Part Two: On the Circuit

Spectators’ guide

The 1988 World Sports-Prototype Championship reaches its zenith at Le Mans on June 11-12 when, for the first time in twelve months, the Silk Cut Jaguar, AEG Sauber Mercedes and factory Porsche teams meet on level terms.

Jaguar is expected to run no fewer than five cars, and a ‘rugby fifteen’ of drivers, in the most impressive works assault since Renault’s in 1978. Porsche failed narrowly on that occasion, and the German company’s bid this time for a thirteenth victory will be an equally difficult test for the ageing 962C model.

Five TWR Jaguars, three updated works Porsches, two Sauber Mercedes – that’s an impressive start to the entry list. Add two Nismo Nissans, two Tom’s Toyotas and three Mazdaspeed rotary-engined cars (two with quadruple rotors, developing over 600 horsepower), and the 1988 event has the makings of a classic, perhaps the best for 20 years.

At Kidlington, the Tom Walkinshaw-directed Jaguar team is preparing as never before. The XJR-9 chassis necessarily has less ground-effect than the XJR-8, as a result of recent rule changes, but it was proved at Monza that intensive development work has actually made the car faster in terms of lap times.

“The cars will be prepared meticulously,” says team manager Roger Silman. “They are considerably different from the ‘sprint’ cars in detail, and the results of our testing have been very encouraging.”

Victory at Daytona in January gave the Jaguar team a moral advantage (Hans Stuck was so impressed that he phoned Peter Falk in Weissach to insist that Porsche must redouble its efforts), because until then no Jaguar XJR had run for 24 hours without giving trouble, either under the management of Bob Tullius or Tom Walkinshaw. The first success is always the most difficult to achieve, but once the ‘entry ticket’ has been bought the task becomes easier…

Three of the Jaguars will be built to Group C specification and two more (almost identical) will be earmarked for the Castrol IMSA team to operate: Danny Sullivan and Davy Jones will join the team, and probably Kevin Cogan as well. Meanwhile, the Andretti family of Mario, Michael and John share a works Porsche, raising American interest in the event.

It is going to be strange to see the factory Porsches in the red and yellow liveries of Shell and Dunlop after six seasons in Rothmans colours, and the 962s will be subtly different in body form and underneath. The most important mechanical difference will be the use of Bosch 1.7 engine-management, developed for the TAG-Porsche Formula One engine. It should prove superior in fuel economy (and perhaps allow the works team to race at Jaguar’s speed, within the allocation), and will be released to the customers straight after Le Mans.

All eyes, of course, will be upon car No 17, the 962C driven by Derek Bell, Hans Stuck, and Klaus Ludwig. Between them they have a record of ten victories at Le Mans (five for Bell, three for Ludwig and two for Stuck), and must be regarded as the standard-setters for the event.

I would hate to eat my words, unless they be set in marzipan, but I believe the Mercedes-backed Sauber team is at the stage Jaguar reached two years ago, and that this will not be its year.

Peter Sauber’s team has done a marvellous job in the early races, easily outpacing the Jaguars in qualifying and scoring a fine success in Jerez, but full technical and financial support came a little late in the day from Daimler-Benz for the thorough preparation which is needed for the 24 Hours. Team leader Jean-Louis Schlesser has a Le Mans exclusion in his contract, so Mauro Baldi is reluctantly pressed into the team: he, Jochen Mass and James Weaver appear to be the mainstays of the Swiss/German effort.

Neither can the Japanese manufacturers be regarded as potential winners, although March Engineering has new cars for the Le Mans Company, and the Nissan V6 turbo still seems to be superior to the factory’s V8.

In essence, the 1988 race is between Porsche and Jaguar, and I suspect that the odds have tilted marginally towards the British marque. MLC