At last it is happening. Nearly a whole, frustrating decade after the CSI’s meddlings sounded a virtual death-knell on international sports-car racing, this branch of our sport is beginning to make a recovery. This season is the interirn period between phasing out of the familiar Group Six definitions and introducing the new era of Group C. That means a new emphasis on fuel-thriftiness and production based machine, is about to dawn — and to the affluent and serious manufacturers the sport so badly needs, that is a dawn full of promise.
Already, there are confident murmurs amongst Those Who Should Know that a return of factory involvement in sports cars is just around the corner. BMW, Porsche, and even Ferrari and Ford could be fighting over the Endurance laurels by 1983, and they are likely to do so with top-flight Grand Prix drivers in their cars. Quite plainly, long-distance racing is ambling encouragingly in the right direction.
Encouragingly enough, in fact, to make 1981 itself the best season for several years. The entry for this month’s classic Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans is exceptionally good (highlighted by no less than five works cars from Porsche, including a couple of the fabulous 936s, as well as the endurance return of Ford), and at Silverstone last month the Six Hours featured a goodly assortment of both cars and drivers.
For the moment, however, overt factory support remains limited to Lancia. The latin team etched an utterly convincing superiority on the face of long-distance racing last season, and now they intend to do it again. This time, maybe success won’t be so hollow. Neither, it seems, will it be so easy: at both of the Championship for Makes rounds so far, team manager Cesare Fiorio had reluctantly to unplug his video race computer before the chequered flag had fallen. At the Monza 1,000 Kilometres on April 26th, and then the Silverstone Six Hours on May 10th, both Martini Racing cars failed to make it to the finish, obscured by lesser equipped teams with less able drivers. As Robert Lloyd wrote over 200 years ago, “Slow and steady wins the race.” Still.
Slow and steady, however, the Lancias were most certainly not. Whether in their familiar 1.4-litre turbocharged guise, or in the new 1,800 c.c. turbocharged trim, the Lancia Beta Montecarlos have shown an outright speed that is more than ample for victory. At Monza, Tyrrell Grand Prix driver Eddie Cheever was the quickest of the pack by a country mile during the opening hours of practice, winding the fleet little car up to a brave 285 k.p.h. on the approach to the Curve Grande — in the pouring rain! In the same car, Arrows GP man Riccardo Patrese was not much slower.
So much for the speed. The reliability, however, was different. Perhaps significantly. Patrese blew the 1.8 long before official qualifying was over, and in the race itself he did likewise. Thanks to only practising on a damp track which later dried, the 1.8 started its race from the fifth row. ln just a few laps, it was up to a comfortable third — and in just another handful of tours,another engine had blown and it was out. At SiIverstone, matters improved for the 1.8, but still they were far from perfect. Patrese circulated well to plant the car on the second row, and, once the glory of the underdogs had faded away along with the dark clouds and puddles, he and Cheever had the car poised top for a respectable finish amongst the top five. With only one hour remaining, however, it all turned sour. Patrese made a pit stop so unexpectedly that his partner didn’t even have his helmet on. Amidst a confusion of latin temperament, wheels were changed, fuel poured in, and Cheever hurriedly donned his helmet. Surprisingly, the car was back into the fray in under a minute. Even more surprisingly, it didn’t stay there for much longer. On the plunge down to Stowe, the car unforgivably shed a rear wheel. Cesare Fiorio once again frowned unhappily at the redundant race computer.
The story of the smaller, 1.4 engined Lancia hasn’t been much happier. The untapped abilities of Piercarlo Ghinzani had the car on the front row at Monza, and with the flair of Andrea de Cesaris as well, the little car led the rain-soaked race for much of the distance — but not for all of it, thanks to another engine failure. At Silverstone, a more competitive entry saw the car elbowed back to the sixth row, but its start position was rather academic anyway: less than five minutes into the race, de Cesaris collided heavily with an errant backmarker. Their season can only get better.
So who has been lasting the distances to feature in the results? A look at the opening chapters of the 1981 record book tells of that old, old “the tortoise and the hare” moral. Whereas the WEC for Drivers has seen the quicker runners survive to visit the winners’ podium (Hurley Haywood and Al Holbert took the Sebring 12 Hours in a Porsche 935, and John Fitzpatrick and Jim Bushy used a similar weapon to rule the Riverside Six Hours), stamina has paid its dividends in the Makes series. Lella Lombardi and Giorgio Francia defeated a host of more powerful runners to triumph at round one, at Mugello, in their factory supported, 2-litre BMW motivated Osella PA9. Second in that race were Britons John Cooper and Dudley Wood in their Charles Ivey Porsche 935, despite the “big boost, big heart” efforts of the Michele Alboreto/Ghinzani 1.4 Lancia to catch them.
Then, at Monza, the factory Osella very nearly did it again. Once the favoured Lancias, new Lola T600, and Harald Grohs/Dieter Schornstein Porsche 935 had all fallen by the wayside, Lella managed to make a brief challenge for the lead. A flat battery put paid to her victory bids, but nonetheless the car eventually finished second. The winners? Surprising everyone including themselves, the plod-on German pair of Edgar Doren and Jurgen Laessig were rewarded for a fault-free run in their Wera Porsche 935 Turbo. Another Osella, that of local hero “Gimax” and the obscure Luigi Moreschi, came home third, ahead of a heroically piloted Gp5 BMW M1 in the hands of former works March F2 star Teo Fabi and Dieter Quester. Irishman Eddie Jordan smoothed over some less than ecstatic inter-team relations by driving well in Siegfried Brunn’s twin-turbo Porsche 908/80 to take fifth.
One outstanding memory of the Monza weekend, brightening the persisient gloom a little, was the brutal speed of Carlo Facetti/Martino Finotto’s fabulous Ferrari 308 GTB. The red monster runs with a 4-litre, twin-turbocharged unit that kicks out 750 b.h.p. but this, the Italian drivers feel, is not enough: for qualifying a “better” 840 b.h.p. engine is used. Despite limited driver ability and even less in the way of brakes, the Ferrari took pole position by nearly two full seconds — and then retired with distributor problems on the pre-race warm up lap. Honestly.
Equally impressive, but illustrating substantially more stamina and infinitely more team professionalism, is the exciting new Lola T600. The Eric Broadley penned machine is running to GT Prototype specffication, and utilised a torquey 3.3-litre Cosworth DFL at Monza, which both Guy Edwards and Emilio de Villota put to good effect. The former Aurora British Formula One stars settled the car on the third row, which was impressive considering that much time was lost with a holed fuel tank and, worse still, inappropriate Dunlop tyres that were reluctant to warm to the task demanded of them. In the race, the Lola held a cornfortable fourth before a disappointing driveshaft failure, but “we’re confident that it will be a lot better by Silverstone” promised Ian Dawson, the manager of GRID Racing team that run the factory assisted car.
And he was right. Now on softer, IMSA type rubber, the Lola was beaten only by Jochen Mass in the Reinhold Joest Porsche 908/80 during qualifying, and that had been half-expected anyway. Mass and Joest would win, the pundits predicted, but the Lola should come a good second. Team manager Dawson, trying manfully to be realistic rather than optimistic, agreed with the forecasts — even he could not have dreamt that Mass would crash out of the race on the very first lap.
Yet that is just what an acutely embarrassed Jochen did. Consequently, the Lola found itself with a clear road on the wet track, and Edwards led easily for three hours, before sadly succumbing to fuel starvation. The Lola’s point, however, had been proven.
In treacherously slippery conditions, Hans Stuck was the real hero at Silverstone, and stormed up the order to actually lead the race at one point in his GS Tuning, Group 4 BMW M1 but when gearbox troubles forced his retirement, victory was left to — what else? — a Porsche 935.
Harald Grohs’ brave efforts were a sight to be savoured, squirting out of the Woodcote chicane with 600 b.h.p knocking the car sideways, and this allied to the cool efficiency of World Rally Champion Walter Rohrl and financial backing of the third driver, Dieter Schornstein, netted a deserving win. Even more deserving, some “underdog” heroics by Derek Bell/David Hibbs/Steve O’Rourke brought the Michael Cane Racing BMW M1 home a fabulous second, with Eddie Jordan chasing hard in Siggi Brunn’s Porsche 908 in the closing stages. The omni-present Lombardi/Francia Osella took fourth, from the 935 of Monza victors Doren/Laessig, and the splendid IMSA-regular 935 of Bobby Rahal, Briton Pete Lovett, and team boss Bob Akin, who would have done better if the friendly money-man hadn’t forgotten to turn right at the end of the straight on one occasion!
By the time you read this, Jacky Ickx will be preparing himself for an attempt at a record-breaking fifth win at Le Mans, where Porsche’s works 936s will face a host of privateer 935s, a couple of 908s (probably including one for film star Paul Newman), Ford’s new C100 GTP car, and the indisputably quick Lola T600. Now that will be a story worth tellnng. . . — P.R.B.