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Weaving in and out of the bright new lights of the GT era, Peugeot and Toyota slugged it out for overall honours at Le Mans. After a fierce early struggle, there was a one-sided outcome

Testing. There had been a lot of that, four or five endurance trials each for Peugeot and Toyota in recent months. The 905s and TS010s have this year covered a greater distance at the Paul Ricard circuit than in the entire 1992 season, and fans of long-distance racing looked forward to the Le Mans 24 Hours with keen anticipation. Sadly, their hopes of a photo-finish were not fulfilled as Toyota threw it all away, “flunked it” to use a popular expression. The classic 24-hour race was a pushover for Peugeot, satisfying the home crowd with a brilliant 1-2-3 success led by Geoff Brabham with rookies Eric Helary and Christophe Bouchut, but a let-down for those who went to see a France vs Japan arm-wrestling contest that would last around the clock.

All three Toyota TS010s suffered from transmission failures similar to those which hit the team last year. The suspect parts were redesigned and coped easily with the 24-hour tests at Paul Ricard, but when it came to the race, they failed again.

Jan Lammers and Andy Wallace, who shared the winning Jaguar in 1988, both had a bitter pill to swallow. Wallace’s car was badly delayed by an ignition problem, traced after an aeon to a faulty alternator, then had its transmission changed, and finally went out with a broken final drive. Lammers, sharing with Geoff Lees and IMSA champion Juan-Manuel Fangio II, really did think he was in with a chance of winning for the second time but, just before midnight, when running strongly in third place, Fangio was hit in the back by the Lotus Esprit driven (of all people!) by Yojiro Terada. The team lost 10 laps having all the damage repaired, and had fought all the way back to fourth place on Sunday afternoon when they, like their team-mates, needed to have a new transmission installed. In the end, eighth place was their poor reward.

Toyota found, as many others have discovered before, that Le Mans creates its own forms of perversity and punishment that no other circuit, and no test bench, can reasonably reproduce. There are not many prizes for finishing fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth, and what silverware was on offer went to the SARD and Trust Toyota customer teams running their rugged old turbos to first and second places in Category 2, for 1990 Group C models, fifth and sixth overall.

Eddie Irvine, Masanori Sekiya and Toshio Suzuki led the list of Japanese finishers, finishing fourth in the Toyota Team TOM’S TS010 3.5-litre model. They had kept pressure on the Peugeots throughout the night, never more than two or three laps adrift, despite needing to have the battery changed at every stop because the alternator was over-charging.

The French couldn’t relax as long as they were around. It would only need some bad luck, say a puncture on one car and a collision with a wayward GT car for the other, to put the Toyota back into the lead.

In the end, though. the Toyota fell from contention when Sekiya came in for a transmission graft just after midday, losing 36 minutes. Only then could Todt give the order for his cars to slow down and hold position, which removed the last bit of pressure on Brabham and the two youngsters he was teamed with.

Peugeot’s team did a marvellous job in claiming the top three positions, and all credit to the nine drivers. Philippe Alliot was the only one who gave the mechanics any work, crashing his 905 on Wednesday evening, but since he had just claimed pole position he was easily forgiven. It was almost certain that a spare monocoque was brought into service, but no proof existed that would satisfy the organisers. Throughout the race there were no major incidents involving the Peugeots, save for a fractured oil pipe on Alliot’s car while Jean-Pierre Jabouille was driving. JPJ was able to cruise back to the pits without damaging the engine, lost eight laps having the damaged part replaced, and eventually finished up in third place, eight laps behind the winner. Yes, the Peugeots were that predictable!

A fractured exhaust pipe cost Thierry Boutsen’s Peugeot five minutes in the pits, and that made the difference between winning (after spending seven hours in the lead) or finishing second, one lap behind the winning 905. Jean Todt was proud and happy when the race ended, but there was regret when his thoughts strayed to the inevitable future. The winning team would be disbanded. Some mechanics, who had been with him for 10 years, would go back into Peugeot’s production plant, others would switch to developing the touring cars.

Personally, Todt has moved to Italy to lie on a bed of nails, far removed from the power base he had built up at Velizy. He crafted for Peugeot two Rally World Championships, four Paris-Dakar victories, a Sportscar World Championship and two Le Mans triumphs. Now, poor man, he has to restore some magic to Scuderia Ferrari.

Todt is a small man, dubbed ‘Napoleon of the Desert’ by Jean-Marie Balestre, and he has some sort of magic that instils a mix of admiration, respect and a tinge of fear in his underlings.

Colin Chapman had it, Tom Walkinshaw has it, Roger Penske has it, and it means that people will work for them until they drop. It’s called leadership, but now Todt is among some tough nuts at Maranello, and he’ll have to start all over again with the Italian workforce.

“Peugeot is the best team I have ever driven for, in all my life,” said Geoff Brabham on the podium. From a man who’d won four consecutive IMSA Camel GT championships with Nissan, and who’d driven for Peugeot only once, that is a powerful statement to make.

That podium is an emotional place, though, even in the sterile atmosphere of the space-age pits which now tower over the skyline south of the town. Many a driver has said it before. . . Philippe Alliot, Derek Warwick and Yannick Dalmas among them.

Not all the Toyotas at Le Mans were fragile. The two turbos in the race were thrashed around the clock, as the red-eyed Mauro Martini testified after claiming fifth place.

“We never considered saving the gearbox, nor the engine, nothing. We drove all the time like a sprint race. It was fantastic. OK, we lost about two minutes in the pits having a new battery fitted, and changing a door. We should have a prize for the least time in the pits.”

Martini was among those who discovered the joys of driving a Group C car to its limit, because for the first time in the history of the formula air restrictors replaced fuel consumption as a method of controlling engine power. There was no need to keep one eye on the gauge, to exercise special techniques to save fuel. No, it was real racing, and all the veterans of Group C, men like Derek Bell and Bob Wollek, loved every moment of it.

The ageing Porsches were soundly beaten, but the Obermaier 962C driven by Otto Altenbach, Loris Kessel and Jurgen Opperman surpassed all expectations as it finished seventh.

Obermaier’s team, which has never before shown such speed, had a perfectly trouble-free run and trounced the Joest and Kremer Porsches in a way that astonished onlookers.

Joest opted for the low downforce, long tail body configuration which was wrong in 1990 and wrong in 1993, and Kremer had only one ‘name’ driver in Wayne Taylor. Both had a share of minor mechanical problems, too, but no valid excuses.

There was considerable interest in the Grand Touring category, revived after a long absence. Once again, with a squadron of 911s, Porsche provided the backbone of the entry, 21 of the 47 starters and 15 of the 31 finishers, typical of performances in the 1960s and 1970s.

They did not win any prizes, however. Just as they were trounced in the ‘turbo class’, so Tom Walkinshaw’s Jaguar XJ220C put it over all the Porsches in GT. David Brabham, David Coulthard and John Nielsen were the drivers of the only survivor from a fleet of three supercars sent over from Kidlington, and they finished in 15th place.

Controversy haunted them from the word go, as the ACO removed the cars from the time sheets after the first qualifying session. Steward Alain Bertaut, an old adversary of Walkinshaw’s, maintained that they should have catalytic converters in place, since Walkinshaw had chosen the IMSA category to take advantage of wider rear wheels, but allowed them back in on appeal which will be heard in Paris shortly.

One of the three cars, entered for Armin Hahne, Win Percy and David Leslie, had an inherent overheating problem. It needed an engine change after Thursday’s qualifying but expired with a damaged cylinder head gasket just eight laps into the race. The other two British Racing Green Jaguars kept going nicely, and fairly dominated the class when the ‘works’ Porsche Turbo Le Mans GT was delayed. The Porsche’s throttle return spring broke in the second hour of the race, and the car was just coming back into contention during the evening when Walter Röhrl crashed it, avoiding a collision with a slow ‘Le Mans Prototype’ — the Debora Alfa Romeo, which gave many faster drivers a fright.

The Paul Belmondo/Jay Cochran/Andreas Fuchs Jaguar had the life of Houdini, surviving one spin or scrape after another until a rear tyre burst when Fuchs was at the wheel. The cooling system was damaged. and the X1220C finally quit on Sunday morning. Brabham’s Jaguar lost an hour and a quarter in the night when the fuel bag tank split, and that put the entry down to fifth in the GT category. Only four laps separated the X1220 from the class leader, Jurgen Barth with Joel Gouhier and Dominique Dupuy in a Porsche 911 Carrera RSR, and the Jaguar’s speed advantage was such that the gap was closed with four hours to spare. Two Lotus Esprit S300s took part in the race entered jointly by Lotus Sport and Chamberlain Engineering. They did well, considering the paint was hardly dry and they had done no testing, but both retired with damaged cylinder head gaskets resulting from heat soak during the pit stops. There was considerable optimism that they will be strong competitors next year.

The French Venturi 500 LMs seemed to have good specifications, with 500 bhp and 1,150 kg, but they were not serious competitors. Their barn-like appearance was not deceptive, and drivers reported a serious lack of acceleration in fifth gear.

The GT category was one of contrasts. We saw the ‘works’ cars, the Porsche Turbo Le Mans GT driven by Hans Stuck, Walter Röhrl and Hurley Haywood, only slightly quicker than the three Jaguars on their debut. At 1,020 kg the Porsche had a better power-to-weight ratio than the 1,120 kg Jaguars, and it was quicker under acceleration. The Porsche, which proclaimed itself to be 30 years old, had no ground effect, and the venturiequipped Jaguars were visibly far quicker through the Porsche Curves.

At least 15 seconds per lap slower, and in some cases a lot more, were the Porsche 911 Carrera RSRs and the Venturi 500 LMs. To them, Brabham’s Jaguar was able to give 75 minutes of track time and still win by a clear two laps. It was like putting a piranha into a goldfish pond, and next year we may see the likes of the shark-like McLaren F1 make its debut at the Sarthe.

GT cars will be among the front-runners next year, when the Automobile Club de l’Ouest restricts the speeds of the existing Group C cars. There was some surprise that the 3.5-litre cars will be allowed back, but the installation of air restrictors pegging the V10 engines to 450 bhp doesn’t sound very tempting for Peugeot and Toyota.

By the sound of it, the 550 bhp McLaren F1 Grand Tourer could be an ideal machine for the race in 1994, especially since the ACO is determined to keep the minimum weight for GT cars at 1,000 kg; the FIA is likely to adopt a weight of 1,100-1,200 kg. The ACO will allow GT manufacturers to transplant engines, for instance allowing Toyota to install its four-litre V8 into an MR2 (such a hybrid is already under development at the SARD workshop). The two aims of the ACO are to level the speeds downwards and to reduce costs, but at the same time they have to put on a good show and maintain the atmosphere of the place.

The top category, in theory, will be the Le Mans Prototypes. These are open top, twoseater sports cars perhaps identical in purpose to the World Sports Cars formula devised by IMSA for American racing next year. It is likely that the Japanese will follow suit, since there is no lead from the FIA at the moment, and we will see the same chassis eligible for races in all parts of the world, with differences in engine requirements. The Americans, for instance, will ban turbochargers and expect to see 600 bhp from stock-block engines; the ACO will allow turbochargers, and will use restrictors to keep the power down to 500 bhp, while the Japanese might perhaps write regulations to favour their domestic engine manufacturers.

A world picture is emerging for sports car endurance racing in 1994, and Le Mans was the first showcase. There is talk, already, of linking races at Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans, Brands Hatch, the Nürburgring, Jarama, Mugello, Fuji and Suzuka in a world series. It will be interesting, now, to see whether the FIA offers a belated response, either in support of sports car racing, or to supress the new order that is emerging without allegiance to the controlling body. M L C

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