Countdown to the 1991 World Sportscar Championship
A new era in sportscar racing opens at Suzuka, Japan on April 14, and a new interest is expected between Silk Cut Jaguar, Mercedes and Peugeot. With luck Walter Brun may have his Judd-powered Brun Gp C car ready, and Franz Konrad is working hard on his Lamborghini-powered contender, though their sights may be set on the European part of the programme which packs three races into the month of May, at Monza (May 5), Silverstone (May 19) and Paul Ricard (May 26).
Mercedes has a flat-12, Peugeot a V10 and Jaguar a V8, so variety will not be lacking. Add to that mixture the Judd and Cosworth V8s and Lamborghini's Formula 1 V12 unit, and we have a recipe for competitions that will be as colourful and noisy as Grand Prix racing.
Due to Easter production schedules we are not able to publish the full list of entries, which FISA closed on March 15, but we expect there to be between 15 and 19 registered entries. On the back of the "turbo teams" (Brun and Konrad each start the season with a Porsche 962C, Tim Lee-Davey has entered two, and there will be one apiece from Antoine Salamin and the Almeras brothers), there is the potential for another ten cars at Le Mans on June 22/23, and Automobile Club de l'Ouest officials will be bracing themselves for an entry of around 30 cars.
Will FISA relent, and allow teams not registering for the World Sportscar Championship to take part in the 24 Hours? Opinions differ, but opinion is all we have. Nissan is ready, willing and able to enter three cars for Le Mans (two R90CKs from NPTI in America, one from Japan), but await the verdict from FISA with concern.
It would not be going too far to say that if Nissan doesn't run at Le Mans this year, the chances are slim of seeing this manufacturer in next year's WSC series either. We also gathered, in the early days of March, that Mazda's commitment isn't rock-solid either, and that the 3.5-litre V12 intended for 1992 is on hold.
Le Mans is the key to the whole championship, as always. The Automobile Club de l'Ouest may be forced to run a race for 30 cars this June, though they won't like it a bit. What about 1992, though? We have to remove all the turbo teams from the equation, and their retinue for the 24 Hours.
If all goes terribly well we should have two-car entries from Nissan, Toyota and Mazda, but still fewer than 20 cars in the World Sportscar Championship, with a potential of, say, 25 cars at Le Mans.
It doesn't take much imagination to realise that another flashpoint is approaching. There will be sounds of thunder in April, May and June, followed by wide-ranging discussions in midsummer. Group C will not reach its crisis point straightaway, but it is coming and Le Mans will be the pivot.
Further comment is superfluous at the present time, since we do not have an entry list nor any reactions from teams. Suffice it to say that well-connected people in and around the new World Sportscar Championship couldn't raise one spark of optimism as the closing date approached. FISA should gird itself for a barrage of criticism when the storm breaks.
The show goes ahead, of course, on the assumption that even FISA wouldn't dare enrage Mercedes, Peugeot and Jaguar in one fell swoop. Now is the time to welcome some very innovative cars which will race against each other for the first time at Suzuka.
Having conquered the rally world with a derivation of the Peugeot 205 in 1984-85, the French company had to spend some years on the touchline deciding which way to turn when FISA banned the Group B rally cars. Mastering the Paris-Dakar Raid was a way of staying competitive, but eventually Peugeot's management decided that sports car racing was the way to go.
Experiences with the WM-Peugeot, a completely private enterprise, persuaded motorsports director Jean Todt and Peugeot's management that there was a great deal of prestige to be gained from winning at Le Mans, but it also showed them how not to go about things.
FISA's decision to go for a 3.5-litre racing engine formula gave everyone the chance to start with a clean sheet of paper. The decision was welcomed by Peugeot, rather less enthusiastically by Mercedes, and with no enthusiasm at all by Jaguar, Nissan, Toyota and Mazda, but nevertheless they started to plan 3.5-litre cars in order to stay in the business of sports car racing.
Peugeot made their announcement in November 1988, putting André de Cortanze in charge of the technical team. De Cortanze was once a professional driver himself, teamed with Patrick Depailler in the somewhat feeble Alpine-Renault sports-racer in 1968 (the first year of the 3-litre prototype/5-litre stockblock formula), and he was later the chief engineer on Renault's sports car programme.
Jean-Pierre Boudy, formerly Renault's chief engine designer, joined Peugeot at the same time as de Cortanze, in 1983 and was closely involved in the rally and raid programmes before sitting down to design the 3.5-litre V10 engine. Jean-Claude Vacaud is in charge of chassis design, responsible for the neat composite materials monocoque constructed by Dassault aerospace, and the curvaceous stying was penned by Gerard Weltier, Peugeot's chief stylist who was the 'W' in WM.
The Peugeot's credentials are excellent, and the 905 was a credit to the French manufacturer when it first appeared at Montreal last October. Keke Rosberg made full use of the 12,000 rpm available to him to bring a new sound to sports car racing. The nimble, shrill Peugeot made the Mercedes C11 look like a truck, although the tables were turned in the high-altitude race in Mexico City, where even Antoine Salamin's Porsche made the 905 seem slow past the pits.
Peugeot's own longitudinal six-speed gearbox has been very troublesome, and M Todt admitted that seven boxes broke in a recent test at Jerez. The parent group, PSA, has made its resources available to Todt and it will surely be only a matter of weeks before the transmission problems are cured.
The engine has been extremely reliable almost from day one, and during the winter the power has been raised by 10%. From what, to what we are not told exactly, but as 600 bhp was the ball-park figure in Montreal, then 660 bhp is acceptable now. Remember, this is on strictly controlled fuel, better than a premium commercial grade but well short of the so-called rocket fuel that's used in Formula 1, boosting power levels to a rumoured 700 bhp.
Keke Rosberg, the lead driver easily lured from his bored life of retirement, knew how much work had to be done on the 905 to make it competitive. The car was prone to porpoising, an aerodynamic phenomenom noticed on the straights, particularly when the undertray isn't correctly designed. Tim Wright, ex-McLaren engineer, was hired last November to solve the problem but even now he admits that the 905 still isn't quite right. Just the same, the second evolution car has lapped the Ricard circuit in 1min 11.3 sec, 1.3 secs quicker than the 905 was going before Christmas.
Improvements will be due to a combination of the increase in power, the reduction in weight, and an impressive 20% reduction in the Cx figure (frontal area x drag). A factor of 20% seems almost too good to be true, but Wright observes, "Not if you consider what we started with."
The 905's weight has been reduced from 840 kg initially to 810 kg in Mexico, and M de Cortanze predicts that the race cars built for the European races in May (Monza on May 5, Silverstone on May 19 and Ricard on May 26) will weigh 760 kg, or a comfortable 10 kg above the minimum. Four-wheel steering is allowed for in the design, but only the front wheels are steered at present through an hydraulic power-assisted system.
Joining Rosberg in the team are his co-driver, Yannick Dalmas, World Champion Mauro Baldi and his co-driver, Philippe Alliot. Jean-Pierre Jabouille remains on strength as a test driver and consultant, and will compete at Le Mans, and Pierre-Henri Raphanel has also been signed for Le Mans.
If tests in the next couple of weeks show that the gearbox problems are cured, or under control, M Todt is likely to decide to run three cars at Le Mans, and in that case the names of three more drivers will be announced shortly. It doesn't seem very likely that Peugeot will win the 24-Hour classic this year, against last year's heavy, but suitable "unlimited" Group C cars.
Victory could go to a Jaguar XJR-12, a Mercedes C11, perhaps a Nissan if the Japanese are allowed in, even a Porsche as an outside chance. . . . but none of them will be allowed anywhere near Le Mans in 1992 if FISA has anything to do with it, and Peugeot's management certainly has its sights on a 24-hour victory in 1992, or 1993.
By all accounts the Mercedes C291 is a highly complex machine that may take time to develop into a race winner. It is totally new from stem to stern (the engineers admit only to it having the same wheel bearings as the C11), and the first-built is said to weigh around 850 kg, or 100 kg over the minimum. In that case it would need a couple of evolutions to bring it down to 750 kg, an expensive and painstaking business.
The composite materials chassis has been designed by Leo Ress at Hinwil, in Switzerland, and he was also responsible for the body design which certainly resembles that of the C11. A family likeness is probably the best description, because every panel is subtly different. Most notably the water radiator has been moved to the sidepod position, so that the open orifice in the nose acts purely as an aerodynamic device.
One of its functions is to direct air to the air tunnels that start on each side of the windscreen and pass through the doors, not unlike those on the Lola designed Nissans. At some stage the Mercedes development team seem to have needed more air in the engine compartment, and the C291 grew a pair of ears on the flanks behind the doors.
The powertrain is certainly novel, a flat-12 engine with centre-drive take-off for the six-speed, transverse gearbox. Flat engines (they call it a 180-degree vee, not a 'boxer') have certainly not been in the vogue since the venturi effect was discovered by Colin Chapman's Lotus team in 1978, but the Mercedes design has the engine angled upwards towards the rear, with another step for the transmission, leaving room for an unusually wide venturi.
The Mercedes engine, designed by Dr Hermann Hiereth and his team in Untertürkheim, is a monobloc with welded cylinder heads, dispensing with bolts and gaskets altogether.
To control the gearbox the drivers have a single-plane lever by their right hand, pushed forward to shift down and pulled back to shift up. It's believed that the transmission will be electronically controlled one day, and that active suspension may replace conventional springs and dampers, but these developments have been given a lower priority — first and foremost, the C291 must be made competitive for the coming months, and that involves increasing reliability and lowering weight.
To some extent Carlo Chiti's Motore Moderni/Subaru flat-12 concept has been vindicated, but his flat-12 burst asunder with alarming regularity, and by some accounts the Mercedes engine has been misbehaving. Early in the 1970s both Ferrari and Alfa Romeo had problems in getting the oil to circulate properly around a flat-12, since it was prone to frothing, and the g-forces applied to modern racing cars would tend to throw oil away from the crankshaft.
That didn't matter so much on Porsche's flat-6 engines because they rev only to 8200 rpm, never more than 8500, while the Mercedes flat-12 is expected to reach 15,000 rpm when everything is working properly. For now it's pegged to 13,000 rpm, and isn't developing quite the power it was designed to have.
Side inlets are used for the fuel injection, and twelve massive exhaust pipes fill the centre-top part of the engine. Injection and ignition management has been developed by TAG Electronics, part of the McLaren Racing group.
Mercedes have gone for contrasts in their team, putting World Champion Jean-Louis Schlesser, 42, into the number one car with 44-year-old Jochen Mass, and the 22-year-old protegés Karl Wendlinger and Michael Schumacher in the second. As we hear it, the youngsters can turn in fractionally quicker lap times but the old fellows are quicker over a race distance, so it's going to be interesting to see how the team develops this year.
The Peter Sauber/Jochen Neerpasch plan is to run a pair of C11s at Le Mans (for the first time, since Mercedes boycotted the 24-hour race last year) and one C291 for experience. Five more drivers will be needed, and Mercedes team saloon car drivers Fritz Kreuzpointner and Kurt Thiim are believed to be on the shortlist.
The TWR XJR-14 only started testing in mid-March, four weeks before the first round of the World Sportscar Championship at Suzuka, and no information has officially been released. Ross Brawn, formerly with Arrows, has designed what he describes as "a two-seat Formula 1 car" and it's powered by a JaguarSport version of the Cosworth-designed Ford HB engine, as used in the Benetton.
For many pundits that says it all. If the Jaguar could reproduce the sort of success enjoyed by the Benetton Grand Prix team towards the end of last season, with the same sort of mechanical package, why should it not win all the races? The only unknown part of the mechanical elements will be the TWR-designed six-speed gearbox, although the March-originated transmissions on previous XJRs have been progressively developed at Kidlington so there shouldn't be any slip-ups.
The Jaguar team will be led by Derek Warwick with Teo Fabi in the second car. They'll drive some races single-handed, notably the Monza 430 kms which will last little more than two hours, but they will have co-drivers at Suzuka, and some other arduous races such as the Nürburgring, and Jerez.
The sheer newness of the Jaguar design might, perhaps, blunt the effort in the early races, and because of FISA's cruel scheduling the 'sprint' season of 430 kilometre races will start in April, and be half finished in May! After that is a long wait for Le Mans, where Tom Walkinshaw will run three V12 powered XJR-12s, followed by an even longer wait for the Nürburg 430 kms on August 18. Fred Karno couldn't have designed a calendar with more potential for alienating professional factory racing teams.
Competitiveness "out of the box" may be the key to this year's World Sportscar Championship, the inaugural year of the 3.5-litre formula. It's not inconceivable that a decently run Porsche 962C will do well at first, but the real contest ought to be between Peugeot and Jaguar. For the British team, everything will depend on Brawn's ability to get the XJR-14 right first time, especially in the aerodynamic departments, and not far off the 750 kg minimum weight.
These are the works teams, to which will be added the Lamborghini V12-powered Konrad-Wolf (built in England by John Thompson), the Judd EV V8-powered Repsol Brun to be driven by Oscar Larrauri, Charles Hausmann's Spice-Cosworth and the ALD-Cosworth, with the Mazda 787 thrown in for noisy good measure.
There will be fewer cars than last year, certainly, but the first ten grid positions (reserved for 3.5-litre cars) will be more keenly contested than for some years past. -- MLC