Will Hoy had good experiences both of Porsche’s 962 and Vern Schuppan’s team. However at Le Mans in ’91 an unforseen lack of front downforce turned dream into nightmare. By Mark Hughes
Nineteen ninety-one was a good season for Will Hoy. It was the year in which he won the British Touring Car Championship, his privately-entered BMW M3 seeing-off, among others, the works-blessed Prodrive BMWs. The achievement was just one further step in his relentless progression from gifted club racer with a chartered surveyor day job to full-time, factory-paid professional driver. But his foray to Le Mans that year did little to aid this career path, even less for his nerves.
“I’d first driven for Vern (Schuppan) at Le Mans in 1989,” recalls Will, “with Jean Alesi and Dominic Dobson and although we had some problems in qualifying, in the race the car was really very good. I did the first stint and the first couple of laps were like a video game – I was passing cars everywhere – and we were running a strong fifth until Dominic had a coming-together with Bob Wollek. I’d also driven against Vern’s team in the Japanese Sports Car Championship; he had a very good record over there, enjoyed a lot of success. He is also one of the nicest guys in racing, so I was more than happy to be part of his squad in ’91”
Australian Schuppan had made the transition from promising Grand Prix driver who never got the breaks to Le Mans winner with the factory Porsche team. The setting up of his own sports car team – invariably with Porsche products – came as he wound his driving career down.
“He knew Porsche 962s very well,” says Hoy, “and soon he started developing them. The car he ran in Japan was aerodynamically a bit different to standard and was very quick in a straight line. For ’91 he had decided to take the whole project a step further and make essentially what was an all-new car, but with 962 mechanicals. He set up a factory in High Wycombe and brought in aerodynamicist Max Bostroin who designed a carbonfibre tub and a very different aero package.”
The 962 was ripe for development by this time. The design dated back to the 956 of 1982 and with the arrival of new cars from factory teams such as Mercedes, Jaguar, Peugeot, Toyota, Nissan and Mazda, the trusty old Porsche was well past its sell-by date. The factory had long-since withdrawn from direct involvement, leaving the 962 as an off-the-shelf customer car. Schuppan was hoping his new design could squeeze a little more competitive life from the old stager.
“The principle appealed to me,” says Hoy, “not only would there be theoretical benefits from carbon fibre, but the safety would be better. Although the 956/962 is probably the greatest sports car of all time, it was never particularly strong in an accident.
“As is the nature of motor racing, they missed the target date for completion of the car by about two weeks, so we hadn’t even had a proper shakedown run before we went to Le Mans to qualify it. I was sharing with Roland Ratzenberger and Eje Elgh, so in qualifying we had to get the three of us through, get the car balanced, do the consumption tests and sort out the inevitable little mechanical bothers you always get in a new car. Although none of us were particularly at ease with the car, it was difficult in those circumstances to really know how good or bad it was. We really needed time for more extended runs so we could get a rhythm going and find what changes needed to be made.
“There was a sister car driven by James Weaver, Hurley Haywood and Wayne Taylor and that had some sort of drama which meant that they couldn’t run the new aero package and just ran with the old bodywork. As it turned out, that was a blessing in disguise for them.
“In the race, Roland did the first stint and wasn’t making much progress. There was some competition with the sister car, but we weren’t at the sharp end.” Indeed, while the lead was fought between the Mercedes and Mazda teams, the two Schuppan Porsches ran at the lower end of the top 15.
“I took over from Roland and, as we changed, he made it clear that it wasn’t very good. He was a driver who always had a lot of bravado, so he didn’t really get too specific, but I was soon to find out.
“First, as you came down the Mulsanne to the chicanes it had a great reluctance to stop. Sure, you run hard compound tyres because of the distance, but this was beyond that. It just didn’t feel to have any aerodynamic grip at the front at all. What this also meant was that as you built up speed down the straight the front just got lighter and lighter. There was just bugger-all downforce and as I was speeding down the straight I was thinking about Schlesser’s accident in the Mercedes a couple of years earlier where he’d flipped into the trees. Not what you want to be thinking about at 200mph or whatever.”
After Mulsanne there are some fast but bumpy kinks on the way down to Indianapolis. Through there it was just awful. You’d have to turn in early just to allow it the room to bounce its way across the track and all the while you still had this light feeling, that it was going to get some air under the front and just flip at any moment.
“But as if all that wasn’t enough, I had another problem. I used to wear glasses at night, rather than contact lenses, just to give my eyes a rest. Now, with the old aluminium tubs there is always a natural airflow coming through the car. But of course the carbon-fibre tub was completely sealed and with no air coming through, my glasses were steaming up every 20 seconds or so. And it was dark.
‘There was no way I could make a pit stop, that would have been ridiculous, and so the only way to demist the specs was to cup my hand over the small hole in the side window and deflect the air onto them. Which was ok on the straight – in between worrying about whether the car was going to take off – but there are lots of series of bends which made it just a nightmare. Sometimes just one lens was steamed, sometimes both.
“As I came into the Porsche Curves I would be driving one-handed; at one stage I went right off the road, got all four wheels on the grass, at the end of those curves, the one with the negative camber. It happened because I just physically could not turn the car sufficiently because I was driving the thing one-handed.”
After 202 laps the Porsche retired from the race with terminal head gasket failure. Will hid his disappointment well.