Autopolis 430 km

Plaudits all round

Peter Sauber, nice man that he is, shed a few tears. Dr Hermann Hiereth, the man responsible for Mercedes racing engines, looked dumbstruck. The virus that had plagued and destroyed the flat-12 engines on an hourly basis since August just cleared up and went away, simple as that!

Michael Schumacher and Karl Wendlinger drove the race that they and the C291 have long deserved and won the Autopolis 430 km event with some ease, pushing the Silk Cut Jaguars back to second and third places overall. Behind them was the Peugeot driven by Mauro Baldi and Philippe Alliot, championship contenders at the start of the race, and in their wake, making the day complete for the Sauber Mercedes team, was the C291 handled by Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jochen Mass.

The Jaguar drivers waited in vain for the demise of the Mercedes, but it didn't make any difference to the drivers' World Championship. Derek Warwick drove a solo race to second place, half a minute behind the Silver Arrow, but Teo Fabi would only lose the title if he finished lower than third. All the Italian needed to do was to stay behind Warwick and keep the Peugeot at bay, which was no trouble at all.

Fabi duly succeeded fellow Italian Mauro Baldi and Schlesser as the World Champion, despite having raced only six times during the season and won only once. He is a good champion, though, worthy of the title. "Very un-Italian" is how TWR director Roger Silman describes him, "always extremely quick, precise, and easy on the machinery. Teo is very determined, always a pleasure to work with."

They go back a long way. Silman first met Fabi at the Argentine Formula 3 Temporada in 1978, and managed the Toleman F1 team in 1982 when Fabi and Warwick formed the driver pairing. History had a strange way of repeating itself at Autopolis, when Silman had to be totally even-handed with both men in the Jaguar team, although with a 10-point advantage the odds certainly favoured Fabi.

At the end, Warwick gave Fabi a warm smile and a handshake. The Englishman had felt a lot of pressure in the weeks since his younger brother Paul's death at Oulton Park. He wanted very much to win the World Championship for his sake, for Paul's, and to show the Formula 1 people the talent they'd rejected. He resented being docked his 20 points by FISA at Silverstone, and he wanted to win the title that had eluded him so narrowly in 1986.

It was pressure all the way on Warwick, and sometimes it showed. The outcome may not have been what he wanted, but it was an ending of the ordeal this season became. Fabi, the un-Italian Italian, smiled a lot, was totally relaxed throughout the season, and drove like a champion... There were pole positions at Monza, the Nürburgring and Autopolis; a flag-to-flag victory at Silverstone; second places at Monza and the Nürburgring, thirds at Le Mans and Autopolis.

Ruinously expensive though it was for the private teams, most made their way to the new circuit in southern Japan to end the 1991 World Championship. The Italian Veneto Equipe had fallen by the wayside in failing to appear with its Lancia-Ferrari in Mexico, and Louis Descartes was an Autopolis absentee with his ALD.

That was a serious matter for the Frenchman because he certainly intends to compete next year in the FIA Cup series, and might face a $250,000 fine in the meantime for failing to complete this year's calendar. So just 17 cars took the start at Autopolis, one of them the brand-new, V10-powered Toyota TS010.

Designed by Tony Southgate and looking for all the world like a latterday XJR-10, the TS010 finished the race in sixth place driven by Geoff Lees and Andy Wallace. It was a good omen for 1992 when a two-car Toyota team will be operated by TOM'S Toyota GB, namely Glenn Waters and Dave 'Beaky' Sims, at Hingham in Norfolk.

With eight different makes represented in the first (and only) 10 finishers, and a tight battle between Mercedes, Jaguar, Peugeot and Toyota in the top six, it would be nice to think that the Sportscar World Championship has turned the corner. And yet, the feeling became stronger that the board of Daimler-Benz would pull the plug on the SWC effort, enabling the Sauber Mercedes entourage to spend a year preparing for an earth-shaking Formula 1 programme in 1993.

It was said repeatedly at Autopolis that "the board has not yet made its decision" and "we continue to develop the C292 for next year", but the remarks lacked commitment. To lose Mercedes would be to lose a cornerstone of the Sportscar World Championship, and goodness knows it can ill afford to lose any component parts just now.

A lot has been written about the Autopolis circuit, a totally modern complex in the best sense of the phrase. It was built at a reputed cost of £200 million and is 4.674 kilometres of varied turns, climbing and falling, in one place reminiscent of Francorchamps, in another a reminder of the Nürburgring.

Two linked curves at the bottom of the hill, like Les Combes on the former Francorchamps circuit, require total commitment from the driver and are taken flat-in-fifth at 150 mph. They're like the Adenau Bridge, though, in the sense that they are followed by a series of uphill curves and time lost there will never be recovered on that lap.

Fabi called it "a fantastic place, the best race track in the world." But, and it is a huge reservation, Autopolis is in the middle of nowhere! The circuit can be reached only by a mountain road, 20 miles of narrow, hair-pinned rally tracks which, apparently, created such havoc at a recent F3000 meeting that the spectators who reached the circuit in time met all the unlucky ones as they set off home in the evening.

European visitors left their hotels in Kumamoto at the 06.30 dawn on Sunday morning to beat the rush. Despite a heavy mist which thickened to cloud near the top of the mountain, they arrived about 70 minutes later and in good time for the warm-up at 08.30.

There were no hold-ups on the way, but already the car parks were near full and many thousands of spectators had taken their places. Nearly 40,000 had arrived throughout the night, presumably to be at the circuit ahead of all the Europeans who would block the roads at dawn.

The warm-up actually took place three hours late, since it was impossible to see across the track until the cloud lifted at 11.00. This seems to be another drawback to building the world's finest modern track on top of a mountain, something that all the money in the world could not cure.

Pole position man Fabi was perfectly happy, but Warwick was forced into Jaguar's spare car when his intended race chassis sprang a leak in the fuel tank; Baldi's Peugeot developed a serious oil leak and Schlesser's Mercedes brunched its third engine of the weekend, so both the outgoing champions were forced to start in spare cars.

Fabi's pole position advantage lasted all of 20 metres as he deftly changed from second gear to fifth, and watched impotently as Yannick Dalmas powered his front-row Peugeot into the first corner with a useful lead. Warwick thought he was third into the turn but reckoned without Schumacher, who late-braked his Mercedes on the inside with a determination that belies his innocent looks.

At first Fabi closed on Dalmas, was then delayed while lapping David Kennedy who spun his Mazda, and came under considerable pressure from Schumacher. We had a Peugeot, a Jaguar and a Mercedes vying for the lead and suddenly the meaning of this championship became clear. It was all about Porsche between 1982 and 1986, all about Jaguar in 1987 and 1988, and all about Mercedes in 1989 and 1990. A three-way contest was something quite new!

Everything happened on the 21st lap. Fabi missed a shift into fifth, not for the first time, and decided to forfeit the race and go for the championship. He braked early at the end of the straight, moving across to give Schumacher a clear passage. Two corners later they saw Dalmas stopping his Peugeot with a blown engine.

Schumacher led, the first time this year that a 12-cylinder C291 has been ahead. and Fabi yielded two or three seconds a lap as he knocked off 1,000 rpm. Soon Warwick was into second place on his solo drive, and saw the lead briefly during the first and second refuelling stops.

The Mercedes was too good for the Jaguars that day, the Jaguars too good for the Peugeot team which had dominated the previous two rounds. All three were a bit too good for the Toyota, but that was to be expected on its first outing. "This is where our lack of six months' experience shows," said designer Southgate on Saturday, when Lees complained of poor braking.

The problem hadn't been noted throughout weeks of testing, but in the heat of competition all the little shortcomings become major problems. Nothing wrong with the Brembos, in fact, but the pads were knocking-off, perhaps due to flexing of the uprights, and there was too much braking at the rear. Early in the race Lees lunged at Schlesser's Mercedes, vying for sixth place, and spun luridly, so after that it was a case of the Toyota men keeping out of trouble and going for a finish. The V10 engine was powerful enough and ran beautifully all weekend, and the team accumulated a great deal of experience which will stand it in good stead next year.

Schumacher built up a 20-second lead over Warwick in the first stint, and although Karl Wendlinger lost some of that in the middle shift, badly delayed while lapping Andy Wallace, Schumacher built it up again in the third session. They were not seriously under pressure at any time, and no matter how many times they checked their mirrors the cloud of smoke was never seen!

Rather disappointed by this, Warwick claimed second place and David Brabham took Fabi's car to third. Schumacher followed him in the closing laps, allowing Brabham to complete the full distance, but all the Jaguar driver was interested in doing was finishing safely ahead of the Peugeot.

It was back to the bad old days for Baldi and Alliot. Understeer, oversteer, no grip, we'd heard it all before, but it was the spare -- which they liked less than their proper race car. Mass, fifth, was delayed in the pits by an extra 35 seconds when the left-side belt was trapped by the seat, but he and Schlesser finished 44 seconds behind the Peugeot so it made no significant difference.

It was the spare car, we knew, but the forty-somethings were consistently two seconds a lap slower than the 22-year-olds. Still, Jochen Mass was himself one of Jochen Neerpasch's drivers, when he drove a works Ford Capri in the early 1970s, and all credit to Neerpasch for consistently bringing young drivers to the fore. Without him, it's unlikely that Michael Schumacher would have reached the top echelon of Grand Prix racing with Senna-like impetus.

Miracles do happen sometimes, and the reliability of the two race engines in the Mercedes was one of them. A recognised manufacturing fault has spoiled all 30 engines available to the team, and Dr Hiereth beamed that he couldn't have dreamed of this result. Certainly the best two engines of the batch were kept for the race, he said, but one of them broke during the warm-up and he had little confidence in the others.

Porsche, winner of 42 World or European Championship events since Group C was conceived in 1982, faded from world championship racing rather quietly. Four venerable 962Cs started the race but three retired with engine failures, including the Kremer entry which has supported Group C from the beginning.

The only Porsche that finished was the Trust car which is prepared in Japan; George Fouche and Steven Andskar earned the last three World Championship points that may be awarded to Porsche for some time to come.

What started in Suzuka as a one-sided championship, in Jaguar's favour, ended up very equitably at Autopolis with three wins for the Silk Cut Jaguars, winners of the teams' World Championship, three for Peugeot, one for Mazda and one, eventually, for Mercedes, so no one went home empty handed. -- MLC

***

Results (top five) Autopolis 430 km, October 27

1. Schumacher/Wendlinger (Mercedes C291) -- 2h 25m 36.399s

2. Warwick (Jaguar XJR-14) -- 2h 27m 07.187s

3. Fabi/Brabham (Jaguar XJR-14) 2h 28m 15.860s

4. Baldi/Alliot (Peugeot 905B) -- 92 laps

5. Schlesser/Mass (Mercedes C291) -- 92 laps

Fastest Lap: Dalmas, 1m 30.615s 115.38 mph

Drivers' World Championship (top five): Fabi 86 pts, Warwick 79 pts, Alliot and Baldi 69 pts, Euser 54 pts

Teams' World Championship (top five): Silk Cut Jaguar 108 pts, Peugeot-Talbot 79 pts, Sauber Mercedes 70 pts, Euroracing 54 pts, Mazdaspeed 47 pts.