Cotton on....

Brief encounter

Perhaps “launch” is too generous a word for the unveiling of the Jaguar XJR-11 in the paddock at Jarama. We saw the car for very few minutes before the dust-sheet was replaced, and similarly the V6 twin-turbo engine until the men from Mercedes got too close. Tom Walkinshaw allowed them 30 seconds to admire the power-unit, which does indeed look a credit to Jaguar Sport, then declared “that’s enough” and threw a tablecloth over it.

Of course everyone wanted to see it run, and Jan Lammers and his colleagues wanted to drive it, but until Walkinshaw is convinced that it will beat Mercedes the XJR-11 will not turn a wheel in competition. Maybe the debut will be at Brands Hatch but that, says Walkinshaw, depends on Dunlop producing a fully competitive radial-ply tyre.

Jaguar last won a race at Fuji last October, and the success made Martin Brundle the deserving World Sportscar Champion. That was followed though by a mauling at Sandown Park, Australia, at the conclusion of last season, and by dismal outings at Suzuka and Dijon this year. Le Mans was plainly disappointing, but Jaguar put up a spirited performance before defeat, and the V12 powered XJR-9 found something of its old form at Jarama although beaten once more by Mercedes.

What makes the situation so hard to understand is the renaissance of the Porsche 926C, basically a development of a car designed in 1981-82 and one which Jaguar thought it had despatched to history in 1987. How could Reinhold Joest come back with a winning performance at Dijon, and Walter Brun show so well at Jarama? Clearly the 962C is a motor racing classic in terms of its long-term potential, the flat-six engine is still better than most within the current Group C fuel- consumption regulations, and at certain circuits the tyre suppliers can make or break the best-prepared teams. But equally significant is that TWR virtually ceased development of the XJR-9 model as soon as the cars came back from Australia, carrying out only some perfunctory testing before going out to Suzuka.

All the best efforts at Kidlington have been directed to developing the XJR-10 (IMSA spec) and XJR-11 (Group C) models. Although the declared intention was to run the turbos at the end of this year in preparation for a full season in 1990, the dominance of the Nissan GTP and the Sauber Mercedes C9/89 respectively forced the pace of development. The fact that the XJR-10 has raced in the States, several months before the planned debut, is a great credit to the entire team at Kidlington, because it first appeared some 14 months after the first designs were completed — the composite materials chassis by Tony Southgate and the power-unit by Allan Scott. Development did, however, leave Dunlop behind by several months. Both versions are designed around 18in-diameter radial-ply tyres, but not unfortunately of identical widths (Group C regulations impose a limit of 16in).

You could argue, and some will, that the Japanese-owned company should have been into radials for the last three years, following the example of Goodyear, Michelin and Yokohama (Avon, which had a virtual monopoly of the C2 category, was also slow to convert to the later technology and has been foresaken by all existing customers in the past 12 months). Indeed, it already supplies radial-ply tyres to Mazdaspeed and some national teams.

Dunlop might reply with justification that it led with Kevlar-weave cross-ply tyres, developed in conjunction with TWR, and won World Championships with Jaguar in 1987 and in 1988 — not much wrong there. The firm’s SP Motorsport Division has invested £1-million in research and production equipment, and has come up with 15 different compounds in the space of three months. Any day now, and perhaps in time for Brands Hatch, it should have a fully competitive radial in stock for the Jaguar XJR-11, and Coventry will feel able to strike back at Sauber Mercedes.

Coming up now are three of the most enjoyable “traditional” sports-car races, at Brands Hatch, the Nürburgring and Spa- Francorchamps, with a new fixture at Donington Park thrown in. The British tracks will, I fear, feel like a tight fit compared with the wide-open spaces of the Eifel and Ardennes ranges, but at least we can breathe relatively clean air… According to a serious part of Private Eye, birds fall from the sky over Mexico City, so polluted are the air, the water and the plumbing, and that’s where FISA’s Grand Mystery Tour of 1989 ends, on October 29.

A piece of history was made as FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre not only attended the Jarama 480km but stayed to watch, and mounted the podium with the winners. This is the first time he has stayed for the entire event since the blazing hot day at Hockenheim in July 1985.

M Balestre addressed the teams for 25 minutes and confirmed that the 31/2-litre formula would go ahead in 1991 without further question, that two drivers will be admitted per car, and that the races might perhaps be longer than the proposed 300km. All that was very cheering, but some were sceptical when the President said that, within three years, sports-car racing would be superior even to Formula One. No doubt that claim is being taken apart and analysed at FOCA’s headquarters in Chessington.

The current popularity of Grand Prix racing is a big equation, surely, in which television coverage has played a major part. The drivers themselves are key players, more central than any marque except Ferrari, and their brightly-coloured helmets may actually be seen on the screen. That, essentially, is why Mercedes, Nissan, Jaguar et al so badly want to have two drivers, so that nothing and nobody dilutes the importance of the car. The cars are closed up, and they have the manufacturer’s name in big letters across the windscreen.

If you accept that, it is rather hard to believe that our favourite marques will take on greater importance in the public mind than what “Nige” had for breakfast, or how Gerhard bravely commuted his convalescence. There are heroic stories to be told of sports-car racing, and the recent race-long stints of Kenny Acheson and Johnny Dumfries are fine examples, so long as the manufacturer-entrants are big-hearted enough to let them take the limelight. But could sports-car racing be superior to Formula One? I doubt it, but much may depend on the decline of Grand Prix racing, which is predictable if Honda continues to dominate. This way with the rings, see-saws and blazing hoops … MLC