Bell's fourth Le Mans success

Derek Bell became the most successful English driver ever to compete at Le Mans when he notched up his fourth victory on June 1, driving the Rothmans-Porsche 962C with Hans Stuck and Al Holbert. Three of his victories were shared with six-times winner Jacky Ickx; Olivier Gendebien and Henri Pescarolo have won four times, and four drivers have won the 24Hour race three times.

The list of achievements goes further, for this was Porsche's 11th victory since 1970 — Ferrari is the next most successful marque, with nine wins — and Bell and Holbert also won the Daytona 24-Hours in February, a rare double. It was not all plain sailing, though, because for 12 hours the number 1 works Porsche had duelled ferociously with the Joest Porsche 956 driven by Klaus Ludwig, Paolo Barilla and John Winter, exchanging the lead repeatedly.

It became a personal duel between Bell and Ludwig during the night, slipstreaming on the Mulsanne Straight with rarely more than a couple of seconds between them across the finishing line. The nine-hour bulletin, for instance, had Bell leading Ludwig by 0.4 sec. On the 10-hour bulletin the Englishman was 0.2 sec ahead, and the German would complain that things were getting rough out there, his car peppered with stones and debris as Bell slid wide out of the corners. It was more like a 10-lapper at Brands Hatch! Bell said that his screen was covered in oil: "When they cleaned it at a pit stop, it was like having another pair of lights."

This Titanic duel came to an end when Jo Gartner, the likeable Austrian driver, crashed the Kremer brothers' Kenwood sponsored Porsche 962C on the Mulsanne Straight and died immediately of a broken neck. The black car, making up places after a rear suspension rebuild, suddenly veered left at a speed approaching 200 mph, just before Hunaudiere, and hurtled from the barrier across the track, catching fire on the right after felling a concrete telegraph pole.

The race itself also suffered a mortal blow. The pace cars were out for two and a half hours while the wreckage was removed and the armco rebuilt, and during this time Ludwig's engine over-cooled and ran its bearings. The famous chassis 956/ 117, winner in 1984 and 1985, was out of the contest, leaving Bell/Stuck/Holbert to nurse a nine-lap lead all the way to the finish.

At this stage the TWR Silk Cut Jaguar of Derek Warwick, Eddie Cheever and Jean-Louis Schlesser was vying with the Brun Motorsport team's Porsche 962C of Oscar Larrauri, Jesus Pareja and Joel Doubter, and, after losing time on Saturday evening with an alternator and starter motor problem, the Jaguar was getting the upper hand.

Jean-Louis Schlesser had 86 seconds in hand at eight o'clock on Sunday morning but, as spectators were washing, shaving and eating their breakfasts, the right near tyre exploded while the Jaguar was going at full speed on the long straight and the Frenchman was extremely fortunate to keep the car on the road, its rear bodywork gone and the suspension broken.

Schlesser was able to bring the stricken car back to the pits but Tom Walkinshaw needed only a cursory glance to see that the transmission bellhousing, from which the wheel is located, had broken, and this signalled the end of an auspicious debut for the V12 powered XJR-6. Walkinshaw can contemplate at leisure the fact that Dunlop supply identical Denlocs to the works Porsche and Jaguar teams. . . had Bell's car suffered that tyre failure instead, Jaguar might have been celebrating a sensational victory.

The rate of attrition had been high in the first half of the race, yet surprisingly the TWR Jaguar was the last to retire and an average quota of 23 cars crossed the finishing line. Countless British fans had crossed the Channel to see the Jaguars, the roads from Calais, Boulogne, Le Havre and Cherbourg looking more like southern England judging by the number of GB plates on cars, coaches and motorcycles.

The Silk Cut Jaguars had practised well, the most serious incident being a wheel rim fracture which gave Hurley Haywood a bad few moments on Thursday night. The works Porsches, with full 3-litre fully water cooled engines for Wednesday evening's qualifying session, dominated, Jochen Mass recording 3 min 15.99 sec (248.486 km/h) and Hans Stuck, delayed by a spinning car, 3 min 16.60 sec. Reinhold Joest insists that his Taka Q clothing sponsored Porsche had only a 2.6 litre engine which makes Klaus Ludwig's time of 3 min 17 11 sec quite amazing, for again this was the quickest car through the Hunaudiere speed trap at 373 km/h. Alain Ferte, in the Brun Porsche 956, was fourth quickest at 3 min 20.10 sec, then Eddie Cheever broke the Porsche ranks with an impressive 3 min 21.60 sec in the Jaguar. Hans Heyer was seventh fastest in the Jaguar shared with Brian Redman and Hurley Haywood (3 min 24.95 sec in the last five minutes of Thursday's session) and Gianfranco Brancatelli was 14th in the third Jaguar (3 min 29.24 sec) in the car co-driven by Win Percy and Armin Hahne.

Walkinshaw was justified in believing that his cars had the pace of the race; the Porsches could not run so fast with race boost, race tyres, and economising for a fuel-controlled 24-hour race . . could they?

Three drivers had ambitious ideas. Ludwig, Stuck and Wollek soon took command of the race, after Warwick had held second place for three laps. After making a careful start Stuck established a new record of 3 min 23.70 sec as early as the seventh lap, going into the lead, and traded positions with Ludwig to the first refuelling stops. Almost with inevitability the three Porsches, the class of the race, eased out a margin on the Jaguars which ran fourth, fifth and eighth at the one-hour mark. Brancatelli's job being to play a waiting game.

Now came the hours of anxiety for Walkinshaw. If only one of those Porsches ran the distance without problems, and the history book said this would happen, it must win the race. But the Scotsman would get no accolades for speeding the Jaguars up and breaking them, especially if the Rothmans and Joest Porsches did encounter difficulties in the night. The waiting game had to go on.

The Vern Schuppan/Drake Olson Rothmans-Porsche 962C, with PDK semi-automatic transmission, was the first important retirement after two and a half hours. It had gone very well, holding fifth place and splitting the Jaguars, until the gearbox input shaft broke, and Schuppan was pleased to be invited to share the number 2 Porsche with Mass and Wollek. Inside four hours one of the IMSA class triple-rotor Mazda 727s, that of Katayama, retired with a broken input shaft to its Porsche gearbox, and Kennedy's followed suit within a few hours.

The Redman/Haywood/Heyer Jaguar was the next to retire, out of fuel, out yonder. The on-board computers showed that 11 litres remained, enough or nearly two more laps, but when the car was recovered on Sunday afternoon there wasn't a drop left in the tank Where the fuel went is a complete mystery, but the team was pretty sure it wasn't Heyer's driving, or a miscalculation that caused the embarrassing retirement.

At quarter-distance, as night closed in, 75 seconds covered Bell, Mass and Ludwig on 99 laps with the Jaguars of Warwick and Brancatelli two laps behind. The Jaguars were on their fuel schedule, which the Porsches were not, and the waiting game went on Warwick's car, though, was at that time delayed 20 minutes by an alternator failure and starting problems, big clouds of smoke going up when fire extinguishers were played on the starter motor. Walkinshaw's Rover touring car trio Brancatelli, Percy and Hahne moved smoothly into third position, but their Waterloo came in the small hours when the left-side inner constant velocity joint failed on the driveshaft, the breakage the TWR team feared most.

Incidents came thick and fast Walter Brun's three-car team was reduced to one when Brun's own car dropped a valve and Thierry Boutsen made an uncharacteristic error, putting too much power down out of the Ford chicane and spinning out of the corner into the barrier on the right, at the start of the pits entry lane. Damage was such that the car was pushed away and, at three o'clock in the morning, the three-car teams of Rothmans-Porsche, Jaguar and Brun were much depleted. The works Porsches, too, came down to a solo effort when Mass followed the Ecosse of Mike Wilds into the armco at the Porsche Curves, the track as if turned to ice by a trail of oil Wilds got back to the pits, steering on one wheel, but Mass had two broken rims and the car was immobile, on its undertray.

Six minutes later Gartner's terrible accident occurred on the Mulsanne Straight, and while the pace cars were out Ludwig's 956 went quietly to the pits and out of the race. The Kremer brothers' second entry, the Primagaz 956 driven by Yver, Striebig and Cohen-Olivar, was withdrawn out of respect for Gartner.

Bell, Stuck and Holbert now had nine laps in hand over the Jaguar and Larrauri's Brun Porsche and could ease gently back onto their fuel schedule, or even get within it, for the winners had 300 litres to spare at the finish.

Neither featured on the leader-board and within five hours the Thackwell/ Nielsen car went out with a wrecked engine, unexpectedly, and the Pescarolo/ Danner/Quester car retired with a more predictable engine failure within seven hours of the start. Throughout testing, and thus far in the season, the Swiss entered cars have been a model of reliability, and Peter Sauber was understandably disappointed.

East-West politics were rife in the Nissan camp, manager Keith Greene, on loan from Richard Lloyd's team, having the utmost difficulty in reaching an understanding with the lead drivers of the two cars, Kazayoshi Hoshino and Masanori Hasemi. A veil is best drawn over the farcical proceedings in practice during which the new March 86S and the older March 85G seemed to go slower and slower, as the Japanese tested their wills against Greene and the English driver, James Weaver. With a numerical superiority of Japanese mechanics to do their bidding, the works drivers were getting the upper hand, not that it profited the team at all Hoshino's 860 fell by the wayside with severe engine vibration in the fifth hour, and Haserni's 85G went all the way to the finish in 17th place, latterly with electrical and starting problems.

Seven of the 14 Porsches reached the finish, types 956 and 962 occupying the first five places, heading Siggi Brunn's Joest built Porsche 936C, the Porsche factory's four-wheel drive 961 and Ian Harrower's C2 class winning Gebhardt Brunn's 936, shared with Ernst Schuster and Rudi Seher, was beautifully prepared and completely reliable, running a prototype of Porsche's 1987 IMSA engine. The 961, the first 4WD car ever to race at the Sarthe, had a pretty uneventful run in the hands of Rene Metge and Claude Ballot-Lena, delayed briefly by a broken throttle linkage on Saturday evening, by a tyre blowout on Sunday morning, and then having a new driveshaft fitted, a consequence of the blowout.

The four-wheel-drive system worked perfectly, a pressure of 11 kg being placed on the multi-plate centre clutch in order to send around 20, of the power to the front under fierce acceleration. and 50% in straightline running, and the drivers seemed happy enough. Rain, better still snow, would have suited them, but the 961 had an excellent baptism in a dry race. The 2.85 litre engine was giving 640 bhp, though the 1.150 kg weight of the car, and its frontal area, precluded a better result.

Harrower, with Evan Clements and Tom Dodd-Noble, had a race that got better as it went on, and he was a thoroughly deserving C2 class winner, at his tenth attempt at Le Mans, in the ADA Engineering Gebhardt. The team's practice was nothing special, a routine engine change for Thursday evening's session going badly, and when the patriotically liveried car appeared for the last hour of practice it was stranded with low fuel pressure. Hardly a good omen for the world's toughest 24-hour race, and a rear tyre failure early or the race, which accounted for a large chunk of bodywork. was not conducive to peace of mind either.

Gordon Spice, Ray Bellm and Jean-Michel Martin were the class of the field in the Spice Pontiac Fiero (powered by a Cosworth 3.3 litre DFL) during practice, but their race went to ruins after a fine start. From 15th overall at the end of the first hour, ahead of some decent Porsches, the Mazdas, Toyotas and Saubers, Spice's car slumped with a split clutch hydraulic pipe, a water leak, a faulty water temperature gauge, and starter troubles, a whole catalogue of disasters for the C2 world champions though they salvaged 21st place, and sixth in class.

The works Gebhardt which took up the running was crashed on Saturday evening approaching the Ford chicane and the ARG V6 powered Ecosse driven by Ray Mallock/Mike Wilds/David Leslie was then so far ahead that it kept the class lead even after Wilds' spin on oil at the 11-hour mark, and the subsequent repair during the pace car period. As with the surviving Jaguar, however, a burst rear tyre gave Leslie a bad fright, and punctured the water radiator. The Scotsman filled the header tank twice on his way back to the pits and then after the damage had been repaired, the car was excluded for taking replenishments on the circuit.

The sister-car Ecosse. powered by Cosworth and driven by Americans Les Delano/Andy Petery/John Hotchkiss, was totally reliable but wasn't driven fast enough to take advantage of the happenings ahead, so Harrower's Gebhardt cantered home an easy eight laps ahead of Jens Winther's ageing but reliable URD-BMW 6-cylinder. co-driven by David Mercer and Lars-Viggo Jensen.

The result was another great victory for Porsche, rival efforts having proved self-defeating this year. But it was, of course, the first time of trying for the TWR Jaguar team, for Sauber and for Nissan and all the three teams will have returned to base with very clear ideas of what to do in 1987. Tyres, as usual, remain a great worry for all the drivers, only the works Porsches having the Robert Bosch/Porsche developed pressure warning sensors which will reveal a faulty wheel, or loss of tyre pressure, before it develops into a disaster. Porsche have been using these devices successfully since 1980, and now offer them on the 959 road car, yet they won't be available to others until next year.

Jo Gartner's tragic death took the edge off a triumphant victory or Derek Bell, Hans Stuck and Al Holbert but it was an historic result as the team will, officially, be disbanded after two more Teams Championship races at the Nurburgring and Spa. Then, the Rothmans contract expires and the Porsche factory will move on, almost certainly to concentrate on racing in America. Surely, though, works Porsches will run at Le Mans in 1987? It's difficult to imagine the place without them —M.L.C.