World Sportscar Championship: Jerez 800 kms

Swiss surprise

Before the first round of the 1988 World Sports-Prototype Championship began, Peter Sauber's international driver-team of Jean-Louis Schlesser, Mauro Baldi and Jochen Mass made private bets on how long the transmission would last on their Sauber Mercedes C9/88.

Although the AEG Olympia-sponsored V8 car was easily on pole position ahead of three Silk Cut Jaguars, the T-car had broken its gearbox during qualifying (as it had after 600 km of testing in January) and Mass was not too confident of having a car to take over for the third hour!

But after 800 kilometres of racing, and nearly five-and-a-half hours on the tortuous Andalusian circuit of Jerez, the dark blue car was still trouble-free, a worthy winner, and it was the TWR team that was in disarray.

Two Jaguars had retired with identical gearbox faults — that of Martin Brundle and Eddie Cheever after leading much of the time — and it was the third entry of John Nielsen, John Watson and Andy Wallace which gave chase, 25 seconds behind when the chequered flag came out.

Wallace, the 1986 British Formula Three champion who was given his first "works" drive in preparation for Le Mans, survived an incident that was crucial to the result. Soon after taking over the XJR-9 in the third how he was confronted by a C2 car which had half-spun and partially blocked the track on the 120 mph, fifth-gear right hander behind the pits, one of the few quick corners at Jerez. Wallace took to the grass at full speed, missed everything and went straight to the pits for a damage check, losing a full lap while grass was removed from the intakes.

All three drivers put their hearts into the chase but the Mercedes was too far ahead, and although Watson reduced the gap by 50 seconds in the last hour, Baldi had everything under control.

It was a significant victory for Peter Sauber's team (based at Hinwil, in Switzerland) which Daimler-Benz has now openly committed itself to helping by supplying factory-prepared engines and four technicians.

The twin-turbo Mercedes V8s are rated at over 700 horsepower on 0.9-bar race boost, with a hefty 590 lb ft of torque. For qualifying, at 1.2-bar boost, the engine gave 820 bhp and 740 lb ft of torque, enabling Schlesser to take pole position a full two seconds quicker than Brundle's Jaguar.

Clearly the Hewland VGC-origined transmission is under great strain, and new gears were designed by Sauber, Mercedes and Staffs Silent Gears to do the job. The gearbox which failed Schlesser during practice, in the spare car, was described as an "871/2" design, but importantly the '88 design proved itself capable of lasting what is likely to be the hardest race of the year, excluding Le Mans.

Mercedes has designed stress gauges which monitor shocks to the transmission, among other things, and telemetry has reached the level of Formula One racing. In the pits, for instance, Sauber's crew can check constantly on the car's boost pressure, and can give correct advice to the driver at all times on the two-way radio. This year's car has the same monocoque, so remains a C9, but has Brembo brakes, Speedline wheels (up from 16in diameter at the front to 17in diameter) and revised bodywork.

FISA has introduced regulations this year to limit ground-effects, with lower rear venturi tunnels and larger underfloor flat plates, which make the cars more nervous and harder to drive. Other developments have largely negated the disadvantage, but the Jaguar XJR-9 proved to be about a second per lap slower at Jerez.

The Jaguar's monocoque is identical to that of the IMSA car, and the Group C design also has 17in diameter rear wheels (instead of 19in diameter) allowing the rear bodywork to be lowered. The 7-litre V12 engine gives 720 bhp at 7000 rpm, and 610 lb ft of torque at 5500 rpm, but that is the maximum figure for qualifying. In Jaguar's case 6500 rpm is normally used in competifion, producing lower figures.

By these standards the Porsche 962C design is now completely obsolete, and the private teams of Walter Brun and Reinhold Joest have resigned themselves to this fact. It took all the skills of Klaus Ludwig and Oscar Larrauri to make their Porsches look respectable on the grid, but other team drivers came under considerable race pressure from the extremely rapid, and fine-handling Spice SE88 design for the C2 category, on a circuit which places a premium on handling.

The Kremer brothers waited until the following race at Jarama to debut their developed 962C, and Richard Lloyd's new 962C, in the hands of Derek Bell and James Weaver, was literally completed at the circuit. It suffered too many new car problems to be classified higher than fourth in the results.

For Tom Walkinshaw, the Jerez race was all too reminiscent of last year's 24-hour race at Le Mans, with three good Jaguars ranged against one opponent with speed but with unknown reliability. Substitute the Sauber Mercedes for the works Porsche 962C and you have the scale of the competition, the Jaguars starting as firm favourites. Schlesser made an excellent start to the opening round, leading for 17 laps on a warm, sunny day. Brundle, Lammers and Nielsen ran in convoy behind the Swiss car, biding their time, and Brundle found his chance when the Sauber's Michelin tyres began to lose grip. The Kevlar weave Dunlops on the Jaguars were ideal and Brundle was able to open up a 15-second gap by the end of his stint.

Schlesser handed over to Baldi, the Italian keeping second place, behind Cheever and ahead of Dumfries and Watson, until half way through his stint when the rear tyres again lost grip. In a single lap both pursuing Jaguars went by. For half an hour the British cars ran 1-2-3 in extended formation, and it looked as though the rest might be a formality.

Dumfries, though, lost fourth gear towards the end, and Lammers was obviously in trouble as he covered the length of the main straight in fifth gear, third having disappeared. But the Dutchman still managed a best lap of 1min 39sec, enthusing about the XJR-9's excellent handling, and the prodigious torque of the V12.

Then Wallace made that unexpected visit to the pits with grass in the intakes, and a lap was lost there. Cheever, then Brundle, seemed to have no difficulty in keeping the Sauber in second place...until Cheever pulled in with fourth and fifth gears missing, retiring a couple of laps later with the transmission jammed in first.

It transpired that the March gearboxes were not broken, but the internal selector shafts had worked loose and affected the engagement. Walkinshaw shook his head and called it "a self-inflicted defeat", one which more careful preparation might avoid in future.

Behind the Sauber Mercedes and the surviving Jaguar, Ludwig and Bob Wollek claimed third for Joest's Porsche team, only two laps behind after a determined effort, and Bell and Weaver finished fourth after a difficult race which included losing the left-side door.

In C2, the new Motori Moderni V6 powered Argo of Jean-Pierre Frey and Nicola Marozzo had ample power, up to 1000 bhp for qualifying according to the Swiss owner, but dramatic understeer problems, and was an early retirement with electrical failure.

After a hard fight in the first hour, Gordon Spice and Ray Bellm became ever more dominant in the C2 class, heading Costas Los and Philippe de Henning by two clear laps at the finish. The Spice marque took the top three positions, and looks capable of continuing its dominance throughout 1988. MLC