FOLLOWING the postponement of the races at Brands Hatch and Mugello, the World Endurance Championship finally took off at Monza on April 18th. Those early events were doomed from the very beginning for they did not form qualifying rounds of the Manufacturers’ Championship and did not attract the interest of the major teams like Porsche or Ford. That, combined with their positions on the international calendar, ensured that any entries received were either of poor quality or withdrawn because cars were not ready. The only manufacturer team that wanted to race at Brands was Lancia; as its car conforms to Group 6 rules and is therefore ineligible for Manufacturers’ points, there was no reason to wait for the opening Manufacturers’ round at Monza. Lancia had a car and it needed to race so that it could grab the glory of winning the first contest in the new World Championship.
But why build an obsolete car? Lancia had to defend its hard-won endurance reputation with something, but it was obvious it could not construct a competitive Group C machine. The WEC Gp.C regulations, outlined in last month’s Matters of Moment, saw to that. Without an engine of at least 3.0-litres capacity, a 2.0-litre turbocharged car weighing 800 kg. could not hope to be competitive and conform to the restrictions placed on fuel consumption. So Lancia plumped for Gp.6, where the minimum weight limit is lower and its 450 plus b.h.p. engine would be powerful enough to make the car competitive. Lancia retained its 1981 sponsors Martini, and assembled an impressive line up of drivers for the two cars. Grand Prix drivers Riccardo Patrese and Michele Alboreto (members of the Brabham and Tyrrell Formula One teams respectively) were to crew the lead car, with Piercarlo Ghinzani (former European F3 Champion) and Toleman F1 driver Fabi in the second. As before, the Martini Lancia team would be managed by Cesare Fiorio and operate from Turin.
The pressure was on Lancia right from the start with the first race taking place on Italian soil, but after practice, choosing the winner looked to be a mere formality with both cars on the front row of the grid. However, where Italians are concerned nothing should be taken for granted, and there were furrowed brows in the Lancia pit on the Morning of race day, when the Ghinzani / Fabi car needed repairs to a collapsing nose cone. When the 1,000 km. race started both Lancias assumed team formation comfortably clear of the rest of the 29 car field, but the problem with that nose was an accurate pointer to their subsequent fortunes. First Ghinzani stopped with a puncture and then a typically shambolic Lancia pit stop dropped Patrese from the lead. But worse was to come, and having staggered back to the pits after an electrical failure, Patrese then handed over to Alboreto who finally stopped altogether with a broken distributor. They were joined minutes later by the sister car, whose nose cone troubles had spread to the radiator, but which also ground to a halt with the same distributor fault.
Fiorio was mystified. The same Magnetti Marelli parts had been used throughout the car’s development and had not failed once. The embarrassed Italian could only assume the distributors were from a bad batch. . .
Lancia had rather better luck at Silverstone on May 16th, for although they were out-qualified by the debut-making Porsche 956, the cars were able to dictate the pace of the race thanks to the tight restraints on fuel consumption. Being a six-hour race, the Pace-sponsored Silverstone event was around 1,150 km. in length, and with the number of stops for petrol restricted to five, the potentially faster Porsche risked running out of fuel by running with the more economical Lancias. However, Fiorio was rather lucky to come away from Silverstone with a win, for the victorious Patrese / Alboreto car collided with a backmarker in the chicane, then punctured a rear tyre and also suffered a flat battery. Ghinzani and Fabi, running in a reliable second place, inherited the lead only to retire with engine failure.
To the uninformed spectator, the performance of the new Gp.C Porsche 956 must have been very puzzling indeed — on pole-position by 1.7 seconds, but trundling round in the race nearly 10 seconds slower! The drivers, five-times Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx and Briton Derek Bell, hardly shared their bewilderment but were just as bored. The car had only to come to Silverstone, round two of the Manufacturers’ Championship, to prepare for the Le Mans 24 Hour endurance classic in June, but they cannot have learned much about its behaviour being forced to cruise round in fifth gear! In the first hour of the race, Ickx gradually speeded up until he was lapping around the 1 min. 23 sec. mark, moving up from seventh to fourth and closing on the Ford C100 of Manfred Winkelhock. But when the car stopped to refuel after just 50 minutes, the German team made sure that its drivers didn’t break into a fast canter again! Driving the car so far below its potential made it difficult to handle, according to Bell, as the drivers could use none of its 620 b.h.p. to assist their efforts behind the wheel. Even so, the Rothmans-liveried 956 cruised into a ridiculous second place and maximum Gp.C points, while the Lancia team got away with punctures, accidents and various other dramas yet still claimed a resounding win!
When the Lancias faltered at Monza, the French Rondeau team stepped into the breach with one of its 382 designs, powered by a 3.9-litre Cosworth DFL engine. This Gp.C update of the car which won Le Mans in 1980, was driven in Italy by thrice Le Mans-winning Henri Pescarolo and the Alfa Romeo Formula One ream test driver, Giorgio Francia. The team is managed by Briton Keith Greene, who has supervised Rondeau’s Le Mans sorties, and before that Alain de Cadences, for several years now. Never renowned for its outright speed, the Rondeau is better respected for its reliability, but it led the chase of the Lancias at Monza and was perfectly placed to pick up the pieces when the Italian cars broke down. Pescarolo also drove the same car at Silverstone, but this time was joined in the cockpit by English Gp1 racer Gordon Spice. At Monza, there were a few tense moments just miles from the chequered flag when the car refused to restart after a last minute top-up with fuel. At Silverstone, French hearts missed another few beats within sight of the finish, but this time it was more serious and the repairs to a broken suspension component cost the Rondeau third place. The 382 shares its rare suspension with the new ground-effect 482, which made its debut at Silverstone, and with the forces generated by the latter expected to be far higher than those of the old car, the Rondeau team was distinctly perplexed. What made matters worse was the fact the same right rear rocker arm had failed earlier in the race, but at that time the breakage was put down to simple fatigue. Drivers of the new car were team patron and founder Jean Rondeau and former BRM Grand Prix driver Francois Migault. Looking rather like Bruce Wayne’s Batmobile, the 482 suffered all the usual new car problems and finally retired with an overheating engine.
Perhaps the most disastrous Gp.C project is the one embarked on by Ford with their Len Bailey-designed C100. Promising in Gp.6 guise, the Gp.C version made a shameful debut at Monza and retired very early on with an engine on the point of seizing. An aluminium water pipe had fractured, and the consequent loss of coolant led to disaster. But even before that, photographs in continental magazines showed just what an awful device the C100 was, as the car was depicted lurching through bends at Paul Ricard lifting inside wheels. One of the team drivers, Klaus Ludwig, was also given the dubious honour of racing a C100 in the German Sports Car Championship, but its dreadful performances led to a none too premature withdrawal, before the whole project was entrusted to Erich Zakowski’s Zakspeed concern. When the car arrived at Silverstone, the only parts remaining from the original creation were the uprights, and straight away its fortunes took an upward swing. Fourth fastest after practice. Ludwig and Manfred Winkelhock held down a threatening third place in the race, one lap behind the Lancias. Unfortunately, a stone holed the radiator, which dropped it down the leader board and then a fuel pump broke which starved it of the last 20 litres of fuel. Finally, the C100 lost its clutch, and running dangerously low on petrol, crawled across the finish line a sickly eighth. However, the Ford team can now see the light at the end of the tunnel and look forward to the third round of the Manufacturers’ series at the Nürburgring.
Two of the most colourful entries in the WEC, come from the German Sauber and Reinhold Joest teams. The Sauber SHS C6 is sponsored by BASF Cassettes and is driven by Hans-Joachim Stuck and Hans Heyer. At Monza, it was the fastest Gp.C car in practice but being brand new, it was not surprising when it retired from the race with a broken fuel pump. The Sauber’s demise handed fourth place to the Joest Porsche 936C of Bob Wollek and the Belgian Martin brothers. More reliable, it finished seventh at Monza and third at Silverstone, on its last reserves of fuel. The Sauber unfortunately was left on the grid at Silverstone when the starter motor jammed and it eventually retired with the same problem having first climbed from last to sixth place . . .
The Nimrod Aston Martin made its debut at Silverstone, driven by Bob Evans and Geoff Lees, with support from the private entry of Ray Mallock and Mike Salmon. The works car, with its fuel injected engine, gave trouble in practice, blowing a head gasket, while the private car sat ahead of it on the grid. In the race Evans retired with distributor failure while Mallock and Salmon soldiered on to an eventual sixth place. Encouraged, Nimrod founder Robin Hamilton hoped further development would pare off some weight and make the cars more competitive.
The first two rounds of the WEC have given much food for thought. The minimum weight limit for Gp.C cars makes them uncompetitive with the lighter Lancias, which can run faster, longer. The idea of restricting fuel capacity is an interesting concept, but it seems wrong to tie all the cars down to the same number of fuel stops. This has deprived sports car spectators of the exciting refuelling scenes of former years, and makes the speed and skill of the mechanics virtually meaningless. Simply limiting the capacity of the fuel tanks on all cars would still force more powerful machine, to find ways of competing with smaller, less thirsty cars. As the regulations stand now, the WEC can hardly be described as racing; an economy run would be more appropriate. — A.C.M.