Porsche won its sixth victory in the Le Mans 24 Hour endurance classic held on June 13th/14th, eclipsing the successes of Jaguar and Bentley and moving ever closer to Ferrari’s record of nine. But behind that little bit of history came another, even more remarkable feat, for Belgium’s Jacky Ickx wrote himself into the record books by taking his fifth victory at la Sarthe, placing himself on a pedestal above other prolific winners, fellow countryman Olivier Gendebien and Frenchman Henri Pescarolo, who have both won the gruelling race on four occasions.
The 1981 race saw the Stuttgart manufacturer return in force to the scene of some of its finest hours, and there could be no mistaking the seriousness of its effort. Questionable regulation changes had outlawed Porsche’s Indianapolis engine even before it showed its paces in competition, but nothing daunted the factory’s engineers set about modifying it for a long distance role. And as testimony to the effectiveness of the unit — a 2,650 c.c. turbo-charged flat six — it ran without missing a beat throughout the 24-hour marathon.
Ickx specifically requested Derek Bell as his teammate, and the combination proved ideally suited, both drivers treating the car with the mechanical sensitivity that sets them apart as long distance pilots. They claimed pole position in practice, led the opening lap (Ickx driving) and were always well placed during the first three hours before moving into a solid lead that they were never to lose, the 936 running with clockwork efficiency.
By contrast, their teammates Jochen Mass, Vern Schuppan and Hurley Haywood experienced nothing but frustration. Mass made a stop in the opening lap when the ceramics broke up on a spark plug, and their fine recovery drive was later thwarted by fuel injection and clutch maladies which dropped them down to a lowly and unrepresentative thirteenth place at the finish.
Reinhold Scott’s lookalike 908-80 model, running a 3-litre turbocharged engine, enjoyed a fast run, leading at the end of the first and second hours, but engine fan problems delayed it and Dale Whittington subsequently destroyed it when trying to limp back to the pits after a minor accident.
Dale’s brother Bill ran very quickly in the early hours in the 935 he shared with entrant Ted Field, but this succumbed to engine failure leaving the Charles Ivey car, driven very capably by John Cooper, Dudley Wood and Claude Bourgoignie, to uphold 935 and British honours taking an excellent fourth place.
Much had been expected of the French challenge which comprised the five strong Rondeau team — which had won the previous year’s race — and the very fast Peugeot-engined WMs. Two of the Rondeaus, driven by Henri Pescarolo/Patrick Tambay and Jean Rondeau/Jean Pierre Jaussaud, fell from the fight with fuel pump problems on their 3.3-litre Cosworth DFL engines, and it was left to the DFV powered versions of veteran Jack Haran/Jean-Louis Schessler/Philippe Streiff and Gordon Spice/Francois Migault to salvage second and third places, easily outpaced by the winning Porsche. Sadly, the fifth car was eliminated in a horrifying accident which claimed the life of popular Jean-Louis Lafosse who crashed on the Mulsanne straight when something broke at high speed.
The WMs, too, lost a car on the Mulsanne. This was their fastest runner driven by March Formula Two pilot Thierry Boutsen, who was lucky to escape without injury when his car veered into the barriers just after the infamous kink when the front suspension failed. In both accidents course workers were victims, Boutsen’s shunt killing a marshal and seriously injuring a gendarme, and the Lafosse crash causing serious injuries to two marshals manning the observation post into which the Rondeau plunged.
The remaining WMs continued to run in the lower part of the top ten but the race’s third major accident eliminated the Mamers/Roulet car which ran into the rear of an innocent Beppe Gabbiani’s Lancia Montecarlo at very high speed along Mulsanne. In an accident of truly terrifying proportions, both cars skated along the barriers before coming to rest badly damaged, this time fortunately without any injuries.
As ever, Le Mans imposed strains that quickly sidelined the weaker runners. Much excitement was created by the first appearance of the legendary Porsche 917 at la Sarthe since 1971, the German Kremer brothers having painstakingly built a replica of the design which won in 1970 and 1971. Beautifully prepared, the car proved disappointingly slow on the straight, and was never in the hunt, retiring with a broken crankshaft after a mediocre performance quite out of keeping with its reputation and dramatic appearance.
Britain’s main hope for success, the Cosworth DFL-powered Lola T600 coupe, was likewise plagued with poor straightline performance, being as much as 40 m.p.h. down on the 230 m.p.h. achieved by the 936 Porsches. Nevertheless, it qualified at respectable speed but its race was hampered by oil coolers split by the DFL’s inherent vibrations, major gearbox dramas and then a shunt during the night which left it looking decidedly secondhand. The de Cadenets were also victims of gearbox trouble, the Belga car shared by de Cadenet himself and the Martin brothers losing a lot of time after an initially promising run in fourth place. A major surprise of the race was the pace of the Ferrari 512s. Hitherto these have shown little speed or reliability but this year the NART and Pozzi entered models worked into the top ten quite early on, and the latter car, crewed by Andruet, Ballot-Lena and Regout, survived to take an honourable fifth, beating the Garretson/Cooke-Woods Porsche 935.
And then of course there were the Lancias. Nobody ever goes into a long distance race with the intention of pushing their cars to the limit, but Lancia opted to run all of their cars at an ultra-conservative pace, bent on securing valuable championship points. Despite this, the cars had their problems; Gabbiani’s accident reduced the team to two cars, then after Patrese had been co-opted into the Heyer/Ghinzani car it retired within sight of the finish with a cracked cylinder head. The ploy of running three cars paid off, however, when Cheever/Alboreto/Facetti brought the survivor home eighth, the best under-2-litre Gp 5 runner, and the Turin team came away well pleased with its result.
It wasn’t a Le Mans in the old tradition of full works entries and close racing but the signs for 1982 are encouraging. One of the most interesting cars in the paddock, which unfortunately failed to make the race due to its necessarily hurried preparation schedule, was the Porsche-engined Lola T600 brought over from America by the Cooke-Woods/Bob Garretson team. Problems with lack of turbocharging boost and the team’s sheer lack of experience with the new concept prevented the black car setting a fast enough qualifying time, even in Brian Redman’s hands, but if this is the sort of car that the new Group C will breed, the glory days of bygone Le Mans races may return shortly. Already, there are indications that Porsche, Ferrari and Ford will be mounting serious works efforts next year, and such manufacturer interest can only do good for sports car racing as a whole.
Just under a month after Le Mans, Watkins Glen, the bumpy, New York State track currently unloved by the Grand Prix fraternity, hosted the final round of the World Endurance Championship. Unlike Le Mans, however, the quality of the entry was sadly lacking, only the works Martini Lancias and the semi-works Lola T600 tackling a host of privately entered Porsche 935s. Like Ford in 1967, Porsche’s main aim had been victory at Le Mans. That achieved, the German company left its challenge for the championship in the hands of the privateers. Lancia, by contrast, went all out to retain the title it won last year, spurred on by suggestions that it was heading for the honours almost by default, running its cars in the under-2-litre category where there is decidedly less competition.
Undoubtedly, the odds favoured Lancia, which needed only to finish the race to clinch the title, but with a three car entry it could afford to go for its first outright win of the season. The Patrese/Alboreto car was nominated as the team’s hare, but in the early stages of the contest it was the Ghinzani/Gabbiani car which ran best, until brake failure deposited Ghinzani in the catchfencing, the car returning slowly to the pits trailing a huge section beneath it. The Porsches of Moretti/Rahal, Field/Whittington and Fitzpatrick/Busby all led during the first three hours, with the other Lancias loping along easily within the top ten, trading places with the Edwards/de Villota Lola. After Moretti/Rahal had dropped back with fuel feed trouble, and the Field/Whittington car made a long stop to have a broken turbocharger replaced, Fitzpatrick assumed the lead, only to lose it when his crankshaft damper broke. This elevated the Lola into the lead, and the car made smooth progress at the head of the field until Edwards made a slight mistake and clipped the kerbing on the entrance to the Anvil. In an instant the Lola was launched on to the tyre barriers, flipping on to its roof and out of the race, Edwards emerging without injury. From then on, David Hobbs and Marc Surer took command in the works BMW M1, with the two surviving Lancias in pursuit. However, an erratic electrical misfire that occurred only on righthand corners began to slow the BMW so that Alboreto was able to pass into a lead that the number one Lancia was not to relinquish. Shortly afterwards, the BMW ground to a halt and from then on the Lancias circulated in first and second places to take their first outright win after a season of class victories and, of course, the prestigious championship. With the Garretson/ Rutherford/Mears Porsche surviving for third place. Porsche had to be content with the runner up slot in the title chase, but next year should see the company back with a vengeance. — D.J.T.
Editorial, January 2004
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