World Sportscar Championship: Suzuka 480kms

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The old order changeth . .

“Do you remember the ‘Silver Arrows’ finished their debut race at Reims in 1954 with a 1-2 victory?.” Dr Hermann Hierath, Mercedes’ Group C technical project manager, put that to Peter Sauber when Jean-Louis Schlesser and Kenny Acheson crossed the finishing line at Suzuka six seconds apart, and the Swiss constructor hurried to the back of the garage to dry his eyes! Despite the awesome reputation of Mercedes in motor racing, and despite the massive effort put into the 1989 programme, Peter Sauber’s team remains essentially nice and sporting, in victory or defeat. Judging by the form shown in Japan, at the opening round of the 1989 World Sports-Prototype Championship, there are plenty more victories in prospect this year for the second generation Silver Arrows.

All credit to the Swiss-German team, which looked decidedly shaky in qualifying, and to Kenny Acheson who drove a solo race lasting nearly three hours, and still found the strength to shock team and race leader Schlesser by moving ahead for four laps in the last hour. Manager Max Welti was forced to re-shuffle his team on race morning, Jochen Mass, being down with Asian flu and suffering from double vision and Mauro Baldi taking pain-killers to forget the effects of his broken ankle each time he hit the Mercedes’ brake pedal.

For the Silk Cut Jaguar team though the Japanese race was not so much a defeat as a disaster, routed not only by the Saubers but by a Joest Porsche and a Nissan as well. John Nielsen and Andy Wallace coaxed their XJR-9 V12 to fifth place on the limit of their fuel allocation but Jan Lammers threw caution to the winds, setting the fastest lap of the race on lap 75 and parking on lap 80 with a dry tank.. “We’ll have an investigation when we get the cars back home … right now we don’t know what went wrong,” commented team manager Roger Silman.

The Jaguars won the last Japanese race in style at Fuji last October, and enabled Martin Brundle to return home as World Champion. That was followed by a shock defeat at the hands of Mercedes at Sandown Park, distressing for the World Champion team at the time, but nothing compared to the debacle at Suzuka. This year’s regulations have added 50kg to the minimum weight for C1, moving up from 850 to 900kg, and while the Jaguars have actually increased their weights, no ballasting was needed for the Joest Porsches or the Nissans which were over 900kg last year. In that respect alone, the relative performance of the Jaguars has been impaired.

Whilst the Jaguar XJR-10 has been developed, the “9” has been uprated with larger diameter wheels and brakes (respectively 18 and 14 inches), a revised fuel injection system supposed to be more efficient, and revisions to the March/TWR transmission. Clearly a wrong turn has been taken somewhere, a fact not helped by a choice of tyre compounds, which left the cars short of grip, and consequently heavier on fuel than might have been expected. The problem did not show up when the cars were run for the first time on Friday, certainly not in the torrential conditions on Saturday morning, nor even in the emergency qualifying session on Sunday morning. Not until the race was 10 laps old did the abnormal fuel consumption register with Lammers and Nielsen, and then of course it was far too late to save face. As for Lammers, he has now driven in four IMSA and one Group C race this year and finished none of them, the Le Mans winner’s luck clearly not improving despite his elevation to number one status. His new co-driver, Patrick Tambay, delights the team that told Bob Wollek “we don’t want another Frenchman, thank you..

The Sauber-Mercedes team, as everyone recognises, has a new sense of purpose this year and has allocated a very adequate, and substantial, budget to the business of winning races. Properly applied by the right people, such an amount will get the job done, and despite a bad start to the weekend — Mass crashed a C1 on Saturday, blaming his physical condition, and Schlesser’s qualifying period was fraught on Sunday morning — the team rose to the occasion. The M119 32-valve engine clearly has moved the team in the right direction and if there is a weakness, it is in the old aluminium chassis. It will take a topnotch team to exploit that, to make the silver cars race even harder.

The Porsche 962 chassis does not get any younger, dating back essentially to 1982, and yet the private teams seem to have found a new lease of life. Especially Joest and Schuppan, with recently released factory cars, and they showed that outstandingly good preparation is the best way of dealing with those teams which have undertaken extensive development work (not necessarily a bad thing) but have not put in enough track time. Joest will have a new car at Dijon in May, again based on a factory chassis, and after the Suzuka race it seems even more justified to say that there is one more Le Mans victory left in the old design.

Bob Wollek and Frank Jelinski, who made a perfect partnership to finish third at Suzuka, on the lead lap too, might very well take the honours in June, but so too might Vern Schuppan and Eje Elgh, another very complimentary pairing that ran with the Joest Porsche most of the way. Their performance was flattered perhaps because the car ran out of fuel just before the end and slipped from fourth to twelfth, but that does not detract from the fact that the quiet Australian and former Le Mans winner, has put together a team that is shrewd in every way.

Signals have gone out that Nissan and Toyota are moving belatedly into fifth gear and they certainly showed it at Suzuka. Toyota locked up the front row of the grid and had two cars challenging for the lead at times, while the Nissan team, running its old March-based cars for the last time in a World Championship race, avoided all the temptations and aimed for a good finish. The rewards were there for the taking, Toshio Suzuki and Kazuyoshi Hoshino moving their Nissan smoothly into fourth place at the end, just one lap down, and Paolo Barilla and Hitoshi Ogawa falling from fourth to sixth on the final lap with a fuel shortage.

Nissan’s European motorsports manager, Howard Marsden, took delivery of the first Group C chassis from Lola Cars a few days before the race and this R89C model will be the mainstay of the ’89 programme from Dijon onwards, the car powered by an improved twin-turbo V8. Toyota’s current programme started badly with two new cars being written off in testing — one when a brake disc exploded and another when a broken oil line lubricated a rear tyre, though luckily Paolo Barilla and Johnny Dumfries were not hurt. Barilla and Ogawa had to drive an updated ’88 chassis, an unloved car, but still the Japanese driver made the front row of the grid and gave Schlesser’s Sauber a good run for much of the distance. Geoff Lees, partnered by Dumfries, put the ’89 model on pole position and was well in contention until a brake caliper sprang a leak.

European visitors thought that the Fuji Speedway is the wettest place on earth but Suzuka was at its worst when the Group C qualifying was held, rain bucketting down all the previous night and most of the day. The Joest and Brun Porsche teams did not go out in the morning and when Jochen Mass ventured out in the Sauber he completed half a lap, spun along a straight and twisted the left-rear suspension against an armco rail. His ailment may not have been a contributory factor but the German did not drive again all weekend.