarter distance, those of Jones and Henn being fourth and fifth, with only two laps between them. The Jaguars were now sixth and seventh, and looking good. A pillar of smoke from the far end of the Mulsanne Straight is what everyone fears to see, and when it happened it signalled the demise of the Aston Martin Nimrod team. John Sheldon's car had gone out of control at the notorious 220 mph "kink'', for what reason no-one will ever know, and burst into flames as it hit the barrier on the left once, then again, disintegrating across the track. Tragically a marshal standing behind the armco was killed outright and another seriously injured, though Sheldon (who has no recollection at all of the accident) scrambled out with burns to his hands and left side, mercifully not dangerously serious. Palmer, following, managed to steer through the fast-moving debris but Drake Olson, in the other Nimrod, was unsighted behind him and hit the armco in avoiding the wreckage. He was badly shocked, but unhurt.

The pace cars were out for a full hour while the mess was cleaned up, and the Lancias continued to dominate the race when it got underway again. Then precisely at half distance Barilla's car stopped for 50 minutes having the gearbox rebuilt, fifth gear having broken, which looked ominous for Wollek's car too. Sure enough, that succumbed just after seven o'clock in the morning and almost simultaneously the second-placed Skoal 956 stopped with its engine misfiring. It continued to the end on five cylinders, with either a piston or a valve broken. So, too, did Tullius' Jaguar stop for 40 minutes with third gear broken, and retired later when the engine oil pump packed up as a consequence. Nor did the other Jaguar fare well on Sunday morning, delayed by a broken throttle cable and then eliminated by an accident at Tertre Rouge with Adamowicz at the wheel, rupturing the oil tank and returning to the pits with a glowing V12.

These incidents changed the picture dramatically, leaving Ludwig and Pescarolo in a lead they were not to lose. Their closest challenge came from the Schuppan / Jones / Jarier 956 which was only a lap behind an hour from the finish, but then blew a piston and rested in the pits until a few minutes from the end. So it was Preston Henn's 956 that finished second from the Skoal Porsche, Lancia being poorly rewarded by eighth place after fairly dominating two-thirds of the event.

So Porsche earned their ninth Le Mans victory, now equalling Ferrari's record in some style. It was Pescarolo's fourth win, equal to Olivier Gendebien's tally, and Ludwig's second. That they covered 11 laps fewer than the winners last year can be blamed on the need for pace cars, a calculation based on the hourly bulletins indicating that the equivalent of nine laps were lost for this reason in a two-hour period. For that reason, Reinhold Joest can reflect that this was no hollow victory in the absence of the factory Porsches. In fact, it was rather a good one. — M.L.C.

Results

52nd Le Mans 24 Hours. June 16th / 17th — Weather warm and dry

1st : H. Pescarolo / K. Ludwig.................................. (2.6 t/c Joest Porsche 956), 359 laps (4,900.276 km) av. 204.18 k.p.h. (126.87 m.p.h.)
2nd : P. Henn / J. Paul Jr / J. Rondeau.................... (2.6 t/c Porsche 956).......................357 laps
3rd : D. Hobbs / P. Streiff / S. v.d. Merwe................ (2.6 t/c Porsche 956).......................350 laps
4th : W. Brun / L. von Bayern / R. Akin.................... (2.6 t/c Porsche 956).......................339 laps
5th : V. Merl / D. Schornstein / J. Winter.................. (2.6 t/c Porsche 956).......................339 laps
6th : V. Schuppan / A. Jones / J-P. Jarier................ (2.6 t/c Porsche 956).......................336 laps
7th : M. Sigala / O. Larrauri /J. Gouhier................... (2.6 t/c Porsche 956).......................334 laps
8th : R. Wollek / A. Nannini...................................... (2.6 t/c Lancia-Martini LC2 / 84)......325 laps
9th : T. Needell / D. Sutherland / R. French............. (2.6 t/c Porsche 956).......................320 laps
10th : J. O'steen / J. Morton /Y. Katayama.............. (2.6 Mazda-Lola T616)....................319 laps
11th : J-P. Grand / J-P. Libert / P. Witmeur............. (3.0 Rondeau-DFV).........................309 laps
12th : J. Busby / J. Hayje / R. Knoop.......................(2.6 Mazda-Lola T616).....................294 laps
Fastest Lap: R. Wollek, 3 min 28.90 sec (234.818 kph)