WSC -- Silverstone 430 km

The Power Without the Prize

British spectators could see for themselves, at Silverstone on May 19, that the Silk Cut Jaguar team has set out in callous fashion to humble Mercedes-Benz and Peugeot on the circuits. At Silverstone, like Suzuka and like Monza, the new XJR-14s were on average four seconds per lap quicker than their main rivals, and that’s the sort of timespan that should separate the front of the grid from the back markers in a close-fought race.

Teo Fabi, handing over at two-thirds distance to Derek Warwick, commanded the Sportscar World Championship race with absurd ease. From the start he pulled out 74 seconds in 20 laps, leaving none but Karl Wendlinger in the Mercedes C291 on the same lap, and the purple Jaguar completed the major part of the race with next to no pressure.

The same couldn’t be said of Martin Brundle, who missed third gear at the start and broke the throttle cable on the second lap. His XJR dropped six laps straight away and the recovery was the highlight of the race. Only four of Brundle’s 73 flying laps were slower than the fastest lap by another make, Michael Schumacher’s 1m 33.798s in the 12-cylinder Mercedes, and the Englishman’s solo run also netted him the outright circuit record at 1m 29.372s, a speed of 130.80 mph.

Sighting of the chequered flag for the third time in successive weekends, didn’t bring Warwick all the happiness he might have wished for because 40 minutes after the race he was disqualifed from winning, then reinstated without points. This means that he languishes ninth in the World Championship, with 20 points, while new-man Fabi is the top challenger for Jaguar.

Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jochen Mass lead the Drivers Championship and Sauber Mercedes the Teams Championship, thanks to a solid performance from Wendlinger and Schumacher in the new C291, placed second after a faultless run.

The alterations to Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit were designed to make it slower, safer and better for spectators. It succeeded in all these areas although it remains one of Europe’s fastest tracks, and there are a couple of places where the drivers are distinctly uneasy about the proximity of retaining walls.

The emphasis is still on speed, make no mistake. Copse Corner has been opened up a bit and is slightly faster than before, so the traditionalists can spend all day there if they wish and pretend that nothing else has changed.

Becketts is now a series of ess-bends, in effect, with plenty of viewing, and the flat-out plunge to Stowe Corner is breathtaking as ever. The Jaguars seemed hardly to brake at all, although the corner keeps going around into the Vale, and the cars leap out of the dip for the slow approach to Club. Reaching somewhere near top speed again through Abbey, the quickest drivers take Bridge nearly flat in sixth, with just a confidence lift, before braking hard for Priory. The Priory-Brooklands-Luffield section really is Mickey Mouse, like the stadium section at Hockenheim, but it gets lively on the last laps of the supporting races.

Around this track the Silk Cut Jaguars set the world alight thanks to the supreme efforts of Warwick, Brundle and Fabi throughout the race weekend. They were simply stunningly fast, shimmering through the corners on the limits of adhesion, swooping like eagles on the slow, defenceless Porsches. Sparks flew from the skids, smoke poured from the bodywork which is still a tight fit over the rear tyres, and the opposition settled in for a wake.

Tom Walkinshaw’s team seems to reserve its dramas for race day, which is about the only thing to cheer the opposition. Qualifying was pretty routine stuff for the Kidlington crew as the three drivers traded tenths, and halfway through the Saturday session Warwick and Fabi were tied on 1m 28.059s, so it seemed appropriate to suggest a tie-breaking motto such as “why I want to win at Silverstone tomorrow. …”

Warwick then improved to 1m 27.516s on Goodyear’s 160 compound soft race tyres and it might have been better if the team had settled for having their number one driver on pole position, since the opposition was still way over the horizon. Competitors being what they are, though, Brundle had to have one more try and he grabbed pole at the last moment with a highly aggressive 1m 27.478s.

The average speed for that lap was 133.63 mph, and for comparison Schlesser’s pole position last year in the Mercedes C11 turbo, rated conservatively at 850 bhp, worked out at 148.35 mph, and his Group C record at 139.50 mph.

Never let it be said that the new Silverstone has been emasculated, because it hasn’t, and for comparison Gerhard Berger tested his McLaren-Honda in the 1-27 bracket earlier in the month. Nigel Mansell, though, was spectacular in the low 24s, and the 140 mph barrier is likely to be broken during qualifying for the British Grand Prix.

It’s fair to say that Warwick wasn’t overly impressed with his part-time team-mate’s claim to pole, particularly since the two Peugeots and the Mercedes C291 were next quickest in the 1m 31s bracket.

As usual the Peugeot drivers were working terribly hard with cars that lacked downforce and grip, “but we do have good balance,” said Mauro Baldi optimistically, clutching at straws. They can hardly wait for the Nürburg race in August, when the “Evo 2” version of the V10-engined 905 will appear. The Peugeots are particularly stiffly sprung and the cars appear to bounce like corks on the ocean.

The C291 had made a little progress which counted for a lot. The starter ring was made of different materials, a little heavier but stronger, and in compensation 5 kg has been taken from the weight of the gearbox. The baby Arrow now has an acrylic screen, saving another 5 kg high-up, and the car was weighed at 775 kg.

Again the handling was very impressive indeed, and but for 50 horsepower and 25 kg the C291 could be a very serious contender. But not this year, German personnel admit.

Schlesser was the quickest of the turbo-assisted drivers at 1m 32.117s in the Mercedes C11, 4.3 seconds quicker than Manuel Reuter in the Kremer Porsche 962C. In the two previous races the Kremer and Brun Porsches, weighing 950 kg at scrutineering, have been quite competitive with the 1000 kg Mercedes, but Silverstone seemed to suit the grosse Arrow very well.

Protestations from Schlesser and Mass that their car, too, should weigh 950 kg have fallen on deaf ears, to the relief of Jean Todt. Mercedes reckon that each 50 kg is worth a second per average lap, so at last year’s weight of 900 kg the C11 would have qualified at 1m 30s and might have led the Peugeots in the race. And that, of course, would never do in the first year of the new formula.

Jaguar’s turkey shoot

The Americans have a nice phrase for Jaguar’s situation, a “turkey shoot”. Teo Fabi simply drove away from the entire field and waved each time he lapped his rivals, although by the tenth time around he’d already begun to ease off to save the car.

Brundle didn’t have such a happy time, missing third gear on the run to Copse and dropping into the pack. Philippe Alliot had to take avoiding action and was hit a glancing blow by Wendlinger’s Mercedes, losing a wheel spat, so for a while it was Keke Rosberg leading the pursuers with Wendlinger in hot pursuit.

Spectators in the grandstands were glad if they had ear plugs, for the blend of German flat-12 and French V10 has a piercing quality. Alliot was soon in with a deflating tyre, perhaps caused by the start incident, and to the amazement of the more seasoned teams the crew failed to put fuel into the Peugeot, so it had to stop again seven laps later by which time the power steering system had failed.

As Allot soon realised, when this happens the system doesn’t merely stop assisting, but it works against the driver, so he and Baldi had a very torrid afternoon heading for sixth place.

Mercedes’ engineers uncrossed their fingers and breathed out when Wendlinger passed Rosberg, whose Peugeot was misfiring badly. One of the Mercedes’ 24 plugs had broken in the morning warm-up and the electrode was never found, but since it takes six hours to change the flat-12 there was no choice but to carry on with a prayer.

Rosberg fell away quickly, was lapped the 20th time around, and then even the C291 was put into the cruise mode for a finish. Rosberg’s points score remained stubbornly on zero as the V10 engine blew up just after half distance, as it had at Monza.

Brundle’s progress from the back of the field was meteoric in the full sense of the word, because when they’d been refuelled both Jaguars were leaving a trail of sparks from the skids, suggesting that the front torsion bar suspension was sagging under the strain. With Fabi and the Mercedes drivers on economy Brundle was able to pull back two of his lost laps, and many people in the crowd remembered their schoolday mathematics to work out where he might finish.

An active racing driver like Warwick doesn’t take kindly to hanging around in the pits, and playing for points isn’t his idea of a nice Sunday pastime. Walkinshaw kept him out of the cars until the last possible moment, then put him into Fabi’s on lap 58, leaving him precisely 30% of the remaining distance to earn his points.

But what points? Brundle didn’t get any at Monza because he drove two cars, but he was nominated for both of them. Clearly Warwick had been nominated only for one, number 3 which was driven throughout by Brundle, but Walkinshaw would argue forcefully that the rules allowed for this situation.

After the race a set of results was issued showing Fabi and Warwick as the winners. A few minutes later a second set was issued showing Fabi alone as the winner, seemingly without a co-driver. Thirty-one minutes later a third set of results again showed Warwick as a winner, but deprived of points. Now, fast forward to Monday afternoon, 24 hours after the race, when TWR were pleased to announce that they had been allowed leave to appeal against the decision of the stewards, through the ASN (the Royal Automobile Club). “Good old Tom” we all thought. . . . but on Tuesday afternoon, 48 hours after the event, FISA issued a bulletin signed by Yvon Leon denying that TWR had been given leave to appeal!

The trouble is that World Championship motor racing is now so rule-bound that teams might find clauses preventing them from doing anything at all. Never mind the competition, the stewards seem to be the people that drivers and managers most fear!

It must be worth noting that Max Welti, the extrovert former team manager of Sauber Mercedes, has been replaced this year by a mild and modest grey-suit who keeps in the background. He is Doctor Urs Scherrer, a lawyer and international juror, who is strictly the Sauber team’s administrator in the fullest sense of the word. One day, as others have predicted, your lawyer is going to be the most important member of your racing team. — MLC


Results (top five): Silverstone 430 kms, May 9

1. Fabi/Warwick* (Jaguar XJR-14) 2h 12m 30.045s

2. Schumacher/Wendlinger (Mercedes C291) 82 laps

3. Brundle (Jaguar XJR-14) 79 laps

4. Schlesser/Mass (Mercedes C11) 79 laps

5. Piper/Euser (Spice SE90C) 78 laps.

* Warwick does not score championship points

Drivers’ World Championship points:

1. Mass, Schlesser, 37; 3. Fabi, 35; 4. Alliot, Baldi, 29; 6, Euser, 28.

Teams’ World Championship points:

1. Sauber Mercedes, 82; 2. Silk Cut Jaguar, 40; 3. Peugeot Talbot, 29; 4. Euro racing, 28; 5. Porsche Kremer, 23.