Endurance Racing Survey

A review of the last five races in the World Championship for Makes series

Several months have passed since we last reviewed the World Championship for Makes, in which time five further rounds have taken place. The June edition of Motor Sport covered “the story so far” up as far as the Rivet Supply Six Hours at Silverstone in May. At that point, all four rounds of the “sports car” endurance championship had fallen to Porsches of one kind or another, with two victories for the 935s run by the Gelo racing team, one the Interscope 935 entered by Ted Field, and one for Reinhold Joest’s Liqui-Moly 908/4, a turbocharged 2.1 litre Gp 6 sports-racer of many years standing.

The five subsequent events that completed the 1979 World Championship for Makes produced enormous variety in the quality of racing, if little in the way of outstanding new technical interest. One race, at the incomparable and still daunting 14.2 mile Nürburgring, was a cracker, as good a long distance contest as one could hope to see these days, and deservedly watched by the biggest crowd seen for some years for an ADAC 1000 Km. Another race, at Watkins Glen, was above average, while Brands Hatch’s contribution was “fair”. But the other couple of so-called championship rounds, at Pergusa in Sicily and Vallelunga near Rome, were frankly awful and undeserving of their status.

First event in the series after Silverstone was that memorable ADAC 1000 Km. at Nürburgring on June 3rd. After an intense initial tussle for the lead between Klaus Ludwig in the Kremer Porsche 935 K3 and Bob Wollek in a Gelo 935, Rolf Stommelen went convincingly ahead in Reinhold Joest’s Porsche 908/4. Ludwig’s rapid white 935 appeared at last, limping into the pit road with a reflating rear tyre, and everyone in the vast timber grandstand sat back thinking “That’s it. We won’t see the lead change again. The car that led all the way at Dijon, the car that captured pole by five clear seconds, is now out front and with Stommelen at the wheel it will stay there.” Yet it was not to be — and the subsequent struggle for supremacy proved long distance racing can still create a real spectacle of genuine excitement lasting right through to the final kilometre.

After 11 laps of the Nürburgring’s famous North circuit, the Stommelen/Joest 908/4 retired because of an irredeemable fuel leak. The heat of a very warm summer’s day had made its bag tanks swell slightly, in that they rubbed against the chassis. With the latter in turn scraping against the track in certain places, the tanks had been literally wearing themselves away. From then on, the battle was a straight fight between the Gelo and Kremer 935s — and what a duel they made.

Every time one of the cars made a refuelling stop, the other would snatch the lead, only to Into it when its own stop fell due. From half distance onwards, the main two protagonists were within sight of each other for lap after lap. The highlight was an heroic 16 lap stint from Bob Wollek in the quicker Gelo 935, throughout which he was constantly chasing or fending off Ludwig or Plankenhorn in the rival Kremer Porsche. The Frenchman was almost totally exhausted at the end of his virtually unbroken 227 mile drive, for cockpit temperatures were reaching anything up to 140 degrees Fahrenheit on a very hot afternoon. Frequently during his two hour marathon (and he had already driven earlier in the race) the red Gelo Porsche and the white Kremer car were nose to tail; but when John Fitzpatrick relieved Wollek for the final stint, with seven laps to go, the Gelo team had gained the upper hand, albeit by only a few seconds.

During the last hour, Ludwig found the Kremer 935 increasingly hard to drive, for its chassis was flexing and its gear-change baulking badly after key bolts on the chassis had failed to withstand the stresses of “the Ring”. Yet Ludwig began to gnaw away at Fitzpatrick’s slender advantage nevertheless, and entering the final lap he was only ten seconds behind. In an all-out bid for glory, the German slashed the Englishman’s lead to under four seconds in three-quarters of a lap, but Fitz was well in command of the situation. As his scarlet Gelo Porsche blasted over the line for a memorable victory, Ludwig’s pursuit was checked dramatically: his car engine had blown a piston on the sprint from the very last corner!

Nothing else in long distance racing during the whole of 1979 was half as exciting. A week later came Le Mans, once again barred from the World Championship, this time because of its proximity to the Nürburgring race. A full report of the 24 Hours was included in the July edition of Motor Sport, but it is worth recalling that Ludwig and the Krerner team reaped their revenge in partnership with the American Whittington brothers.

A fortnight later, on June 24th, came one of the awful races, at the Lake Pergusa circuit near Enna in the heart of Sicily. Hardly any non-Italian teams bothered to make the long trek south, and a mere handful of cars eligible for Championship points took part. There could have been no race at all but for a sprinkling of 2-litre Gp 6 sports-racing cars, ineligible for points but this year allowed to compete alongside their production based counterparts.

After a very dull six hour procession, the race fell to one of these 2-litre Gp 6 machines, an Osella-BMW PA7 shared by Lella Lombardi and Enrico Grimaldi. The only significance of the whole event lay in the fact that a works Lancia Beta Montecarlo driven by Riccardo Patrese and Carlo Facetti finished second, five laps behind, and was therefore the first Op 5 car home. The little turbocharged Lancia, you may remember, had made a dreadful debut at Silverstone, retiring after only a few miles; but at Nürburgring it had risen to fifth place overall before its engine expired in the final hour.

The seventh round of the championship, at Watkins Glen on July 7th, was vastly better. These days there are probably more competitive Group 5 Porsche Turbos in North America than in Europe — and their drivers are not bad either, when it comes to long distance events! The race at the Glen was evidence of this trend, for the lead changed hands a dozen times during the six hours, and was shared by six different cars. In the end, the result was an exact replica of Le Mans, as Klaus Ludwig helped Don and Bill Whittington take their newly acquired, Kremer prepared 935 K3 to a four lap victory over the Barbour 935 driven by Dick Barbour himself, Rolf Stommelen and Paul Newman.

Of the other cars to hold the lead, the Ongais/Field Porsche collided with a back marker who had spun to a halt across the road; the Gregg/Haywood 935 first ran out of fuel and then destroyed a wheel bearing; the Paul-Holbert 935 lost a wheel five minutes from the finish after a series of earlier problems; while the 935 shared by Brian Redman and Bill Whittington lost time in a turbocharger change and finished seventh. The American race saw an impeccable debut for Group 44’s immaculately prepared V8 Triumph TR8, which Bob Tullius and Brian Fuersternau drove to a category winning sixth place .This team has enjoyed great success with Triumph TR6s and Jaguar E-types and XJ-Ss in past seasons.

A fortnight before its scheduled date of August 6th, the Rivet Supply sponsored Brands Hatch race had all the hallmarks of being the worst event ever to hold World Championship status. But then decent entries positively flooded in, so the BRSCC was rewarded with a large and fully representative grid of cars, even though Georg Loos decided at the last moment to withdraw the two cars that he had entered late in the first place.

The race was not over-enthralling, however. After Ludwig had forced a new Kremer Porsche 935K3 ahead for the first two laps, Joest slotted his 908-4 into the lead shortly before the end of this third tour, and with the assistance of co-driver Volkert Merl kept it firmly out front for the remainder of the six hours! Ludwig and Plankenhorn gave constant chase in the Kremer Porsche, so there was at least a semblance of a race, but it was to no avail. They were a lap or two behind for most of the event, and took the flag two laps down.

Tony Charnell and Martin Raymond inherited a fine class winning third place with a 2-litre Chevron-Ford B36 after John Cooper and Peter Lovett had seen their chances evaporate when their ex-de Cadenet Lola-DFV broke its sterring linkage in the last half hour. Alain de Cadenet himself fell from contention when his French co-driver Francois Migault was brought to an abrupt halt by a tyre’s disintegration on the fastest part of the circuit. Their DFV powered De Cadenet was eventually persuaded back to life but could finish no higher than sixth, a place behind the works Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbo that had been third at one stage, but which had suffered all sorts of niggling problems, including a minor collision.

The British event also saw the actual race debut of the March built BMW M1 that had failed to qualify at Le Mans. Driven by Manfred Winkelhock, the very special monocoque M1 lay i an impressive fourth for much of the first half but then spun into retirement because of a hiccup in its spark-box soon after rising to second place

After that, it was only left for the championship to fizzle out at Vallelunga, where there was another indifferent field, most of it not eligible for championship points anyway. March sent their Oxford built M1 and Lancia fielded two works Montecarlos for the first time, but neither was in luck. The BMW crashed, this time because of brake failure, one Lancia suffered gearbox failure and the other went out with serious overheating. At the end of six hours, Group 6 machines filled the top six positions, with Leila Lombardi and Giorgio Francia sharing first place in a works Osella-BMW PA7, ahead of two other 2-litre Osellas and a Chrysler engined Chevron B36.

It was a dreary end to a generally dreary championship, and it was really of only academic interest that Porsche (naturally) took the FISA title with 120 points to Lancia’s 50, BMW’s 38, and Ford’s 30. One can only hope this coming year sees a revival of the series but it seems unlikely in view of Porsche’s virtual abandonment of Group 5 racing. Lancia will run two works Montecarlos and March their quasi-works M1 but otherwise prospects are even dimmer than a year ago. — J.C.T.