For want of a lap

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Bob Wollek was a sports car great but never won the Le Mans 24 Hours. Weeks before his death, in March 2001, he told Adam Cooper of his final frustration

“I’ve won everything in sportscars, except of course, the Le Mans 24 Hours. And of all the near misses, it was the 1998 race that was particularly terrible for me we came so close and were so unlucky.

“Months before the race I swallowed a piece of apple which went in my lung. I had to go to hospital. A week later I fell off my bike and fractured my shoulder, which made it very difficult to drive a car quickly round Le Mans.

“I had a Porsche factory drive, and the 911 GT1-98 was a good car. It wasn’t perfect, but besides Bob Wollek, nothing’s perfect! Of course, it could always have been better, but it was good enough to win Le Mans. I was sure that we were going to win that year.

“I was given the choice of driving the GT1-98 or the open Joest Porsche [the WSC95 that had won Le Mans the previous two years], but having been part of the development of both cars, I knew the closed car was the faster. Of course, racing is racing you can have an accident or break the gearbox but for sure I knew our car was better than Joest’s open prototype.

“And I also thought that our sister works Porsche entry wouldn’t be as quick as us, because Laurent Aiello did not know the team or Le Mans. In the event, the guys in that car did a very good job.”

[The second factory GT1-98 driven by Aiello, Allan McNish and Stephane Ortelli battled for the lead through the night with the car that Wollek shared with Uwe Alzen and Jörg Müller. Then, shortly after 6am on Sunday, Müller put Wollek’s second-placed car off the road at the first chicane on the Mulsanne Straight.]

“Eventually Müller lost it. I had been talking to him all week saying, ‘Slow, slow, slow, please slow!’ I remember I told him, ‘Even if we are second and we are two laps down, go slow, don’t try to catch them’. After the accident we were talking in the pits and he said, ‘I’m an asshole,’ and I said, Well, it’s too late…’

“The thing was that a few minutes after his off the leading car of McNish had overheating problems and spent 30 minutes in the pits. I will always say – and I am convinced of this – that it was a question of luck. If Müller had been able to keep it together for another lap, he’d have got the message that the sister car was delayed. And from then on, it would have been easy. It was a question of two minutes. Another lap, and he would have got the ‘slow’ board and we’d have won the race.

“Then, when the team repaired our car after the accident, they replaced the bodywork and sidepods. They fired up the engine, and found there was some water dripping out of the right sidepod. So they took the driver’s door and sidepod off again, but discovered that it wasn’t a leak at all! Actually, water had been poured into the sidepod when they sealed up the radiator, and there was no leak. All that took another five or 10 minutes, and it shouldn’t have…

“Still, at the end of the race we were only one lap behind our winning sister car. Because I’d fallen off my bike! had not been able to drive fast enough, and because of that, we had been three-quarters of a lap behind. Then Müller had his shunt, which he shouldn’t have, and then we had repaired a water leak that did not exist. So we lost the race three times!

“Thousands of people would like Bob Wollek to win Le Mans. There are so many people calling and telling me about it, and they grab me and say, ‘This year, this year!’ It just builds up, and then it doesn’t happen, and for me the world sort of breaks. It’s happened to me 22 times that I had a chance but failed to win Le Mans. Especially in 1973-74 with Matra, then ’78 in the factory Porsche, and, and, and… You always say, ‘Bad luck. Next year!’ The difference was that in 1998, I was already 54, so next year? It was gone.

Wollek raced twice more at Le Mans after 1998, both times in GT class Porsche 911s. He was preparing for what would have been his 31st and final Le Mans start when he was killed while cycling back to his hotel at the 2001 Sebring 12 Hours.

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