1987 Le Mans 24 Hours report: Jaguar bid fails as Porsche wins

The Porsche factory was down to its last car after an hour of racing at Le Mans but that one, driven by Derek Bell, Hans Stuck and AI Holbert, was enough to write some new pages in the record books.

Bell won the race for the fifth time (now second only to Jacky Ickx’s record of six victories), Holbert for the third time, and Stuck for the second time. It was Porsche’s twelfth Le Mans success, and the seventh in a row. Could a manufacturer be more dominant than that?

After seeing the Silk Cut Jaguar challenge crumble, Sir John Egan declared “we’ll keep coming back until we win”, but the bleak fact is that Tom Walkinshaw will have to wring still more out of the XJR-8LM design to beat the works Porsches next year, and even that assumes that the Stuttgart firm doesn’t make further progress.

An hour into the race the Porsche camp was in complete disarray, and it seemed unlikely that the Rothmans team would succeed this time. Walkinshaw could not have written the script better, as the works and private Porsches went down like skittles, all victims of fuel-related engine failures. Four of the best had gone, including the works car of Jochen Mass/Bob Wollek, both the Joest Racing entries handled by Sarel van der Merwe/ David Hobbs/Chip Robinson and Frank Jelinski/Hurley Haywood/Stanley Dickens, and the Kremer entry for Volker Weidler/Kris Nissen/Kunimitsu Takahashi.

It was an unequal struggle. Bell, Stuck and Holbert would have to uphold Porsche’s honour on their own, with a car of doubtful reliability, against three superb Silk Cut Jaguars which lay first, third and fourth.

Jonathan Palmer was fifth after the first hour, in the Britten-Lloyd Racing Liqui Moly Porsche shared with James Weaver and Price Cobb, and would continue to run strongly until the engine compartment went up in flames at midnight, for no reason immediately apparent.

An estimated 40,000 British enthusiasts, more even than spectate at Silverstone and Brands Hatch, felt sure that the biggest prize in sportscar racing would fall to Jaguar this time. Many of them were on the terraces opposite the Jaguar pit waving banners and Union Jacks, and cheering loudly at every sign of activity. Their octane rating was higher than that of the fuel supplied to all the teams, a blend which did the Porsches no good at all.

Jaguar’s failure can be pinpointed to a crash caused by a burst tyre, an engine breakage and a driver-forced gearbox breakage. “Our problems were unrelated and largely beyond our control,” said Walkinshaw miserably on Sunday morning, for all that was left of his team was the car driven by Eddie Cheever, Raul Boesel and Jan Lammers to fifth place, the first car home with anything but a Porsche flat-six turbo in the engine compartment. Only four laps behind was Spice Engineering’s Spice Pontiac DFL, which ran to a copybook win in C2.

Walkinshaw recognises that the works Porsches are at least two seconds a lap quicker when speed is needed, and as unbreakable as the Leopard tanks also designed at Weissach. Bell’s car was well outside its fuel consumption target for ten hours, but it was safe to assume that pace cars, or rain perhaps, would intervene and bring the Porsche back on target. Ironically, it was Jaguar’s Win Percy who caused the pace cars to come out for 80 minutes, after one of the most spectacular crashes ever seen at Le Mans.

Earlier, the tail cover had blown away when Jan Lammers was driving, putting the diagnostic system out of action; rain had affected the tyre temperature sensors anyway, and Percy had no warning that a rear tyre had deflated slowly, and would explode at a full 230 mph on the Mulsanne Straight.

The XJR-8LM spun to the left, sliced off its tail, gearbox and rear wheels against the barrier then flew 200 metres upside down. “Please come down, please come down,” prayed Percy, who remembers every detail vividly. Laws of gravity eventually prevailed. and the car rolled, mostly sideways, for another 300 metres before coming to rest. The car was utterly wrecked but the driver was not even scratched, although his helmet was ground down by contact with the roadway. The interior of the Tony Southgate designed carbon-fibre and Kevlar chassis was intact, and Southgate proudly mentioned that not a drop of fuel was spilled from the nearly-full tank.

After the pace cars had been parked, Mike Thackwell had a tyre failure at the same point in the Kouros Sauber Mercedes. He, at least, stayed on the road, but the car was too badly damaged underneath to continue.

All the leading drivers and tearn owners are becoming increasingly critical of Le Mans, but of course, like the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indy 500, it has to be contested because it is there. Had Win Percy been hurt it is probable that all the professional drivers would have boycotted next year’s event, and even now there is no guarantee that they will not.

Porsche manager Norbert Singer expressed a viewpoint: “I think Le Mans is going the same way as the Mille Miglia, the Targa Florio and the old Nurburgring. The circuit is just not safe for the cars today. The trouble starts in the pits, which are totally inadequate but you can criticise the track everywhere.”

Walter Brun declined to race for his own team, and withdrew two of his cars with comparatively minor accident damage on the grounds of safety (the third, driven by newcomer Uwe Schafer, was destroyed after landing outside the barrier at the Porsche Curves as had Price Cobb’s Rothmans’ Porsche during qualifying.

Hans Stuck started the meeting badly for Porsche when he gave the three works cars a run on the Weissach test-track before loading up on the previous Friday. While he was driving Mass’s car a tyre failed and pitched him into a barrier, damaging the 962C badly. So Mass took Stuck’s race car. Stuck took Schuppan’s, and Schuppan the spare. Cobb then wrote Schuppan’s car off during Wednesday’s practice session, so the Rothmans team was down to two servicable machines. “Only one of them can win”, sais Singer with enforced optimism, but it turned out to be justified.

Wollek claimed pole position at 3min 21.09sec (150.57 mph) with Stuck close by at 3min 21.13sec, while in Jaguars Eddie Cheever, Martin Brundle and Jan Lammers responded next evening with laps in the 3min 24sec bracket. Next was F3000 driver Pierre-Henri Raphanel in the Porsche powered Cougar, then the rumbling Kouros Sauber Mercedes qualified by Johnny Dumfries and Mike Thackwell. They, however, suffered a variety of transmission problems, with 700 bhp and masses of torque, and that was a bad omen for the race.

As rivals fell away, the real battle was between the ‘BEST (Bell/Stuck) Porsche and the Jaguars, and it continued at a furious pace for 16 hours. Cheever was ahead of the Porsche at the end of the first hour, but only by one second. The Porsche was ahead of Brundle and John Nielsen by 12 seconds after two hours, by one second after three hours, and by 42 seconds after four hours. Then Brundle and Nielsen went a lap ahead for three hours during the evening, but when Bell, Stuck and Holbert went a lap ahead at midnight they were there for the duration, unlikely as that seemed at the time.

Percy’s accident was the first blow to Jaguar, but after dawn Walkinshaw remarked: “It looks as though we have a race on our hands,” which he would soon regret. Boesel spun his Jaguar at Arnage, damaging the nose and going three laps down. An hour later Nielsen brought the second-placed Jaguar in with a rocketing water temperature gauge, and a cracked cylinder head was diagnosed. That car went out of the race, and half-an-hour later Cheever, in a real hurry, snicked reverse gear and the cog went through the transmission casing!

The damage was not terminal — the XJR-8 was still second, though only by a few seconds, when it rejoined the race 42 minutes later (the TWR mechanics were highly praised by Porsche’s Walter Nailer), but in the nineteenth hour there was another 20-minute stop to haven rear suspension upright changed. The Jaguar sounded crisp and looked aggressive throughout the last four hours, but Cheever and Boesel had no chance of finishing higher than fifth.

The Kouros team’s race was also without reward. Both cars stopped for new Bosch Motronic microchips early on, Dumfries then establishing a new lap record at 3min 25.4sec, faster than he had qualified. Soon enough the gearbox failed Chip Ganassi in a cloud of smoke, a transmission failure also stopping last year’s Sauber Mercedes C8 in the early stages. Mike Thackwell visited some catch-fencing and Pescarolo lost an hour with a broken driveshaft, but the dark blue car went out at half-distance with a tyre failure which caused too much damage underneath.

The Toyotas were good for a while, until Alan Jones’ car stopped short of the pits unable to pick up the last few litres of fuel, and the Needell/Sekiya/Hoshino entry retired in the evening with a blown cylinder head gasket.

Terada’s Mazda 757 retired with loss of compression in one of the three rotors, and the V8-powered Nissans fought a losing battle with the Spice and Ecosse C2 teams, to retire after dawn with fewer than eight cylinders functioning. The Kennedy/Dieudonnt/Galvin Mazda ran beautifully, and saved Japanese honour with seventh place.

Gordon Spice, Fermin Velez and Philippe de Henning were the clear C2 winners, their Spice Pontiac Fiero DFL delayed very little by a faulty water rail and finishing sixth overall. Spice confidently predicted this win at the test day in May, but first he had to overcome a two-car challenge from Ecurie Ecosse.

Mike Wilds’ Ecosse disappeared in the night with a flat battery, the result of running behind the pace car for more than an hour, but Ray Mallock, David Leslie and Marc Duez were consistently ahead until nine o’clock on Sunday morning. The clutch had failed hours before and eventually a gearbox rebuild was necessary, but second place was secure.

The thirtieth anniversary of Jaguar’s last Le Mans victory, achieved by the Ecurie Ecosse team, could not be celebrated as either team would have wished. However, this race must have been one of Porsche’s most satisfying victories, a triumph in the face of adversity, and a reminder of the task that still lies ahead of the ambitious Silk Cut Jaguar team. MLC

Race Results - 1987 Le Mans 24 Hours