Like Clockwork

Michael Cotton was at Le Mans to see Porsche's new, no-compromise GT racer edged out by a car which the Stuttgart manufacturer had commissioned two years earlier, but then chose not to race...

The most open race for many years," said all the pundits prior to the Le Mans 24 Hours. Even after qualifying, when the name of Porsche was written indelibly on the wall, we believed that McLaren, Ferrari and Oldsmobile had a sporting chance.

All these illusions were quickly dashed as the two mid-engined works Porsche 911 GT1s and the two Joest Racing TWR-Porsches set a pace that no rivals could possibly match, and backed it with an astonishing level of reliability.

Manuel Reuter, Davy Jones and 22-year-old Alexander Wurz led the event almost from start to finish in their Joest entry, a performance without the slightest delay or blemish.

Second and third were the Porsche factory's GT1 models driven by Hans Stuck, Thierry Boutsen and Bob Wollek, and Yannick Dalmas with Karl Wendlinger and Scott Goodyear.

Only after that did we see six McLarens led by the David Price Racing West GTR of Thomas Bscher, John Nielsen and Peter Kox, interspersed with Henri Pescarolo's Elf Courage Porsche, seventh, and the Team Canaska Chrysler Viper, 10th.

The old masters were, indeed, back at work. Porsche's Norbert Singer had his new GT1s plus, in his old files from 1994, the conversion of the Ross Brawn-designed TWR chassis to accept Porsche's flat-six turbo engine, and Reinhold Joest, the wily entrant who won the Le Mans 24 Hours back in 1984 and 1985.

Neither model had ever raced before although considerable distances of testing had been covered. And even if they were quick enough to occupy the front rows of the grid, who would have predicted that they'd be utterly reliable and that the German teamwork would show not a trace of rust?

Oldsmobile was going for a rare 'Triple Crown', having won at Daytona and Sebring. Ferrari races the 333 SP very strongly in the States and McLaren, of course, dominated last year's event and retains a tight grip on the BPR Global Endurance GT Cup series.

And where were they?

Blown away is the colloquial answer, destined to play a supporting role for as long as their stamina lasted.

A broken transmission stopped Wayne Taylor's Danka Oldsmobile R&S at half distance (it never got higher than sixth); a crash put paid to the Racing for Belgium Ferrari effort; and transmission failures handicapped the more fancied McLarens.

Only the GTC Motorsport Gulf McLaren driven by JJ Lehto, Ray Bellm and James Weaver really carried the fight to Porsche, holding down a consistent third place, a couple of laps down, until the gearbox broke within four hours of the finish.

Quickest by miles on the April qualifying day, quickest again by 2.2 seconds on Wednesday evening, Eric van de Poele could afford to feel pretty confident about starting on the front row of the grid in the Team Scandia/Racing for Belgium Ferrari 333 SP.

"It was a good lap," he agreed after claiming the provisional pole at 3m 46.838s, lucky with breaks In the traffic. The IMSA World Sports Car Ferrari felt good enough to win the race.

None of the rival Le Mans Prototypes or World Sports Cars seemed to have the measure of the Ferrari, but the new Porsche GT1s were laying the markers for the production category, Hans Stuck and Yannick Dalmas both lapping in the low 3m 49s on Michelin race compounds and quicker, even, than Mario Andretti on 3m 49.749s in the Texacobacked Courage C36 Porsche.

JJ Lehto was the only GT driver with a reply, lapping Ray Bellm's Gulf McLaren at 3m 49.951s as the heat of the day ebbed away.

Had the Porsches been sandbagging in April, having picked up nearly two seconds in the meantime? ''No, we made a lot of adjustments after coming here in April," said Singer, making a reasonable proposition.

Karl Wendlinger had one more adjustment to make, applying too much power as he swung round the acute Mulsanne Corner, riding the kerb and slamming forwards into the inside wall where the timing pits once were.

Yannick DaImes, who has an impeccable record of podium finishes at Le Mans (prior to this year, his five starts had yielded three wins and one second place), was grief-stricken as a dozen engineers gathered round to make a vital decision: would the newly-built car live or die?

Thumbs up! Calls were made to Weissach, Porsche's 'plane was readied and a crate was packed with parts, the first of which was a new inner sill, a production based steel part badly crushed in the impact.

Some 20 hours later DaImes drove from the pits and declared himself very happy with the repair. Steve Soper then provisionally captured the GT pole position, and a guaranteed place at the front of the grid, by lapping the new Bigazzi McLaren at 3m 48.53s, and almost had to be restrained from going out for one more try in the final session beginning at 22.00 on Thursday.

Not so long ago the teams made their bids for grid positions on Wednesday evening, fitting race engines and gearboxes for a gentle running-in session on Thursday.

No more! At sunset on Thursday Joest and the factory Porsche team launched a panzer raid that blitzed their rivals. Pier-Luigi Martini turned a sizzling lap at 3m 46.682s in his Joest Porsche WSC, followed closely by Jerome Policand in his Courage Porsche, while DaImes and Stuck caused even more devastation in GT by fitting qualifying tyres for the first time and lapping respectively at 3m 47.132s and 3m 47.139s.

Davy Jones was hard on their heels in the second Joest WSC Porsche, a chassis that he drove as a Jaguar to three victories in the 1992 IMSA GTP championship.

By now it was becoming apparent that the open-top sports cars had a very slender advantage over the Porsche GT1s in terms of lap speeds although, with 20 litres less fuel in each tank, they needed to run three-four seconds per lap quicker just to compensate a greater number of stops.

The likes of Soper, Nelson Piquet, Lehto and Pierre-Henri Raphanel were perfectly happy in their 1996 model McLarens, Ray BeIlm asserting that the Porsches were finding their extra seconds by late-braking and using their ABS systems to the full at the chicanes.

By contrast gloom and despondency hung around the David Price Racing pit where the West/Castrol and Harrods McLarens were proving very hard on their drivers. "My car wanders around so much on the straight that we are a danger to ourselves and everyone else,'' said reigning BPR co-champion Thomas Bscher.

The 1995 cars are not comfortable with McLaren's 1996 update kit and although they have won a couple of BPR races this year they were certainly not going to win at Le Mans. "We're in the shit," said Price succinctly on Friday. "We have a solution, but we've only got the half hour warm-up to find out if it works!"

Derek Bell was resigned to forgetting his hopes of a record-equalling sixth Le Mans victory despite being part of a formidable driver team with Andy Wallace and Olivier Grouillard. In the same garage John Nielsen prepared himself for 14 hours of driving ("Thomas can't see very well in the dark, you known) with the less experienced Peter Kox. These two cars were frontrunners last year before troubles intervened, but now languished exactly half way down the grid behind Laurence Pearce's enthusiastic and optimistic Newcastle United backed Lister Storm team.

Porsche's 1997 poster was in the making at the 15.00 start (moved forward an hour, because of the clashing European Championship soccer matches) on Saturday afternoon. The Automobile Club de l'Ouest had decided to start the open sports cars on the left, GTs on the right, so as to give the two categories equal exposure, but Martini left a convenient gap for Wollek to exploit as they sprinted towards the Tricolour wielded by actor Alain Delon.

Three times winner Yannick DaImes was followed by the ever-hopeful Bob Wollek, seeking the end of the Le Mans rainbow for the 25th time, as the two colourful Porsche GTs went over the crest and down into the Esses, followed by van de Poele and Didier Cottaz (Courage Porsche), the latter sandwiched by the two Joest Porsches.

By the fourth lap Wollek led Dalmas with the two Joest cars in their turbulence, Theys ahead of Davy Jones, setting the pattern of the race as they gently eased away from the shrill, V12 Ferrari.

Then the two GT1s moved aside to ride shotgun in third and fourth positions, and on the seventh lap Jones took a lead that, apart from the two early pit stop shuffles, his car would never relinquish.

Andy Evans drove straight into the gravel at Mulsanne on the second lap, made a long stop to have a beach of stones removed from his Scandia Ferrari, then ran the car out of fuel on the circuit before Yvan Muller and Fermin Velez got their hands to the wheel.

All the American team's hopes thus rested on the Belgians van de Poele, Eric Bachelart and Marc Goossens who were comfortable top six runners through the night, but never tackled the leaders before BacheIan crashed heavily exiting the Dunlop chicane on Sunday morning.

The BPR regular Ferrari F40s never featured at all, and were but memories by midnight. They were down on power with the ACO's mandatory 1.87 bar limit on boost and never ran properly anyway.

Michel Ferte's Pilot Ferrari made the most spectacular retirement when the fuel tank neck developed a split while the car was being refuelled, setting up a brief but fierce blaze.

A momentary lapse, a collision with another competitor, sent Stuck to the pits to have a new nose and undertray fitted to the Porsche GT1 , putting him two laps down at quarter-distance. It was a costly delay as the final result showed, but the works team's second GT1 was more in the wars.

Dalmas ran through a gravel trap on his 'in' lap, a trapped stone forcing a caliper change; Wendlinger spun at the Dunlop chicane and touched the wall, requiring a new nose and underbody, and finally Scott Goodyear completed the triple, claiming the team's last flat floor!

"We don't have any more floors in stock," said competitions director Herbert Ampferer with a ghostly smile on Sunday morning. "Mechanically," he added after the race, "both cars were faultless, and but for the floor on Stuck's car we could have won. The GT1 and Joest's car were neck and neck all the way, which shows that the regulations are perfect."

The second Joest WSC Porsche proved mortal after all when Pier-Luigi Martini dived into gravel at the first chicane 18 hours into the race. Just 20 minutes later it rolled to a temporary stop with a failed ECU unit, and it finally stopped on the circuit 40 minutes from the finish with a broken driveshaft.

Transmissions proved weak on the McLarens, something that designer Gordon Murray will put right in the radically improved 1997 GTR. The Franck Muller entry retired, Steve Soper's Bigazzi McLaren needed a new gearbox and finally Ray Bellm's Gulf car lost a very hard-fought third position when the gearbox failed, dropping it to ninth.

Bscher's McLaren finished fourth after a run spoiled only by a spectacular collision with Raphanel in Lindsay Owen-Jones McLaren under braking for the first Mulsanne chicane, an incident for which the German banker took full blame.

Owen-Jones' fifth place, with Raphanel and David Brabham, was the result of a steady wait and-see run, keeping them ahead of the Wallace! Bell/Grouillard McLaren which "started badly and went downhill from there," according to Wallace.

Typical of the Harrods car's run, it lost masses of power in the night and this remained a mystery until the DPR crew found a driver's rip-off visor jammed down the air intake!

Laurence Pearce's Lister Storm team was satisfied with 19th place after changing a gearbox in the night and dealing with a burst brake master cylinder, but for which Lees, Needell and Reid would have edged into the top 10.

A chapter of incidents marred what should have been a show outing for Mario Andretti, Derek Warwick and Jan Lammers, with Keith Greene hired to run the car at the optimum level. Their race started well enough, Andretti running seventh after two hours, but the first ECU failure stranded Lammers at the beginning of the pit lane in the third hour, losing the team almost 60 minutes.

Later another ECU box failed, at different times two front wheels fell off the car at high speed, the wheel locating pegs fell out of one hub, the car developed a huge appetite for carbon discs and pads, and finally Andretti charged into the gravel at Indianapolis, forcing a lengthy and extensive repair.

The American's long-awaited Le Mans victory seems further away than ever, and a 13th place finish seemed rather appropriate.

Cor Euser's Marcos LM600 was soon gone from GT2 as the engine developed an appetite for oil, signalling an internal fault, leaving the Roock Racing Porsche GT2 to dominate the category in the hands of Ralf Kelleners, Bruno Eichmann and Guy Martinolle.

Bill Farmer's New Hardware/Parr Motorsport team was very competitive throughout, the New Zealander running second in class with Greg Murphy and Robert Nearn delayed only by a puncture early on. Parr's second Porsche driven by Stephane Ortelli, Andy Pilgrim and Andrew Bagnall was fourth in class, behind Kunimitsu Takahashi's Honda NSX, after having a turbocharger changed.

Farmer formed the team to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the great Ford victory by Bruno McLaren and Chris Amon.

He did them justice.