The Le Mans 24 Hours was, after all, a success if measured as a sporting event, though a financial failure for the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. Next year’s race will not be submitted to FISA for the Sportscar World Championship, and since Jean-Marie Balestre (president of the FIA and of the French Federation) has done a complete backflip and given the ACO his support, it seems unlikely that FISA will be able to take reprisal.
Just 24 Group C cars took the start on June 20, plus four ‘national championship’ cars which had no business to be on the grid, and 14 cars were classified. Reliability was far, far higher than expected, and a lot of people (me included) have to eat their previews!
Peugeot, above all, did a superb job in preparing for the 24 Hours, and deserves just as much credit as Matra-Simca in 1972-74, and Renault in 1978.
The 905, which has been a little suspect in 500 kilometre races, at Monza and Silverstone was notably reliable over 4,787 kilometres at Le Mans, and the French could have achieved a 1-2 result had the power steering pump not failed on Philippe Alliot’s car after 14 hours (and that, at least, is an unusual reason to give for a delay in a World Championship race).
Derek Warwick, Yannick Dalmas and Mark Blundell did all that was expected of them, driving the 10-cylinder car to the lead in the second hour and keeping it there to the end. They could never relax, though, with a lead of one or two laps extending to five or six on Sunday morning, when near rivals had their share of problems.
It was, of course, a matter of national pride and prestige for Peugeot to see off Japanese challengers Toyota and Mazda, which were beaten to second and fourth places respectively.
Masanori Sekiya, Pierre-Henri Raphanel and Kenneth Acheson were second in the Casio sponsored Toyota, six laps down on the winner, and fourth, despite a batch of Sunday morning problems, was the Mazda of 1991 winners Johnny Herbert, Volker Weidler and Bertrand Gachot. The team’s effort in repairing a broken gear lever, replacing a faulty hub and changing a holed radiator with less than an hour lost earned the pit crew a special prize from the organisers.
Although no-one was betting against the turbocharged cars for a good result, their hopes rested on mechanical mayhem in the 3.5-litre class. Their race was for fifth place, and it was all decided in the last hour.
Just 58 seconds behind the Mazda MXR-01 came the Team Trust Toyota 92C-V driven by George Fouche, Steven Andskar and Stefan Johansson, and only a lap behind was the Cougar-Porsche of Bob Wollek, Henri Pescarola and Jean-Louis Ricci. Seventh, one more lap back, was the fancied Kremer Porsche 962C-K6 of recent winners Manuel Reuter and John Nielsen, with Giovanni Lavaggi.
Peugeot’s home run
Peugeot had completed no fewer than six full-distance trials, mostly at the Paul Ricard circuit and eventually running right the way through without a failure. Most valuable of all though was the experience of running the 905 at Le Mans last year, accumulating a mass of data which could be put to good use in development.
Jean Todt’s determination to win the race was seen earlier in the week when six 905s were presented for scrutineering, three for the race and three back-ups virtually in sprint form to make sure of locking up the front row of the grid.
Frenchmen, French cars. . . Alliot claimed a most impressive pole position on Wednesday evening at 3m 21.209s, and the average speed of 151.2 mph was pretty impressive too, considering the two chicanes which have turned the Mulsanne into three sharp bursts.
Both Alliot and the Kremer Porsche were timed at 216 mph at the Hunaudieres restaurant, before the first chicane, the Toyota TS010 at 214 mph, and the ‘national class’ Peugeot Spyders and Debora Alfa Romeo in the 145-155 mph bracket.
Dalmas got close to pole on Thursday evening with a lap at 3m 22.512s, and this was beyond the reach of the Toyota drivers who had one T-car, which all three qualifiers used, and the three race cars.
Team leader Geoff Lees was quickest of the bunch at 3m 26.411s, with Jan Lammers fourth quickest overall at 3m 27.711s and Pierre-Henri Raphanel, new to the 3.5-litre class, on 3m 29.300s.
It was revealing that neither Peugeot nor Toyota, Mazda or Lola (Euro Racing) had any engine problems throughout eight hours of qualifying, and only Mazda changed a gearbox.
BRM wasn’t having the best of luck, though, the dark green car sitting out Wednesday’s session to the chagrin of Wayne Taylor, Harri Toivonen and Richard Jones. A new differential had been supplied from England, suitably geared for Le Mans, but it lacked a particular 11 mm diameter bolt which couldn’t be located anywhere else in the region!
Taylor was the only man to qualify the BRM on Thursday before it stopped on the circuit with a transmission failure, and he was allowed to start the race single-handed, which reduced the effort to a valuable test run.
With far less testing under their belts than Peugeot or Toyota, the Mazdaspeed team managed by Hugues de Chaunac concentrated absolutely on race preparation. Volker Weidler set the team’s quickest time of 3m 34.329s, seventh overall, in the attractively liveried Charge sponsored MXR-01 , some two seconds quicker than Manuel Reuter in the Kremer team’s 962C.
Lola supplied new, uprated transmissions to the Euro Racing team and these had to be run-in on Wednesday night, so the best times came on Thursday. Cor Euser was impressive at 3m 37.109s, and only three seconds slower was Heinz-Harald Frentzen, signed up at short notice and about to compete for the first time this year. Frentzen really made his mark on Saturday, posting the fastest time of all in the wet warm-up and being consistently among the quickest early in the race.
FISA delivered to the ACO a dozen full-blooded 3.5-litre prototypes, five FIA Cup cars (four started), and 10 ‘turbo class’ cars. These included two Kremer Porsches, three Cougar-Porsches, single Porsche entries from ADA, the Almeras brothers and Team Obermaier, and two Kitz sponsored Toyota 92C-Vs, one from Team Trust and one from SARD.
British fans were rooting hard for Derek Bell, son Justin and Tiff Needell driving the ADA Porsche 962 GTi. The car, completely new and incorporating some of Chris Crawford’s own ideas, gave five times winner Bell the chance to compete with Justin for the first and perhaps only time.
The Porsche’s brakes were woefully inadequate in the race, until the problem was traced to faulty calipers, and the team was rather poorly rewarded with 12th place. Justin was well initiated, though, turned in very competitive times and enjoyed every minute of his time in the car, so the Bell family went away happy.
Until the race started we expected the battle to be a Peugeot versus Toyota affair, but Weidler took everyone by surprise as he outbraked Dalmas at the Ford chicane on lap five, and Alliot at the same place on the following lap, to put the Mazda in the lead.
The German looked very comfortable at the head of the field, but in wet and treacherous conditions none of the top drivers wanted to take any risks. It was clear, too, that Michelin’s rain tyres were serving—Peugeot and Mazda better than the Toyota drivers were faring on Goodyear, the TOM’S cars slipping further and further behind in the first half of the race.
The playing field tilted towards Peugeot when its third car effectively took out the best of the Toyotas! Geoff Lees backed off the throttle while lapping some backmarkers at Tertre Rouge, unable to see through the spray, and was hit heavily up the gearbox by Alain Ferte’s 905.
Both cars looked comprehensively wrecked, but Lees returned to the pits with the Toyota’s back end savaged (even the gearbox casing was cracked) while Ferte returned with the left-front wheel poked upwards, and the windscreen smashed by the Toyota’s wing. Sterling efforts by their crews got Ferte back into the race in 50 minutes, Lees in just over the hour.
Ironically these two teams worked their way back up the leader board to 10th and 11th places, only to retire in the 16th hour with engine failures. Out, too, went Yojiro Terada in the second Mazda, racing with a low downforce body configuration. During the night the popular Japanese driver was caught out by the tricky conditions and crashed at the White House, suffering mild concussion.
The three factory teams had more to do between 6am and midday on Sunday than at any other time in the race. Herbert’s Mazda was the first to have a crop of problems, none of them very major, and we began to wonder why Tom Walkinshaw had discarded the XJR-14 so conclusively as a long-distance car.
Lees’s Toyota and Ferte’s Peugeot retired within minutes of each other, the Toyota at the pits with a huge plume of white smoke from the exhausts, the Peugeot less publicly with a broken engine out on the course.
Alliot had a desperately unhappy 17th hour with two off-road excursions. First the power steering pump failed and pitched him into the sand at the Nissan Curve. He was towed out, losing four minutes and a ‘door’ window, then a further nine minutes in the pits.
The accelerator cable was snagged while all this was going on, and very soon afterwards Alliot was back in the sand at Arnage! Not long after that Baldi was in the sand at Indianapolis, caused by a baulky gear change, so the team could count themselves lucky to get home in third place.
At least 200 volts passed through the Peugeot garage when the screens showed Warwick driving slowly down the Mulsanne Straight. The ignition cut out three times in the lap but the Englishman was able to coax the engine by flicking the master switch off and on again. It was an anxious time, and it was duplicated a short while later before a faulty battery regulator was pinpointed.
These were the only minor delays to disturb the winning crew. The Toyotas were fully competitive after half-distance when the track dried, but they had their problems too. The Jan Lammers/Andy Wallace/Teo Fabi car was looking a potential winner until the clutch shattered, and in a 43-minute stop part of the wiring loom was replaced to cure a misfire.
As if that wasn’t enough, Andy Wallace had a long, dramatic heart-stopping moment when a rear tyre burst while he was approaching the Indianapolis turn flat-out in sixth, but with great skill he kept the car out of the barriers and brought it back with remarkably little damage.
After that, Lammers spent much of Sunday morning below the lap record, which stood to Michael Schumacher in the Mercedes C11. The Dutchman established a new mark more than three seconds quicker at 3m 32.295s (143.30 mph). Unfortunately the Toyota was too isolated to gain any positions and was classified eighth, but the team was given a big E for Effort.
Nor was that the end of Toyota’s problems. The Casio car’s V1O suddenly ran rough and the car was nursed back to the pits by Sekiya. The ignition sender on the camshaft had given up and 13 minutes were lost in the pits.
The Toyota didn’t forfeit second place, as it happened, but it went eight laps down with just 88s in hand over Alliot’s Peugeot, and there were still four hours to run. Both crews were now under great pressure, but the Toyota proved the stronger and maintained a slender lead of half a lap to the end.
Euro Racing had a mixed race, losing one Lola with the transmission jammed in two gears but getting the other through to the finish, albeit 13th with a great time loss. There had been a minor transmission problem costing half an hour, but most time was lost due to two off-road excursions by their Japanese driver Shunji Kasuya.
In the FIA Cup class it was a matter of survival, and Chamberlain Engineering’s two Spices were both there at the end. Bernard de Dryver’s Spice was the faster through the night, moving up consistently in the hands of John Sheldon, Gigi Taverna and Alessandro Gini until it was 11th overall after 11 hours.
Both the Chamberlain Spices were in the pits having major repairs at the back end on Saturday evening, Olindo Iacobelli spinning one off the track, and all three Japanese drivers taking turns to leave the road in the second-string car. The de Dryver Spice extended a class lead of 24 laps, but then ran into serious electrical problems which eventually stopped the car out on the circuit. Chamberlain’s Spice won the FIA Cup class for the third time in succession, and Ferdinand de Lesseps has a maximum score in the driver’s category, helped by Richard Piper and Iacobelli.
It was time for Derek Warwick’s luck to change for the better, and his joy was everyone’s pleasure. Mark Blundell had the distinction of winning his first race of the year, and Kenneth Acheson was brimful with happiness, too, at finishing a strong second.
A brace of competitive Jaguars would have made it a better race still, but the organisers have made the decision to withdraw from the Sportscar World Championship next year, and will surely have a finer grid. M L C