World Sportscar Championship: Le Mans 24-hrs

Coventry anti-climax

"I don't think we can ever do better than I that" said Jochen Neerpasch at the end of the Le Mans 24-Hour race on June 11, having seen the third-generation Silver Arrows cross the line in formation to claim first, second and fifth places.

Appointed this year as Mercedes' competitions manager, Neerpasch had been saying for months that this year's effort was unlikely to succeed, but would be regarded as preparation for 1990. Hours after the race Neerpasch denied that there had been any element of spoofing; the gearboxes lasted the distance although Jaguar's didn't, and their level of reliability was extremely high in a race of attrition.

As teams prepare for the annual contest the advantage, almost invariably, lies with last year's winner. The Silk Cut Jaguar team had prepared four V12-powered XJR-9LM models as developments of the '88 winner, and very good they looked, in third, fourth, sixth and eighth places on the grid.

True, the Sauber Mercedes of Jean-Louis Schlesser and Mauro Baldi monopolised the front row of the grid as is expected of a turbo team (Jochen Mass was back in eleventh place, having suffered the transmission problem the Swiss-German team feared), and everyone was interested to see how far the C9/89 models would go, but just for once this season the 50,000 (or more) British fans at the track felt entitled to look forward to a Coventry climax. Again, as in 1986 and 1987, their hopes were broken on Sunday morning.

Three Toyotas went out of the race before dinner time on Saturday and the last remaining Nissan completed its final laps on Sunday morning, but the Japanese teams showed speed and determination with new cars, and are likely to win the race outright within a few years. Three Mazdas ran quickly and reliably to seventh, ninth and twelfth places overall.

Only two Porsche 962C entries, prepared by Reinhold Joest, really had the speed to get amongst the front-runners, and in fact at quarter distance Hans Stuck and Bob Wollek led the race from Frank Jelinski, Pierre-Henri Raphanel and "John Winter", but lack of recent development at Weissach got to them too. Jelinski's Porsche forfeited second place in the seventh hour as water leaked from a cylinder head, and Stuck's dropped back with a water leak from a pipe below the radiator. Things like that never happened in the good old days of air cooling!

Silk Cut Jaguar, though, had a troubled week that team director Tom Walkinshaw will always regret. It began with the death, on Tuesday evening, of engineer Stephen Harding, from the TWR engine division at Kidlington, when he went out to the restaurant at Hunaudieres and, apparently, looked the wrong way before crossing the road. The team's morale was as low as could be, although it was business as usual whilst the cars were on the track. Qualifying was good but the race performance was disappointing, even though Davy Jones and Derek Daly led for the first three hours, and Jan Lammers, Patrick Tambay and Andrew Gilbert-Scott led for five hours in the night.

They certainly had the potential to dominate the race, and the results, but were defeated by engine and gearbox failures. Walkinshaw understands, of course, that the competition is getting stronger with every year that passes. Last year he had only one big team to beat, Porsche, this year just Mercedes, but next year three works teams will lie between Jaguar and victory.

Monsieur Balestre attended the ACO's press conference on Friday to confirm that peace talks will be held in the next three months, with a view to assuring the future of the Le Mans 24 Hours in the World Championship. "The race is an important part of French, and the world's, motor sporting heritage," said J-MB, to approving nods from the ACO's Raymond Gouloumes.

Qualifying went well for most teams, but a rainstorm on Wednesday evening meant that all the serious bids for grid positions were made on Thursday, when traditionally the teams are running-in race engines, checking fuel consumption and lights, qualifying third drivers and so on. In that sense everyone was a day behind schedule, and just before dark on Thursday evening there was a flurry of activity as Geoff Lees tried to grab pole position in the latest Toyota 89C-V.

Schlesser had established the fastest time at 3 min 15.04 sec (249.826 kph) which was just 0.6 seconds faster than Hans Stuck went last year in the works Porsche 962C, and Mauro Baldi was very little slower at 3 min 15.67 sec; both complained about traffic, Schlesser saying that he could have done a "three-eleven" given the chance. Lees, number one in Toyota's team, then took the yellow Taka-Q entry round in 3 min 15.51 sec, saying he hadn't merely been held up, but had found a crippled C2 car at Tenter Rouge, put two wheels off the road going around it and lost all his momentum turning onto the Mulsanne Straight.

Assuming all these teams return to Le Mans in 1990, for the final appearance of the turbocharged models, we might forecast a pole position time of 3 min 10 sec which could stand for a few years. Lees was in a T-car which meant that he could only start from the front row if he used that chassis, and since it wasn't pole position the Japanese management started him from 17th place, with Johnny Dumfries and John Watson. Schlesser's time was set with the race car, but in a special trim for qualifying. On Wednesday evening he'd been five seconds quicker than Kenny Acheson in a similar car but Acheson was 27 kph faster down the straight, according to the radar trap. It sounded unlikely but the Mercedes engineers believed it, pointing out that Acheson's low-downforce car was 400 rpm faster than Schlesser's, which was tuned more for handling.

Derek Bell and David Hobbs, lead drivers in Richard Lloyd's two Porsches, were despondent to find that they were short of 50 kph down the long straight, with too much downforce. "If someone's 200 metres behind at Terte Rouge, he'll catch me by the restaurant and be 400 metres ahead at Mulsanne. It's desperate," said Hobbs, making his twentieth attempt to win the elusive prize. Having won the event five times Bell had a different priority, to try to succeed in a privately-entered car, but when he was passed by his own wheel early in the race his enthusiasm went with it.

Both the Sauber Mercedes and Silk Cut Jaguar teams had to introduce a number of new, younger faces to supplement their driver squads, and they were more successful than the managers dared hope. Andrew Gilbert-Scott and Alain Ferte were very impressive for Jaguar, as were Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens for Mercedes.

Damon Hill showed considerable talent in Richard Lloyd's Porsche, too, and Gary Brabham made himself useful in Vern Schuppan's Porsche team, although he blotted his record with a damaging spin on Saturday evening. Neither Hill nor Brabham, had ever driven a Group C car before, let alone raced at Le Mans, and it was Geoff Brabham's first visit, too, in the works Nissan shared with his IMSA partners Chip Robinson and Arie Luyendyk.

Julian Bailey was patted on the back for making the best Nissan time, twelfth fastest at 3 min 24.09 sec, and was even more popular when he forced his way up to third place challenging John Nielsen's Jaguar, going into the fifth lap. Davy Jones was romping away in the lead, 15 seconds clear, and although the Jaguars are among the quickest down the straight Bailey's Nissan was in Nielsen's slipstream.

Just too close, in fact. Nielsen's anchors were superior to Bailey's approaching the Mulsanne corner. The young Englishman, in only his second Group C race, tried to swerve round the back of the Jaguar but thumped it in the tail. Bailey's car retired at the pits with a broken suspension, and an angry Nielsen was delayed five minutes while body repairs were carried out. Curiously, it was almost a re-run of the opening lap of the Daytona 24 Hours, when Daly's Jaguar got into conflict with Michael Roe's Nissan, and again Martin Donnelly found himself purely in a spectating role as a result ... this time from Nissan's pit, instead of Jaguar's.

In quick succession Lammers and Alain Ferte brought their Jaguars into the pits, the Dutchman with a punctured tyre and the Frenchman with the tyre temperature warning light on, though in fact the tyre was properly inflated. Even at this early stage, though, the Jaguars' tyres were turning on their rims and causing vibrations which fractured exhaust pipes, causing odd delays of five or six minutes which the team could ill-afford, but Jones and Daly avoided the troubles in their lead car and kept a consistent lead of around 50 seconds on Stuck and Wollek for the first three hours.

The Mercedes drivers set out to have a nice steady race, without fireworks, to compile a dossier of experience for next year. That's what they said beforehand, and continued to say as the race developed. Jochen Mass had moved very carefully into second place at the end of the first hour but his C9 lost ground in the second when Reuter ran over something on the straight, an exhaust pipe he thought, which punched a hole through the floor. Later Dickens spun the Mercedes and glanced a guardrail, tearing a piece of expendable bodywork from the right flank, so the car looked a bit tatty on Saturday night.

In fact the silver cars were a handful while the sun was up, the Michelins running hot and offering no grip. Baldi stopped for new tyres half an hour into the race, and in the third hour Alain Cudini spun Schlesser's car at the Porsche Curves and returned to the pits with the rear wing missing, and a fair amount of damage around the tail. The crew lost four laps right away and more later, because the C9 wasn't handling too well afterwards, preventing Mercedes from achieving a 1-2-3 result. Baldi's car ran beautifully, heading the field for the first time just after six o'clock on Sunday morning, but almost straightaway the gearbox began to tighten up, making it very hard to drive.

Mercedes didn't have a trouble-free race by any means, but their rivals suffered far worse fortunes. After 17 hours racing there had been 32 retirements, compared with merely 16 last year, even though this year the leader had covered three laps fewer (accounted for, largely, by a 20-minute pacecar period when the Schuppan team's Takefuji Porsche caught fire). A major blow to Jaguar's hopes came just after the three-hour mark when Derek Daly parked the leading car off the road and forfeited a 54-second lead over Wollek's Porsche. The gear selector fork had broken, and the Irishman finally got going half an hour later when he kicked the gearbox and, surprisingly, locked it into third gear! He and Jones drove hard for three more hours, but then retired with a dropped valve.

Stuck and Wollek accepted the lead and team-mates Jelinski, Raphanel and Winter moved into second place, passing the Jaguars of Lammers and Ferte while they had exhaust pipes replaced. Jelinski hardly had time to celebrate before his engine lost water, causing the Porsche's retirement, and soon after midnight the water warning light went on in Stuck's cockpit.

There was a very minor leak in a hose union below the side-pod radiator, but it couldn't be reached in less than half an hour. Little water was needed at each pit stop but it was an irritant, and once the cooling system needed to be bled. Inexorably the Joest Porsche's lead was frittered away and Lammers, Tambay and Gilbert-Scott moved ahead.

All three Toyotas had gone, and so had two of the Nissans. For Toyota, Kaoru Hoshino spun and damaged the four-cylinder car's suspension beyond repair, Hitoshi Ogawa brought in his eight-cylinder with smoke pouring out of the engine bay, and Johnny Dumfries spun and damaged his 88C-V quite badly, spending an hour trying to get to the pits with a broken driveshaft. For Nissan, Bailey was an early visitor to the shower-block, Masahiro Hasemi's retired with a broken head gasket after ten hours, when fourth and still challenging, and Geoff Brabham's car lasted all night then retired from fifth place with a serious engine failure, described with understatement in the official bulletin as an oil leak.

The efforts of the Japanese teams were much more impressive than this short summary can indicate, and above all they are now aiming to win races, not merely to be there to beat each other. Alarm bells sounded in the Porsche camps when Dominic Dobson had to bale out of Vern Schuppan's Takefuji-sponsored 962C between Mulsanne and Indianapolis, with the engine bay ablaze. A new design of fuel rail had split, and on Sunday morning Kunimitsu Takahashi had to park the Kremer/Kenwood 962C with fire damage, then only two hours from the finish. Tiff Needell steered the RLR/Cabin Porsche for the marshalling point beyond the pits with yet another conflagration. The causes were thought to be the same, and this was too much for Vern Schuppan who parked his own Omron-sponsored car on the pit front and took it round later to claim a 13th place finish (he'd lost a great deal of time rebuilding the gearbox, and repairing damage, and would have been lucky to claim tenth place).

Once again the Jaguar XJR-9s proved better over 12 hours than 24, even though they had all the breaks in 1988. The Ferte brothers, with Eliseo Salazar, were going really well at half distance and had moved up to fifth place, three laps behind Lammers. Alain Ferte had to his credit a new lap record at 3 min 21.27 sec ... then the gearbox broke and it took more than an hour to fit a new one (allowed by the rules, these days).

While the work was being carried out John Nielsen retired his Jaguar from fourth place, and two laps down, with a broken cylinder head gasket. It's the third year in succession that the Dane has retired with an overheated engine, always in time for breakfast on Sunday, and his bad luck was shared by Andy Wallace and Price Cobb.

For Jaguar though, the worst blow of all came in the 15th hour as the gearbox failed on Lammers' car, then a full lap ahead of two Mercedes. A seal had failed around the output shaft letting all the lubricant escape, and the only good thing to say about that was that it took only 49 minutes to replace the March transmission, allowing the No 1 XJR to claim an honourable fourth place ahead of Schlesser.

Oil was a problem for Stuck and Wollek, too, as it was seeping into their clutch housing. Five hours from the finish the team had to concede the battle, stop attacking and concentrate on defending third place, with the help of Coca Cola poured into the housing each time the car stopped.

"With no problems we could have won this race, sure," the Bavarian observed. "With one problem we'd have been second, but with two problems I'm happy to finish third. Plenty of people didn't finish at all."

For a few heart-stopping seconds that looked like being the fate of Aston Martin's brave challenge, when a rear suspension failure put Brian Redman "into the emergency mode for few moments" on the Mulsanne straight. With one car already out through engine damage, having run without a rev-counter, that could have been the end for the hopes of Redman, Michael Roe and Costas Los, but the veteran Redman kept control, returning to the pits for repairs. To the delight of the team, the car finished, that achievement being more significant than the classification, eleventh overall.

Time was frozen in Peter Sauber's Mercedes pit as the three silver cars formed up for a media finish and toured around the last lap, marshals doing their traditional flag-waving at the side of the track. Then as they wove through the chicane for the last time, and stopped before the wall of humanity on the track, the celebrations began. Sauber, Neerpasch, manager Max Welti, Dr Hermann Hierath and the mechanics were overwhelmed with delight and relief, and the spectators were delighted for them. Disappointments of past years were forgotten as the Mercedes team celebrated only its second Le Mans victory, and the one denied, perhaps, in 1955. MLC