Endurance Racing Survey

Dijon and Silverstone

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the World Championship for Makes these days is the tremendous contrast that can emerge between one round and another. The third round of the championship, at Dijon in Eastern France on April 22nd, was one of the dullest long-distance races one could wish to avoid, despite a full grid of varied machinery, and was watched by a suitably small crowd. The fourth round, on the other hand, which took place at Silverstone on May 6th, was full of interest and drew a reasonable audience of 11,000 spectators, despite having a far from full grid and a decidedly patchy line up of the Group 4 and 5 cars that can score points in the championship.

The problem with the French meeting was that it was dominated from beginning to end by one, almost ancient car, with no sign of a challenge from any quarter and very little of great interest further back in the field. That one all-conquering car was a Porsche 908/4 entered by Reihnold Joest's Liqui-Moly team, and driven by Joest himself, Volkert Merl and Mario Ketterer, all of them from Germany. The 908 series dates right back to 1968, a venerable design indeed. The 908/4 cannot claim quite such a long vintage, however, having first appeared in 1975 as a turbocharged and necessarily much modified derivative of the 908/3. Even so, with its 908 based spaceframe chassis, it is hardly a modern competition car yet Joest was comfortably quickest in practice at Dijon, and with his co-drivers led every minute of the race's six hours to win at a canter by four laps.

Second, by a massive fourteen lap margin over the next car home, was the Georg Loos entered Porsche 935 shared by Jacky Ickx, Bob Wollek and Manfred Schurti, who earned Porsche another full score in the World Championship as the best placed Group 5 crew. Third was another 935, driven by Germany's Dieter Schornstein and Edgar Doeren, while fourth was a similar if older car driven by Claude HaIdi and the agonisingly slow Herbert Lowe, both of them Swiss.

One novelty in the Group 5 ranks was a 2-litre Lotus Esprit financed, built and driven by English sports car enthusiasts Richard Jenvey and David Mercer. Alas, the Lotus was not blessed with a happy debut: after only five laps it was suffering low fuel pressure, and after 19 more hesitant laps it dropped out with piston failure.

The interest at Silverstone lay not so much in the racing itself, which was nothing particularly special, but in some of the machinery that came on to the 25 car grid. Thanks to its position in the calendar and the fast, open nature of the circuit, the Silverstone Six Hours benefits from being an ideal "warm up" race for anyone contemplating tackling Le Mans in earnest.

Consequently, the field for this year's Rivet Supply sponsored event not only contained a works Porsche 936 and Alain de Cadenet's latest Le Mans contender; it also saw the worldwide racing debuts of the brand new Japanese Dome Zero RL (another car intended primarily for Le Mans), the works Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbo, and Robin Hamilton's unique twin-turbo Aston Martin V8, very extensively revised from the single-turbo "prototype" first raced two years ago.

The 936 brought by the Porsche works team for Jochen Mass and Brian Redman to drive wasn't just "any" 936 (not that there are more than three) — it was the actual car that won the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1976 and 1977. Now sponsored by Essex Petroleum of Monaco and repainted white, red and blue, the long-tailed car was otherwise unchanged since last year's 24 Hours of Le Mans. Unused since then, it was immediately the quickest car on the track when practice began, and Mass's best time of 1 min. 20.13 sec., set in the first session on the Saturday morning, was easily the fastest sports car time ever seen at Silverstone. Indeed, it was good enough to capture pole position by a full 5.5 sec., an overwhelming margin of superiority.

Second quickest was the better of the two Gelo Porsche 935s in the race, John Fitzpatrick putting the car he was to share at the start with Hans Heyer onto the outside of the front row before its engine went lame. Behind the 580 b.h.p. Group 6 factory Porsche and the 700 b.h.p. Group 5 Gelo Porsche came the two 3-litre Cosworth DFV propelled Group 6 sports-racers, the de Cadenet and the Dome. A very new car indeed with only a few testing miles to its credit in its native Japan, the Roland sponsored Dome Zero RL looked very striking with a narrow track, a low canopy top to the cockpit, and enormously extended tail fins. Driven by Chris Craft and Gordon Spice, the car was initially troubled in practice by excessive understeer, spongy brakes and top-end misfire, cured by a complete change of ignition system before the race. It gradually improved, however, and by the end of practice was third quickest, albeit 7.6 sec. slower than the works Porsche.

The best part of a second slower was Alain de Cadenet's 1979 Le Mans car, basically similar to his 1978 steed but improved in several detail respects. With Frenchman Francois Migault as his co-driver, Alain started the race from the outside of the second row, despite a whole succession of problems throughout practice, including a fire, broken throttle linkage and dreadful handling.

Fifth fastest was the second Gelo Porsche, down to be driven in the opening stages of the race at least by Bob Wollek and Manfred Schurti, but handicapped by somewhat erratic handling. Beside it on the grid was the Doeren/Schornstein 935, and then one came to the little Lancia, looking quite startling in its matt black and white paintwork and the smallest engined car in the field with its turbocharged, 370 b.h.p. 1,425 c.c. four-cylinder power unit. Despite missing a lot of practice because of a broken throttle linkage and later a fuel injection problem, the Montecarlo circulated in a fine 1 mm. 30.28 sec. Naturally, Riccardo Patrese was the man who set the Montecarlo's time, his co-driver Walter Rohrl taking time to acclimatise from rallying to racing.

Further back on the grid, the heavy (27 cwt.) twin-turbo Aston Martin occupied eleventh place, thanks to the efforts of Derek Bell, and the Jenvey/Mercer 2-litre Lotus Esprit was alongside in twelfth place.

When the cars broke away from a rolling start, Fitzpatrick's scarlet 935 won the sprint up to Copse Corner, the Porsche team having put Redman rather than Mass in their car for the opening stint. Even so, Redman's 936 whistled past the 935 as soon as they reached Hangar Straight, taking a lead he and Mass would hold unbroken for the next five hours. Gradually Redman got into his stride, although the race was 27 laps old before he lapped de Cadenet, whose car, resplendent in traditional British Racing Green, had relieved Fitzpatrick of second place as early as the eighth lap.

Nothing, it seemed, was going to touch the leading Porsche, and its lead stretched ever longer the older grew the race. Then three and three-quarter hours after the start, Redman screamed down to Stowe at around 180 in to find his brakes had failed. Partly due to a brake imbalance problem undetected in practice, the factory Porsche had worn its rear pads down to nothing; the fluid had escaped and momentarily caught fire. With masterly reactions, Redman half spun his wayward steed to a halt, barely clipping the catch fencing but ripping the 936's rear bodywork. Immediately he set off for the pits again, where fourteen minutes were to pass before Mass could take the car back into the race. Before the incident, he and Mass had enjoyed a 12 lap advantage over their closest rivals, but after the delay that margin was down to two laps, and with another quick stop for a cautionary check that lead became a scant one lap.

Then, however, Mass began to stride away from the Gelo Porsche and the de Cadenet in second and third places, and it scented the result was beyond question. But with exactly an hour to go, the front wheels of the leading 936 suddenly. and for no obvious reason, began to lift off the road as Mass accelerated up from Abbey toward the bridge before Woodcote at over 170 m.p.h. As his car swung broadside under the bridge at fearsome speed, Mass spun it deliberately into the barriers, sliding the car into the sleeper fence to lose momentum before coming to rest at the very entrance to the Woodcote chicane, where he leapt out from the crumpled wreck unharmed.

With the 936 out of the race, the Gelo team's 935 shared by Fitzpatrick, Heyer and Wollek was handed victory on the proverbial plate. In the first hour it had been delayed first by having to refuel after only 45 minutes, ten minutes earlier than should have been neeessary, and secondly when its engine cut out at Becket's. After a few moment's investigation, Fitzpatrick saw that the external master switch had been knocked off, and with a flick of the finger he was back in the race. Apart from puffing smoke from its exhausts on gearchanges and a suspicion of a small oil leak, the car then ran faultlessly to the finish. The second Georg Loos entered Porsche fell completely out of contention when a turbocharger failed, costing it over 40 minutes in the pits; its recovery to an eventual fifth place in the hands of Fitzpatrick and Schurti was the most exciting sight of the final two hours.

The de Cadenet, having run second to the works Porsche for much of the first three hours, lost touch with the leading Gelo shortly after half-distance when a routine change of brake pads took more than ten minutes. In the final hour it lost more ground with electrical problems that flattened two batteries and gave it a misfire, but de Cadenet and Migault struggled in second nevertheless, seven laps behind the winners at the flag. Still more distant third and fourth places after unspectacular runs went to the 935 of Doeren and Schornstein (delayed by a broken fan-belt) and the first Group 4 car home, the French Porsche Carrera of Jean-Pierre Delaunay and Cyril Grandet.

Delayed during the first hour by almost unmanageable understeer and a couple of tyre changes intended to overcome it, the Dome recovered to fifth place by the two-hour mark in spite of badly fading brakes, Craft and Spice pumping the centre pedal between corners. Then they began to lose gears as well, so soon after mid-distance the Japanese car came in for an hour-long stop while its gearbox was rebuilt. After that, the car ran quite well, despite an intermittent misfire, so Craft and Spice plugged on gamely to the end to finish twelfth, one place better than the Aston Martin. Driven entirely by Derek Bell and Dave Preece in the race, the big thirsty V8 was in the pits every half hour for its tanks to be replenished and its oil breather catch tank to be emptied, and a rapid lap or two would leave it devoid of braking effect for several minutes. Yet at least Robin Hamilton's smoky, thundering monster made it to the finish, albeit last.

That, at least, was better than the efforts of either the eye-catching Lancia or the exceptionally pretty Esprit. The Montecarlo's racing debut lasted a mere four laps before it retired with a blown head gasket, itself the legacy of very poor pre-race preparation. Either someone failed to secure the water radiator cap properly, allowing it to blow off during the opening lap, or a mechanic forgot to fit it altogether. Either way, it was not a very glorious return to international racing for a company with its roots steeped in the traditions of competition. The Lotus went lame even earlier in the race, crawling into the pit road after only two laps with a serious distributor fault. It restarted, but broke down again out on the circuit, and after completing a handful more laps one at a time it was disqualified for receiving outside assistance away from the pits. — J.C.T.