Armed Combat

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Mike Cotton

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World Sportscar Championship
Silverstone 1000km

The Mercedes-powered Sauber team again proved fast and extremely reliable at Silverstone, in the 1000km race, but again the Silk Cut Jaguar team was marginally superior – quantified as a 35.6-second advantage after nearly five hours of racing. The annual event was exciting in the first hour, absorbing for the remainder, and made an excellent advertisement for the Group C World Sports-Prototype Championship racing, a category which FISA seeks to tear apart.

Jaguar’s victory, achieved by Martin Brundle and Eddie Cheever, was satisfying in every way. It was the third consecutive success in the 1988 series, blotting out the defeat at Jerez in March: it was also Jaguar’s third successive victory at Silverstone, home ground for the Coventry marque, and a personal hat-trick for Eddie Cheever. More than that, it gave the Tom Walkinshaw-directed team a moral superiority in the run-up to Le Mans, the most crucial race in Jaguar’s current programme.

Back in February, Jaguar could have had no idea that Peter Sauber’s team from Hinwil, near Zurich, would offer such a resolute challenge. Its backing from Daimler-Benz had been confirmed at the turn of the year, but the TWR team is at least a year ahead in terms of experience, testing and race mileage, and has been through all the heartbreaks that go with forging a winning combination.

The Saubers had looked very promising last yar, but were the gremlins waiting to strike? Apparently, not. Jean-Louis Schlesser’s car has now run the full distance at Jerez (first), Jarama (second), Monza (second) and Silverstone (second again) without missing a beat, and to back up this record the second car driven at Silverstone by Maruo Baldi and James Weaver proved equally reliable in securing third place.

A combination of factors has decided each result. In Spain the Sauber C9/88 was less than perfect in handling through the slow corners, and overheated its rear tyres. The British team handed the Swiss victory on a plate when two XJR-9s developed gearbox faults, and the third was delayed by a spin. The result was reversed a week later at Jarama, where Brundle and Cheever enjoyed a perfect run, and the Jaguar was ahead again at Monza where Schlesser’s car was marginal on fuel.

Silverstone, though, was another story. Schlesser, Baldi and Cheever had a ferocious scrap in the first hour, banging wheels like Formula Ford drivers, and Baldi was as hard on his team-mate as he was on the Jaguar. “I was just an innocent bystander…but I was egging them on” said Cheever with a wry smile.

The three cars looked magnificent as they drafted round the 140 mph track door-to-door, like NASCAR stockers, and it proved to be one of the most spectacular displays of armed combat in the recent history of endurance racing.

Jan Lammers was left behind in the second Jaguar, ill at ease with a rather spooky feeling in the suspension department and misinformed about consumption by his computer. When the car was refuelled the computer was shown to be over-reading the amount used, and after that Lammers and Johnny Dumfries relied on their own judgement for speed, which turned out unfortunately when they stopped with an empty tank two laps from the flag.

The Saubers were perfect mechanically, their Michelins served them well and they did not have any problems with fuel consumption either. Rather, Peter Sauber’s attack was blunted in the second hour when Jochen Mass was unable to match Brundle’s speed, and James Weaver had to spend an hour learning how to drive the car, through an oily windscreen. Weaver had no more than a few laps in the C9 on Saturday afternoon, was not comfortable in the cockpit, and really had a most daunting task as he took the car from Baldi.

In that second hour Mass dropped an average of a second per lap from Brundle, and Weaver was overwhelmed by Dumfries who joined the party spirit and clashed flanks as he passed Becketts. The Jaguar completed its stint with the left rear body-work flapping, and lost some vital seconds at the next pit-stop.

Schlesser and Baldi were forceful in their second drives, and at half-distance Cheever’s lead over Schlesser was down to 29 seconds: a lap behind, Baldi led Lammers by 10 seconds, and neither team could relax for a moment. Derek Bell and Tiff Needell had established Richard Lloyd’s Porsche as ‘the best of the rest’, running fifth place three laps behind the leaders with Reinhold Joest’s two Porsches in pursuit.

Walter Brun had withdrawn his three entries as a protest against Porsche’s refusal to release the more fuel-efficient Bosch Motronic 1.7 system to customers until after Le Mans, feeling (correctly) that the privateers stood no chance of success. As an entrant he is entitled to his view, but if motor racing was made exclusively of teams that could win on any given day, the grids would indeed be sparse.

Joest’s better Porsche, handled by Bob Wollek, Philippe Streiff and David Hobbs, was particularly heavy on fuel and was slowed progressively after the second hour, while Lloyd’s 962C had a better speed/consumption ratio than the Joest car, but was not running on this year’s race pace.

Such was the pace of the leaders that Brundle and Cheevers lopped 13 minutes (say nine laps) off last year’s race-time, although there were no pace-car interludes during the race. In fact, the pace-cars have not been used at all this year in any of the four rounds, which is in marked contrast to the IMSA series where they are freely used, even after fairly trivial incidents, in order to bunch the field up and produce a grandstand finish.

Richard Lloyd Racing suffered the ignominy of disqualification after Bell and Needell had finished fourth, as scrutineer Mike Garton established that the fuel system could contain 102 litres – the maximum allowed is 100 litres.

Reinhold Joest’s team suffered the same fate after the Norisring Race last year, and in neither case is deliberate cheating alleged. All the Porsches and Jaguars are built to accommodate the IMSA-legal 119 litre fuel-tanks (allowing one litre for the system), for the designers could hardly go to the trouble and expense of producing different chassis for the two series.

The flexible fuel-bags need to fill the space available, so the Group C teams stuff polystyrene balls with a volume of 20 litres into the bags. Unfortunately, under extreme pressure the balls sometimes compress and thus increase the volume available for fuel, but this happens so rarely that an entrant would be stupid to reduce his tankage to, say 97 litres and run at a disadvantage. If only the silver-buttoned-blazer bureaucrats would unbend, the Group C cars should be allowed to run with 120 litres of fuel on board too.

Just for a change, Gordon Spice and Ray Bellm did not win the Group C2 category, the garlands being collected at Silverstone by Thorkild Thyrring and Almo Coppelli in Spice Engineering’s second entry. Spice has now finished second at Silverstone three years in succession, this year’s slip-up being due to a burned-out high tension lead. Having the luck of the devil, Spice’s engine died at Woodcote, so he had enough speed to coast into the pits.

The standard of entries in C2 has risen sharply this year: numbers are up and the speeds are substantially higher. But with the exception of Spice Engineering, which operates on a professional budget, reliability is still not very good, and while there are rivals which will give Spice a good challenge for an hour, none can keep it up for five hours.

Strangely, three of the quickest C2 cars in opposition failed with electrical problems, those of Costas Los (GPM Spice-Cosworth), Will Hoy (Lucky Strike Argo-Cosworth) and Nick Adams (Chamberlain Engineering Spice-Hart), before they reached quarter distance. MLC

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