The year of the cat

Britain's soccer fans may not have created a good impression in Sardinia, but a vast army of 50,000 motor racing supporters who crossed the channel were well behaved and ecstatic with the 1-2 result achieved by the Silk Cut Jaguar team at Le Mans. They joined Tom Walkinshaw with fervour in singing the National Anthem and more than a few tears were shed... of happiness among those celebrating, of sheer frustration by the Brun Motorsport Porsche team, denied a heroic second place by a totally unexpected engine failure 14 minutes from the end.

The build-up for this year's race had all the ingredients of excitement and drama, and no-one was disappointed. The race took place despite the intervention of FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre during the winter, but he can be credited with arousing a still greater level of support for the 24-hours, and drawing the largest crowd in recent memory.

There were far more people at the track than last year when the figure was given as 220,000, and the number of spectators for the qualifying sessions on Wednesday and Thursday evenings possibly surpassed the numbers of spectators for the World Championship races held so far this year. As for the future, the ACO has declared itself anxious to rejoin the World Sportscar Championship in 1991 'but not at any price,' and has asked FISA for guarantees of World Championship status, and 50 car entries, before starting the FF120 million modern pits complex which should be finished by next April. There's a long way to go yet before peace breaks out.

Never before had five manufacturers such as Jaguar, Porsche, Nissan, Toyota and Mazda entered for the 24-hour race, the 58th in the series, with any degree of confidence that they could win. There should have been a sixth of course, Mercedes, but the Stuttgart manufacturer made a purely political decision not to support the event and may be regretting its decision. Had there been only one or two major entries the absence of the silver cars would have been of importance, but with five makes slugging out the contest the Mercedes were hardly mentioned throughout the weekend.

Jaguar, winners in 1988, were the favourites to win and their qualifying performance, with three cars in the top ten and all four under the 3 min 40 sec mark, was solid. These were 7-litre V12 models developing 740bhp, very similar to the X1JR-12s that finished first and second at Daytona back in February, and they had nothing like the high-boost, 1,100 horsepower Nissan engine which rocketted Mark Blundell to pole position.

Oscar Larrauri was a thorn in Nissan's side all weekend, and the Brun Motorsport crew surpassed itself in qualifying and in the race. Alwin Springer, boss of the Andial concern in America, supplied a special 3.2 litre engine for qualifying and, installed in a brand-new factory supplied car with high downforce 'sprint' bodywork, equipped with Yokohama tyres, Larrauri rocked the Japanese team when he claimed a provisional pole at 3 min 33.06 sec. Blundell, Geoff Brabham and Masahiro Hasemi, in Nissans, were all scratching around the 3 min 33 sec. bracket when Larrauri went to the head of the queue, and that just wasn't good enough.

All the race posters in the region, the advertising and tickets had Nissan number 24 on them, so Blundell's engine was given maximum boost and away he went, with virtually a clear lap, to a time of 3 min 27.02 sec. It was, after all, only 13 seconds slower than last year's 'pole' established by Schlesser when he could run his Mercedes down the Mulsanne Straight at 247mph, but other performances, and the eventual new lap record, show that the chicanes had really added 20 seconds to the lap times. In 1988 the posters featured Silk Cut Jaguars and last year, Mercedes, so Nissan were certainly hoping that this was a good omen. The chicanes, one to the right at the two-kilometre point on the straight and the other, a mirror image, two-kilometres further along, were installed in the name of safety. In fact they put a far greater strain on suspensions, brakes, transmissions and on the drivers themselves, which is not really a good thing, and when Jonathan Palmer had a dreadful accident on Wednesday evening we had to question whether the accident was more, or less severe because of the chicanes, or whether it would have happened at all if the straight had been left alone.

Without being sure of the reason, it seemed to Porsche's engineers that the rear suspension broke moments after Palmer changed into fifth gear midway between the chicanes, causing his Joest Porsche to turn sharp left into the armco and then launch into an end-over-end flight. A broken thumb and twisted ankle, painful as they were, seemed almost like a let-off for the British doctor. Bob Wollek moved into the third Joest Porsche with Stanley Dickens and 'John Winter', both former winners, and replaced the unlucky Will Hoy.

The Joest team had a very subdued weekend and never showed any real intention of winning. Derek Bell, perhaps with his last chance of winning the race for the sixth time, was partnered with Hans Stuck and Frank Jelinski, an excellent combination, and with a works Porsche powered by a 3.2 litre engine they should have been able to challenge the Jaguars as they did in 1988. However, the Joest 962Cs ran with the traditional long-tail bodywork, offering lower downforce, and with Michelin tyres which didn't have enough grip, and their performance was as though they alone ran on a wet road. It does put the performances of the Sauber Mercedes last year into perspective though; had the C9s run on Goodyear tyres their margins would have been greater still. Neither Toyota nor Mazda came anywhere near fulfilling their potential and the event immediately settled down as a three-make duel. Julian Bailey, who took the start in the pole position Nissan, soon atoned for his 24-minute race last year as he led the first three laps then sensibly yielded to Larrauri, who was bouncing his Porsche over the kerbs as he might in a sprint race. Hasemi held third place in the Japanese, Nismo team Nissan and Frank Jelinski was fourth on the opening lap, then slid gracefully down to 15th as his tyres went off and provided an accurate barometer of performance.

Larrauri and Blundell were the pacemakers after an hour, followed at half a minute by Martin Brundle and John Nielsen in Jaguars, Geoff Brabham's American prepared Nissan, then the Jaguars of Jan Lammers and Davy Jones. Kenny Acheson, second last year in a Mercedes, lasted not a single lap before the transmission pinion parted company with the crownwheel, so he was the first retirement (Martin Donnelly, scheduled to share the car, has now prepared for three 24-hour events without racing once).

At four-hours a pair of Jaguars topped the leader-board. Brundle/Alain Ferté/David Leslie ahead of Nielsen/Price Cobb, but Eliseo Salazar was kept out of number 3 and the Spaniard, Luis Perez Sala, didn't step into a Jaguar over the weekend. Tom Walkinshaw had a contingency plan which came in very handy, as it turned out.

The Mazdas, weighing 920kg in the IMSA class and developing 600bhp from their quad-rotor engines, should have been the dark horses of the race but their challenge never came. A host of minor mechanical problems put two cars out of the race and handicapped the third, and to the disappointment of many people the shrill cars never rose above 18th, and the only finisher was 20th.

Toyota had their problems too, suffering from fuel vapour locking in the warmth of Saturday afternoon, and then Aguri Suzuki suffered a violent accident at the Dunlop Curve as Gianfranco Brancatelli made an unwise overtaking attempt. Toyota's race budget was stretched still further as the 900-V went backwards into the armco, stopping from 170mph in 10 metres, and Suzuki was removed to hospital suffering from concussion. He, too, was a lucky driver, and so was Fabio Magnani later on when he lost control of the Mussato Lancia, due to a burst tyre it was thought, went end over end at the Indianapolis curve and then flew into the treetops, starting a forest fire as he went. It stretched the imagination that the Italian wasn't hurt, and the Automobile Club de l'Ouest officials were relieved that they didn't have some fatalities to announce.

Geoff Brabham, Chip Robinson and Derek Daly, men who have the IMSA Championship by the throat, looked increasingly confident in the lead in the small hours of the morning. Brundle's Jaguar suddenly ran hot when the water pump drive belt slipped off, and couldn't be replaced easily as it's at the front of the V12. Meanwhile Michel Ferté had done some kerb-hopping in Davy Jones' car, damaging the radiator and supports, and some hours later that V12 suffered the consequence. Franz Konrad, the cheery Austrian guest-driving in the Jan Lammers/Andy Wallace Jaguar, unfortunately missed his braking point for the first chicane and rammed the tyre wall, damaging the XJR's nose and supports. That lost the crew four laps, still the margin at the end of the race.

Nielsen and Cobb, Jaguar's successful IMSA partners, moved into the lead at two o'clock in the morning and remained ahead, though challenged strongly by Brabham's Nissan during the night. Their engine overheated briefly, due to track debris blocking the radiator protecting gauze, but suffered no damage; the loss of fourth gear was much more of a worry, so Brundle was drafted into the lead car as a man who could be trusted to nurse the transmission, when his own car had retired.

The 'Three Bs', Blundell, Bailey and Brancatelli, went out in the night with a broken gearbox, and mid-morning on Sunday Geoff Brabham's Nissan succumbed to a serious leak from the fuel cell. Hasemi, Hoshino and Suzuki kept Nissan's flag flying, losing a little time when the rear brake discs had to be changed, more when the rear shock absorbers broke, and eventually finishing with a jammed gearbox.

The last quarter of the race was a straight fight between the Jaguars of Nielsen/Cobb/Brundle and Lammers/Wallace/Konrad, sandwiching the Brun Motorsport Repsol Porsche of Larrauri/Walter Brun/Jesus Pareja. Larrauri himself became sick in the night, having crashed his Renault Europa Cup car heavily in a supporting race on Saturday morning, leaving Brun and Pareja to drive as they've never gone before. Their car was driven almost to its limit for 23 and a half hours, bounced energetically off kerbs all the while, and when the engine finally quit with four laps to go a wave of sympathy went round the track, Jaguar's personnel as sorry as anyone.

Third place was taken, then, by the superbly prepared and driven Alpha Team Porsche from Japan, crewed by Britons Tiff Needell, David Sears and Anthony Reid. They hadn't put a wheel wrong at any time, and thoroughly deserved to get such a fine result. The Alpha team was able to pass the Bell/Stuck/Jelinski Porsche which needed to have a new turbo wastegate fitted at lunchtime on Sunday, the last setback in a disappointing weekend. Also with the Joest Racing team, Henri Pescarolo completed his 24th Le Mans 24-hours in 14th place, sharing with Jacques Laffite and Jean-Louis Ricci.

The C2 class, now recognised only by the ACO, was happily won by the PC Automative team's Spice-Cosworth driven by Richard Piper, Olindo Tacobelli and Mike Youles.

Jaguar's victory, their seventh at Le Mans, made a fitting farewell gift to Sir John Egan, leaving the company after a ten-year tenure. It impressed Bill Hayden too, the incoming Ford-appointed chairman, who indicated that Jaguar might remain in sports car racing, and could commit itself to a huge investment in the 3 and a half litre formula, providing sponsorship could be secured to share the cost.