World Sportscar Championship: Le Mans reflections

Annual outings

Look at the grid for most rounds of the World Sportscar Championship, and you can count perhaps 30 Group C cars. Stand in the tribunes at the Sarthe at five minutes to four on a certain June weekend, and your total could well reach 55 cars — though a mere 47 started this year's Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans.

Two groups make up the difference: those Group C contenders using Le Mans as a high-profile launching pad for a car which may only contest part of the series, such as the Japanese rounds, plus those teams who build or buy a car simply for this one event, the most famous race in the world. Naturally, France is to the fore, with the Tricouleur carried in past years by Rondeau and now by WM and Cougar. Nissan, Toyota and Mazda all made their 1987 European debuts at the Sarthe: Nissan with new V8 engines, Toyota with 16-valve versions of the 2.1-litre four-cylinder engine, and Mazda with improved versions of the triple-rotor 757C, an extremely raucous sports car which was the only Nipponese entry running at the end.

On home territory and in 1000km races, the Toyotas and Nissans are leading competitors, and the Porsche and Jaguar teams may be challenged seriously in the Fuji 1000km on September 28 and the Sendai sprint a week later. And one year, but who knows when, they may come to Le Mans to win!

The relevance of Group C to the 24-Hour race is increasingly being questioned. Klaus Ludwig, a fine and brave driver, refused point-blank to race there again after Jo Gartner's death last year, and several more are very close to joining his boycott: Hans Stuck, Jochen Mass and Bob Wollek (three-quarters of the works Porsche team!) would certainly prefer to be anywhere else on that weekend in June, and many more professional drivers share that view.

More than anything, the six-kilometre Hunaudieres straight worries the drivers, who are completely at the mercy of the, racing tyres. John Sheldon, Jonathan Palmer, Jean-Louis Schlesser, Win Percy, Mike Thackwell and many more have experienced blow-outs at over 200mph, and understand the helplessness of their situation. The cars, they say, are too fast for the circuit. But so, too, were the Porsche 917s.

Porsche's Norbert Singer believes Le Mans will go the same way as the Mille Miglia, the Targa Florio and the old Nurburgring, and whether you agree with him or not the tide of opinion is against this race. When enough people militate, FISA can be expected to take firm action, despite the opinions of endurance commission members Pierre Aumonier and Alain Bertaut.

Between 1923 and 1939 the Le Mans race was exclusively for production cars, and it ws only on the resumption in 1949 that prototypes were admitted on the grounds that there were insufficient numbers of modem production sports cars available. To suggest a return to production-based racing is not as unseemly axis might appear.

Perhaps the Automobile Club de l'Ouest should be considering a contingency plan to invite production-based teams only; would race for Porsche 961, Ferrari GTO and Testarossa, Chevrolet Corvette, Jaguar XJ-S, Aston Martin and Lamborghini Countach type cars be such a bad idea? MLC

Cougar

The Automobile Club de l'Ouest really needs good French entries to raise interest and attract large crowds. The partisan crowd is polite and respectful when Porsche wins yet again, warms to the contest when Jaguar puts up a good fight, but likes nothing more than a good show by a French team. This year, Yves Courage was their man.

Courage is the patron of the Porsche franchise in Le Mans, so is readily forgiven for using a Porsche 962 engine in his C.20 Group C car. It has good ground effects, having gone well at Monza and Silverstone, but was really designed to go very fast in a straight line; its best speed trapped at Hunaudieres was 361kph (224mph).

Further down the straight it was almost certainly travelling at 230mph, its computed maximum, and at one critical point it was also the sixth fastest car leaving the new chicane at the Dunlop Curve.

The first Cougar Group C cars, which appeared at the start of the formula in 1982, were powered by Ford DFL engines, effectively picking up the threads when fellow Le Mans resident Jean Rondeau ran short of funds. Rondeau and Courage actually made their 24-Hour debuts together in 1972, when they shared a Chevron B21 with Barry Robinson, but evidently they preferred to construct their challengers as rivals.

The Cougar chassis, like that of the Porsche, is made of sheet aluminium, the rear end is substantially Porsche around the flat-six, twin-KKK engine, but the appearance and aerodynamics are the work of Marcel Hubert. Driven by Courage (briefly), Pierre-Henri Raphanel and Herve Regout, the Primagaz-sponsored Cougar ran perfectly for 24 hours, save for a low fuel pressure problem which stranded the car for 20 minutes on Saturday evening. But for that it would certainly have finished second to the Bell/ Stuck/Holbert works Porsche.

Mazda

The Mazdaspeed team claimed seventh place, and the IMSA class, with the 757 model, which has a honeycomb aluminium chassis designed by Nigel Stroud, who is also responsible for the original Richard Lloyd Porsche chassis.

One of the three rotors lost compression in Terada's car, leading to retirement; but the one driven by David Kennedy/Mark Galvin/Pierre Dieudonne ran well apart from a minor rear suspension problem during Saturday evening, though fearfully assaulting the eardrums of those further up the pit-lane each time it rejoined the track. Mazda's budget has been cut this year as a result of a stronger presence in rallying, and this was the team's only European outing of the season.

The effort continues to publicise the rotary engine concept, but the 757 is little faster than the best C2 cars and outright win are not within reach. Nothing more has been seen or heard of the turbocharged Mazda rotary which appeared at the Fuji race two years ago, but was far too fuel-thirsty to compete in C1.

WM-Peugeot

Most cars aim for reliability, straight-line speed and good cornering ability. So what can one say about the new WM-Peugeot which was trimmed, for its debut, purely and simply to go down the straight faster than anything else?

Operated by Gerard Weltier and Michael Meunier (whose initial letters form WM), the P87 is a sensational looking device, and after a disappointing dip into C2 last year the team decided to blaze a new trail in 1987.

Both the P86 and P87, like all the WMs which date back to 1979, are powered by the Peugeot-Renault-Volvo (PRV) 2.8-litre production V6 engine, developed by Citroen engineer Denis Mathiot. Up to 900bhp is claimed for qualifying, the latest engine having a unique Bosch Motronic management system which is superior to the mechanical injection of the P86 model (pictured). The team is based at Beauvais and the sleek lines, with enclose the rear wheels, were refined in the St Cyr wind tunnel.

They called the P87 "Projet 400" since it was designed to run at 400kph (248mph). Indeed it did, just prior to the big race, in the hands of Francois Migault on a stretch of closed autoroute! It was comfortably quickest, too, at Hunaudieres, at 381kph (236.7mph), a speed which some people remembered Jack Oliver achieving in the Porsche 917 at the trials in March 1970.

Over an entire lap, though, Roger Dorchy's best efforts produced a time of 3min 38.68sec, twenty-first overall. The cars were also immediately in trouble with lack of fuel pressure, Migault's succumbing to overheating before the competitors moved away for the pace laps. There was no pleasure in seeing the two cars have their annual rebuild in the pits during the first three hours of the race; they covered 13 and 14 laps respectively.

Peugeot sport supremo Jean Todt attended this year's race, and it is fair to assume that either Peugeot will try to turn WM into a respectable team in the next twelve months, or will pull out the plug!

Nissan

We know, because it is said repeatedly, that Nissan is on a long, careful build-up in Group C. It is never stated when Ike build-up will reach its climax but it would be naive to dismiss the effort altogether. It has plenty of potential, as the Swedish driver Anders Olofsson showed during the trials in May when driving last year's V6-engined R86V, but he damaged the car badly during practice, as did his French co-driver Patrick Gonin when eleventh overall in the race.

The R86V was a "semi works" March Engineering entry, and the powerful V6 Production-based engine was prepared by the Californian Electramotive company whose technical director John Knepp was not even allowed to see the factory's latest 3-litre V8 engines.

The works entries have a revised and updated March chassis, and were driven exclusively by six Japanese drivers who deliberately and consistently drove well inside the car's potential. Hoshino's qualified 17th and Hasemi's 20th. After lack-lustre runs they both retired after dawn with engine problems which may have been head gasket failures, judging by the symptoms.

Toyota

Toyota has officially taken over the Group C1 effort from the Dome company, which actually designed the sheet aluminium monocoque, and designer Masahiro Ohkuni has further refined the 87C chassis. The team's competitiveness is blunted by the continued use of the 2.1-litre Toyota 3S-G 16-valve engine, which can develop up to 680bhp but for the race was run at lower boost and little more than 550bhp. It is expected that Toyota will produce an entirely new power-unit for next season.

John Wickham, former BARC competitions manager and latterly with the Spirit and RAS teams, manages the Toyota effort in Europe on behalf of Tom's, the official tuning company associated with the marque. Toyota, at least, is prepared to enter the spirit of competition which is more than can be said at the moment of Nissan.