Fifteen minutes of fame: Fuel speed ahead

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EMKA: Le Mans 24 hours – June 15-16, 1985

Porsche blitzed Lancia by taking the first five places,but for a short while both were headed by a privateer car designed and built in Surrey. Gary Watkins explains

There waswas only one built and it did just six races in a stop-start career spanning three years, but the EMKA really did achieve its 15 minutes of fame. For that was how long, give or take, this Aston Martin-powered GpC contender sat atop the leader board of the 1985 Le Mans 24 Hours.

This was some achievement for a car conceived in a pub, and designed and built for £150,000. Even more so considering its opposition was a flotilla of Porsches – factory and private – and the megabuck Lancia team.

This very British project was the brainchild of Michael Cane and Steve O’Rourke, who has entered sportscars under the banner of his Esoteric Music and Kinetic Art rock music management company for the past 25 years. Cane’s Surrey-based team had linked up with Pink Floyd’s manager in 1978 to run his Ferrari 512BB and, for ’81, rebuilt a BMW M1 one-make racer into a full-shot Gp5 car. Constructing their own chassis was the logical next step.

The pair had already been sounded out by Aston Martin during 1981 to build a car for the forthcoming Group C formula. Robin Hamilton’s new Nimrod operation got that deal, but the seed had been sown and the EMKA came to life during a chinwag in a pub near Cane and O’Rourke’s Surrey homes. No doubt the beer and the offer of free engines from Aston Martin’s Tickford subsidiary lubricated the decision-making process.

“Michael had always entertained the ambition of building his own sportscar,” recalls O’Rourke. “Alain de Cadenet had taken his own car to Le Mans, so why couldn’t we?”

Cane remembers the EMKA project as being “very much a local affair”. The services of veteran car designer Len Bailey, who was based nearby in Woking, were secured over a cup of tea at a nearby Happy Eater.

Bailey’s end product revealed obvious parentage from his Ford C100, the original Gp6 version. That car hadn’t proved a success and neither did the EMKA initially. After a debut in the Silveistone 1000Km, the Aston Martin-engined 83/1 didn’t even come close to topping 200mph on the Mulsanne Straight and qualified 7sec slower than Ray Mallock’s reworked Nimrod.

The EMKA made the finish and 17th position meant it was first Brit car home but lead driver Tiff Needell doesn’t have fond memories of the original version. “It was a dog,” he recalls. “It was slow on the straight and the handling wasn’t quite right”

The car needed some serious development, but O’Rourke’s business commitments would delay the updates for 12 months. When time and money did allow the project to be taken off the back burner, Richard Owen was brought in to update the car. The former Shadow designer remembers that his brief was to find another 20mph on the Mulsanne. He went to MIRA’s full-size wind tunnel and came back with a reshaped car, sans the ground-effect underbody tunnels that had held it back in 1983. Revised front suspension and a new airbox completed the job.

The EMKA was transformed. “It turned into a really nice car,” explains Needell, who rejoined the team for 1985. “And it absolutely flew down the straight.” It may have been “a bit pointy” elsewhere on the circuit, but that speed on the Mulsanne unlocked 9sec from its laptime.

This prodigious straightline speed was also the key to some first-hour heroics. From 13th on the grid, Needell made light work of a pack of Porsche drivers keen to eke out the reduced fuel allocation introduced for that year’s race. “I look at the Le Mans video sometimes,” he says, “and you see a train of a dozen or so Porsches, with me in the EMKA picking off one or two on the straight each lap.”

By lap six, Needell was already up to fourth place.

Two laps later he made it past Oscari Larrauri’s Brun Porsche to take third behind Klaus Ludwig and Jonathan Palmer in the respective Joest and Richard Lloyd Racing 956s, the two Porsches that would go on to finish first and second. The British car even got close enough to Ludwig to make a brief bid for second before Needell was summoned to the pits around the 50-minute mark.

Cane had hatched a plan designed to seal the EMKA’s place in history. Needell was given half a tank of fuel and sent on his way. If the flotilla of Porsches all pitted on schedule in the final minutes of the first hour, then Needell would be left sitting pretty at the top of the leaderboand at the 60-minute mark. And that would mean the EMKA would be listed as the leader when the one-hour results sheets were issued.

But it didn’t quite go according to plan. David Hobbs eked out his gas to 1hr 3min, stealing that top slot on the first results; but once his John Fitzpatrick Racing 956 pitted, the EMKA did get to lead.

Such was the early pace of the EMKA, Needell stayed out front until he needed more fuel. “We were competitive during my first double stint,” he remembers. “No-one overtook me.”

The EMKA’s brush with fame lasted almost exactly 15 minutes it was ahead for four laps of the Circuit de la Sarthe. Neither O’Rourke nor Nick Faure were ever likely to keep up their team-mate’s pace, though, especially when the former’s glasses started to mist up and the latter went down with a migraine.

There was more trouble ahead, too. A broken union filled the Aston Martin’s engine vee with fuel and 40 minutes were lost. But this probably made no difference to the car’s eventual finishing position, a best-of-British 11th.

The EMKA raced twice more that season before the project was quietly abandoned, though a second chassis was built up around the leftover bits.

Looking back, Cane doesn’t believe that the EMKA was a potential race-winner in need of a cash injection. He does point out, however, that the team’s neighbour in the Le Mans paddock has gone on to great things.

“Sauber were having an awful event. That was the year John Nielsen flipped on the Mulsanne Straight,” he says. “We were having a pretty good time. But look where Peter Sauber is now and where I am. C’est la vie.”

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