WEC: Hermanos Rodriguez 480kms

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Schlesser takes all

Even Mauro Baldi had to admit it. Jean Louis Schlesser deserved to win the 1989 World Championship for sports car drivers with a record of five wins in eight races, plus a second at Dijon and a third at Brands Hatch. His team, Sauber Mercedes, had a near perfect record of 19 starts (including Le Mans) and 17 finishes, and Mercedes’ team director Jochen Neerpasch didn’t mind admitting “it was our fault, absolutely” that Schlesser ran out of fuel on the last lap at Spa, making him wait another five weeks to take the championship in Mexico.

“And don’t forget,” said Schlesser, “Mauro drove with me at Suzuka because his leg hadn’t recovered from his accident at Daytona.” Fair comment, since the season began with 20 points apiece, and reasonable of Baldi to say that Schlesser is a worthy champion. He became one in the space of a second as Kenny Acheson lost control of Baldi’s car and crashed, almost at the feet of Neerpasch and Peter Sauber, driving as hard as he knew how.

Simply, Baldi had to win the race outright to sneak the title from Schlesser, “and our strategy was to go for it,” remarked Acheson afterwards. It was an unfortunate way for the Ulsterman to close the season but he did appreciate the consolation of Juan Manuel Fangio, who was on hand to congratulate the new champion and commiserate with the losers. “You had no choice,” said the sport’s greatest legend, well chosen words.

Last year Schlesser was obsessed with pole positions, but now Jochen Mass has talked him round. Setting the car up nicely for the race is the important thing to do, so Baldi collected five ‘poles’ in the season to Schlesser’s one (or two, if you include the non-championship Le Mans event). Baldi may feel that he’s the quicker driver, but overall Schlesser and Mass have been the more consistent pairing.

To close the argument, Baldi was on pole position in Mexico but Schlesser passed him on the opening lap and pulled away, eventually to win the race outright.

It has been a remarkably successful year for Sauber Mercedes with seven world championship victories, a triumphant outing at Le Mans and only one defeat, at Dijon, where the tyres weren’t quite right for the hot and abrasive track.

Opposition from Jaguar faded away — the British team wheeled out the V12 powered XJR-9 model for the final round, a signal of despair since the 7-litre engines lost around 150 bhp and were disadvantaged against the turbocharged Mercedes, Porsches, Nissan and Toyota — and the Japanese makes were not yet ready to win races. So, Mercedes had to beat the Porsches, something that Jaguar had learned to do in 1987 and 1988, and in particular Reinhold Joest’s team which was supported officially by the factory and claimed the runner-up position in the Team’s Championship. Bob Wollek and Frank Jelinski were the winners at Dijon in the Joest team’s famous number 7, but their race in Mexico was over before it began; Wollek couldn’t start his engine on the dummy grid, had a push-start and was disqualified automatically, responding to the black flag after five laps. Showing the strength of Joest’s team these days, Frank Jelinski switched to number 8, started by Henry Pescarolo, and they finished a strong third.

“Win or bust”, one of the oldest adages in motoring folklore, was the only motto for Baldi and Acheson, and the Ulsterman was just as keen to win as his Italian team-mate. He’d been told, unofficially, that this might be his last race for Mercedes and that two young Germans may replace him next season, tutored by Mass.

Baldi started from pole position, having qualified just 0.1 sec quicker than Schlesser at 1 min 22.571 sec, but Schlesser took charge of the race straight away. Baldi fell back six seconds, and race leader Schlesser must have cheered silently when the pace car came out between him and Baldi, after Bruno Giacomelli had crashed the Mussato Lancia. Under existing rules he should have gained nearly a lap, but next year’s rule was partially applied by the organisers; Baldi was waved past, and was able to close up on Schlesser, but Dumfries and Bailey were not so, the Japanese cars lost a lap on the restart. Next season the more sensible IMSA rule will apply, and every competitor will be waved past until the leader is following the pace car.

As the pace picked up, Baldi was again in Schlesser’s wake, and again befell back by 6.5 seconds before the refuelling stops. The Italian complained that his tyres weren’t gripping very well but Schlesser retorted “neither are mine, nobody’s tyres are working well here.”

If Schlesser gained the upper hand in the first stint, Acheson seemed to turn the tables on Mass in the next. Mass was four seconds ahead after the pit stops — although Oscar Larrauri led in Walter Brun’s Porsche, having gone longer on his first tank of fuel — but Acheson caught him quickly in the horseshoe-shaped, banked Peralta turn and passed him on the startline, with divine intervention from a slower C2 car.

Three laps later, with the pit stops over and done with, Acheson was the race leader too … but not for long. Mass skirmished with Fermin Velez in Hugh Chamberlain’s Spice-Cosworth (up to fourth place overall, since he hadn’t yet stopped), and damaged a front wheel rim. Acheson wasn’t aware of this but felt continuing pressure, and went as fast as possible each time through the Peralta, a turn that resembles Monza’s Parabolica but is narrower, bumpier and infinitely more dangerous.

“I knew Jochen wouldn’t pass me there,” said Acheson, “but I didn’t want to give him the chance to pass me on the straight. My tyres went off quite quickly but that’s not my excuse, I was aware of it happening. I think I got a bit close to Tim Lee-Davey’s Porsche, a bit off line, and suddenly the car was getting away from me. I’m so sorry for Mauro … we had the chance to make him the World Champion today.”

Schlesser and Baldi were sitting together in Mercedes’ rest room in the paddock, and didn’t know about the accident until the door opened and Olivetti’s Rolando Argentero approached Schlesser and congratulated him. Poor Acheson was still explaining things to Peter Sauber when Baldi rushed through the pit to see what was left of his car, shrugged and turned away. “I’m sorry for Kenny, I can understand how he feels,” said Baldi matter-of-factly. “Not I’ll congratulate Jean-Louis, he deserves to be the champion.”

There was still nearly two hours of racing out there, and Mass was having a torrid time with his steering pulling left and a front tyre overheating. In the middle shift Harald Huysman, Frank Jelinski and Tiff Needell lurked just out of Mass’ sight, matching his times, and when the Mercedes went to the pits for the second time Needell seized the lead for six proud laps, Richard Lloyd’s Porsche leading a World Championship race for the first time since June 1987. Sadly the changeover from Needell back to Derek Bell was rather difficult, and the RLR Porsche team had to settle for fourth place a lap down.

Huysman, the personable Norwegian who takes Hydro Aluminium sponsorship to the Brun Porsche, didn’t impress the team very much when he came to the pits too fast and spun through 150 degrees. “I was too fast … thank God I didn’t hit anyone,” said Huysman, an admission that impressed the stewards to the extent that they only fined him $5,000! It took him perhaps 20 seconds to get the 962C pointing the right way before it could be refuelled, and eventually Larrauri drove to second place 36 seconds behind Schlesser, who was really not bothered at that stage.

Pescarolo and Jelinski were third, another half-minute behind, a nice result for the Frenchman who joined the team only at Le Mans to replace Claude Ballot-Lena (on Sunday morning at the Sarthe the fourtimes winner looked unusually tired: “I drove all night. It was only at midnight that I found that Claude and Jean-Louis couldn’t see in the dark!”). There are still some fast kilometres left in the veteran Frenchman, and it was pleasing to see him given the chance in Mexico.

Fifth and sixth were the two Jaguar XJR-9 V12s, tied together like twins all weekend and 14.5 seconds apart at the finish. It was essential to have a forced induction engine to compete properly at 6,920 feet above sea level, yet the TWR operated jaguar team had left the XJR-11 V6 at home. There were various reasons why … “we have so much development work to do, we couldn’t spare the cars for a fortnight … they aren’t reliable enough … Jaguar asked us to give the V12s one more outing …”. All these statements are credible, especially since Jan Lammers performed another of his astounding qualifying laps and put his car fifth on the grid. Next year Eddie Cheever will be back in the Jaguar team, replacing Patrick Tambay, and it’s expected that the turbo cars will be on Goodyear tyres. Every man in the team is committed to the idea that 1990 will produce successes, that ’89 will be a had dream, and the Mercedes people still expect Jaguar to be leading opponents in future.

In the Aston Martin, now with the V8 engine capacity raised to 6.3 litres, David Leslie had a hectic duel with Walter Brun for the seventh place but the turbo Porsche won it, by a single second. Manual Reuter and Franz Konrad claimed ninth for the Kremer Porsche team after a couple of spins, and Thorkild Thyrring and Eliseo Salazar were tenth in the Spice Cosworth 31/2-litre.

Apart from the Mazda 767 finishing 13th, and winning the GTP class as usual without opposition, the Japanese teams didn’t have such a good race. Johnny Dumfries went down from third with lack of tyre grip, and midway through, John Watson was at the wheel of the Toyota when it was savaged by the other works Spice driven by Bernardo Jourdain, the Mexican CART driver. Jourdan’s car retired immediately, the Toyota later, when its driveshaft broke as a result of bent suspension.

The Nissan driven by Julian Bailey and Mark Blundell went a lap down after the pace car incident, but might still have finished fifth but for an electrical problem reducing the fuel pressure, and eventually it finished 12th. Just before the end the Nissan hesitated badly coming onto the main straight, and Andy Wallace amazed and impressed everyone by driving his Jaguar out from under its gearbox, taking to the narrow strip of grass and getting through, without lifting off the throttle. Wallace gains in confidence and stature each time he races for the Silk Cut team, and since Lammers was unwell on race day, the Oxford driver carried the flag, finishing fifth and recording the team’s fastest lap of I min 27.83 sec. Since, however, Schlesser established a new sports car lap record at 1 min 25.12 sec, and the race lasted for 109 laps, it’s quite easy to see why the Jaguars were lapped twice.

Mexico was also the last-ever race for C2 cars, FISA having decreed that the class should he outlawed a year early due to lack of interest . .. had all the races this year been as good as the last one perhaps C2 would have lasted through 1990, as only one car dropped out for mechanical reasons and 20 seconds covered the first three finishers. The C2 honours went to Team Mako and its Spice-Cosworth driven by Mexicans Giovanni Alio and Andres Contreras, who kept 4.5 seconds between themselves and the American Essex Racing Spice Buick 41/2-litre driven by Carlos Guerrero and Aurelio Lopez, two more Mexicans. The huge partisan crowd was so excited about this contest that they probably didn’t give a second thought to the worthy new world champion, Jean-Louis Schlesser, whose celebrations lasted well into the next morning. MLC

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