Karl Wendlinger completed his initial apprenticeship to Mercedes’ WS-PC team by sharing the laurels at Spa with tutor Jochen Mass. At the age of 21, the Austrian is the youngest winner of a World Championship race since Ricardo Rodriguez drove a Ferrari to victory in the Targa Florio in 1962, and Wendlinger certainly showed a fine blend of skill and maturity as he dealt with a distant challenge from the Jan Lammers/ Andy Wallace Jaguar.
It was a special victory for Mass, now 43, being his 18th since the Group C formula started in 1982, and making up for his exclusion from Silverstone. No-one, not even mentor Jochen Neerpasch, could have imagined that Wendlinger would join Mass at the head of the World Championship table after four rounds. Even so, he’ll have to make way for Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Michael Schumacher in future races, increasing the probability that Jean-Louis Schlesser and Mauro Baldi will forge ahead to a shared title in October. Baldi was the hot favourite to win the Belgian race. He was on pole position for the third year running, cracking the two-minute mark for the first time in a sports car, fended off a cursory challenge from Mass, and would have won for the third time but for a dud ignition coil which set the C11 back nearly three laps. The Italian settled for his third successive fastest lap, but only eighth position in the final results . . . and ‘nul points’ as they say in some circles.
Martin Brundle felt he’d been robbed when his Silk Cut Jaguar’s wiring loom caught fire as he sped up the hill to Les Combes for the 47th time, well in the lead. “I could have led the World Championship this afternoon,” said the aggrieved Englishman, who’d geared himself up for a solo drive after Alain Ferte reported sick on the morning of the race. Brundle had stopped at the right time for slicks on a drying track, pulling well clear of Mass’ Mercedes, and had every right to feel robbed by the electrical problem . . . all the same, the early tyre change would have forced Brundle to make an extra refuelling stop, and the result might just have tipped towards Mercedes anyway.
Even within a space of nine months it was nice to get back to Spa-Francorchamps, one of the world’s finest motor racing circuits containing one of the most exciting complexes, Eau Rouge. The World Championship teams returned to the downhill pits, in full view of the grandstand and with a grandstand view of Eau Rouge, and the sun shone on Friday. But were the teams happy? They were not!
Red uniformed security guards seemed to outnumber the personnel, and lacking a secure ‘wire cage’, the sloping paddock was hermetically sealed to keep out the public, and not a few important guests such as sponsors. One important member of the FISA secretariat, even, was excluded from her office in the control tower, having inadvertently left her pass on a desk. The two highways were sealed off for three days, rather than the duration of the speed sessions, and one wondered who was paying for all this . . . not the spectators, presumably, since they too were outnumbered by the goons. Yes, another bone of contention, an underwhelming lack of promotion, although Formula 1 prices were being charged.
One driver queued for a packet of frites and found himself with a beer in his hand, since all the paddock franchises had to cover up their names and advertisements, and generally the atmosphere was thoroughly spoiled by FISA’s greedy, dictatorial grasp of the WS-PC series. One major sponsor let it be known that his colours wouldn’t grace the scene in 1991, and it seemed that a prison camp might have had happier days. But still, the racing was good.
Mauro Baldi, whose turn it was to qualify the number 1 Mercedes, wasted no time in getting down through the two minute mark on Friday afternoon, finding a perfectly clear lap in recording 1 min 59.35 sec (130.07 mph). The Italian was happy enough with his performance but felt, as he did at Monza, that the car might have performed better since the fuel allocation was at the low end of the specification. The sophisticated knock sensors reduce the boost and retard the ignition to allow for lower fuel qualities, and the engine’s power is reduced accordingly.
Not until Saturday afternoon did Jochen Mass offer a real challenge at 2 min 00.685 sec, nearly two seconds quicker than Baldi’s previous qualifying record. In the Silk Cut Jaguar camp Brundle and Lammers settled for ‘mid-twos’, and on Saturday afternoon Mark Blundell and Johnny Dumfries put their Japanese cars onto the third row, Blundell with the Nissan at 2 min 03.079 sec and Dumfries at 2 min 04.010 sec. It was nice to see Dumfries having a thoroughly creditable weekend in the Toyota after his recent troubles, although once again the Tom’s entry was nowhere near right in the fuel consumption department and plummeted to 18th position with a long, tactical pit stop in the last few minutes. At Francorchamps it was Aguri Suzuki’s turn to smash a Toyota (“thank goodness it was one of their drivers” breathed one member of the team), hitting the inside kerb at Le Raidillon and powering backwards into the armco on the right. The gearbox was torn from the engine but, remarkably, the carbon chassis seemed to be undamaged. Just as well, since it was Toyota’s spare for Le Mans. There was no question of Suzuki and Geoff Lees starting the race, Suzuki nursing a sore neck and the 90C-V lacking a gearbox.
The works-assisted, 3.2-litre Joest Porsches were pushed back to the fourth row of the grid, Bob Wollek easing out Jonathan Palmer when the doctor’s rear wing was found by the scrutineers to be 120mm too high, but the 3-litre 962Cs were really having to struggle a bit. The best of them was Richard Lloyd’s GTi chassis Porsche in the hands of Steven Andskar, who did the time of 2 min 06.192 sec, and Manuel Reuter. Another Silverstone entry, the Spice-Cosworth of Fermin Velez and Tim Harvey, qualified just ahead but started behind, the team having practised two cars and got the organisers into a muddle.
Not to plan
The warm-up was an awful warning to all of Mercedes’ rivals. All four drivers, Wendlinger included, had run comfortably in the 2-04 to 2-05 bracket during the non-qualifying sessions, on race compound tyres of course, and on Sunday morning both cars worked easily down to 2.05 while Brundle, third quickest, headed Jonathan Palmer and Julian Bailey in the ‘eights’.
“It won’t be like that in the race,” promised Max Welti, Sauber’s team manager, but he probably believes in Father Christmas as well. Despite a worsening drizzle which finally decided all the competitors to start on rain tyres (all that Goodyear had as an option) or intermediates, Baldi and Mass seemed to be in a different class as they powered away in one big ball of spray.
“I had too much speed and too little vision” admitted Lammers, the man to be feared in starts at Spa. The Mercedes drivers had worked out their tactics beforehand, leaving the Dutchman no chink to aim his Jaguar at in the approach to Eau Rouge, but his own team-mate Brundle left plenty of space for an escapade which Lammers had all on his own (a minor ‘off’ during the warm-up lap had not diminished Lammers’ exuberance in the least).
A dry line began to show straight away and Lammers was the first notable to stop for slicks, on lap six, having been passed by Brundle and received an oil windscreen for his trouble. Brundle stopped two laps later and then started a superb charge up the field, closing on the Mercedes at a mighty rate.
On the way Brundle gave former teammate Dumfries a hefty nudge (“it was a bit rude I suppose, but I had to go for it”), then made nine seconds in a single lap to get onto Mass’ tail. In two swift passes the Jaguar took the lead on lap 17, leaving the Mercedes drivers demanding space in the pit lane for slick Goodyears. They’d delayed their decision too long, and the error might have been critical if Brundle had kept going to the end.
Brundle was up and away, 94 seconds ahead of Wendlinger on the 47th lap when the XJR-11 slowed, and pulled up on the hard shoulder with black smoke billowing from the engine bay. The young Austrian felt the weight lifted from his shoulders since he was now in the lead, 16 seconds ahead of Kenny Acheson’s Nissan, then Harvey in the Spice and Reuter in the RLR Porsche.
Brancatelli’s Nissan went down the list when the cockpit filled up with smoke. “I thought it was from the engine” the Italian explained after veering into the pits without warning and overshooting his own garage. “I couldn’t see where to stop”. The fault was quickly traced to the windscreen heater, which was isolated, but the car went down to 10th in the final order.
Drizzle floated across the Ardennes circuit from time to time causing drivers and managers alike some anxious moments, but there were only two accidents leading to retirement, neither of them serious. Derek Bell, celebrating the 20th anniversary of his sports car debut (also at Spa, in the ENB Ferrari 512S) had a very untypical spin in the Joest Porsche, ending with minor damage at the rear, which was the hard way of learning how to drive on Michelin tyres.
Andy Wallace was badly affected by an oily windscreen, just as Lammers had been earlier, and in the final stint the Dutchman realised that his legs were being bathed in petrol from a leaky tank. “I had to slow down. We decided to finish conservatively because we didn’t know how much fuel we’d lost”. Second place was a lot better than nothing, and keeps the Silk Cut team in contention for the World Championship.
Five makes were represented in the top five, a sign of the times. Mercedes, Jaguar and Nissan went the full 480 kilometres, the Spice and the Larrauri/Huysman Brun Motorsport Porsche managed 69 laps, along with the RLR Porsche and Wollek’s Joest Porsche. Reuter had been running Lloyd’s pink Porsche in fourth place, but yielded to Velez and Larrauri in the last two laps. It seemed to be a satisfactory result for an interesting race.