WSC -- Suzuka

The Lion Pounces

Racing the 905 sports car only for the third time, the Peugeot-Talbot Sport team cruised to a one-lap victory at Suzuka on April 14, the first round of the World Sportscar Championship. Fittingly the reigning World Champion drivers, Mauro Baldi and Jean-Louis Schlesser, took the first two places, the Frenchman having wrung what he could out of the heavily ballasted Mercedes C11 turbo.

As an event the Japanese race fell apart after 50 minutes with Martin Brundle's new Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-14 parked at the roadside with failed electrics and Derek Warwick's having its starter motor changed. The Mercedes C291 had done a passable imitation of the doodlebug, catching fire during the morning warm-up when an oil union loosened, and covering half a lap from the refuelling stop with flames pouring from the nozzle valve.

The two Peugeots had the run of the place, but while Yannick Dalmas was shadowing Philippe Alliot his clutch blew apart. The French cars certainly hadn't had an easy weekend so far and there was no optimism that Alliot would go the full distance, but with a lap in hand over the C11 he could afford to slow down and preserve the car.

Despite their lack of test miles the two Jaguars were clearly the fastest and best handling cars on the track, and reliable too prior to the race. The first one tested for the first time at Silverstone's south circuit on March 20, and the second one was completed, tested and crated on March 30.

By that time the Peugeot 905 and the Mercedes C11 had completed thousands of kilometres of testing at the Ricard Circuit, at Jerez, Monza and various other tracks, and even then neither team felt any degree of confidence about completing a 430 kilometre 'sprint' distance. Apart from a damaged gearbox the new Jaguars hadn't had anything go wrong in their ten-day life, and mechanically they sailed through practising and qualifying as well. The biggest problem for Tom Walkinshaw and the XJR-14's designer, Ross Brawn, was the decision of the stewards to disallow the controversial, two-tier rear wing. It was a matter of interpretation, as these matters usually are, and chief scrutineer Patrice Catalano took a straight line from the lowest point on the chassis where Brawn had followed the upward slope, because the XJR stands nose-down, and taken the height of the wing from a higher reference point.

Mechanics worked all night to remake and lower the wings and sideplates, but even at the correct height they were taller than the roof of the cockpit, in clean air, and the drivers hardly noticed the difference. It must be significant that Warwick established pole position on Friday afternoon at 1m 48.084s (well inside the sportscar qualifying record set by Geoff Lees last year in his high-boost Toyota), and that Brundle went even faster, at lm 47.973s, early in the Sunday morning warm-up... on race tyres and with a full tank!

"I've never driven a sports car like this before," enthused team leader Warwick. "It really is a two-seat Formula 1 car, and that suits me fine. You can feel the g-force pulling your cheeks when you're cornering, and I don't think there's anything out there to touch the Jaguar. And, the car is so new, we haven't begun to tap the potential."

The only reservation really was the left-hand gearchange, on the centre tunnel, because Brawn chose a straight line through the centre of the Jaguar engine's vee from the TWR six-speed gearbox. "It's a fabulous gearchange, really quick and positive," Warwick insists, "but you have to change your driving style to change gear with your left hand. It's bad enough for me, it must be very difficult for Teo."

Teo being Teo Fabi, the Italian who'd come to Jaguar via the Lancia sportscar team and Porsche's unhappy CART programme in the States. He certainly was having trouble with the gearchange, buzzing the V8 engine during the Sunday morning warm-up and failing to get a race, once Brundle had parked the XJR-14 as early as the fifth lap. To compare the XJR-14 even with the best "unlimited" cars, say the Mercedes C11, is to compare a jet fighter with a bomber. It needs lead ballast to bring it up to the 750 kg minimum, while the Peugeot 905 and the Mercedes C291 are both around the 780 kg mark. The Porsche 962Cs, which really are showing their age now, have to weigh 950 kg instead of 900 kg last year, and the C11 is ballasted to 1000kg. At this weight it feels "terr-ib-le" according to Jochen Mass, and Schlesser had no idea how to pass Manuel Reuter in the Krerner Porsche in the first session of the race.

It was very strange to see the once omnipotent silver car rumbling around in sixth place for 45 minutes, and the eventual second place was a combination of good fortune, good driving and good teamwork. Schlesser's opinion that, "they've got to reduce our weight to 950kg, the same as the Porsches" is likely to fall on exceedingly deaf ears in Paris.

Peter Sauber and the Mercedes team decided to run the C11 in the opening round, at least, to gather as many points as possible, and in that they succeeded with a tally of 15 (we're back to the Can-Am scale again, thankfully, rewarding the top ten finishers). It now seems that they might run the C11 in the three sprint events in May, up to and including Le Mans in fact, which won't please FISA overmuch.

The C291 looks much more an evolution of the C11 than a futuristic projectile, in the mould of the XJR-14 and the 905, and so far the power of the flat-12 engine is pegged at 600 bhp, at 13,000 rpm. By contrast both the Jaguar V8 (closely related to the Ford HB Grand Prix engine, though with Bosch Motronic 1.8 management) and the Peugeot 905 V10 are thought to be developing 650 bhp, the Peugeot also at 13,000 rpm.

When aerodynamic form is included in the equation, the comparative performances make sense. Mercedes' top engineers believe that it may take a year for them to catch up with the Jaguar in terms of power, weight and general track performance, an admission which couldn't have been made lightly.

Neither was the C291 quite as reliable as might have been expected, yielding to an engine management fault early in the vital qualifying session on Friday afternoon and catching fire twice on Sunday. In each case the cause was trivial, and reliability is something that Dr Hermann Hiereth and Leo Ress will pursue with vigour, but we may not see the flat-12 engined car in its true light before the Nürburg outing in August.

The Jaguars seemed glued to the road, bumps and all, the Mercedes visibly rode better and had astonishing downforce in the fast turns (resulting from the unusual configuration, with a full width, unimpeded venturi tunnel underneath the engine), but the Peugeot looks absolutely frightening as the drivers strove to wring out the best performance.

Twitching and bucking, they looked likely to fly off the track at any moment, and none of the settings that worked at Montreal, Monza or Richard seemed to be any good at Suzuka. The cars were harsh-sprung, lacked traction and understeered. "There are many opinions here about how to make the cars good," said Baldi, who is ever the diplomat these days.

The Italian had a poor start, flying backwards off the road halfway round his first lap on Friday morning, but he took full blame on himself. The spare car was slow on Friday afternoon, and Saturday's sessions were run in rain, so there was little chance to assess the French team.

Rosberg's dry session on Friday morning was marred by a brake hydraulic leak which caused him two off-road excursions (once down the chicane escape road, and once across a sand trap at high speed), while on Saturday Rosberg was stopped by engine failure in his race car. The transmssions, at least, which have been so troublesome during the winter, gave no trouble throughout the weekend in Japan.

Most of the grid positions were established on Friday, in warm sunshine, with Warwick quickest and Brundle second in the newly built car which was understeering badly. The scrutineers pulled Brundle's car in for a spot check in the pit-lane, however, and deemed the rear wing to be too high, so the XJR's times were disallowed. Luckily Warwick's time wasn't questioned, which enabled him to start from pole position.

The Sauber team was smarting from a $5000 dollar fine for push-starting the C291 from the pits. The 1991 regulations insist that qualifying is run to the same rules as the races, so the cars must start under their own power. . . . so it was strange that nobody noticed that in most cases cars were started with slave batteries, on the pit lane or in the garages. FISA certainly does move in strange ways, becoming ever more rule-bound!

An heroic effort by Rosberg put the Peugeot on the front row with a time of 1m 50.568s, two-and-a-half seconds slower than Warwick's time, with Baldi sixth on 1m 53.419s in the spare 905 and Brundle next, with an outstanding time of 2m 03.439s in wet conditions on Saturday.

Schlesser, with Mass in the C11, was third quickest overall at 1m 50.764s, the team calculating that the extra 100 kg of ballast cost the V8 turbo car two seconds a lap at Ricard and three seconds at Suzuka. It was heavy, it was hard work and it took a lot of the tyres, but the team's senior drivers seem prepared to put up with all that in their quest for championship points. Although it was Karl Wendlinger's turn to qualify the Mercedes C291 and take the start, Michael Schumacher set the grid time on Friday on race tyres then pulled up with a fault in the new TAG management system. The 22-year-old team protegés are quick and mature, and don't seem prone to making any silly mistakes. They agree on most things, particularly that the C291 has terrific handling but is underpowered, and gives too much away in acceleration from the slow corners to be truly competitive.

Manuel Reuter and Harri Toivonen look set for a fine season in the Kremer team's Porsche 962/CK6, the German sixth fastest overall and quicker than Cor Euser, the speedy Dutchman, in the Euro Racing Spice Cosworth DFR SE90C. Charles Zwolsman's newly formed Euro Racing team is apparently well funded and took a spare car to Japan, needing it when the race car's engine felt short of power when it was needed on Friday afternoon. The Spice's handling didn't seem to be all it ought to be and the tyres were overheating, something that marred the Dutch team's race.

There were only six 3.5-litre cars on the grid, when all was said and done, and all the "unlimited" cars had to line up behind them. Louis Descartes presented his new ALD, powered by Cosworth DFR engines fresh from Guy Ligier's team, but it had a serious clutch problem on Friday and failed, by a mile, to qualify on Saturday. Philippe de Henning was the driver, and he failed to get any heat into the carbon brakes which only work properly when they're good and hot.

Tim Lee-Davey didn't show up in Japan, faxing FISA in Paris to withdraw his two Porsche entries. Team Davey's financial difficulties have been well chronicled, and FISA's dithering over Le Mans entries proved to be the last straw for the Kentish barrister.

The newly formed Veneto Equipe went from Italy to Japan with a Gianni Mussato-prepared Lancia LC2 which was hopelessly slow (and probably would have been little quicker at a lower weight). The team seemed rather pleased when Andrea Filippini ran it through sand on Friday and damaged the nose panel, announcing quickly that the chassis had been damaged.

Antoine Salamin took his Porsche 962C from Switzerland with not so much as a spare set of spark plugs, relying on the normal reliability factor to get him to the finish. One wonders why these teams bothered to enter the World Sportscar Championship, but without them there would hardly be a series worthy of any name now that the number of cars registered is down to 16.

Cars set off for the opening round of the WSC series on a wing and a prayer, and it was certainly a stirring spectacle to see the five real, genuine works cars rushing away from the old turbos in a blare of sound, twitching on the bumps, with staccato blips of acceleration between the gearchanges.

They were urgent, exciting, and quite unlike the sleepy, monotone turbos which use hardly half as many revs.

Warwick established the lead from pole position but Rosberg kept close by for the first ten laps surprising Brundle with his determination as the Englishman moved up from sixth on the grid. No sooner had Brundle put his XJR into second place on the fourth lap then the engine died, an electrical failure of some sort which awaited diagnosis back at base in Kidlington. Warwick's clutch failed at around this time, so the temperature in Jaguar's pits was rising rapidly. It didn't seem to make any difference to his lap times and once past the 10 lap mark Rosberg's Michelins began to suffer causing the Finn to drop back rapidly, to 28 seconds at 20 laps. Wendlinger practically caught up, bringing Baldi along too.

It was unusual to see Manuel Reuter keeping the vaunted Silver Arrow C11 in his Porsche's mirrors for 45 minutes, Schlesser grumbling that even two-minute laps were hard to achieve with the correct fuel consumption, and the turbos were also going to be restricted to refuelling at one litre per second. But still, it was FISA's intention to put the turbos behind the 3.5-litre cars, not alongside them and certainly not ahead, and in that respect the governing body has achieved the objective. We started with a thin field, but it was spreadeagled by the problems of four vital entries. Warwick led into the pits when the first fuel stops were due, but the supposed 35 second stop turned into a long-stay occupation when the starter motor refused to turn over. The TWR mechanics had to change the starter and lost a dozen laps in the process, putting Warwick so far behind that he couldn't be classified under the 90% rule that now prevails (this rule replaces the traditional one that requires cars to cross the finishing line, and was used with enthusiasm by the fuel-restricted turbo teams).

As well as the pole position and a fine race, Warwick took a new sportscar lap record at lm 49.148s, giving Jaguar a lot to be pleased about despite the loss of a result.

The second blaze of the day put the Mercedes C291 out of the race even as Schumacher left the pits, the driver unaware that the car was trailing flames until Sauber's pit crew shouted a warning on the radio, having seen the fire on the television monitor.

At 25 laps, one-third distance, the Peugeots had the race in their pocket. Alliot led Dalmas by 17.5 seconds, Oscar Larrauri was a lap behind with a pit stop due, and followed by Mass and Toivonen whose cars had been refuelled. Tom Walkinshaw had a grim look on his face as mechanics toiled to change the starter motor on Warwick's car, a 20 minute job, knowing that the rest of the race would be a test run for the XJR-14.

Dalmas certainly had ideas about passing his team-mate for the lead, taking two seconds a lap off Alliot, but when he was within three seconds team director Jean Todt intervened personally with a board telling Dalmas to slow down. The gap extended quickly, to 7.5 seconds then to 11.6 seconds. . . . then Yannick's Peugeot wasn't seen again. The clutch had shattered, taking with it the ignition pickup, and so far as the engineers were concerned, the telemetric system told them that an electrical failure had stopped the 905.

Alliot and Baldi had to go that distance again to win the race, but there was no pressure from Mass or Toivonen and they could really protect their car. It's just as well the old 1000 kilometre format has been dropped, because the Suzuka race became as exciting as Le Mans on a Sunday afternoon, with long gaps between the few cars in the contest. The brightest feature now was the sight of Derek Warwick pounding round at lm 50s or better, establishing a new lap record at lm 49.148s.

Despite tyre problems which caused a lurid spin, Euser moved the Euro Racing Spice up to third place, only to be beaten by Reuter, in the Kremer Porsche, on the run to the flag. On his fuel reserve Reuter found a bit more speed in the 962C and took Euser under braking for the chicane. The flat-six turbo engine actually died as he took the flag.

The final twist in the race was the unhappy disqualification of Oscar Larrauri's Brun Porsche from fifth place, for taking 1/10th of a litre too much fuel at the second stop. It mirrored the disqualification of the winning Mercedes at Mexico last October, also for a cupful of fuel, and allowed the Trust teams Porsche 962C of George Fouche and Steven Andskar up into fifth.

Peugeot were jubilant about the victory, and will prepare for the three vital races in May with a good deal more confidence than the team has felt until now. They know, as do Mercedes, that when the Jaguar XJR-14 becomes predictably reliable it will be an extremely tough car to beat. -- MC

***

Results (top five): WSC -- Round 1 -- Suzuka

1. Baldi/Alliot (Peugeot 905) 74 laps in 2h 25m 01.688s

2. Schlesser/Mass (Mercedes C11) 1 lap behind

3. Reuter/Toivonen (Kremer Porsche 962C) 2 laps behind

4. Zwolsman/Euser (Spice SE90C) 2 laps behind

5. Fouche/Andskar (Trust Porsche 962C) 3 laps behind