Lone Survivor

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There may have been the odd sports car race back in 1953 that didn’t have a Porsche in the entry list, but to all intents and purposes the Stuttgart firm has been the backbone of endurance racing for the past 38 years. Without the German cars endurance racing is like an Italian breakfast roll, all crust and nothing inside, as we realised at Monza on April 26.

Let that not detract in any way from Toyota’s maiden victory, achieved in rather lucky circumstances when the leading Peugeot tipped into the sand. No Porsche 962 was going to win that race, but the absence of Porsches slimmed the grid down to an anorexic 11 starters, far too few to form a bulky field that makes spectators feel they’ve had their money’s worth.

During qualifying, in fact, the 12 cars outnumbered the spectators in the main grandstand, and it seemed a shame that the drivers didn’t walk across and introduce themselves. There was, as usual, a total lack of pre-event publicity and even the presence of former World Sportscar Champion Mauro Baldi in the Peugeot team went unremarked.

The opening round of the 1992 Sportscar World Championship could only be regarded as a warm-up for the season that really began at Silverstone, with a few more cars and a higher degree of reliability. Even so, there were some indicators for the season, the main one being of a very strong competition between the Peugeot and Toyota teams.

Throughout qualifying and the race there was little to choose between the two leading teams, Peugeot perhaps with the edge in outright power, Toyota with a slight advantage in handling.

Yannick Dalmas claimed pole position in the Peugeot 905 shared with Derek Warwick, and his time was inside Ayrton Senna’s Formula 1 and outright circuit record, so these Group C cars cannot be underestimated despite their 750 kg scrutineering weight.

Less than a quarter of a second slower was Geoff Lees in the TOM’S Toyota TS010, shared with Hitoshi Ogawa. That is pretty remarkable when you consider that the team contented itself with sixth place at Autopolis last October, when racing for the first time against some battle-hardened sports car competitors, and now three-quarters of a second covers two Peugeots and two Toyotas.

Mauro Baldi and Philippe Alliot shared the second row with Jan Lammers and Andy Wallace, the popular 1988 Le Mans winners now back in harness with a Japanese V10 at their backs instead of a Coventry V12 or a Kidlington V6.

These four cars were on the 1992 pace, and after considerable effort the Mazda and Euro Racing Lola teams reached the 1991 pace set by Jaguar. The Mazda MXR-01, driven by Maurizio Sandro Sala and Volker Weidler, was handicapped on Friday by its engine mounting bolts shearing off and falling inside the bulkhead.

On Saturday the spare car, a new chassis, developed a water leak and on Sunday morning the Brazilian driver accidentally over-revved the Mazda-badged Judd MV10 engine, still not being totally familiar with the left-hand gear-change.

The chassis is not the same as that of a Jaguar XJR-I4, being adapted to keep the 2,800 mm wheelbase the same despite the installation of a longer engine, but the TWR-constructed Mazda has very strong similarities and TWR’s Japanese clients were anxious to know why it wasn’t as quick on Friday as a Jaguar was 12 months ago. Different tyres, different engine, different drivers was the gist of Walkinshaw’s response.

Also with Judd V10 engines, Michelin tyres and a British chassis, the Euro Racing Lola team looked very professional and ran as well as the limited allowed. The finances the limited budget allowed. The finances of the Dutch-owned team have been seriously stretched in the winter-time, by repeated transmission failures during testing and eventually by loss of sponsorship, and owner Charles Zwolsman realised that he couldn’t compete with Peugeot and Toyota.

Stefan Johansson spent Friday sorting out a brand-new T92/10 chassis, and easily beat the 90 sec mark on Saturday afternoon for a third row grid position, narrowly ahead of Cor Euser, the team’s anchor man.

Just seven cars comprised the World Championship grid, with BRM to appear at Silverstone, and five FIA Cup cars in their wake made up a round dozen. Bernard de Dryver, the amiable Belgian, had two ex-works 1990 Spice Cosworths in his garage, running one for Gigi Taverna and Alessandro Gini, but the Chamberlain Engineering Spice Cosworth team proved just as quick, and more reliable on race day, in the hands of Bernard Thuner and Ferdinand de Lesseps.

The Monza field was reduced to 11 when Johansson’s Lola failed on the parade lap, the suspect transmission selecting second and fifth gears simultaneously, and Derek Warwick then made sure that he was the first XI team captain by commanding the race throughout his two stints.

Geoff Lees raced strongly in second place, usually three or four seconds behind Warwick but never quite in a position to challenge. Jan Lammers certainly did challenge Mauro Baldi for third, though, and passed the Peugeot driver with a piece of very aggressive driving entering the Parabolica on the ninth lap.

The first half-hour was very entertaining, but soon the race fell soon race apart. Lees, who stayed at the wheel, lost a full minute when the left-front wheel jammed on the hub, and soon afterward Lammers crashed out when the right-front hub collapsed. This happened on the exit of the fourth-gear Ascari chicane, at around 140 mph, and fortunately the bouncy Dutchman was unharmed, as were a couple of photographers at the scene. It looked as though the Peugeot team had this race sewn up as Warwick cruised along eight seconds ahead of Philippe Alliot, and gaining, but the Frenchman didn’t complete his 40th lap as the V10 engine failed. The Mazda’s V10 had failed as well, more likely due to an electrical failure, and the Euser/Zwolsman Lola also retired just before mid-distance with a not unexpected transmission failure.

Even with failing front brakes, Yannick Dalmas seemed to have enough in hand to beat Hitoshi Ogawa in the surviving Toyota. The gap was 61 sec at 50 laps, 59.8 at 60, 52.8 at 70 and 51.3 at 80, with just seven to run. But then, with two laps remaining, Dalmas had a spectacular accident while braking for the second chicane. He had been pumping the brake pedal with his left foot, the left-side carbon disc rapidly wearing away and hydraulic fluid leaking out, until the front brakes failed completely. In the instant the rear tyres locked up with a cloud of smoke the Peugeot snapped sideways, hit the outer kerb and flew into the air, rolling as it bounced through the gravel trap and landed upside down against the tyre wall.

The little bit of plastic that serves as a door was no help in this situation, but few cars have doors that open when the vehicle is inverted, and Dalmas was very lucky that the Peugeot didn’t catch fire. It took the best part of a minute for the car to be lifted on its side so that he could make his escape, and in another minute Ogawa was crossing the line proudly to achieve Toyota’s first World Championship racing success.

Chamberlain Engineering’s Spice ran almost perfectly all weekend to claim the first FIA Cup victory, although it hadn’t completed sufficient laps to be classified. However, without this category proposed by Tom Walkinshaw only last September it’s doubtful that there would be any sports car endurance racing in 1992.

The only hiccough in Hugh Chamberlain’s fine weekend was a leaky fuel union discovered just before the start, but Thuner’s drive to lead the category after starting from the pit-lane was a highlight of the contest.

MONZA 500 KM, APRIL 26

1st: Lees/Ogawa – Toyota TS010 – 2h 16m 42.659s
2nd: Warwick/Dalmas – Peugeot 905 1A – 85 laps – not running, accident
NC: Thuner/de Lesseps – Spice SE89C – 76 laps
NC: Capelli/Kramer – Gebhardt – 75 laps
Rtd: Taverna/Gini – Spice SE90C – 59 laps – clutch

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