Nissan takes charge

The Japanese advanced on Le Mans, scaled the walls and conquered the 24 Hours. After that, Daytona was a doddle! Nissan’s NISMO team ran a comprehensive test on the steep, 220 mph bankings last year but withdrew their entries on account of the Gulf war. All the data was checked exhaustively and the R91CP was perfectly prepared for this year’s race, enabling the all-Japanese crew to dominate the event in a way that astonished the Americans.

The result was treated coolly in USA Today which reported a new Japanese assault on the American way, dwelt on the Jack Roush Ford Mustang’s GTS class win (ninth overall), and asked Masahiro Hasemi on his feelings about free trade (in favour).

Nevertheless, the result cements a new US-Japan relationship and defines an axis between IMSA and the Japanese Automobile Federation. “I will say or do nothing against FISA” says Mark Raffauf, IMSA’s chief executive, with his right hand in the air.

He has no need to, because to everyone outside Europe the 3.5-litre Sportscar World Championship is becoming increasingly irrelevant. Raffauf hears that the major Japanese manufacturers — led by Nissan, Toyota, Mazda and Honda — have big plans for IMSA sports car racing in America, and will look for a convergence of regulations.

Europe, the centre of the stricken SWC Group C series, will be the absolute loser because even if the series takes place this year, it cannot survive another winter. As for Le Mans, the race will survive (of course) with just three choices.

Two involve FISA, with the option of ‘silhouette’ 3.5-litre sports cars or Group A saloons, but the alternative will call for a courageous decision to join hands with IMSA and the JAF. A new, unofficial World Endurance Championship could incorporate the 24-hour races of Daytona, Le Mans and Japan, all to identical regulations.

IMSA will not be immune to Max Mosley’s 3.5-litre formula, but is prepared to deal with it. “Who d’you think will win when a 2200-pound car claims the same piece of track as a 1700-pound car?” Raffauf asks rhetorically. He feels that the requirement to fit mufflers and lower the exhaust noise to 108dB — from around 130dB in the case of an unsilenced Ford-Cosworth — will force Jaguar to reduce the engine speed range, and will ‘cost’ 50 horsepower.

Ultimately though, IMSA retains the power to load up the scrutineering weight and cut the Jaguar to size… and the same goes for any other manufacturer thinking of taking the same route. “Our formula is governed by public appeal” says Raffauf, in the final declaration.

Nissan takes charge

It’s in the nature of 24-hour racing that no team can be a ‘favourite’ until it has succeeded before, and in Florida attention was naturally focussed on the Californian based NPTI Nissan team led by four-time IMSA champion Geoff Brabham. The standard of preparation is quite superb (Brabham only once failed to finish a race last year), and the general feeling was that NPTI had done its homework, paid its dues and was ready to win.

Effectively NPTI had two cars for Brabham and his younger brother, Gary, Chip Robinson, Bob Earl, Derek Daly, Arie Luyendyk and Steve Millen, and these were special three-litre versions of the Lola-based R90CP prepared for the IMSA class.

NISMO took one R91CP to Florida for Masahiro Hasemi, Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki, the successful partnership, leaving fourth driver Anders Olofsson out of work. and facing a rather embarrassing trip to Victory Lane on Sunday afternoon. To the eventual delight of the TWR Bud Light Jaguar team the NISMO Nissan was entered in the Le Mans class, a Group C car with a 3.5-litre engine which made the Japanese ineligible for IMSA points. By finishing in second place Davy Jones, David Brabham, Scott Pruett and Scott Goodyear collected the maximum 28 points, which gives Jones a flying start in the 13-race championship.

Jaguar entered two cars but started only one, the well-proven XJR-12D which was fully competitive but not quite lucky enough to beat the Nissan. Three delays caused by a minor accident, a faulty brake caliper, and a broken third gear which was pulled out and replaced in 24 minutes, cost the Jaguar about 20 laps. “Awesome,” said team director Tony Dowe of his crew. “They’re the best mechanics in the world.”

As Dowe is the first to acknowledge the winning team is the one that goes fastest without hurting the car, and Nissan did the job perfectly. NISMO was concerned that the water temperature was high almost from the start, and routinely removed the nose and cleaned the radiator at every stop.

TWR took a keen interest in these processes and anticipated the V8’s demise, but the Nissan wasn’t losing time and never faltered. The low-slung radiator was susceptible to track debris, a problem that TWR has taken great trouble to deal with during the seven-year life of the XJR series. The level of competition at Daytona was better than ever with two improved Toyota Eagles from Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers workshop in California, two immaculately prepared Porsche 962Cs from Reinhold Joest’s team which won last year, a 962C prepared by Vern Schuppan for four-time winner Hurley Haywood and two Cougar-Porsches from Le Mans (called Courage Porsches during their time in America, to avoid any confusion with a Ford Mercury brand!).

It seems like a lifetime now since Porsches dominated the top 10 so effectively in round-the-clock races, and when the race ended there were nine different makes in the top 10. Everyone got something, it seemed, but the Japanese claimed the major share with outright victory, Camel Lights with the BF Goodrich Acura Spice team, fifth overall, and GTU with the Wendy’s Race Team Mazda RX-7, seventh overall.

The Americans did claim one class dear to their hearts, the one that was called GTO but now answers to Exxon GT Supreme. Once again the thundering Jack Roush Ford Mustang team cleaned up there, despite strong opposition from Nissan 300ZXs, but the class-winning Mustang of Dorsey Schroeder, Robby Gordon and Wally Dallenbach was ‘behind the wall’ as the race ended, classified ninth though with an oil pressure failure in the 5.7-litre V8. With 100 laps in hand at midday over the nearest surviving rival, an Oldsmobile Cutlass, Roush’s team could afford to relax on Sunday afternoon because there is no need to be on the track at the end in order to qualify for awards, or even be at the track!

The grid order looked promising as Juan-Manuel Fangio II sliced a full two seconds off the qualifying record in the AAR Toyota Eagle; next to him should have been Davy Jones in the Jaguar XJR-16 turbo, had it not been withdrawn on the morning of the race (Jones started the XJR-12, the ‘real’ race car, from the fifth row of the grid); Hans-Joachim Stuck, irrepressible as ever, was third in his Joest Porsche with Hasemi fourth in the 3.5-litre NISMO Nissan, ahead of the two three-litre NPTI Nissans.

Hasemi swooped past Fangio’s Toyota to claim the lead on the first lap and staked out a dominant position which lasted to the end, save for a couple of hours when Geoff Brabham’s Nissan moved ahead.

The first four hours of the race were run fast without any major dramas, but Saturday evening was not kind to the Brabham family. Soon after dark, as the temperature dipped to 40deg F, David drove the Jaguar V12 out of the pits on stone cold tyres (warmers are not allowed) and slid helplessly into the armco that lines the horseshoe-shaped pit exit road.

The young Australian limped his car round the lap with broken bodywork and the right front wheel askew, and the TWR team set some sort of record in repairing the damage in eight minutes.

But while David made his faltering way round the foot of the banking elder brother Gary made a much more determined assault in the second NPTI Nissan, crashing head-on into the end of the awkwardly situated barrier. The right-front wheel was forced back into the monocoque, and the back-up car was definitely out of the race. Four hours later Geoff’s Nissan, leading and looking a likely winner, suddenly quit the contest when the V8 engine failed without any warning, allowing NISMO to regain the lead and keep it to the end.

‘Brabham Turn’ as the spot was dubbed, soon claimed another victim as Kenneth Acheson crashed Fangio’s Toyota into the end of the barrier. Despite considerable damage the Ulsterman got the Toyota back to the garage and three hours later it returned to the track, good as new! Eventually the 2.1-litre, four-cylinder turbo Toyota was classified 11th overall and fifth in GTP, giving Fangio a useful bank of points to start the season. The other AAR Toyota driven by Rocky Moran, Mark Dismore and P J Jones finished fourth after a steady, trouble-free race. At midnight, nine hours into the race, Reinhold Joest’s Porsche team was well poised to take the lead should anything happen to the Nissan. Bernd Schneider’s crew was second and Hans Stuck’s third, both a lap behind, but neither lasted the distance.

Schneider’s engine suddenly overboosted to a massive eight-bar as the wastegate jammed, Oscar Larrauri having a surprise as the pistons melted. At the 16-hour mark Stuck’s engine failed without warning while Frank Jelinski was at the wheel, and one of the strongest teams took breakfast together at the Holiday Inn across the road.

Pascal Fabre was the luckiest driver at Daytona when he escaped unhurt from a massive accident in Yves Courage’s Cougar-Porsche, in which Bob Wollek was the lead driver. The C28S was up to fifth place and running well in the night when it swung right and hit the retaining wall on the banking at a full 220 mph.

Pit crews were horrified to see the Cougar cartwheeling along the main straight, wreckage being strewn for nearly half a mile until the monocoque came to rest on the grass in front of the Nissan pits, at the far end of the line. Nissan and TWR mechanics rushed to pull Fabre out, fearing the worst, but found him completely unharmed. Until then, Courage’s team from Le Mans had enjoyed a fine debut in America.

When the Bud Light Jaguar was delayed a second time, having its gearbox stripped, the Team Schuppan Porsche moved into second place. Drivers Hurley Haywood, Eje Elgh, Roland Ratzenberger and Scott Brayton had to yield second to the Jaguar later but finished third, with no major problems but an accumulation of trials with a faulty fuel rig, seat belt fixings, a broken brake disc and body damage.

Another troubled car was the Nova Team/From-A Nissan R91C driven to eighth place by Volker Weidler, Mauro Martini and Jeff Krosnoff. When it went well it was very fast, but it had too many brake, cooling and suspension problems to match the NISMO entry. Nissan has shown itself capable of winning a 24-hour race and being ready for Le Mans. The question has to be asked again, though: Is Le Mans ready for Nissan? MLC