Salvage operation

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It may not be a vintage year for endurance racing, but Les Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans goes ahead on June 20/21 with a very attractive grid of Group C prototypes. In theory, the race should be won by a Peugeot or a Toyota, but if none of their six 3.5-litre ‘hares’ should go the distance without trouble an old-fashioned ‘tortoise’ is likely to seize a controversial victory.

Could it be a Jaguar V12, a Kremer Porsche or a Toyota turbo, despite being given an allocation of fuel more appropriate to 20 hours of racing? Reliability is on their side, and is likely to be enhanced if anything by the low state of engine tuning which will reduce the maximum power outputs by as much as 80 bhp.

The supporting cast of 3.5-litre cars will include two Euro Racing Lola T92/10s, two Mazda MXR-01s and the BRM P351. The BRM is the only major contestant to be powered by a V12 engine, all the others having V10s which were completely unknown at Le Mans until Peugeot took the start, and led the first hour, in 1991.

The hopes of the entire French nation are pinned, of course, on the three Peugeot 905s which have, at last, proved their ability in trials to run for around the clock without breaking engines or transmissions.

The last French victory, a very popular one at that, was achieved in 1980, when Jean Rondeau and Jean-Pierre Jaussaud triumphed in the locally built Rondeau Ford, but Peugeot’s huge effort will be likened to the onslaughts of Matra — with a hat-trick of victories in 1972, 1973 and 1974 — and Renault, with a three-year programme which paid off in 1978.

In past years there was always been a ripple of interest around the world in March when the Automobile Club de l’Ouest published a provisional entry list. Provisional it was, of course, full of blank spaces where drivers had still to be nominated, but once Easter was behind us we could begin to speculate on The Great Event, to measure the strongest teams and to make forecasts.

None of this is possible in 1992. Although FISA intended to close the entry list on April 17, and to publish it after Monza (April 26), a news blackout was still in force when we went to Silverstone on May 10.

President Max said something about “giving the smaller teams more time to make up their minds”, some of them with national championship cars which will make up the back half of the grid!

These makeweights, which are not Group C cars at all, are likely to include Peugeot 905 Spyder Cup cars (“one or two” according to Jean-Pierre Nicolas), Pro-Sport 3000 from an embryonic British series, Alfa Romeo powered one-make sports cars from Italy and some competitors from the Interserie. Who, what and how many, are questions that could not be answered early in May.

Both Peugeot and Toyota have completed an enormous amount of development and testing, and one of these manufacturers should provide the winner. Will it be Peugeot, with the advantage of starting two 905s last year, and nearly two seasons of race development, or Toyota, fresh off the blocks but with a high degree of reliability designed into the TS010?

Peugeot’s line-up in three cars shows an enviable blend of youth, experience and patriotism. The ‘base’ team of Yannick Dalmas with Derek Warwick, and Philippe Alliot with 1990 World Champion Mauro Baldi, is supplemented with Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Mark Blundell, Eric van de Poele, Alain Ferte and Karl Wendlinger (Eric Bernard should have taken one of these, but was ruled out by a foot injury).

Warwick competed at Le Mans in Silk Cut Jaguars in 1986 (DNF) and in 1991 (fourth), and must feel this time that he has a good chance of winning.

Some 50,000 British race fans are expected to cross the Channel for this special weekend in June, and undoubtedly Warwick and Blundell will be their favourites in the white Peugeots, Geoff Lees, Andy Wallace, Kenneth Acheson and ‘honorary Brit’ Jan Lammers in the multicoloured Toyotas.

Reigning World Champion sportscar driver Teo Fabi, who joins Toyota for this event, is very popular in Britain, too, and it’s likely that with no ‘works’ Jaguars to cheer, the partisan flag-waving crowd will pay particular attention to the progress of selected favourites.

Last year Warwick recalled that before the start in 1986 he was cheered so loudly that tears came to his eyes, and it’s a fact that emotions can run very deep at Le Mans. Anticipation, excitement, fatigue and satisfaction are just a few of the sensations experienced by competitors and spectators alike, emotions that are not aroused at the 500 kilometre ‘sprint’ events that make up the balance of the championship.

Le Mans is to the Sportscar World Championship what Monaco is to the Grand Prix circuit, and Indianapolis to the CART Championship. The 24-hour race couldn’t exist without a nucleus of cars to draw upon, and a championship wouldn’t be attractive without Le Mans as the principal event. So while we may not agree with the way that FISA has forced two-seater Formula 1 cars upon us, there’s no point in whingeing about it in June.

Let us, instead, admire the amount of development and preparation carried out by the works teams, and hope that they can carry the contest to the finish. We didn’t think much of the three-litre prototypes 20 years ago, either, but in 1973 Matra and Ferrari engaged in a ferocious duel which is still vividly recalled, not least by Henri Pescarolo and Gerard Larrousse who just squeaked home ahead of the Ferrari driven by Arturo Merzario and Carlos Pace.

Some races will inevitably be better than others, and while the years 1986 to 1991 have been excellent (thanks, largely, to the contributions of TWR and Jaguar), we’ll have to keep our fingers crossed that the major players can provide us with a contest that goes the distance.

Early in May some complicated deals were being patched together to run Jaguars at Le Mans, both V12s and the then unraced XJR-17s. They will not be official ‘works’ cars but they will be prepared by Tom Walkinshaw Racing, and will undoubtedly be strong contenders if they reach the Sarthe.

The XJR-12 is a development of the cars that won the 24 Hours in 1988 and in 1990, and might have done so again last year had they not been burdened with a 1,000 kg starting weight. This year the scrutineering weight has reverted to 900 kg, but the fuel allocation has been slashed from 2,550 litres to just 2,140.

Effectively, this has knocked four hours off the Jaguar’s range and seems to make it completely uncompetitive, to a point where Tom Walkinshaw is no longer interested in the event.

But still, the challenge is interesting enough for private entrants, and the shedding of 100 kg will be beneficial. More importantly, perhaps. TWR have prepared special 6.3-litre engines, a capacity never chosen before, and they will be prepared strictly for economy. Last year the TWR prepared Silk Cut Jaguars ran a 7.4-litre capacity, and managed to eke one extra lap in 24 hours (compared with the 1990 victory distance), despite the extra weight.

If a 3.5-litre car runs perfectly from start to finish, it should be the winner. If none gets through unscathed, though, the Jaguars, Porsches and turbocharged Toyota 92C-Vs must be in with a chance. They will run at a much more leisurely pace in the early stages, inevitably, but will pick off the 3.5-litre cars as the hours pass.