IMSA -- Daytona 24-Hours

The Perfectionist

The Daytona 24-Hour race began as a test of speed and ended as a feat of endurance won, not unexpectedly, by Porsche. With the factory teams of Jaguar, Nissan and Toyota out of contention on Sunday morning it was left to Reinhold Joest, the perfectionist, to orchestrate the success. . . . the 18th Porsche win at Daytona since 1968, and perhaps the hardest to achieve. The drivers of the winning car were Frank Jelinski, Henri Pescarolo, Hurley Haywood, 'John Winter' and, for a couple of hours, Bob Wollek, whose own Joest Porsche had retired with a water pump failure.

A man of few words is Reinhold Joest. A leading Porsche driver in his own right until he retired on winning the Kyalami 9-hours in 1982, Joest is rarely away from his Porsche pit, and is rarely without a look of intense concentration. He allows himself a smile after a good result, but never relaxes until well away from the circuit.

Such dedication has kept the Joest Porsches to the fore in good times, and even in the declining years of the 962. The team's 956/117 won the 24-Hours of Le Mans in 1984 and in 1985, and signed off its career by winning the Fuji 1000 Kms in October '85.

Against the odds Joest's 962C achieved a famous victory over the Mercedes team at Dijon in 1989 and now, deeply disillusioned by FISA's treatment of the World Sports-Prototype Championship, the Abtsteinach entrant has turned his back on the world series to concentrate on the IMSA championship. FISA's loss is America's gain, as Reinhold Joest made perfectly clear.

Four times in the last five years, the winning team at Daytona has gone on to win at Le Mans. Some entrants have an almost superstitious belief in this, and in any case a 24-hour trial of equipment is a valuable experience, so Nissan decided to entrust the Group C R90C model to NPTI, the Californian subsidiary which has cleaned up the IMSA championship in the past three seasons.

IMSA created a special Group C class, hoping to attract more than one disaffected European team, but started a rumpus among their own members when they realised that the Nissans could be two seconds per lap faster, and that this margin would be enough to offset the extended refuelling stops, at 1 litre per second. The matter was settled when IMSA barred the Nissans from the front row of the grid (Julian Bailey, Geoff Brabham and Derek Daly were all quicker than Bob Wollek and Davy Jones, who did start from the front), but allowed them to score full points.

As things stand Nissan will have no entry for the new-look World Sportscar Championship and will have no right to compete at Le Mans, now under full FISA control. The ACO has reserved the right to invite non-championship teams should FISA not provide a full entry of 50 cars, and since that's a near impossibility it seems to be only a matter of time before the Japanese manufacturer receives a gilt-edged card.

Jaguar's chances of winning for the third time in four years were halved when John Nielsen crashed heavily his V12-powered, Bud Light sponsored XJR-12 just 15 minutes into the first practice session. For a change the weather conditions were predominantly wet (the Floridians apologised time and again for the unseasonal weather!) and, with wet shoes, the Dane had a mighty accident when his foot slipped off the brake and onto the throttle pedal in the middle of the fast chicane on the banking.

Team director Tony Dowe had been explaining that the XJR-12D (for Daytona) is now as perfect as a 24-hour car can be, but that didn't allow for any imperfections in the driving expertise. Jaguar's Le Mans team of three V12s will be prepared in exactly the same way, and modifications included new suspensions which make far better use of the softer compound Goodyear tyres, a recirculating overflow system for the water header tank, and ceramic coated exhaust pipes to reduce underbonnet temperatures.

With Nielsen feeling dizzy and his car wrecked, Derek Warwick joined Davy Jones, Scott Pruett and Raul Boesel in the remaining car, perhaps wondering why there wasn't a spare for this great occasion. Warwick hadn't even sat in a Jaguar XJR since the day he nearly won the World Championship at Fuji in 1986, and came out of the cockpit on Thursday evening full of smiles. "It's wonderful," he exclaimed. "The only trouble is, I'm used to cars that rev to 13,500 rpm. . . . this one stops at 7000, so I've been on the rev-limiter rather a lot."

Dan Gurney's All American Racers Eagle Toyota team made the usual optimistic predictions for the 2.1-litre, four-cylinder powered turbo cars, and had to be taken seriously because Juan Manuel Fangio II, nephew of the great man, had won four IMSA sprint races in 1990.

AAR put on a good show for Toyota, but both cars retired with terminal engine failures, Fangio's after two hours and Rocky Moran's on Sunday morning, when eighth, and Gurney summed up: "It's awfully hard to run a four-cylinder turbo here, but the guys did a great job of nursing them around."

Andy Wallace, winner in a Jaguar last year, has left Tom Walkinshaw's team after three eventful, but under-rated seasons and joined Toyota, where he found the Daytona car "not bad, a lot better than I expected."

That left the Porsches, of which there were fewer than usual but of higher quality (only 46 cars altogether started the race, an ample number for the 3.56-mile course but well down on previous years, especially 1986 when 70 cars started).

The late Al Holbert got his Porsches as close to perfection as anyone could imagine, and it seemed likely that Reinhold Joest would set an equally high standard once he gave the American series his full attention. Joest's line-up looked a little strange, in European eyes, as Kremer's Porsche Cup winner Bernd Schneider joined the team, and so did Massimo Sigala, taking Torno sponsorship from Walter Brun's team.

Rob Dyson's Porsche is the best of the American prepared cars, and was in some races last year the only Porsche taking part. The 962 has been substantially developed by Dyson Racing and, with a weight reduction permitted by IMSA midway through the 1990 season, became a front runner again. James Weaver, winner at Tampa last October, again leads the team with an almost emotional endorsement from Dyson: "He's sterling, he's a wonderful driver, a fine person, an excellent mechanic too. . . ." Tiff Needell and John Paul Junior made up a fine and wonderful trio, good enough to keep the Dyson Porsche at the forefront until daybreak on Sunday.

So far as the Americans were concerned, though, only two entries mattered. The Andrettis and the Unsers, dynasties in the States, were signed up astutely by Jochen Dauer, the Nürnberg entrant, with backing from BF Goodrich and had two brand new 962s at their disposal.

The cars were, in fact, too new, and the teething problems created a good deal of stress within the team. The car for Mario Andretti, and his sons Michael and Jeff, was still being built the previous Sunday when a pre-race test session had been arranged, while Al Unser Senior, with son Al Junior, and nephews Robby and Bobby, had to watch the paint dry on Thursday morning.

None of this was good for Dauer's state of mind, and he had good reason to be grateful for help from visiting Europeans Ian Dawson (now managing the new BRM project) and Wiet Huidekoper, the Dutchman working on Lola's new Group C car.

Two more Porsches of note were John Hotchkis' 962 which was lapped once or twice every hour, but finished third after a reliable run, and the Gunnar Porsche Racing 966, a carefully worded appellation designed not to annoy the Porsche factory. Britain's fledgling dynasty, Derek Bell and his 22-year-old son Justin, raced the 966 with John 'Jay' Cochran, and they were a well-placed seventh when the open car was withdrawn on financial grounds after two hours.

The Porsche spyder was a project undertaken by Al Holbert before he died in September 1988, and he and Derek Bell would have raced it the following season. Not, almost certainly, at Daytona, where a coupé's aerodynamics are a major advantage, but builder Kevin Jeanette wanted to give the car an airing.

The 966 has a Jim Chapman honeycomb monocoque with substantial side-rails, and one-piece bodywork which makes it stiffer than a 962 coupé. It might be the ideal car for the sprint events, starting at Miami on April 7, and the Bell family will remain involved.

Once the car had been withdrawn, members of the public were invited to autograph the white bodywork with felt-tip pens, and BFG put up a dollar for each of the estimated 6000 signatures. The money is going to the families of American servicemen in the Gulf, and Cochran took the 966 back into the race for the last half-hour to complete the exercise.

Support for American and allied forces was very high at Daytona, with messages on many of the cars; the Jaguar bore the legend '41st Squadron, RAF Coltishall', the unit that pitted the Jaguar fighter against the Jaguar XJR in an acceleration test last year.

The first hour of the race provided more excitement than a whole season of Group C racing as the top American and European drivers drafted past each other at over 200 mph. Michael Andretti snatched the lead from Wollek and Davy Jones, as if by right, but found that his black, Texaco backed 962 had more downforce than speed and dropped back to third.

Arie Luyendyk came from way back to join the leaders, and forced his way to the front with some very aggressive moves amongst the back-markers. His was the third Nissan, and true to the team's form he was there to provide an insurance policy against an early breakdown. Unlike Bailey (who spun on the opening lap) and Earl, he had no need to save fuel, and made the most of it.

The end of the first hour saw the Nissan and Porsche teams intact, with the Jaguar nicely placed fourth, but a threatening, ground-level cloud curled over the east banking early in the second hour and plumes of spray came from the tyres.

An accident seemed inevitable. Calvin Fish, an Englishman abroad, spun his Mazda GTO into the wall, bounced off and went without stopping to the pit for lengthy repairs. A Porsche 911 spun and stalled broadside across the track, and Mario Andretti had no place to go but across the broad swathe of grass in front of the pits, sideways.

Andretti collected the 962 in time to stop at his own pit, where the plug leads were changed to cure a misfire (the Unser's Porsche needed a similar remedy), and next time around the American stopped again to have the right-rear suspension corner replaced. That dropped him half an hour, and the Andretti family drove the next 18 hours at a furious pace, reaching first place for a while on Sunday morning.

While the track was wet the speed of the Nissans surprised even the NPTI team, and went so far ahead that the Bailey and Brabham cars remained in the lead even after their pit stops. The Jaguar, and the Wollek and Dyson Porsches, went with them and the contest seemed as open when darkness closed in, shortly before seven o'clock, as it had at the beginning.

The Bud Light Jaguar speeded during the evening, as a dry line appeared, and was a lap ahead of the Nissans at quarter distance. Brabham's Nissan was ahead again at midnight, when a pit stop could still change the order, but Jones and co still seemed to have the upper hand until the eleventh hour, when the Jaguar's temperature gauge suddenly went into the red. A cloud of steam was the last thing the Jaguar team expected in this race, and it was a broken water pump driveshaft that caused it. Such a breakage had stopped the XJR in the Saturday morning warm up, and again it was a case of removing the V12 to replace the pump. Hours later, when the Jaguar went back on the track, the third pump broke its drive, forcing team engineer Ian Reed to the conclusion that he had a bad batch.

By this time Bailey's Nissan was overheating too, due to a leaky radiator, and when Steve Millen ran over some debris the team had to carry out major repairs. The radiator was changed and the body mountings had to be repaired, putting the car ten laps behind the Dyson and Wollek Porsches, and would retire later when the transmission broke, and then an engine mounting failed.

Brabham and Daly both owned up to hitting track debris, and their Nissan lost nine laps having the front and rear bodywork changed. Robby Unser was the innocent cause of all this, spreading his Porsche across the landscape when the lights suddenly failed as he tackled the last infield turn.

Wollek's Porsche led at half distance, but shortly afterwards the water pump failed when Schneider was at the wheel, and a piston collapsed by the time the car reached the pit. The Dyson Porsche then went into the lead, despite having run most of the race with poor brakes, and losing fourth gear soon after midnight.

Weaver, Paul Jr and Needell coped with these disabilities with aplomb, but a broken alternator bracket was the penultimate straw. Dyson's crew changed the battery, but when the lights finally failed they had to hold the car in the pits waiting a few minutes for sunrise. Soon afterwards a broken connecting rod despatched the long-suffering 962.

Into the lead went Jelinski's Porsche, with the Andretti family hot in its wheel-tracks. They, too, had lost fourth gear but their lap times hardly suffered, and at the 18-hour mark they were within shouting distance of the Joest Porsche. A routine stop for Jelinski put the Andrettis ahead for three laps, but their race was shattered when a bolt fell out of the flywheel and entered the clutch.

The repair took an hour, and the hardworked engine was losing power as the race neared its end. Brabham's Nissan needed more taping-up every time it stopped, but lost more time when the battery box broke, and attention turned to the Joest Porsche which needed water each time it stopped. Not for the first time in the 962's history, a water rail had sprung a leak. "The engine is not overheating," said Pescarolo, "but we have to be very careful to look at the temperature gauge." When all the Porsches were air-cooled the only concern was that the fan should keep turning, but these days racing drivers have to watch the water temperature like everyone else, and the leak was very reminiscent of those which haunted the factory team at Le Mans in 1988.

The entire Joest team was on tenterhooks for the last five hours of the race. Brabham's Nissan was far behind, a dozen laps at least, but there wouldn't be enough cushion to take the Porsche apart in order to change the leaky water rail.

Way behind the Nissan, the Andrettis charged back into the fray to take third place from John Hotchkis' Wynns Porsche, only to stop again with a dire lack of turbo boost. Mario took the 962 back for one last shot, but lost a duel with one of Jack Roush's marvellous GTO class winning Ford Mustangs, and wisely parked the car with a secure fifth place.

In IMSA racing a car doesn't have to be running to be classified, in fact it can be a smoking wreck on the far side of the course, and by the same token a car can be totally rebuilt in the garage, and still return to the contest.

The mighty Mustangs, V8 powered, 6-litres, 600 horsepower and with road car lookalike bodywork cladding spaceframe chassis, rumbled to fourth and sixth places with astonishing reliability. Various Ford types prepared and entered by Roush have won the GTO class at Daytona for seven years in succession, and the only difficulty this year was a fractured oil pipe which forced a gearbox change, in no more than half an hour.

Honda were very pleased with their weekend's work, too, winning the Lights class with the Acura-powered Spice on its debut run. The engine is a 3-litre V6, and the car driven by Parker Johnstone, Doug Peterson, Steve Cameron and Bob Lesnett had a clear run, apart from having a rear corner changed after a collision in traffic. Similar grids are expected at Palm Beach and Sebring, two more traditional Floridian events in March, and then the IMSA championship will take on its more familiar format at Miami, on April 7, when the Nissan, Toyota and Jaguar teams all expect to run revised cars. Reinhold Joest will be at the majority of races, and his Porsches will be very tough competitors indeed. -- MLC

***

Results (top five): Daytona 24-Hours, Florida, February 2-3

(1st round, IMSA Camel GT Championship)

1st: Frank Jelinsky/Henri Pescarolo/Hurley Haywood/'John Winter'/Bob Wolleck (Joest Porsche 962) - 719 laps

2nd: Geoff Brabham/Chip Robinson/Derek Daly/Bob Earl (NPTI Nissan R90C) - 701 laps

3rd: John Hotchkis/Jim Adams/Chris Cord/Rob Dyson (Wynns Porsche 962) - 692 laps

4th: Robby Gordon/Mark Martin/Wally Dallenbach Jr (Roush Ford Mustang GTO) - 672 laps

5th: Mario Andretti/Michael Andretti/Jeff Andretti (Dauer Porsche 962) - 663 laps

Winner's average speed: 106.633 mph