Endurance Racing Survey

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Perhaps the most striking aspect of the first two European rounds of the World Championship for Makes was the degree of similarity between the two events. At both Mugello on March 19th and Dijon on April 16th the lead was hotly disputed for the first hour between the rival Porsche 935s run by the Kremer brothers and Georg Loos, only for that battle to break up shortly after the first refuelling stops. In both events, the speed and consistency of the far less powerful 2-litre BMW 320is was remarkable. In both Italy and France the Porsche Turbos’ only realistic rival – a turbocharged, works entered BMW 320 – failed to make the start; and ominously, at both circuits the crowd was so small it might have looked more in place at a schoolboy’s soccer match.

There was, however, one big difference between the Italian and French Group 5 races – who won. At Mugello, England’s John Fitzpatrick, Holland’s Toine Hezemans and Germany’s Hans Heyer emerged triumphant for the Georg Loos stable, but at Dijon it was Frenchman Bob Wollek and Henri Pescarolo who won for the Kremer team. Surprisingly, the latter event marked Wollek’s first ever major racing victory in his native land.

Dealing with the bad news first, BMW’s non-participation in the opening European rounds of the championship has come as a great disappointment, not least to BMW themselves one suspects. Having started to develop a turbocharged Group 5 car at the beginning of 1976, the Bavarian factory last year built a 320 Turbo that proved more than a match for the Porsches in America’s Camel GT series, that trans-Atlantic equivalent of Gp 6 racing run by IMSA. By the autumn of last year, at Brands Hatch, that same design showed itself to have reached complete competitiveness with the latest Martini Porsche 935, the fastest car in the World Championship.

Yet when a similar 320 Turbo arrived at Mugello in March for Manfred Winkelhock and Bruno Giacomelli to drive, it had totally lost its competitive edge. Not only did its engine not work properly for more than a few miles at a time, but it didn’t even handle consistently. Eventually, BMW’s racing boss, Jochen Neerpasch, withdrew the car before the race after its ill-fated practice had culminated in a spectacular and fiery engine failure. At Dijon, the car did not even appear, BMW preferring to pursue a badly needed engine development programme out of the gaze of public scrutiny.

In the absence of the works BMW, the Mugello Six Hours became a straight race between rival Porsche 935s: -Bob Wollek and Henri Pescarolo in the best of two Kremer cars; John Fitzpatrick, Toine Hezemans, Klaus Ludwig and Hans Heyer in the two Georg Loos entries; Germans Franz Konrad, Reinhold Joest and Volkert Merl in Konrad’s brand new car; and the Italians Carlo Facetti and Martino Finotto in an older, 1977 style Porsche.

The first hour produced a tremendous battle for the lead as Wollek strove to stay ahead, permanently under pressure from the hotly pursuing Gelo cars of Fitzpatrick and Hezemans. Fitzpatrick fell back when a tyre began to lose its pressure, but bravely carried on at barely diminished pace until the first round of scheduled pit stops, losing little time on the leaders. The Kremer and Gelo teams got their cars refuelled and back in the race in identical times, so that Pescarolo then led Heyer by only a few lengths. Alas, after 39 laps of the 3.3 mile Tuscan circuit, a piston collapsed in the car driven by Pescarolo, and it coasted into smokey retirement.

Still the race was not over, however, for Facetti/Finotto and Konrad/Joest remained dangerously close to the leader, separating the first and fourth placed Porsches that carried Loos, scarlet and yellow colours. The battle continued until early into the firth hour of the race, at which point the less well placed Loos Porsches snapped a driveshaft, which in turn severed a brake pipe.

With the Facetti/Finotto Porsche slowing because of deteriorating handling and a loose steering rack, the pressure on th4e leaders abated. Eventually, after completing 176 circuits, the car shared by Hezemans, Heyer and Fitzpatrick took the chequered flag still only one lap ahead of Konrad/Joest/Merl. It was the second World Championship Group 6 victory I a row for Georg Loos’s team, as Rolf Stommelen and Hezemans had also brought the German property man win at Daytona back in February.

Of the five almost identical 2-litre MBW 320is in the race, the only car not entered by an official BMW national team ultimately did best. That was the Rudi Faltz prepared machine driven by Dieter Quester and Derek Bell, who after a splendid run came a class winning third overall. In the Swedish entered BMW, Bo Emanuelsson and Anders Olofsson finished sixth; in the Pirelli shod, Osella prepared car, Eddie Cheever and Georgio Francia retired because of over-heating. In the Belgian entry, Harald Grohs and Patrick Neve had their car’s fuel injection system come adrift; and in the Swiss BMW, March Surer and Freddy Kottulinsky went out because of gear selection failure.

As we said at the beginning, Dijon was in many ways a repeat performance. This time Fitzpatrick had to stop after only three laps to have a loose hose from his car’s turbocharger refixed, but again Wollek and Hezemans waged battle for the lead for almost an hour. The two drivers exchanged places several times, but when Wollek handed over to Pescarolo and Hezemans to Ludwig a big advantage, but seven laps later the latter was also forced to stop unexpectedly. A wheel had come loose on the leading Porsche, and by the time it was checked and tightened, Ludwig had fallen to third place.

After that, Wollek and Pescarolo maintained their lead all the way to the finish. They won by three laps in a race shortened from six hours to four because of a blizzard that had delayed the start of official practice the day before and put the whole meeting back many hours. After regaining second place, the Hezemans/Ludwig car retired with an hour to go when a driveshaft broke – exactly at the moment that Ludwig turned into the pits for the last scheduled stop! That car’s demise left Claude Haldi and Herbert Muller second in a Porsche 935/77 (last year’s customer model), but their car succumbed to a persistent loss of oil half an hour from the finish and also retired. So in the end it was the Gelo Porsche started by Fitzpatrick, taken over by Heyer and finally driven by Hezemans that finished second, despite a minor panic 15 minutes from the end when a wheel worked loose, just as had happened earlier to its sister car.

Although not the fastest of the 2-litre BMWs in the race, the “Italian” 320i of Cheever and Francia eventually took the class honours and came third, finishing only 15 seconds in front of Bo Emanuelsson and Ingvar Carlsson in a similar machine. In the early stages of the race, the class lead had been disputed by the Surer/Kottulinsky and Grohs/Neve BMWs. However, the former’s Swiss entered car developed a serious water leak and overheated, while the latter lost time when its fuel injection gear again gave trouble.

The fact remains, Group 5 is still not looking like a picture of health and happiness, even in its third year of existence. As it grows older, it becomes harder to excuse, or overlook, its shortcomings by pointing to its newness or the promise it still holds for the future. The next two World Championship rounds, at Silverstone on May 14th and at Nurburgring on May 28th, could prove crucial to the future survival of the series. If those two races don’t produce better entries, races and crowds than we have witnessed so far this year, it could precipitate a collapse in confidence in this production based, so-called “Silhouette” formula, fast and spectacular as the cars are.

Part of the problem must be that the category is too expensive for amateurs, who traditionally make up a considerable part of the field in endurance racing. It is even too dear for most of the professional teams. A brand new Porsche 935/78, for instance, with all the necessary options required to make it competitive, costs over £60,000 ex works. Running costs reflect a similar degree of enforced affluence, though Group 5 cars do at least usually prove more reliable than most racing machinery. As a result, the formula is in danger of pricing itself out of business for those long distance events that seem unable to attract more than a mediocre audience. At Mugello there were only 25 starters, at Dijon only 22 – not really enough for this sort of event. Moreover, in those two races, Porsche had no opposition in the under 2-litre division. Not a healthy state of affairs at all.

Yet if Group 5 is ailing, Group 6 looks moribund. The opening round of the European Sportscar Championship at Nurburgring, a “sprint” race of only eleven laps or 250 kilometres, suggested that although the sports-racing category may be cheap, it increasingly resembles a latter-day version of a VSCC all-comers race. The event quickly became a two-car race between Reinhold Joest’s old Porsche 908/36 Turbo and Jorg Obermoser’s 2-litre Toj-BMW. When the latter sustained a puncture, Joest was left with such a huge lead that he made his refuelling stop, just a lap from home, a very leisurely affair indeed. So relaxed was it that his crew took time to polish the venerable car, and didn’t notice Giorgio Francia’s works Osella PA6 creeping up until it was too late. Despite a flying, fighting last lap, Joest failed to catch Francia by a couple of lengths, thus giving away a certain victory to the Italian’s 2-litre BMW powered machine. Third was Scotsman Iain McLaren in his updated Chevron and fourth the little known Charly Schirmer in an old 2-litre Lola; which says just about all that needs to be said about the first, disappointing round of the newly down-graded European Sportscar Championship. – J.C.T.