IMSA GTP championship

Night and day!

Derek Bell's particular blend of skill and good luck earned him his third victory at Daytona, and his eighth 24-hour race laurels in all, in the opening round of the 1989 IMSA GTP Championship.

The Pagham driver's personal technique and car sympathy can only be one factor in this phenomenal record of victories; the other is to be in the right car at the right time, with co-drivers who can make their contribution. The car, of course, was a Porsche 962, prepared by Jim Busby for sponsors Miller Beer and the BF Goodrich tyre company, co-drivers being the veteran Bob Wollek and the relatively inexperienced John Andretti.

Just 76 seconds behind at the finish, in the closest Daytona finish for two decades, was the Castrol Jaguar XJR-9 driven by Price Cobb, John Nielson and Andy Wallace, with a contribution from Jan Lammers on Sunday morning.

Some of the parallels with last year's race were almost uncanny, even though the result was reversed, for it was Jim Busby's Porsche which lost a gallant battle with the newly-formed Jaguar team in 1988, and it was Lammers who stepped into Nielsen's car just when, in Tom Walkinshaw's opinion, it need a fresh driver in the cockpit.

Then again, although Bell did not refer to it at the time, there was the personal satisfaction of avenging his 21/2-minute defeat at Le Mans last June. Walkinshaw has absolutely no doubt that Lammers' Jaguar would have won the French event even if Klaus Ludwig hadn't run Bell's Porsche out of fuel and lost time, but Bell never agreed. On that occasion he had been pushed into the background by Stuck and Ludwig (and even failed to earn the points that would have been due if he'd driven 30% of the distance), but at Daytona the Englishman played the leading role, and savoured his success.

"I don't actually enjoy 24-hour races at all," he announced at the post-race press gathering. "Several times in the race I'll say, this is the last time I'm ever going to do it." Having achieved something his uncle Mario has never managed, John Andretti was equally laid-back: "The best thing about winning a 24-hour race is you don't have to come back if you don't want to!" Having shown that he has the ability to win a marathon event, though, it is hardly likely that John won't be around to uphold the family name in future classics.

It has to be said that there was always another 24-hour victory in the Porsche 962, a model which was really designed for endurance rather than sprinting, and that last year the Jaguar team didn't beat a Porsche that had no problems at all.

Bell's Porsche and Cobb's Jaguar were tied together throughout the race, usually on the same lap, lying fifth and seventh after the first hour and moving up the leaderboard together. The Porsche lost three minutes, a lap and a half maybe, when a rock hit the windscreen and Busby's crew changed the glass, but no more than that.

The surviving Jaguar, on the other hand, had any advantages peeled away in layers: the V12 engine was overheating on Saturday evening and into Sunday morning (water temperature was a steady 100deg. oil temperature 125deg.), so that eventually new airinduction side plates had to be fitted, with larger scoops, there was a deflated rear tyre, probably cut by debris while Wallace was driving, a spin by Price Cobb at the moment he was putting Bell under great pressure, and a subsequent damage check. It all mounted up, to around five minutes in total, and indicated the near-parity between the two crews.

The last three marathon sports-car races therefore have been decided by one lap, by 21/2-mins and by 11/4 mins respectively, indicating, if we did not know it already, that 'Tom Walkinshaw's Jaguars have raised the level of competition to a new peak, and that the team that beats them has to be outstanding on its day.

Curiously, the Busby Porsche looked anything but a likely winner during qualifying. While Mario and Michael Andretti had a completely untroubled practice in the second BFG/Miller 962 and qualified ninth, well in touch with the pole-sitting Nissan, Bell's car refused to show any speed at all. It sounded flat as it went past the pits at full speed, short of nearly 1000 rpm, was no quicker next day with lower gearing, and again failed to show form when a new engine was installed. The problem lay with the turbocharger unit or with the newish underbody profile, both of which were changed the night before the race.

"Then suddenly we had a race car, it was night and day," said Bell once the race was under way. As it turned out, Mario's Porsche threw a tyre tread in the third hour, damaging the rear bodywork and under-tray, and later a rear suspension top link had to be changed, then a brake caliper, almost certainly as a consequence of the original failure. It was embarrassing for BFG to find that Busby's team had a dud tyre-gauge which was over-reading by five pounds; every tyre in the pit was dangerously under-inflated, and that car was withdrawn when it went an impossible 40 laps down.

Although IMSA has rewritten the rulebook to discriminate against the runaway Nissan (Geoff Brabham won eight consecutive races in the blue car last year, an unprecedented record), it still seemed to have the measure of the normally-aspirated Jaguars. The inlet restrictor upstream of the big turbocharger has been reduced in diameter from 57mm to 54mm, supposedly robbing it of about 50bhp, while the air-cooled Porsches kept their 57mm restrictors and the watercooled Porsches (Group C type, recently admitted) had their restrictors increased in orifice diameter from 36mm to 38mm.

It did indeed seem that IMSA had brought the rival teams close together in the 660-680 horsepower bracket, though with Nissan maintaining an advantage. Brabham was on pole position in his Nissan, though half a second slower than Baldi went last year in the BFG Porsche, then came Jan Lammers' Jaguar, Chip Robinson in the second Nissan, Hans Stuck in Walter Brun's water-cooled twin-turbo Porsche, Klaus Ludwig in Bruce Leven's similar 962, then Jeff Kline in the "works" Spice Pontiac 5-litre V8 GTP, followed by two more Jaguars.

Four different makes in the top six really is new in IMSA racing, and it was particularly pleasing to see the Spice up there with the top makes. Spice Engineering has clearly established itself as the top make in Group C2 and IMSA Camel Lights, with its excellent car designed by Graham Humphreys at Silverstone, and is moving into the upper echelons with impeccable timing. At the 5-litre capacity the Spice GTP enjoys an advantage of 95kg (it has to be ballasted to reach the minimum of 805kg) which makes it a very nimble machine indeed, and managing director Jeff Hazell anticipates that it will be particularly suitable for the street circuits such as Miami in March.

Even by Floridian standards the 85deg.F temperatures were unusual, and a really torrid race was held while the rest of America froze. Temperature gauges went sky-high in the neighbouring Jaguar and Nissan pits in the first few seconds of the race, as fellow Irishmen Derek Daly (Jaguar) and Michael Roe (Nissan) managed to collide at the fifth corner of the infield section.

To hear their comments was to hear about two different accidents, but Roe had been ahead as Daly drove into the side of his car, damaging the Jaguar's front suspension and monocoque so badly that the car had to be withdrawn. Walkinshaw is sure to have explained to his man that you just don't do things like that at the start of a 24-hour race: in fact it would have been better to stop and count ten rather than risk an accident at that stage. Roe's Nissan was withdrawn, as had been planned, after it had been used to scrub in more tyres and brake-pads for Brabham's car.

The three-way battle between Nissan, Jaguar and Porsche went on for many hours. Until now the Electramotive-prepared Nissan, which is designed and built in California, had never been called upon to race for more than three hours, but all that was about to change. Though it had never appeared in the Daytona 24 Hours before, this unknown quantity proved to have slightly superior speed to its rivals, and excellent reliability too. Driving quickly but cautiously, Brabham, Roe, Arie Luyendyk and Chip Robinson moved into the lead in the fifth hour and commanded the race until mid-morning on Sunday. A dragging clutch was merely a nuisance, but a dropped valve was a terminal problem.

The Nissan may have led the race at 10.15am on Sunday, but it hadn't been racing all that time. All the competing cars, in fact, were lined up silently in the wide pit-lane for nearly four hours as a warm, humid fog swirled up from the seashore at one o'clock in the morning. The pace-car went out for half-an-hour and then, as conditions worsened, the red light was shown. Racing at a potential 200 mph around a banked track with visibility down to 100 metres is nobody's idea of a breeze, and there was unanimous approval for IMSA's decision.

Lammers, Davy Jones and Raul Boesel became spectators soon after midnight when their V12 deranged itself without warning, and by that time the Jaguar team was seriously concerned about the surviving car, which moved up to second place though a lap behind the Nissan. Third, though only a matter of seconds away, was Bell's Porsche, and by that stage this trio had no serious opposition.

Walter Brun's Porsche, driven by Brun himself with Hans Stuck, Oscar Larrauri and Doc Bundy, made a dreadful start when the linkage bent between the brake pedal and the hydraulic reservoir. Soon afterwards more time slipped by when the on-board jacking system failed, but having lost 14 laps in the first couple of hours the Swiss team was to recover to a fine third place.

Fourth by the finish was the Dyson team's Texaco-sponsored Porsche handled by Ludwig, James Weaver and Sarel van der Merwe, which fairly commanded the first two hours, only to lose 16 laps in the third hour when the throttle-linkage fell apart.

Almost simultaneously Mauro Baldi crashed the Momo/Gebhardt Porsche as a result of hydraulic fluid leaking from a rear caliper, the Italian surviving a nasty headlong crash into the barriers with a broken right ankle. It could have been much worse, but even so it jeopardises the start of Baldi's 1989 season with the Sauber Mercedes team; Peter Sauber will want him to be on duty at Suzuka early in April, but the doctor who pinned his broken bones forecast two months in plaster.

The Spice Pontiac driven by Kline, Costas Los and Dieter Quester set off for a steady race and ran as high as sixth, but lost a dozen laps when a wheel fell off, more time investigating a misfire, and finally retired with a broken engine. Spice's badge was also carried to sixth place on Sunday morning by Steve Durst's Buick V6-powered car, but the transmission failed him before the finish.

There had been nothing fluky about Jim Busby's first 24-hour success, which was practically copybook after many year of trying. Porsche personnel had had a huge banner ready in the support truck proclaiming the 962's sixtieth IMSA race win an impressive tally in five seasons of racing — and there was jubilation as it was at last unfurled.

Further down the list, fifth place was taken by the shrill Mazda 767B driven by Yoshimi Katayama, Takashi Yorino and Elliott Forbes-Robinson; Paul Stewart (son of Jackie) briefly joined Pete Halsmer and Bob Earl in the sixth-placed GTO clans winning Jack Roush Mercury Cougar, and the Camel Lights class was won by reigning champion Tom Hessert in his Essex Racing Buick-powered Tiga.

Brian Redman got a result too, eleventh overall in a GTO-class Mazda RX-7 as his daughter Charlotte celebrated her 21st birthday at the circuit. Redman recalled that he was racing a factory Porsche at Daytona on February 5, 1968, so he and his wife Marion had plenty to celebrate with their daughter. MC