Works Porsches trounced
Throughout the life of the Group C World Endurance Championship, which started in 1982, the works Rothmans-Porsche team has been boringly successful. One knew, before leaving home, that Ickx, Mass, Bell and Bellof would appear on the winner’s podium and it was virtually possible to write race reports in advance, leaving a blank for the winner’s name.
All that has changed in 1985, as a result of the more restrictive fuel consumption rules. Le Mans, the showcase of the Stuttgart team, saw the works cars absolutely trounced by customer versions and even shown the way, for hours, by the splendid British EMKA-Aston Martin team. It took only a very minor problem on the Richard Lloyd Racing / Canon Porsche 956B driven by Jonathan Palmer and James Weaver to let the Joest Porsche 956 of Klaus Ludwig / Paolo Barilla / “John Winter” get clear away, leading for all but 26 of the 373 laps covered. The Lloyd Porsche was three laps behind, but still beat the record distance established in 1983, and the Rothmans-Porsche of Derek Bell and Hans Stuck was third and seven laps down, narrowly ahead of the Fitzpatrick Racing 956 of David Hobbs / Jo Gartner / Guy Edwards.
It was a race of odd contrasts. Like Mugello, Monza and Silverstone fuel economy was uppermost in the minds of all the drivers and team managers. The first couple of hours can only be described as boring, with the drivers using almost exaggerated caution. Gearchanging was slow and deliberate; fierce acceleration was avoided, and Ickx was in fourth gear, from the chicane, before he reached the pits.
Within four hours all three Rothmans-Porsches had been lapped, and it was quite clear that the factory team is in trouble with fuel economy. Joest, Lloyd, Kremer, even Brun’s less experienced team can achieve higher averages with better economy, as can the Lancias. Porsche’s 3-litre version, used to establish the fastest times in practice, was supposed to race for the first time at Hockenheim in July, but team manager Peter Falk now admits that it is not sufficiently economical. In his presence, it is better not to discuss the Lancia’s 3-litre engines.
The contrast, then, was in the actual speeds achieved. On Wednesday evening Stuck and Ickx made full use of their 700bhp Qualifying engines (with no regard for economy, of course) to establish new qualifying records at 3 min 14.80 sec and 3 min 15.20 sec respectively. Stuck was the first driver to lap the revised circuit at over 250 kph (actually, at 251,815 kph / 156.48 mph), and only narrowly failed to go faster than Jacky Oliver’s absolute practice record set, in the JW Porsche 917, in March 1971 when the cars had a clear run from the White House to the Dunlop Curve.
That was the time to see the cars driven in anger, reaching maximum revs in every gear and ultimately reaching 230 mph on the long Mulsanne straight. At night the sensation of these cars passing by is breath-taking, unique in motor racing, the “whump” of the turbos contrasting with the constant chainsaw noise of the Cosworth DFVs, the grumble of the Aston V8s and the thoroughbred howl of the Jaguar V12s. You can hear the normally aspirated engines clearly from ten miles away, the Porsches not at all.
The marshals and attendants, though, seem to lack imagination despite the death of a colleague last year, camping as they do right beside the armco and taking the cars for granted. During Thursday’s practice Dudley Wood, in the second Fitpatrick Porsche 956, and Jean-Pierre Frey in the second Carma-Alba, collided at the flat-out “kink” on the straight, Wood’s car flattening some 80 metres of armco, Frey’s clearing it and landing among the trees. Later in the evening the interesting new Sauber-Mercedes, driven by John Nielsen, backflipped on the straight while travelling at over 220 mph, for no apparent reason, and landed on its wheels 280 metres further along the track. Of the three drivers, only Wood was hurt, sustaining a fractured left leg.
Alessandro Nannini also broke last year’s Lancia qualifying record (3 min 17.11 sec) at 3 min 15.95 sec but no-one else got below 3 min 20 sec. No-one, that is, except Stuck who was allowed to go out in the 956 training car, complete with its high-downforce body and a standard 2.6-litre engine, as a reward for claiming pole position! The tall German, who replaced Stefan Bellof, seems to have brought some fresh spirit to the Rothmans team, his enthusiasm for driving making him the immediate star.
Qualifying is one thing, a propaganda and morale exercise, racing quite another. At Silverstone the teams got through 510 litres of fuel in five hours while at Le Mans, a slightly faster track, the C1 cars were allocated 2,210-litres for 24 hours. They had a problem, certainly, and it remained to be seen how they would deal with it. Porsche’s car manager Norbert Singer thought that the race would be run at about five seconds a lap slower than last year, with average times of around 3 min 42 sec. The privateers thought otherwise, and although they looked almost ponderously slow Palmer’s fastest lap in the first hour was 3 min 33.4 sec, which shows how deceptive appearances can be. Later on, when the Ickx/Mass car had finished having its gearbox rebuilt (a split oil cooler on the transmission had done it no good at all) the Belgian and the German took turns at attacking the lap record, establishing a new one at 3 min 25.1 sec before dusk. After a long delay, of course, they had fuel to spare, but so far as the race was concerned Ickx had not the slightest chance of lengthening his record of wins to seven.
Rarely have professional racing drivers been so well-mannered as they were in the opening laps. Bob Wollek led the first three laps, then quite deliberately pulled over and took his Lancia across the timing line in fifth place on the fourth lap. The Italians had enjoyed their minutes of glory, and now concentrated on the serious business of balancing speed against consumption. Ludwig, last year’s winner in the same car prepared by Reinhold Joest, now led Sarel van der Merwe’s Kremer Porsche 956 and Palmer’s Canon-Porsche, while Ickx drove at what seemed a pedestrian speed in 18th place. Did the spectators who’d travelled from afar, and paid a lot of money for their tickets, really know what was going on?
Palmer and Ludwig soon established a rapport which took them well clear of the field, taking turns at leading down the straight, “breaking the air”, this tactic increasing their speed and conserving fuel as well. There was one other race leader, and the thousands of British fans cheered loudly when Tiff Needell went ahead for four laps at the end of the first hour. The EMKA, owned by Steve O’Rourke (he drove, with Needell and Nick Faure) and prepared by Michael Cane, was to distinguish itself. It was not, in fact, noticeably more economical than the Porsches but Cane brought the car in early, after 50 minutes, for half a tank of fuel, so that Needell was poised for the lead when everyone else stopped. Even before that the blue Aston Martin powered car had been running third, the “best of the rest”, and had very few problems at all during the race. A split in the hydraulic pipe to the clutch slave cylinder, which took half an hour to fix, was its only unscheduled stop but made no significant difference to its placing, behind eight Porsches and two Lancias.
At six hours, quarter distance, the race order was well established. Palmer and Weaver lay a few seconds behind Ludwig, Barilla and “John Winter”, two laps ahead of the Wollek / Nannini / Cesario Lancia, the Bell / Stuck Porsche, the Brun / Gouhier / Theys Porsche, and the Holbert / Schuppan / Watson works Porsche. The second Lancia, that of four-times winner Henri Pescarolo with Mauro Baldi, was driving to a strict speed and lay 10th, four laps behind, while the EMKA in 13th position was comfortably clear of the two Tullius Group 44 Jaguars. We’d hoped to see the normally aspirated, British backed cars doing better on fuel consumption, attacking, pressuring, going ahead when the Porsches and Lancias refuelled, as the 1985 regulations seemingly allowed them to do. In that respect they were disappointing, for their fuelling schedules were the same as those of the turbo teams, and they just lacked the pace to worry the opposition. The Jaguars develop some 620 horsepower, much the same as the turbos, but were handicapped by 50 kilogrammes of surplus weight required by IMSA rules (they run in that category).
The Canon team cracked first, unfortunately. James Weaver, signed up when Jan Lammers withdrew from the team just five days before scrutineering, was settling in nicely and keeping on the pace, with the correct economy. In the seventh hour he made an unscheduled stop, a warning light telling him that the water temperature was too high. It took very little time to establish that the Motronic “sender” was faulty, and isolate it, but then the nose panel was taken off as Weaver mentioned that the brakes felt rough. It was not a cracked disc, as he feared, but the pads hadn’t bedded in correctly. This delay cost a couple of laps, and another was lost in the night when Weaver stopped to have a slow-punctured tyre replaced.
That, in a nutshell, is the difference between first and second place. Three laps. The difference between two trivial happenings in 3,162 miles of racing, and none at all. The Joest Porsche stayed good all the way through, and not once was the routine disturbed. It was interesting to note that at the end, when the Joest Porsche had covered three laps more than the Rothmans team did in 1983, they still had 100-litres of fuel unused. The Canon team had 30-litres remaining, as did Bell and Stuck who completed 366 laps. Had the pace car not gone out for 25 minutes on Saturday evening, when Jean-Claude Andruet crashed a WM-Peugeot mightily on the Mulsanne straight (another tyre deflation was the cause) even more records might have been broken.
This time round the fancied teams did have problems. Bell’s car had needed new front wheel bearings, and a new spark box. Ickx’s car also had new wheel bearings, but the car was principally delayed 71 minutes having the gearbox rebuilt. The Haywood / Schuppan / Watson car completely disgraced itself by breaking its crankshaft on Sunday morning, when in second place, but this is only the second engine failure suffered by the works Porsches in three and a half seasons, an enviable record that isn’t achieved by luck.
Of the Lancias, Wollek’s needed a new turbo unit when a stone cracked the wastegate relief pipe, “giving us the power of a qualifier in Indianapolis” according to Cesare Fiorio. Pescarolo, who left Joest’s team “because I thought I would stand a better chance in a factory team” must have regretted his decision as his car was delayed by a faulty starter motor, which needed changing. On this occasion, though, the Lancias had never looked like winners, and the good Henri had to watch the car he drove last year take the chequered flag.The Jaguars, also off the pace, had their effort halved when Jim Adam accelerated from the Ford chicane in the night. Just too late for him to turn into the pits, the cage for the left-side driveshaft universal joint collapsed, stranding the Jaguar at the entry to the Dunlop Curve. Then on Sunday morning, when the sun was warm, the Tullius Jaguar crept into the pits with a dropped valve, and water trickling from an exhaust pipe. As good Americans will, when all else fails, the crew set to work washing and polishing the white and green Jaguar fit for an exhibition, to make a final lap at three o’clock for classification in 13th place.
Gordon Spice’s win in the C2 category, with Ray Bellm and Mark Galvin sharing the Spice-Tiga, was not quite the text-book run as the car was delayed by faulty exhaust pipe brackets, and by downforce which pushed the car into contact with the road along the straight, cured by fitting stronger front springs. The Ecosse led the class impressively for three hours until the oil pump driveshaft sheared, and Finotto’s Carma-Alba was never really in contention, delayed first by the front wheels loosening, then by the engine getting sicker and sicker until it finally expired on Sunday. Kennedy’s Mazda 727C had crippling gearbox problems on Sunday but finished second in class, 29 laps behind Spice. As for the WM Peugeots in the C1 class, their problems seemed to be endless, which is only to be expected of a team which races once a year, and they finished 16th and 23rd overall firing on fewer than their six cylinders.
It was predictable that the Porsche marque would achieve its 10th Le Mans victory, now exceeding Ferrari’s fine tally, but it was totally unexpected that the invincible works team would be eclipsed so badly. Some would say that the race was boring, others that it was closely contested and absorbing, but whichever opinion you subscribe to it was a perfect advertisement for the German company. Now, it will need success for Lancia-Martini and a challenging presence from Tom Walkinshaw’s new Jaguars to put new life into the World Endurance Championship series, and raise any prospect of bringing large crowds flocking back to the Sarthe next June. – M.L.C.