The folklore of Le Mans insists that the 24-hour event in June is the supreme test of cars and drivers, the grand prix of speed and endurance. The French can go on believing that if they wish, but Derek Bell is adamant that the Daytona 24 Hours is far harder, and it is easy to see why.
The huge banking, unlike the Mulsanne Straight, does not give the drivers a moment to relax at over 200 mph. The infield section of the combined 3.56-mile course is twisty, like Oulton Park. Seventy cars started the race, creating terrible traffic problems for the entire duration, and the more relaxed rules about repairing stricken machines enabled 30 teams to be running at the end.
Add, then, a few more factors. The highest temperature was 70° Fahrenheit, the lowest 34°, leaving drivers to worry about how their slick tyres would cope with frost. Night lasted 12 hours, not six as in French summertime.
Last year's record distance was passed 75 minutes before the end of the race, as the Lowenbrau and A J Foyt Porsches fought a mighty battle, usually within a minute of each other. One side window had been sucked out of the Lowenbrau Porsche, both from Foyt's car, leading to poor ventilation and extreme discomfort in the cockpits.
It is not the first time that Bell, twice World Sportscar Champion, has claimed a race to be the hardest of his life. He did so when he collapsed on the podium at Le Mans in 1982. Perhaps it was, but the Sun Bank IMSA Camel Daytona 24 Hours was much harder still, a true Safari of the racing world.
Two hours from the end it was time for a driver change in the Lowenbrau Porsche, then 45 seconds ahead of Foyt's. "I had leg cramps and didn't feel too good," said Bell, whose turn it was. "Al (Unser, Jnr) was sick and Chip (Robinson) didn't have the strength to get in!"
Car owner Al Holbert, reducing his racing commitments this year and managing the car from behind the pit wall, had been suited up for 22 hours ready for this eventuality, and, taking over, maintained the duel until half an hour from the end, allowing Bell to take the flag.
By then the race was virtually over. Foyt, twice winner and twice second in the last four years in Preston Henn's Porsches, could see no merit in being runner-up. He turned up the boost to catch Holbert, felt a valve burn out 75 minutes from the end, and half an hour later the valve dropped causing terminal damage to the engine.
IMSA regulations allowed the car to be classified fourth, and that was the reward for Foyt, Al Unser Snr and Danny Sullivan.
The cars, too, suffered terribly. The Lowenbrau Porsche was blowing blue smoke for the last three or four hours and, like the Foyt and Akin Porsches, had its differential ring and pinion wearing out. "My gearbox was so noisy it sounded like a Mazda following me," said Hans Stuck after finishing sixth.
Of the banking, Vern Schuppan, third with Rob Dyson and Price Cobb, had this to say: "When you're doing 200 mph up there the car's taking a terrible beating. You hear the suspension banging and cracking, and think it could never last 24 hours. It's quite frightening, and it's best not to think about it. The ground effects are greater than ever before, and the G-loading on the cars is much greater than I've experienced anywhere else."
Seventy pristine cars started the race, and 30 in urgent need of a total rebuild finished it. Perhaps it is not surprising that the number of entries was lower than in previous years. Nissan, and many others, preferred to keep their cars nice until the Miami Grand Prix on March 1. If the numbers were down, though, the quality of the entry was high.
Nine Porsche 962s started the race, and six of them filled the top positions in the final classification. Opposition, such as it was, was swept aside as a mere irritant.
Bob Tullius, Hurley Haywood and John Morton went well in the Group 44 Jaguar XJR-7, holding third place seven hours into the race when a head gasket failed on one bank of the V12. "Coolant loss" was the official reason for retirement, but it was coming out of the exhaust pipe. While it lasted, the Jaguar looked and sounded magnificent, the 6-litre engine's characteristic yowl separating it from all the others.
The Jaguar had been expected to go the distance, despite throwing a connecting rod, during practice, whereas the Rick Hendrick team Chevrolet Corvette Lola GTP had not. It did run for eight-and-a-half hours, though, driven conservatively by Sarel van der Merwe and Doc Bundy, and held the third place vacated by the Jaguar until a camshaft lobe broke up on the stroke of midnight.
Only two more cars, both Fords, could possibly worry the Porsches, but neither of them went to halfway. The Zakspeed Ford Probe driven by David Hobbs/Whit Ganz/Gianpiero Moretti had a stock-block Ford V8 6-litre engine installed for the first time and should have proved more reliable than the 2.1-litre, four-cylinder turbo. But it bent a pushrod after 11 hours having been as high as ninth.
The Jack Roush Mustang GTP, a brand-new car in the hands of Scott Pruett, Pete Halsmer and Tom Gloy, broke the distributor on its Ford 6.5-litre V8 in the first hour, and its front suspension during the evening.
Three Porsches failed to finish, underlining yet again the value of having nine on the startline. Jochen Mass was on pole position in Bruce Leven's Bayside Disposal 962, driving with Klaus Ludwig and Leven, and next him was Bob Wollek driving the B F Goodrich 962 with Jim Busby and Darin Brassfield. It was Ludwig who took the start, in fact, and he and Wollek set off as though the race would finish before midnight . . . for them, it did!
Wollek's car retired in the third hour with a valve dropped in its factory-prepared 3-litre flat-six turbo. Two hours later Ludwig got too involved with some warring GTO cars and collected damage to the left-rear suspension. It was repaired within half an hour, but there was a residual vibration so severe that the car could not continue.
One other Porsche retired, that of the new Primus team ( a chosen name, not that of a stove manufacturer!) and driven by Chris Kneifel, Brian Redman and Eliiott Forbes-Robinson. It was lying fourth at nine hours, when without warning the engine exploded devastatingly across the start-finish line, setting fire to the back of the car as Redman came to a stop on the infield. The fire truck was there quickly, saving the chassis from destruction.
The World Champion Brun Motorsport team, with a brand-new Torno-sponsored 962 driven by Oscar Larrauri, Massimo Sigala and Gianfranco Brancatelli, had lost 14 laps in the first hour but battled through to second position, merely eight laps down on the winners! Theirs was truly an epic run, a highlight of the race for those who were paying attention.
The Hockenheimring had been partly snow-covered when the Porsche first turned its wheels in January, but the handling was never good from the time practice started on Thursday. On Friday Larrauri had an unexpected spin, and during the Saturday morning warm-up he spun again, damaging the nose and sub-frame. The suspension was checked yet again, and all four dampers were changed.
On the second lap of the race Sigala had a spin too, loosening the nose, and two more stops were made before a report came through that the car was losing fluid. Being a Porsche it had to be oil of fuel, and team manager Peter Reinisch then discovered that a faulty weld on the fuel breather was allowing fluid to spray on the rear right tyre.
Once that was rectified the car, down in 54th place, set off on an exhilarating chase, running up to five seconds a lap quicker than the leaders during the night. They were 29th after three hours, tenth at quarter distance, fourth after ten hours, third after eighteen, and moved up to second at Foyt's expense in the last hour.
The Brun Porsche had run perfectly for 23 hours, had no scrapes on incidents of note, and the drivers looked remarkably fresh at the end. Perhaps the glare of the spotlights creates too much heat at times?
Third was the 926 of Rob Dyson, Price Cobb and Vern Schuppan ahead of Foyt's car, being loaded up when the flag came out. Fifth was the 962 of Jim Adams and John Hotchkis, father and son. All of these comfortably exceeded last year's record distance, the Lowenbrau car by 41 laps, or 146 miles!
Sixth was the Bob Akin 962 shared by Akin, Stuck and James Weaver, with a chapter of incidents to recall. On Thursday the transmission bellhousing had shattered around the suspension pick-up points; on Friday a cylinder head gasket blew; and early in the race Stuck pulled up with a spring retainer broken on the right rear damper. And then a burst rear tyre (Stuck, on the main straight at top speed), a fractured hydraulic pipe on a caliper, a broken seat catch, and a worn-out gearbox which slowed the car on Sunday afternoon, and you have the description of a fraught journey.
The race for seventh place was the province of the GTO class, a colourful array of Chevrolet Camaros and Corvettes, Jack Roush-built Ford Mustangs, Oldsmobiles, Pontiacs and a pair of Toyota Celica Turbos prepared by Dan Gurney's All American Racers team.
Some of NASCAR's top names were in the American cars. Terry Labonte, Darrel Waltrip, Wally Dallenbach Jnr, Tommy Riggins and Gene Felton to name some, but, when the sound of thundering and spectacular V8s diminished on Saturday evening, it became a straight contest between the Toyotas and the Mustangs, with the Japanese cars holding a certain advantage through the night.
The Toyotas cracked, though, Milien's overheating and eventually grinding to a standstill two hours from the end, and Rice's breaking its rear suspension wishbone little more than an hour from the finish. The Mustangs, rugged spaceframe 'supersaloons' which would excite the crowds at Le Mans, snatched a victory in seventh and ninth positions overall, sandwiching Rice's Toyota.
There was, of course, much more to this race than the results suggest. IMSA's John Bishop placed a limit of 3 litres on the GTP category cars, hoping to handicap the Porsche 962s and help the American stock-block machines; but IMSA has a sliding scale of weights and capacities, and reducing the Porsches' capacities from 3.2 litres to 2.8 or 3.0 litres also reduced their weights, made them handle better and delighted the drivers!
Maybe the Nissans, Chevrolets, Buicks and Fords will get closer in the 'sprint' races, but at Daytona the Stuttgart firm's dominance looked as secure as ever. As in Europe, it needs another manufacturer with the will to win, and to supply competitive products in numbers, to alter the equation. MLC
RESULTS Daytona 24 Hours, Florida, January 31-February 1