IMSA-Daytona 24 Hours

Justice done at Daytona

For all their achievements in the past, neither Al Holbert nor Derek Bell had succeeded in winning the Daytona 24-Hours, but, with Al Unser Junior, they set the record straight on February 1st/2nd. The failure-rate of the cars was surprisingly high, only five of the 20 quickest machines reaching the finish, and none of the first six to cross the line did so without time-consuming delays.

With so many competitors falling at various fences around what seemed like an Aintree Grand National, everything built up to a climax two hours from the end, and inevitably the scenario included three Porsche 962s. Holbert’s Lowenbrau-sponsored 962 had lain 33 laps in arrears, in third place, eight hours from the and after having a throttle cable breakage and two brake problems. Then Preston Henn’s Swap Shop Porsche lost time, first with a broken oil pipe (fractured by debris on the track), bringing drivers A. J. Foyt, Danny Sullivan and Arie Luyendyk within range. With six hours to go the B. F. Goodrich Porsche led by nine laps, only to fall back with a broken rear upright bearing, to the intense disappointment of Derek Warwick, Jochen Mass, Jim Busby and Dann Brassfield. The gods who look after these things brought the three cars together 90 minutes from the end. Holbert swooping past Foyt off the banking to lead the field, and a mere five miles covered the trio when the race ended.

Justice, yes, because Holbert’s 962 was delayed 80 minutes altogether, as long as the combined delays of the second and third placed Porsches, and by easy deduction would have won the race very comfortably indeed had the awkward throttle cable not broken, stranding Unser out on the course for a while: it eventually broke the distance record by eight laps, or 46 kilometres. It was with that sort of style that Holbert won the 1985 IMSA Championship, including the three-hour finale at Daytona in December, starting the 1986 season where he’d left off only nine weeks previously.

European interest in the IMSA series is gathering fast. Daytona and the Miami ‘Grand Prix’ on March 2 being the immediate focus points for the teams of Reinhold Joest, Walter Brun and Martino Finotto. The lure is substantial prize money funds, good racing and big crowds: it is hard to say which factor triggered the success cycle, but John Bishop’s series has plenty of forward momentum. Grids this year will include factory cars from BMW and Ford, and factory-assisted teams representing Porsche, Jaguar, Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac and Nissan.

The crux of Bishop’s IMSA formula is to equate engine configurations with a sliding weight scale, and it works reasonably well. Turbochargers are banned from the Camel Light class, equating with C2 in Europe, and depending on engine size the cars will weigh 700 kg if powered by 2-litre engines, 725 kg If powered by 2.6 litre engines (including the popular and successful Mazda twin-rotor units) but 825 kg if powered by 3-litre engines from Porsche or Buick, for instance.

A single turbocharger is permitted in the GTP class but Porsche’s 4-valve cylinder head layout is specifically banned, so the 962 is powered by what is virtually an old 935 engine, usually 3.2 litre capacity and developing 700 bhp. Next year the Porsche engine capacity will have to be reduced to 3.000 cc plus turbocharger, but in the meantime they have had a 160 pound (72.5 kg) weight penalty slapped on, taking them up to 2,080 pounds (943 kg) while the 6-litre normally aspirated Jaguar XJR-7 entries, with 650 bhp for ‘sprint’ races but around 610 bhp at Daytona, weigh in at 2,000 pounds (907 kg).

This window-dressing did not detract from Porsche’s general competitiveness, but in race conditions arch-rivals Jaguar and Buick were pretty close, and might even have won had they enjoyed total reliability. The big surprise of qualifying came from none of these, but from the Chevrolet Corvette which Sarel van der Merwe drove to pole position.

The Corvette is not a production-based car at all but was designed and built by Eric Broadley two years ago as a Lola T710. around GM’s 3.4-litre turbocharged V6 engine (also used, basically, by Buick, though with McLaren North America-prepared engines, rather than Chevrolet’s Ryan Falconer preparation). The bodywork on the Corvette, especially at the front, is carefully styled to remind the spectators of a Corvette, and with an 830 bhp qualifying engine installed the South African, van der Merwe, was a full half-second quicker than Bob Wollek in the Bridgestone-shod Bayside Disposal Porsche 962, with a time of 1 min 39.318 sec, an average of 129.04 mph. Sadly for everyone the Corvette developed a serious vibration during the Saturday morning warm-up and was withdrawn from the race, since its a six-hour job to replace the engine and transmission complete and only four hours remained before the start. The cynics said that Rick Kendrick’s Chevrolet-backed team only went to Daytona to earn pole position, that the car wouldn’t last long, and in a sense they were right but there was no doubting that van der Merwe had been looking forward to putting up a show in the early hours of the race.

The key to their problem, and Jaguar’s, was the Hewland VG gearbox which was never designed for the massive power and torque developed by these engines. Jaguar’s dyno tests showed that the VG ‘s ring and pinion gear could be broken within six hours, so neither the Chevrolet nor the Jaguars could be expected to last the distance. A new Corvette is being built by Broadley around the stronger VGC transmission, which Kendrick’s team expected to be delivered during February, but Bob Tullius Jaguar team does not expect them until April. Until then these teams will be handicapped in the longer or more strenuous races, making it even more inevitable that the Porsche 962 teams will rule the roost throughout 1986 as well.

The Jaguars, in fact, did better than they might have expected, for the Brian Redman/ Hurley Haywood/ Vern Schuppan entry lasted nine hours before needing its transmission rebuilt two and a quarter hours at rest), and the Bob Tullius/Chip Robinson/ Claude Ballot-Lena XJR-7 lasted 16 hours before running into gearbox difficulties. A broken front sub-frame resulted from a trip over the grass at the chicane, and then an embarrassing episode when the Jaguar ran out of fuel cost the Group 44 team dear on its way to sixth place, Redman ‘s car eventually retiring with an engine failure.

The March 85G-chassied Buick Hawks qualified 11th and 12th fastest with competitive times, within five seconds of pole position, but failed to finish. Whitney Ganz car went out early with a broken input shaft to the March gearbox, while John Paul Junior’s went to quarter distance before retiring from fifth place with a suspected broken crankshaft.

The Porsches dropped out like snowflakes on the Equator, leaving the Jack Roush Ford Mustangs in the GTO class to become the stars of the show. Hans Stuck crashed after an hour, all on his own and under braking for the back-stretch chicane. Bob Wollek hit the wall pretty hard in the sixth hour when a back-marker crossed the path of the Leon brothers’ March which he was pursuing. Reinhold Joest’s innovative new Porsche 962 lasted only seven laps before retiring with distributor failure, out on the course, and Walter Brun’s 962 was afflicted with electrical problems right from the start also to succumb to distributor failure. Although the Stuttgart make picked up the top three places, it was by no means easy for only these three, of the nine 962s that started, lasted 24 hours.

Jan Lammers retirement in the second BF Goodrich 962 was perhaps the most worrying, for after a pad change on Sunday morning he smote the barrier at a speed he thought “no more than 80 kph”. Even allowing for understatement, the car cannot have been going very quickly when the rear brakes failed, the Dutchman locking the front wheels as he slid wide on the slow corner and hitting the armco almost head-on. The front of the car was destroyed the pedal box coming back to the driving seat, and Lammers had to be helped out with bruises and grazes on his legs. If seemed that IMSA ‘s rule about the pedals being behind the line of the front wheels made not a scrap of difference, and it remains to be seen if a new honeycomb structure developed by Porsche as a bolt-on safety addition to all existing cars within the next three months, will settle fears about the structural integrity of the basic design.

The muscle-bulging Ford Mustangs eventually took fourth and fifth places overall, and would surely have good spectator appeal at Le Mans, where all IMSA groups are catered for. They have only a visual resemblance to the production cars, using a simple spaceframe, with sheet aluminium around the cockpit section to accommodate the 5.9-litre V8 engine. Weismann five speed transmission and Ford axle. For sprint races the engine gives 630 bhp, and that’s what Klaus Ludwig had to claim “pole” for the class, 17th fastest overall and only 10 seconds behind the pole position time. In 24-hour race trim Roush detunes the engines to 570 bhp, still sufficient for the cars to top 200 mph on the banking, and even after six hours the quicker of the four Mustangs in the race were lurking around seventh and eighth places, so their final position wasn’t entirely the result of other people’s misfortunes!

Ludwig ‘s Mustang lost more than an hour in the night when the gearbox failed, and languished in the pits for most of the final hour with another transmission failure, losing a place to the similar, but private entry handled by Lanny Hester/ Maurice Hassey/ Lee Mueller, who lost only half an hour all through the race due to a broken rocker on the camshaft.

Not seen at Daytona, as a result of one car being destroyed by fire, were the new GTP class BMWs which may be strong contenders and which also have an interesting background. The factory-owned BMW of North America team ran a car at the final race last season, with a custom built chassis by March Engineering, and powered by what is basically a 2-litre BMW Formula 2 engine, now with McLaren North America developments including a Garrett AiResearch turbocharger. Two new cars were to have been presented for the race, administered by McLaren and developing no less that 800 bhp (though 700 bhp seems to be the norm in race trim), contracted drivers including John Watson, David Hobbs, John Andretti (Marios nephew) and Davy Jones. During pre-race testing at Road Atlanta Andretti’s car went up in flames for no obvious reason, and rather than risk a repeat the car was withdrawn.

Mazda-powered cars dominate the Camel Light category, the power-to-weight formula seeming to favour them, but a new contender will be the Buick 3-litre V6 powered Tiga, a new chassis which performed well in practice in the hands of Charles Morgan and Logan Blackburn. They had various problems in the race, misfiring and eventually going out with broken rear suspension, perhaps a legacy of an accident during qualifying. There, too, was Martino Finotto’s Ferrari 308-powered Carma Alba FF which led the class until a broken spark plug electrode terminally damaged the engine on Sunday morning.

There are fascinating prospects for the remaining 17 rounds in the 1986 Camel Light series, the next races at Miami, Sebring (the famous 12-hours) and Road Atlanta introducing a whole crop of new or revised machines. Competitors complain that 18 rounds, the length and breadth of America, in 11 months is a tiring schedule, and so it is but the rewards are breathtaking, the average payouts being double those in the World Sportscar Championship. Almost as an afterthought the Camel cigarette company has offered a $500.000 bonus fund for drivers and teams, equal to the entire minimum purse for the World series presided over by FISA, and it is very evident that success is breeding success.

It seems incongruous tor FISA and IMSA to run similar series for similar cars while maintaining their feud. FISA ‘s fuel consumption formula works tolerably well in levelling-off the cars performance and from Hockenhelm onwards the drivers were actually racing, rather than economising. Even so, IMSA ‘s rules are proving equitable too and offer fast racing with a broad span of participation, and if there is to be a reconciliation it will have to be on the terms of IMSA administrator John Bishop. If this were to happen might then Daytona again form part of the World Championship and Le Mans be a round of the IMSA series? What an exciting prospect that would be! M.L.C.