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Peugeot… Toyota… Porsche.

Group C cars will be battling away at Le Mans for the last time, probably, to win the 24 Hours in style. Once the race is over, the V0 powered Peugeots and Toyotas will be consigned to museums, their short, shrill and exorbitantly expensive careers done with. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest will then have to decide, and quickly, on regulations to last out the 20th century.

This year marks the race’s 70th anniversary. It’s also a last opportunity to see the ‘old’ Group C cars, and a first to see the new-generation Jaguar XJ220-Cs, Venturi Le Mans and Porsche Turbo GTs.

Past winners Hans Stuck, Hurley Haywood and John Nielsen will all be there, driving ‘works’ GT cars with little expectation of an outright victory, though they will be recapturing some of the glamour of the event as it was.

And next year? With the 3.5-litre cars facing the red card, the GTs will certainly take a step forwards, though the premier class is expected to be for Le Mans Prototypes. These, however, are in short supply this year, just three cars answering the call.

This year’s winner, surely, will come from Peugeot or Toyota? Each manufacturer has a team of three cars, endurance tested almost on a monthly basis since early in the year. Engines and transmissions have been run in 24-hour cycles on dyno rigs in Vélizy and Tokyo, and it must be true to say that no potential winner has ever before been tested so rigorously?

That, however, ignores the human element. Last year, Alain Ferté’s Peugeot rammed Geoff Lees’ Toyota, almost eliminating two top cars in the opening skirmish! Le Mans is, always, an unpredictable event which no manufacturer – even Mercedes – can take for granted.

Peugeot Talbot Sport will move in a new direction after Le Mans, and director Jean Todt is considering his options. He intends to close this chapter with a victory, and has overseen a number of changes to the 905s. The Evolution 1C model is similar in appearance to last year’s winner, but features the Evo 2’s transverse six-speed gearbox with sequential shift.

The entry list released by the ACO doesn’t include driver names, but many of the important ones have already been announced. Peugeot’s nine-strong team mixes experience with youth including Philippe Alliot, Yannick Dalmas, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Mauro Baldi, Thierry Boutsen, Geoff Brabham, Teo Fabi, and rapid rookies Eric Hélary and Christophe Bouchut.

Toyota Team TOM’S has built three entirely new cars for this one race. The effort expended is phenomenal, with hundreds of hours spent in the wind tunnel honing the Tony Southgate designed TS010s.

The Toyotas’ chassis are narrower and stiffer, and the whole effort has concentrated on taking the cars below the 750 kg weight limit so that ballast can be placed strategically, moving the weight mass rearwards, and improving efficiency. The Toyotas now run on Michelin tyres, like the Peugeots, and trials at Paul Ricard indicate that they are easily on the latter’s pace. Toyota’s drivers include Geoff Lees, Jan Lammers, Juan-Manuel Fangio II, Andy Wallace, Kenneth Acheson, Pierre-Henri Raphanel, Masanori Sekiya, Toshio Suzuki and Eddie Irvine. Fangio is the only man in the Japanese team lacking experience at Le Mans, but the IMSA champion is hardly likely to be at a loss.

As a back-up, the SARD team is again running the turbocharged Toyota, now called the RY2, for Mauro Martini, Naoki Nagasaka and Roland Ratzenberger, and Trust Racing has a similar machine in the Group C list for George Fouche and Steven Andskar, hoping to improve on last year’s fifth place overall.

Could the winner possibly come from the old Group C turbo category? Surely not… the 37.2 mm air restrictors applied to the Joest, Kremer and Courage three-litre Porsches (and even smaller, 35.7 mm restrictors on the 3.5-litre Toyotas) must limit the power severely to around 600 horsepower, in cars weighing 900 kg.

Yet stories are circulating that the Joest Racing Porsche 962C was lapping the short Atlanta oval recently a full 17 mph quicker than Dan Gurney’s Eagle Toyotas, while testing the Le Mans specification. With Bob Wollek, Bernd Schneider and Frank Jelinski in his car, Reinhold Joest must not be underrated. This year the turbos are back to their 1990 trim at 900 kg, and there is no limit on the amount of fuel available.

It was a different matter for the Jaguars, of course. The seven-litre V12s would have been crippled by 34 mm restrictors, the logic of which is still unclear. A naturally aspirated engine is less able to overcome the handicap than a turbocharged unit, so Tom Walkinshaw never really had the option.

The three TWR entered Jaguar XJ220-C GT models will be driven by the likes of John Nielsen, Win Percy, David Leslie and Armin Hahne, all good, professional drivers. David Coulthard’s name has also been mentioned. Their principal GT opposition comes from the Porsche 911 Turbo Le Mans driven by Hans Stuck, Walter Röhrl and Hurley Haywood… plus at least five Venturi Le Mans, which have ample competitions experience in France.

Hugh Chamberlain will run two ‘works’ Lotus Esprit Sport 300 Turbos in the GT class, but the odds are heavily stacked in favour of the Panzer Division of 15 Porsches. Porsche’s flat-six engines power two dozen cars this year, almost half the entry, which is much more in the tradition of the race. Last year, after all, there were only two dozen Group C cars on the grid!

This year’s Le Mans will be less predictable than ever, despite the reliability shown by the high-revving V10s in the last edition. Will the turbocharged cars put the V10s under more pressure? Could this be a repeat of the Ford GT40 vs Porsche 908 era of 1968-69?

It’s a tantalising prospect. M L C