Under scrutiny: Japanese sports-car teams

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Nigel Stroud, who designed the excellent honeycomb aluminium/composite materials chassis, has been retained not only to develop the 767B, but to design the 31/2-litre car for 1991 as well. The “B” which raced at Daytona, and will run in the World Championship, has improved cooling with a single water radiator and a single oil cooler, both larger than the twin units seen last year, and the exhaust flow has been improved. To their surprise, the Japanese engineers found that no power was lost in the compulsory “can” silencers worn at Daytona, and the Group C cars will therefore have a modicum of silencing this year.

Having made the decision in December to continue on the world stage, Mazdaspeed had to form a base in Europe. The decision was easy, Alan Docking having helped Mazdaspeed at Silverstone and Le Mans since 1983 and housed the BFG Lola-Mazda team in 1984, and the Melbourne-born businessman was given the nod early in January. Docking immediately appointed another Australian, Sydney-born Steve Farrell, to manage the team, and the search is now on for suitable premises in the Towcester area, near Silverstone. The outfit took delivery of its first 767B (chassis 003, the Daytona car, with seven tons of spares) on March 31, and will use it for testing. A second car was due to arrive in the UK after racing at Suzuka, and to undergo a 24-hour test at Dijon at the end of April.

Farrell is well qualified, having a degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of New South Wales, and working with Nigel Stroud (who has just completed a new aerodynamic package for Richard Lloyd’s Porsche 962C) is confident of finding some improvements. “Our first priority is to finish well up, in the top six if possible,” says Farrell. “We’ll expect to be reliable of course, and I’ll be concentrating on aerodynamic improvements. I told them in Japan that I might cut the car about a bit, and they didn’t object.” The two Australians met in England in 1977, when Docking was running his own Formula Three team and Farrell was assisting his brother Chris. Docking moved up to Formula Two the following year, and back to F3 in 1985, while also building up his de Tomaso importership and helping the fledgling Mazdaspeed organisation; Farrell returned home to study.

After qualifying, Farrell did some racing in Australia, in Formula Atlantic, then came to England to take up Formula Ford racing. After two seasons in 1983 and 1984, though, he decided to stop driving and concentrate on his race preparation business. “You’ve got to win to progress,” he says, “and although I was reasonably competitive I decided I might not be good enough to go right through to the top. I found that I actually enjoyed the engineering side better.” In 1988 he joined Hugh Chamberlain’s team as manager, with responsibility for Jean-Louis Ricci’s Spice, and played a part in the team’s runner-up position in the C2 Championship.

Realistically, Mazdaspeed cannot hope even for a lucky World Championship victory in 1989 or 1990, but the likeable team plans to finish well as often as possible, and to prepare thoroughly for 1991.

Toyota: doormats no longer

Of the rival Nippon manufacturers Toyota has been nearest to the forefront, on several occasions.

The four-cylinder, 2.1-litre 86C driven by Saturo Nakajima shocked the visiting Europeans at Fuji in October 1986 with a fastest practice lap in 1 min 14.875 sec, the first official lap of the circuit at over 200 kph. Pole position was denied him, as it happened, because Tom’s had put him into the spare car, but for the first time in sports-racing history the Japanese had shown the Europeans that they were doormats no longer. The following year Geoff Lees and Alan Jones contested the lead almost until half-distance in their 87C.

But progress to the front was not maintained last year, when the entirely new 88CV proved to have a powerful engine but a disastrously poor chassis. The composite materials monocoque has been totally redesigned for 1989, and is now built by the Toyota Research and Development division.

In Toyota’s case it was easy to base a World Championship programme in Europe because John Wickham and Glenn Waters had established a subsidiary company, Tom’s Great Britain Limited at Hingham, midway between Snetterton and Norwich, two years previously.

Wickham is no longer involved, but Waters is still a director of the company, along with Nobuhide Tachi, and also of the Intersport Formula Three team which will run Paul Warwick this year in a Reynard powered, of course, by a Toyota engine, for which Tom’s GB has been the European agent since 1985.

Not surprisingly, there are strong reminders of Team Lotus around the place: Glenn Waters was Mario Andretti’s chief mechanic when he won the World Championship in 1978, and he has recruited as Tom’s team manager for the Group C programme the respected Dave “Beaky” Sims, who was chief mechanic to Jim Clark in 1966-67 and to Graham Hill when he won the World Championship in 1968.

Sims has spent the last five years in the States as crew chief with the Provimi CART team. He came close to accepting an offer from Ron Dennis to live in Japan and look after McLaren’s Honda test programme (or Honda’s McLaren test programme!), but decided instead to return to windswept Norfolk and accept Waters’ offer.

Waters left Team Lotus from 1979, and formed his own company, Intersport Engineering, in 1980 as a means of selling his experience, with a Formula Three team as his showcase. He developed the Tom’s Toyota into a leading power-unit, good enough to power David Hunt, Damon Hill and Martin Donnelly to a string of successes, and remains a leading contender this year.

Tom’s GB was formed in March 1987, the second year in which the Japanese Group C team did final preparation of its Le Mans cars at Hingham, and once the decision was taken to run a full programme in 1989 there was no doubt where it would be based.

Johnny Dumfries has been signed up as the lead driver, and is the only team member who will compete in the entire championship. A Toyota 88C, the four-cylinder model, has been based at Hingham since January and has undergone a development programme even though it may race only once, at Dijon. Dumfries raced a new 89CV with Paolo Barilla at Suzuka, and this V8 car will reach Hingham in time for Le Mans. “I feel very optimistic about this programme,” said Dumfries when we visited Hingham in March. “Toyota has a long-term commitment to sports-car racing and a very big future, I am satisfied I’m in on the ground floor so far as the World Championship team is concerned, and there’ll be lots of back-up from Japan. Over here, we must be the catalysts, we must make things happen. We must make sure that the improvements we make are carried through as developments on next year’s cars.”

Development will be a team effort, as always, but Tom’s GB has a chief designer in Andy Thorburn, formerly with Lola Cars, and two Japanese engineers have been assigned to the team. Aerodynamic changes have improved the 88C quite substantially, and the team might be surprisingly quick at Dijon, where Geoff Lees shares the car.

As for the new 89CV, it qualified for the Japanese Championship-opener at Fuji with a burst of power (thought to be well over 1000 bhp) that quite shocked Lees, who was timed on the straight at 380 kph! More to the point, perhaps, the new chassis was judged to be about 100% better than last year’s, which was the first composite materials chassis to be built in Japan and suffered from that lack of experience.

Even so, Dave Sims is not making any big predictions for 1989. “This is a learning year for us, we’re not expecting to go out and blow the Mercedes and Jaguars away. We’re going to build the team up to a peak in 1990, in preparation for the 31/2-litre formula. That’s when it really becomes serious! We’ll be looking for reliability this year, to get lots of points, and next year perhaps we’ll be thinking about winning races.”

Nissan: building an image

Nissan has easily the most impressive facility of the Oriental contenders, and almost certainly commands the largest budget.

Howard Marsden, Nissan’s competitions “guru” in Australia, came to Europe at the end of 1987 to establish a workshop base, and chose Milton Keynes in preference to Frankfurt or Brussels. “The UK is the centre of the world’s motorsports developments; you have all the major teams here and all the expertise is around them. Motor racing is a people business, and all the people are here.”

In fact it was a homecoming for Marsden, who migrated from England to Melbourne 20 years ago and plans, eventually, to return to Australia for good. The scholarly team director has a full background in motor racing and rallying, certainly, yet he was also heavily involved in Nissan’s sales and marketing programmes in Australia, and demonstrates a clear overall view of the logistics of mounting a motor racing effort.

“With a background of marketing as well as sport, I have a foot in each camp,” he says. “It does help to see sport in the context of research and development, to weave a programme which relates to product planning. That way we are not pulling in two directions at once, which so often happens when pure motor racing people get involved.”

Marsden started his business and sport careers with Alan Mann, working as his company secretary, car salesman and chief helper at the race circuits from 1963 to 1967. Marsden himself raced a Lotus 7, but concentrated on management when he joined Team Surtees in 1968, then Frank Williams in 1969. With the Williams team he accompanied Piers Courage to do the Tasman series, and decided to stay out there.

After working for Ford Australia for four years (1971-75), managing the special vehicles and competitions programmes, he was recruited by Nissan in 1975 and has been a loyal company man ever since. Down under, he started and developed Nissan’s extremely successful rally programme, and later the Group A saloon racing development, and was regarded as a “natural” for the job of establishing Nissan’s prestige in European-based competitions.

He started, in 1988, with the Skyline and the decision to enter the full Group C series was not made until last September, when FISA backed the Japanese manufacturers into a corner. The contract with Lola Cars was signed as recently as October.

The first Lola-built Nissan R89C was delivered at the beginning of April and immediately shaken down at Snetterton, prior to simulated Le Mans testing at Nissan’s 7-mile high-speed track in Arizona and at Paul Ricard. Nismo in Japan contested the Suzuka opener with an all-Japanese team, and with the R88C which started life as a March design, and Marsden’s team will open its programme at Dijon.

Nismo will not see an R89C until it arrives at Le Mans. There, in June, the British team of Julian Bailey, Mark Blundell and Martin Donnelly will handle one car while Hasemi, Hoshino and Suzuki will drive the second.

Lola will deliver five cars this year, of which two will be race cars based at Milton Keynes, the third will be a development car also based at MK, and the fourth and fifth will be handed over to Nismo. A similar build programme is envisaged for 1990, when a new model will be based on the 1989 development car, and again in 1991.

The idea of having two R89C race cars is to get each to race-fitness, with its own team of mechanics, and they will compete against each other in qualifying. Theoretically the better-placed car will be the one that starts, but in practice the two “in-house” teams will take it in turns to race. Marsden says that, except for Jarama, Nissan will test at every circuit on the schedule at least a month before the race itself.

This is the most ambitious assault yet seen in world-class sports-car racing but Marsden won’t predict any victories this year. “We will work on durability until Le Mans, pure and simple. Afterwards we’ll work on our speed, our competitiveness, and that’s when the real development will take place.” Keith Greene has been recruited to manage the Nissan team, having spent two years in company with David Prewitt running GP Motorsport, and getting Costas Los up to a highly professional level in Group C2. Associated with Gordon Spice for many years, Greene has previously administered the Capri programmes, the Rondeaux at Le Mans, John Fitzpatrick’s Porsche, then Richard Lloyd’s Porsche which won at Brands Hatch and finished second at Le Mans in 1984.

“It is a very good opportunity for Keith,” says Howard Marsden. “I’ve never employed a team-manager before, be I’ve always done the job myself, but the Nissan programme is expanding and there will be other things that need my time. I must work myself out of a job!”

The scale of the operation is enormous, its potential limitless. In March a factory unit, next to Tickford’s, was immaculately prepared for the three cars. Nissan’s corporate colours of red and blue predominate, and Marsden likes everything to be neat and tidy. Outside there is a three-car transporter, and a Nissan tractor unit powered by a 21-litre V10 engine. “It’s geared down for Europe, but it can comfortably exceed all the speed limits fully laden,” says Marsden with understatement.

Image is what it is all about, which is why Marsden fought with some success against having sponsorship on his cars. “Jaguar has a strong image which can stand on its own, even against Silk Cut. Nissan doesn’t have such an image, and the name would tend to be swamped by cigarette advertising. We want Nissan to represent the best of Japan, as Jaguar does the best of British.”

Marsden is the first to say openly that Le Mans must stay in the World Championship, and that Nissan will build special engines for this one event. “Clearly it’s going to be necessary to build an engine suitable for 24 hours. Nissan will do it for Le Mans. The race is that important. Better still, though, we hope there will be other 24-hour races in the series. Daytona perhaps, Spa maybe, Fuji probably. They’re really going ahead with that idea at Fuji, and it would be a very prestigious event.”

Nissan, it has to be said, has been one of motor racing’s sleepers since Group C began in 1982, never coming anywhere near realising its enormous potential. All that, says Howard Marsden, has changed. Nissan will be winning in 1991, he is certain … and maybe before that.

The Japanese are traditionally cautious people who like to plan a long way ahead. What Honda has done for Grand Prix racing is only the start, and European rivals had better be aware that Nissan, Toyota and Mazda plan to dominate sports-car racing in the Nineties. MLC