Precision Timing

With a chilling precision, Mercedes took control of the Suzuka 480 Kms race in Japan and repeated last year's 1-2 result. Jean-Louis Schlesser and Mauro Baldi won the race, just as they did last year in the same C9 model, with Jochen Mass and his young Austrian protégé Karl Wendlinger 42 seconds behind. Geoff Lees started from pole position again, in the Tom's Toyota, so a casual observer might well ask what's been happening in the past year.

Quite a lot has happened, in fact, though Suzuka produced a "not proven" verdict. In the long, politic-ridden five month break since Mexico the Silk Cut Jaguar team has completed an enormous development programme on the XJR-11 turbo model, and for an hour it seemed possible that the largest trophy would be taken back to Coventry. Oil pump drive failures sidelined both Jaguars, but it wasn't a defeat that made the team sullen and introverted. "We're in busines," said Martin Brundle, who displayed his mastery in leading most of the first hour, scything through traffic with a surgeon's precision. "They've had their wake-up call," said Jan Lammers, always the man for the colourful comment, of Mercedes. Monza might be the turning point, but the Jaguar team now has high hopes of achieving its fourth consecutive Silverstone victory, on May 20.

Toyota's refined 90C-V model acquitted itself well, also the new 3.6 litre V8 engine although the fuel consumption is still worryingly high when the cars are extended by the Mercedes. Nissan's Japanese NISMO team worked very hard to achieve third place with the R9OCJ, which may not be quite as good as the latest R9OCK that the World Championship team will operate out of Milton Keynes. The Porsches, though, showed their age as never before: Bob Wollek was tenth on the grid in the factory-assisted Joest Racing Porsche, the best of the Weissach products, and fifth to tenth places in the results is a pretty fair assessment of their performance.

All of Mercedes' challengers were highly aware of one thing: the job was done with last year's cars, hardly developed during the winter except to run on Goodyear's tyres. World Champion Schlesser missed pole position on Friday by a fraction of a second, despite a high-boost misfire, and crashed heavily on Saturday afternoon as he set off with 850 bhp under his right foot and cold tyres under the floor.

Lees, now setting up home in Sutton Coldfield with his Japanese wife, Ayako, after living in Tokyo for a number of years, signed off with a flourish as he put the Minolta sponsored Tom's Toyota 90C-V on pole nearly two seconds quicker than last year. It wasn't a time-bomb engine, either, but the extra power and torque of the large capacity engine didn't do any harm. Spurring on the Bridgestone contracted Tom's team was the presence of the Team SARD Toyota 90C-V, almost identical save for having Japanese Dunlop radial ply tyres. With Roland Ratzenberger and Pierre-Henri Raphanel driving, and the highly experienced Keith Greene managing the team, Toyota Racing Developments (TRD) has hedged its bets for the coming year. Aguri Suzuki and Johnny Dumfries shared the Taka Q Toyota, the latest chassis but with last year's 3.2 litre engine, and qualified for the third row of the grid, but had a far from easy race.

Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Andrew Gilbert-Scott had an uneventful practice and put the Nissan into fifth place on the grid, while team-mates Masahiro Hasemi and Anders Olofsson grappled with a stiff ride and qualified ninth, behind the Jaguars. Hoshino's engine had already completed the Fuji 500 kms race, qualified and completed most of the race (the Japanese driver spun out half an hour before the end) and will also compete in the Fuji 1000 kms early in May in preparation for Le Mans, the French event now having the top priority.

Jan Lammers had an uneventful practice and a good race too, until the oil pressure disappeared, and encouraged the Silk Cut team to think that real reliability is just around the corner. Brundle "lost" two engines on Friday, luckily for external reasons; a suspected bad batch of fuel detonated the Friday morning engine and the second V6 was buzzed when the XJR jumped out of third gear. The team decided to settle for the fourth row of the grid with very respectable times, since Tom Walkinshaw felt they weren't ready for a major challenge to Toyota on Japanese soil. "I'd rather wait until Monza; we'll have a new car there," the Scotsman remarked, referring to the latest XJR-11 with Ross Brawn developed front suspension.

The Spice Engineering team qualified midfield and looked forward to a competitive race, with no limit on the fuel allocated, but there were disappointments in store and the Silverstone team didn't get the result it hoped for. The DFZ-powered Spices, with new six-speed gearboxes, were certainly more nimble than all the turbo cars on Suzuka's slow, medium and fast corners. All to no avail though, as Bernard Jourdain spun on the warm-up lap and lost four laps having damage repaired, finishing 18th with Eliseo Salazar, and Tim Harvey's excellent first hour — he was seventh at the pit stop — was nullified by a major fuel leak which became apparent when the tank was filled.

The Porsches are now part of the scenery at World Championship races, though the 962Cs will undoubtedly be in their element again at Le Mans, and the most noteworthy team was Reinhold Joest's. Norbert Singer, Porsche's own team manager from Weissach, is attached to the team at the races as chief engineer, and with him came two brand new factory chassis, 012 and 014 (even in such matters, superstition prevails!) and a newly delevoped 3.2 litre flat-six engine. This is the first significant engine development since the 3-litre, water-cooled engine first ran in the Rothmans cars in 1985 and other, rather jealous Porsche-powered rivals muttered that the new engine was probably worth 70 bhp. Perhaps not, though. Revised induction and exhaust arrangements and relocated turbochargers were all developed to improve the torque and driveability, which counts for a great deal at Suzuka. Porsche claims 670 bhp, compared with Mercedes' claim of 730 bhp for the M119, TWR's claim of 750 bhp for the V6 and the claims of 800 bhp by Nissan and Toyota for their V8s. All say that they're quoting power with race consumption, 51 litres per 100 kilometres, and since the cars all weigh 900 kg dry and have similar aerodynamic properties, it must be supposed that there are variations in the methods of calculating power.

As a matter of interest Nissan's engine development manager, Yoshima Hayashi, predicts a power output of 700 bhp for his company's 3 1/2-litre V12, ready in 1992, in qualifying trim but perhaps 630 bhp in race trim. In cars weighing 750 kg, performances should be clearly superior, and when we see the Mercedes C291 and Peugeot 905 appear next year they'll probably make the Porsches look like lumbering old lorries. Even so, FISA certainly plans to penalise the turbo teams, with restrictors as well as a strict fuel allocation,

We waited to see if the Joest Porsches would be "edgy" on their Michelin radials, and it certainly seemed that more development work is needed even though Bob Wollek spoke up strongly for Michelin. "They didn't win the World Championship by making rubbish tyres," said the Alasco driver after taming vicious oversteer characteristics and time-wasting wheelspin. His reward was tenth place on the grid with a competitive time, 1 min 51.55 sec but the plot went wrong as soon as the race began, on a track washed clean by heavy overnight rain. Both Wollek and Jonathan Palmer drove the first hour coping with major understeer, enough to wear out their front tyres, and Wollek's car then caught fire at the first fuel stop, the result of a jammed valve on the overflow side, and Joest retired it immediately. Palmer came out of his car exhausted and 'flu-ridden, leaving Henri Pescarolo to race to 11th place.

No-one could accuse the Sauber Mercedes team of making life easy for themselves. Schlesser's car was hurriedly pushed away from the front row of the grid when a fuel union sprang a leak, and the field had completed half a lap before the mighty V8 sprang into life. Schlesser had a deficit of one minute to deal with, and he tackled the task with enthusiasm.

Jochen Mass had a poor start from the second row, looking at the wrong red light and falling back while everyone around him accelerated, but made up ground in the first corner and ran inside Hasemi's Nissan in the second. A clash of doors put the silver car into a spin, and faced with an angry-looking pack the German beat a hasty retreat, finishing the opening lap in twelfth place. The Mercedes team had a lot to do . . .

Lees led the opening lap from Ratzenberger, Lammers and Brundle, and they had no challengers. Mass had seen to that! Hoshino, Wollek and Larrauri were already six seconds behind the second Jaguar chased by Suzuki's Toyota and the Porsches of Takahashi and Elgh. Victims of various first-lap fracas were the Porsches of Palmer, Akihiko Takaya, Franz Konrad and Manuel Reuter, the latter in Richard Lloyd's Porsche losing 21/2 laps having the car cleaned up and checked. Soon Suzuki clashed with Yoneyama's Tom's-Cosworth, putting the Japanese entry off the road and setting up a vibration at the front of the Toyota.

Ratzenberger faded gradually, watching his consumption readout, and on the 11th lap Brundle snatched the lead from Lees. The Jaguar driver's traffic work was breathtaking at times, and Brundle reminded us that in 1988 he won the World Championship with a series of outstanding performances. Lammers kept his team-mate in sight though troubled by high-speed understeer, and at the end of the first hour they were nicely lined up in first and second places.

Attention was firmly centred now on the two Mercedes which had thundered through the pack to third and fourth places. Schlesser had been inside the lap record consistently as he closed to a deficit of 21 seconds — he'd made up 40 seconds in 30 laps, no mean achievement at all — and three seconds behind Mass. Without question the Mercedes drivers had overcome their handicaps, and soon Karl Wendlinger, the 21 year old Austrian "L-team" driver, passed Alain Ferte to lead his debut World Championship race. Baldi followed through, moved up to challenge Wendlinger then changed his mind and fell back on noting the fuel consumption.

Now the race had a nice symmetry, providing a snapshot of the race and Group C racing in general. Two Mercedes led two Jaguars, followed by two Toyotas, two Nissans and five Porsches. Ferte was troubled by a long brake pedal, but Wallace fell back at the halfway point and drove to the pits with a dud turbocharger. The unit was changed and Wallace went out again, only to stop halfway round the lap with failed oil pressure. This, it seemed, might have caused the turbo failure, and a post-race examination revealed a broken pump drive shaft.

Wendlinger defended his lead all the way to his scheduled pit stop, but Baldi pased him on the final stretch into the pits and Schlesser was first out. Mass was on his tail but the stewards decided that the refuelling stop had been too short (the flow is restricted to one litre per second) and imposed a stop-go penalty. This, Brundle decided, was a heaven-sent opportunity and he swiftly moved into second place overall, establishing a new lap record at 1 min 53.732 sec as he did so, nearly four seconds faster than the old record set by Lammers in the Jaguar XJR-9 a year ago. The team's pleasure was short-lived, though, as Brundle's oil pressure failed five laps from home and seized the engine.

There was no threat, now, to the Sauber team's customary 1-2 finish. A lap behind, Lees was forced to slow as the Toyota ran short of fuel, letting the Hasemi/Olofsson Nissan through to third on its last cupful of fuel. Both had put in good solid performances which should take them clear in the All-Japan Sportscar Championship this season, but won't worry Mercedes and Jaguar too much. Fifth were the Japanese veterans Kunimitsu Takahashi and Kazuo Mogi in the Advan Porsch run under Kremer's banner, but they were two laps down followed by Oscar Larrauri and Harald Huysman in the Brun Porsche. Brun himself went out with a broken driveshaft just before the end. Ratzenberger ran out of fuel and Jurgen Lassig's Porsche was excluded from 13th place for being under weight.

Although an important rule was clearly broken, in ignorance of the regulations, everyone's sympathy was with Cor Euser, Fermin Velez and the Chamberlain team after qualifying, as they were excluded from the meeting for refuelling the car on the circuit on Saturday morning. Euser, the Dutchman taking part in his first Group C race, had just stunned the major teams with a lap in 1 min 54.585 sec, at the time, third only to the two Mercedes, and putting the Spice "works" team into the shade as well. This was in an uprated 1989 C2 car which might have made all the Porsches look old-fashioned had it raced.

If the C9 model Mercedes were the cars to beat this season it would be food for thought. The Swiss-German team plans to line up two C11s at Monza and Silverstone, two seconds faster on the form shown at Suzuka, and that will give rivals no comfort at all. MLC