A Clean Sweep

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Many people had many things to prove at Doington Park’s second round of the European Championship for touring cars. The Eggenberger Fords had dominated at Monza, but there they had been the only team running Cosworths – how would they fare against other Ford runners? The Prodrive team from Banbury was determined to prove its competitiveness to the BMW works-supported Schnitzer and Bigazzi teams, while Nissan was debuting its car, with some top brass from Japan in attendance.

Beginning where they left off at Monza the Ford Texaco Eggenberger Racing Team RS500s occupied the front row of the grid, Klaus Ludwid and Klaus Niedzwiedz qualifying half a second ahead of team-mates Steve Soper and Pierre Dieudonné.

Not having even turned a wheel until three days beforehand, the Nissan GTS-R was making its race debut in the hands of veteran drivers Win Percy and Allan Grice, and was proving a threat to the black and red Fords. At various times throughout practice it was able to head the timesheets, but was always ultimately bumped off by the RS500s and was to start the race from the third row of the grid.

Of the other Class One runners, the only real opposition to the works cars was the RS500 of the Wolf Racing team driven by Armin Hahne and Jeff Allam. In the first practice session it had a troublesome time, but it later got itself sorted out to allow Hahne to qualify just over a half-a-second behind the Soper/Dieudonné car.

The Graham Goode/Mike Newman car, a regular runner in the British Touring Car championship, qualified eighth, and the Cosworth of Karl Oppitzhauser/Moczar eighteenth.

Providing a welcome change from this plethora of Ford runners was Bernard Bühler’s Bemani Toyota Racing team, a Swiss outfit despite the Italian ring to its name (arrived at by using the initials from his own first name and those of his sons, Marcel and Nicolas). With the success of a class-win at the prestigious Spa 24-Hour race last year, the tiny team from Beinwil-am-See turned its attention to developing the 3-litre Supra which had been commissioned by Toyota Switzerland.

Bühler rejected the newly arrived turbocharged version of the engine in favour of the normally-aspirated unit, reasoning that the extra power could not compensate for increased weight, tyre wear and fuel consumption. Being realistic about their chances of outright success against the might of the factory and tuner teams, the object of Swiss drivers Philipp Mueller and Ruedi Schmidlin was to bring the car to the finish and pick up points.

Without the use of qualifying tyres, their best time was over 16 seconds slower than the pole-man which, over the 125 laps of the race, could have seen them lapped 20 times before the chequered flag fell. In the warm up session on race-day, however, they were only five and a half seconds slower.

Gerard Fevrot and Bruno di Gioia brought along their venerable BMW 635CSi. Qualifying slower than all but two of the M3s, the car was withdrawn from the race when its tyre came off and stripped the wheelnut thread on the axle. Unable to make the meeting at all was the Conquista Maserati Biturbo, which had reputedly been unable to extricate itself from British Customs.

Qualifying for Class Two was predictably a scrap between the Schnitzer, Bigazzi, Prodrive and Dutch BMW M3s. The two Schnitzer cars were one behind the other on the grid, car No 56 seven-tenth of a second quicker than No57. The two Bigazzi cars were next, Martin/Laffite seventh and Vogt/Thatcher ninth, followed by the Hoy/Smoth and Deden/Krab M3s.

With the Toyota Supra holding twelfth place, the Prodrive car driven by James Weaver and rank Sytner placed thirteenth after its time in the first practice session had been disallowed following a misinterpretation of the fuel regulations. The four other M3s of Albacete/Pareja, Vanicek/Tomasek, Wollstadt/Hatge and Bychl/Faubel were respectively 14th, 15, 17th and 18th on the grid.

The back three rows were taken up by the Class Three Toyota Corollas, the Charoux/Alber car setting the pace. Jumbo Racing’s Peugeot 205GTi was a non-qualifier.

Two hours before the race, the Bigazzi pit was a scene of frantic activity after an observant marshal discovered a puddle of petrol that had formed under some canisters. The pipe leading from the pit refuelling-tank was weeping around the joint, which neither soap nor epoxy resin rectified. The team had no option but to pump out the 160 litres into cans, and turn the tank onto its side. The following wire brushing and resin this time did the trick.

Despite expectations to the contrary, the field got away from its flying start and through the first corner without any problems. Ludwig took an immediate lead, but Hahne in the Wolf Racing RS500 managed to bump Soper down to third place. This was rectified by the Londoner on the second lap, when he forced his way by at the chicane to make it an Eggenberger 1-2. So by the second lap of a 125 lap race, we already knew the result, or so we thought.

Lap after lap they circulated, sometimes Ludwig ahead, at other times Soper. The only time the lead was lost was when the pace car was called out after fifty minutes and both fords took the opportunity of diving into the pits for attention. Within ten minutes they were back in the lead, Soper ahead of Ludwig, the juggernauts at the head of the field seeming invincible.

Thirty minutes later, however, the first chink in their armour appeared: while Soper was in the pits for a routine stop, car No1 went missing, sidelined with a broken differential.

Steve quickly regained the lead, and looked set to score another victory although the car was suffering from fuel pressure problems. But two hours and ten minutes into the race (two laps before the car was due to come in for fuel and a driver change), he too went missing.

The car ground to a halt on the pit-straight, a rogue computer chip in the engine having relayed false messages about the fuel situation.

The Wolf Racing RS500 was long gone, having retired when the gear-stick broke for the second time. The Newman/Goode car had lasted 47 laps, and the Oppitzhauser car was out after 60; on occasions, therefore, the Nissan found itself leading the race.

Grice first inherited the lead when the two Fords took the opportunity of visiting the pits when the pace car was out. With the demise of Soper, the Nissan, now with Win Percy at the wheel, again took over and extended its advantage to 90 seconds over Ravaglia’s BMW.

The first sign of trouble for the Japanese car came on the 2hr 45min mark, when Percy pitted for a pads change following a couple of spins. That job performed, he was out again for only 15 more minutes before returning for good, with unsolvable brake problems and possibly an engine malfunction.

The Toyota Supra had been circulating at approximately the same pace as the M3s, and as the front-runners retired it gradually moved up the leaderboard to second place at the 100-lap mark. It seemed its policy of just keeping was going was paying off, but it was not to be. With nine laps left to run, it came into the pits smoking badly, and the last Class One runner was out of the race.

Meanwhile the BMWs of Class Two were having a battle all of their own, which developed into a fight for overall honours.

Ellen Lohr in the Schnitzer car had been the race’s first casualty. Having overtaken the Supra at the last hairpin, she was followed by the Toyota all the way down the pit-straight, and at Redgate she was ignominiously pushed to one side and sent spinning into the sand-trap, from which she was unable to extricate herself.

This left the Ravaglia/van de Poele car as the team’s sole representative. In the opening laps it ran sixth overall, and first in class, chased by the two Bigazzi drivers Martin and Vogt, and by Weaver in the Prodrive car. As the first hour wore on, however, van de Poele began to struggle, succumbing first to Weaver, who had worked his way past the Bigazzi cars, and then to Hoy in the other Prodrive car.

Ten minutes after the hour-mark, the Schnitzer car, with Ravaglia at the wheel, was again running at the head of its class, in fourth place overall, on lap behind the leader. Forty five minutes later, following the demise of the Ford and the Nissan’s brake problems, and having overtaken the Toyota, it became overall leader – a position it was to maintain until the end of the race.

The Bigazzi cars had a relatively quiet race. Running in mid-field to begin with, they never really looked to be in any position to pose a threat to either Schnitzer or Prodrive. The only excitement came in the closing stages of the race, when Jacques Laffite put in a storming performance to challenge Sytner for second place. With twenty minutes left to run, however, the gap again increased; the Frenchman pitted and retired after the main fan-belt pulley was found to have sheared. Mark Thatcher continued, to finish fifth in the sister-car.

The stars of the afternoon, however, were Dave Richards’ Prodrive equipe. From the outset this was the team with the most purposeful air about it, looking very professional on its debut in this championship.

Circulating together, Hoy and Weaver were up into fifth and sixth places on the one-hour mark. Half-an-hour later they led for a short time while Soper, Grice and van de Poele pitted.

As the race wore on, and as the leading cars dropped out, Sytner found himself in second position, some 80 seconds behind Ravaglia. Mike Smith’s fourth place in the other Prodrive car soon became third on the retirement of Laffite’s car, and it was in these positions that they finished the race, with a delighted Dave Richards commenting “Not bad eh?” as his cars came over the line separated by under three seconds.

Of the remaining M3s, the Dutch car of Deden/Drab kept its nose clean to come fourth, and the cars of Vanicek/Tomasek, Wollstadt/Hatge and Albacete/Pareja came sixth, seventh and eighth respectively to make it a clean sweep for BMW.

In division three, the Charoux/Alber Corolla ran like a train to take class honours, while the sister car of Van Esch/Van Eekhout followed. The latter had a full-blown drama with ten minutes to go, when its right front wheel fell of as it came round the left-hander onto the pit-straight; luckily the car came to a halt unscathed on the grass on the outside of the bend. As the flag come out, the driver nipped back into his car and limped the 100 yards to the finish line on three wheels to claim a well-deserved second in class!

Although a glance at the BMW-dominated results might make the Donington 500 seem just another one-sided saloon car race, it was full of drama and excitement. With the new Nissan and the Prodrive team scheduled to appear again at Dion, Nürburgring, the 24-Hour race at Spa and the Tourist Trophy at Silverstone, the European Championship looks to be coming alive again at last. WK

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