IMSA: Daytona 24hrs

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Tom cats lick American cream

As important to Jaguar as victory itself in the Daytona SunBank 24-Hour race was the psychological boost that it now has the machinery to go the full distance with reasonable reliability, at a speed to beat the Porsches. Le Mans, here we come!

The opening round of the IMSA Camel GT series, was as usual a punishing contest in which the winning car was the one with fewest problems. On this particular occasion it was the Tom Walkinshaw Racing-prepared Jaguar XJR-9 driven by Martin Brundle, John Nielsen and Raul Boesel, with a valuable hour also contributed by Jan Lammers.

Despite winning the 1987 World Sportscar Championship at a canter, and despite entering three well-tested cars with highly professional management, Jaguar was not the favourite for victory. Even when the V12s had qualified second, fourth and sixth fastest, Hans Stuck summed up the feelings of the Porsche teams when he said that “of course, they won’t finish.”

To some extent Walkinshaw tended to agree. “They are new cars, and this is a new team. Ideally we’d have liked this race to fall later in the year, so don’t expect too much. I’m looking on it as a trial run for Le Mans.”

Twenty-four hours later the trial run had turned into a fairy-tale success, and the same Hans Stuck was a little grudging in his praise. “I congratulate Jaguar . . . I’ll phone Weissach tomorrow and tell them that we have a lot of work to do before Le Mans!” It seemed extraordinary that six well-fancied Porsches, all entered singly by privately-run but highly experienced teams, should have encountered so many problems. Many of the difficulties were a direct result of the dire traffic problems, 75 cars having taken the start on the 3.56-mile combined banked and road course.

Stuck, teamed up with Klaus Ludwig and Sarel van der Merwe in a 962 entered by Bruce Leven, was hit in the side by a Mazda RX-7 on Saturday evening, and the ensuing damage dropped him to fourth place in the final classification, 34 laps behind the winner — the left rear suspension link had to be changed straight away, later the bottom link was changed, and replacement of the exhaust system was also blamed on the collision.

Brian Redman, now 51 and a veteran long-distance expert, had his BF Goodrich 962 put off the road by a slower car leaving the pits, so damaging the nose panel supports that the Porsche finished the race wearing its fifth front end, in primer. It was a miracle that the tyre company’s car lasted so long, and posed such a threat to the Jaguars for 23 hours.

Walkinshaw is professional enough to realise that any of five Porsches might have beaten him, given the fault-free run which Al Holbert and Derek Bell enjoyed in 1987; but luck usually rewards the best-prepared.

Brundle’s XJR-9 had lost time in the second hour, when the tail section and supports were damaged in a fracas between Boesel and Al Unser Jnr (in AJ Foyt’s Porsche), and later lost a few more minutes with defective tail-lights and a blown fuse in the fuel pump system. Seventeen hours into the race it lay in fifth place, six laps down, and wouldn’t have been regarded as a likely winner.

Lammers’ Jaguar, though, had run over some debris in the night, had its oil radiator partially blanked off for a while, and was heading for retirement with low oil pressure. Then, as sunshine warmed the weary teams on Sunday morning, Cheever’s Jaguar lapsed onto eleven cylinders with a suspected burned exhaust valve, and lost ground gradually for five hours as it headed for third place overall.

The Porsches ahead came back into Brundle’s clutches, effectively, but hard driving and astute management by team manager Tony Dowe earned the victory. Each of five pit stops was made in caution periods, when the pace car was circulating, and Brundle lost hardly any time as wheels and pads were changed, and fuel added.

The Jaguar 6-litre engines were said to develop 620bhp, while the 3-litre air-cooled Porsches, racing with 57mm intake air restrictors for the first time, were said to develop 640bhp. There is some controversy about these figures, and the actual outputs may be substantially higher according to whom one speaks, but Walkinshaw’s team felt at a disadvantage on the 210mph banking where the Porsches could be seen to pull away.

Excellent qualifying performances by Jan Lammers, Eddie Cheever and Martin Brundle proved that the Jaguars were superior on the infield section however, and eventual victory weakened Walkinshaw’s argument that the 1988 rules favour the Porsches.

Mauro Baldi, driving for BF Goodrich for the first time with Bob Wollek and Brian Redman, was convincing in claiming pole position at lmin 38.917sec, more than a second quicker than any other Porsche driver. His average of 129 mph around Daytona, more than half of which is “Mickey Mouse” infield track, was only fractionally slower than van der Merwe’s qualifying record of two years ago in a Chevrolet (Lola) Corvette GTP rated at 950bhp or more. Baldi had never raced before at Daytona and neither had Eddie Cheever, who was fourth quickest. Lammers is experienced there, and was scintillating in recording the second best time of 1min 39.362sec. He pitted after the run and gazed at the scraped white, green and red paintwork on his Castrol Jaguar’s right flank, evidence of brushing the concrete retaining wall on the banking. “Thank God I didn’t have to lift off,” he said memorably.

Price Cobb, perhaps the quickest American in Porsches, was third quickest in the 962 shared with owner Rob Dyson, James Weaver and Vern Schuppan, and behind Cheever was an abundance of talent: Oscar Larrauri/Massimo Sigala/Gianfranco Brancatelli in Walter Brun’s Porsche, Brundle/Nielsen/ Boesel in the third Jaguar (which missed the single-car qualifying session which potential pole-rnen are allowed due to a broken plug in the V12), Ludwig/Stuck/van der Merwe in the Leven 962, Al Holbert/Derek Bell/Chip Robinson in Holbert’s championship winning 962, and the legendary AJ Foyt with Unser jnr and Elliott Forbes-Robinson in another 962.

There was another Jaguar, too. Bob Tullius’ XJR-7 V12, after the withdrawal of support from the Coventry marque, was sponsored by Goodyear and called the Group 44 V12 Eagle. Tullius was there to beat the “works team” if humanly possible, but for the second year running retired with a broken head-gasket.

It rained, unusually, for an hour during the night and in that hour Derek Bell excelled for Holbert’s team, putting a clear lap between himself, the BFG Porsche and the three Jaguars. He led virtually all the way, from the second hour until breakfast time.

Brun’s car had gone out with damaged valvegear, Dyson’s had led the first 90 minutes then broken fifth gear (and would lose more time on Sunday after holing its cylinder-head and destroying a clutch), Foyt’s had needed a 65-minute gearbox rebuild at half distance, John Hotchkis’ Porsche had been put out by a collision, and the rest had simply been left behind. The real race began on Sunday morning, when Holbert’s car needed to have a defective turbocharger wastegate changed. It lost seven laps straight away, but the throttle butterflies had been bent as the engine overboosted so it was difficult to drive, and the engine failed Bell completely in the 23rd hour.

With Lammers’ Jaguar retired and Cheever’s slowing, Brundle/Nielsen/Boesel suddenly found themselves in with a chance, on the same lap as the BFG Porsche which needed frequent patching at the front. Sheer desperation kept the BFG team going. Redman had a rear tyre blow (while braking from 210mph past the pits) after touching a Jaguar on the banking, and did a full lap showering sparks from the rim. Later he crossed the grass at relatively low speed, while behind the pace car, with the nose panel waving in the wind, and made for the pits where Baldi took over. “C’mon, let’s go, let’s go,” Baldi shouted as more tape was applied . . . and on his first lap he too had a long trip over the grass!

Only in the last hour, when the driver’s door blew away, did BFG concede victory to Brundle’s Jaguar, which was running better than at any time in the race. If the IMSA regulars did not know it before, they know now that they have “one helluva fight” on their hands. Porsche’s dominance of IMSA is under heavy pressure, at last. MLC

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