A moment’s misjudgement by a colleague tore a certain third Le Mans win from Hans Stuck’s grasp, but he recalls the fight to undo the damage as one of his best races.
The race I remember most is not an event I won, although I should have I’d won Le Mans for Porsche in 1986 and ’87 with Derek Bell and Al Holbert. Winning it again in ’88 would have been a logical step. But what is logic in motorsport? We had the capacity, everything we needed, but it didn’t work.
With Al and Derek and myself I was always totally relaxed. I knew with those two guys, I didn’t have to worry. We were all a similar speed. Derek was the best co-driver I ever had, but that year he had one little problem. In those days the Mulsanne Corner pit signalling was still there, and we had the readings the fuel meter should have at Mulsanne written on a little piece of paper on the steering wheel. But Derek was a bit short-sighted and had to wear glasses by then! We didn’t know how well he could read those figures, so we had to make a bigger piece of paper for the wheel.
Al was very smooth with the car; very good on fuel. But he wasn’t with us for the third year, as he had retired to set up the Porsche Indycar team. So Derek and I had a new partner — Klaus Ludwig. He’d won Le Mans in 1984 and ’85 with Joest, and I had won the Sebring 12 Hours with him earlier that year. Le Mans was his first time in the factory team. He was a great driver, so I thought it would be no problem.
We had three cars, with Mario, Michael and John Andretti in the third. I’d known Mario for a long time, but never had him as a team-mate, and I was a bit unsure when he appeared with his clan. But he was a very easy to handle guy, no politics. He had a good, professional attitude.
Our car was one I was using in the German Supercup. It was a very special chassis, and it was a bit different to the other ones, a little lighter and stiffer. Our confidence was quite high, because we knew the car was good. The big opposition was obviously Jaguar, who came with five cars. Porsche had some funny stickers made saying ‘Neuter the cat!’. We knew we had the speed, and if we did a reasonable job, we could win the race. But as many times as that happens, just as often it does not happen quite how you want it to. My experience now is that whenever I was confident, it never really worked!
I got pole position, and for the first two hours we were running second behind one of the Jags. Everything was going fine, until Klaus tried to do an extra lap at the end of his first stint, and ran out of fuel. It was obvious that he thought he could do another lap on the reserve tank, but there was a rule at Porsche that if you have to switch onto reserve before the pit entrance, you have to come in whatever happens, because then you’re going to be pretty safe. Afterwards we found out that he had already switched to the reserve 2kms before the pit entrance…
Maybe he thought he had more fuel than was indicated or perhaps was thinking about some wins he had in a private car, when he might have had more fuel than we had in the factory Porsche tank… if you know what I mean! Or maybe he thought he was going to make this extra lap because he was particularly good on fuel consumption. Who knows?
I was sitting in the motorhome with Derek, because Klaus was supposed to do two stints, and we saw him slowing on the TV. I needed new underwear, to be honest. I just thought, “Hey, that’s our car, what the hell’s going on?” Derek was sort of paralysed. He said, “That was our win, it’s finished. We’ve wasted too much time.”
He had to make it to the pits on the starter motor. It was from the end of the Porsche Curves, about 1.5kms, so we lost two laps. I didn’t say anything to Klaus. He stayed in for the second stint, and there was no time to talk during the race. For sure he didn’t do it on purpose, because he wanted to win as well. He didn’t want to spoil our chances. It just happened. The mistake was done, so why argue afterwards? We’ve never discussed it over the last 10 years.
After that, it was quite up and down. The Andrettis and our other car had problems, so it was down to us. We were charging, and through the night we caught some time on the leading Jaguar; the turbo engine always ran well in the cool of the night. We got up to second at half-distance, but then we lost 6min with a fuel pump problem and dropped back from the Jaguar again.
But when the night was over, a little shower came. Peter Falk, our team manager, advised me to go onto rain tyres, but I wanted to stay on slicks.
It was very hairy, but I caught up a lot. The engine was misfiring, which didn’t help. I came in very late, stayed on the rain tyres for a little while, and then came in very soon for slicks. It was my decision because the line was dry. Again it was quite hairy to overtake another car off the line, but it paid off; we made up a lot of time, and at the finish we were less than a lap behind the Jaguar.
It was a very emotional race, with all the Jaguar fans cheering every time a car went by, and I was happy for them. They deserved to win. If the other guy does a better job, why not? And it was nice for Le Mans to have different marques winning. If a company wins the race 15 times in a row, it’s not very interesting any more. It was a shame to miss my third win, and I’m still waiting after 10 years! But in the end I think your most important Le Mans win is the first one. In actual fact it doesn’t matter if you win three or four times, because in reality you have to be able to win six or seven times to go down in history and that is something I could never achieve. So I have no problem with it.