World Sportscar Championship: Dijon 480-kms

That magic ingredient

What seemed like a formality for the Sauber Mercedes team at Dijon on May 21, and therefore a contest for third place, turned into a splendid success for an underdog Porsche, a Reinhold Joest 962C driven by Bob Wollek and Frank Jelinski. It might seem rather far-fetched to describe a Joest Porsche as an underdog, but it had been almost two years since a product of Weissach won a World Championship race and, after all, the original design was first seen in 1982.

By contrast the Jaguar XJR design, which made its debut in August 1985, has for some months now been regarded at Kidlington as obsolete, for all "sprint" events, and its second World Sports-Prototype Championship outing of the season, like the first at Suzuka, was almost embarrassing for the car's lack of competitiveness.

The Sauber Mercedes were in dire difficulties with their tyres on a warm day, that much was clear, the rear Michelins losing grip after a dozen laps or so. That shouldn't detract in the least from the outstanding performances of Wollek and Jelinski, because their Goodyear-tyred Porsche was the best car on the day, and beat the "Silver Arrows" by 38 seconds. Even on an off-day though, the Mercedes were able to lap the Silk Cut Jaguars (neither of which finished), and the Tom's Toyota 88C which finished fourth, and pull out three laps on the RLR Porsche driven to fifth place by Derek Bell and Tiff Needell ... that is how the winning performance should be measured.

British enthusiasts who went to the German Supercup meeting at Silverstone the week before saw Wollek fairly dominate in the 962C. An ex-works chassis (011) built as a lightweight for Hans Stuck's 1988 Supercup programme but now running at the statutory 900kg, its Dijon victory was its third in three races for Joest's team.

Joest is an arch-conservative where design is concerned, always being the last to change any details developed by the factory, so his modifications to the basic design are especially neat and interesting. The watercooling has been moved from the centre flank positions to the front, but even an engineer could be fooled because the twin radiators, each approximately 30cm x 20cm, are located behind the headlamps. An old type 956 nose is used with extra-wide brake ducts feeding in air which exits through Can-Am-type louvres on top of the wheelarches.

The Blaupunktand Sachs-sponsored car has a short, "sprint" tail and centre-post rear wing, and has been converted to the fashionable Brembo brakes, but even these modifications don't entirely explain the team's superiority. Richard Lloyd has been a pioneer of Porsche innovation since 1984, Walter Brun's team too has been fairly adventurous, and the Kremer brothers went to Dijon with an all-composite construction 962C which was so radical that they called it the CK6, a successor to their unique CK5 design which raced in 1982-83.

Whatever the magic ingredient was when Joest beat the works team at Monza in 1983, won Le Mans in 1984 and 1985, and scooped various other prizes with the famous 956/117, he still has the knowledge. And it's still a secret. FISA scrutineer Charlie Whiting stripped the Joest Porsche after the Dijon race, and had the fuel tank out, but found nothing to object to.

"Why", rivals exclaim, "Joest doesn't even prepare his cars thoroughly! Sometimes he just cleans them and puts them away until the next race." Yes, the Americans have an expression for that: if it ain't broke, don't fix it!

There were four makes in the top six after qualifying at Dijon, the grid headed as usual though by Jean-Louis Schlesser in the Sauber C9/89 shared with Jochen Mass.

The time, 1min 07.275sec (126.35 mph) was almost exactly as the Parisian had predicted, but somehow the Swiss-German car didn't look as steady as usual, especially on the sweeping bends around the back. It was edgy, and so was the Mauro Baldi/Kenny Acheson sister car, but as the Ulsterman pointed out, "We have it where we need it, in the last turn and up the straight. No-one can stay with us there." Everyone relaxed, and continued to wonder who'd finish third.

Second quickest was a newcomer, the four-cylinder 2.1-litre Tom's Toyota 88C qualified by Johnny Dumfries and co-driven by Geoff Lees, on his first visit to Dijon. Baldi was third, Wollek fourth and Bell fifth in the RLR Porsche, but Wollek's morning time was excluded on a technicality so he had to do it again in the heat of the afternoon, this time slotting in behind the Bell/Needell 962C.

The V12-powered Jaguars qualified sixth and eighth (Jan Lammers and John Nielsen) and between them was World C2 Champion Ray Bellm in the new 31/2-litre Spice, cornering at seemingly undiminished speeds. Last July, at Brands Hatch, Martin Brundle complimented Spice and Bellm after the race on their speed in the corners; now, Bellm complains bitterly about being held up by the Kidlington cars. Co-driver Costas Los explained that the 575 bhp Spices needed to enter the corners fast to record competitive times. If they were only slightly baulked they lost momentum, particularly vital in the last corner, a fourth-gear right-hander leading onto the long, uphill straight.

There were the two new cars at Dijon in red, white and blue colours, but that's about all they had in common.

Nissan's R89C in its usual colours is a new design from Lola (replacing March), powered by the Japanese company's powerful, and now reliable and economical, 31/2-litre V8 twin-turbo engine. The team is deliberately built around young chargers, Julian Bailey and Mark Blundell, with an eye to the future, and it had an encouraging weekend. Exhaust pipe fractures were overcome in time to get the Nissan onto the third row of the grid, and it ran extremely well in fourth place until the windscreen blew out! Later the replacement popped out as well despite the application of tape, indicating that a minor modification was needed before Le Mans.

The Aston Martin AMR-1, driven by David Leslie and Brian Redman, misbehaved during the non-qualifying session, blowing a heavy oil mist out of the breather pipe (marshals reached for the red and yellow flags every time they saw Redman coming), but an overnight modification cured that shortcoming and the car then had a very reliable weekend, albeit at a leisurely speed which netted 17th place overall. The composite material car's handling was definitely not right, but the problem was smothered by applying more and more downforce. "We'll have to get to the bottom of this and rectify the handling before we can make any progress," said team manager Richard Williams. Encouragingly, though, the 6-litre V8 "stock-block" engine, in Virage form with 32 valves, seemed to have a competitive power output even with only "over 650 bhp" claimed, which sounded low compared with its rivals. When the handling is right, and downforce can be reduced, the Aston ought to be very competitive.

But the second round of the World Championship quickly settled into a Stuttgart scrap, Porsche-Zuffenhausen versus Mercedes-Unterturkheim, and while at first Schlesser and Baldi pulled away by five seconds, Wollek steadied the gap and then began to reel the Saubers in again. The first sign of weakness from the Saubers came when Schlesser dropped behind his teammate and was overtaken by the Porsche as well. On lap 24, and before the half-hour, Wollek was through to the lead.

Veteran observers had seen all this before, of course. Klaus Ludwig used to pull out a big lead over the Jaguars, but it didn't mean very much because he was way over his fuel allocation. It was just a sign of virility. Wollek, though, is a master tactician and it was worth recalling that he finished on the lead lap at Suzuka, remarking that Porsche was back in business.

The three German cars pulled away, eventually to lap the rest. Contesting fourth place were Bailey and Blundell until the Nissan lost its screen, Derek Bell and Tiff Needell in the RLR Porsche (they were still up there until beyond half-distance), the speedy little Tom's Toyota which was nearing its race pension, and the two Jaguars.

One of the latter went out of the contest when Wallace managed to ignore his Sentinel tyre-temperature warning device and had an explosive failure of the right-rear — at full speed, too, at the end of the long straight. Luckily the XJR-9 spun into the largest gravel trap available.

Kenny Acheson, the hero of Suzuka, made another thoroughly good impression on the Mercedes people by leading the race for ten laps. Jelinski had to yield for a time, but when the Sauber's rear Michelins gave up he was able to whip the Porsche past again, "as if the Sauber was a C2 car". He won't be forgiven for that in a hurry.

At half-distance no more than four seconds covered Jelinski, Acheson and Mass (who began dropping away), but Acheson's advantage was cancelled, and turned into a 20-second deflict, when he headed for a routine pit-stop and got blocked in the narrow pit-lane by the Almeras Porsche ... which promptly stalled. Wollek was able to get clean away in the final stint, and the two Sauber Mercedes crossed the line 38 seconds later, Schlesser just ahead.

There was no sign of Jan Lammers, whose Jaguar stopped with a fuel vapour-lock on the final lap, so Dumfries and Lees happily claimed fourth place ahead of the RLR Porsche, which had been delayed by irritants such as poor tyre-choice, a door coming open, and oil on the screen.

For all their development work, Brun and Kremer didn't feature at all, and the Spice team's effort came to little as both cars got involved in minor skirmishes. Bellm and Los finished 14th, but should have been in the top half-dozen. The Spice marque does seem likely to gallop away with the C2 division again, though, as Hugh Chamberlain's new SE89C driven by Fermin Velez and Nick Adams won the class by a clear lap in eleventh place overall, just behind the noisy but tuneful four-rotor Mazda 757B. MLC