Japanese measure up the Porsches

Signs that Group C racing will get stronger, and that the challenge will come from the Orient, were seen in Japan when the Fuji 1,000 Kilometre World Endurance Championship race was run early in October. While Honda involve themselves in Formula 1, both Nissan and Toyota were represented by teams with turbocharged 2.1-litre production-based engines which acquitted themselves well, the Nissan-based March 83G finishing the race in seventh place.

For the sixth round of the WEC the Europeans had to travel right around the world, Rothmans-Porsche sending their two cars for Derek Bell / Stefan Bellof and Jacky 'clot / Jochen Mass. Lancia-Martini did not enter a team, preferring to concentrate on development work and entering the two European Endurance Championship races at Imola and Mugello, also in October, so as usual opposition to the works team came from the Porsche customers, and from the local teams which no-one was prepared to under-rate.

Porsche had long since secured the Makes title, with a maximum 100 points from five races, but the Driver's Championship was still open with Ida on 70 points, Bob Wollek on 56, Mass on 55 and Bell on 54. With Mass regularly driving with Ickx, however, he is effectively out of the title chase. Reinhold Joest kept the Marlboro-sponsored 956 in Europe and sent the second-string New Man-sponsored car to Japan for Wollek, driving with Hans Heyer and Volkert Merl, while Wollek's usual co-driver Stefan Johansson was loaned to the Kremer brothers' team to drive their 956 with Philippe Alliot and Franz Konrad.

A wealthy Japanese industrialist, Yoshina Matsuda, who has filled three museums with Porsches, had bought a 956 which he entered, brand new, for Thierry Boutsen and Henri Pescarolo. They, like John Fitzpatrick's car, were on Goodyear tyres while Walter Bran's 956 for Clemens Schickentanz / Kenji Takahashi and Preston Henn's 956 for himself, John Paul Junior and Kunimitsu Takahashi were on Yokohama rubber. Another leading Porsche 956 entry was that of the Japanese Team Trust for Le Mans winner Vern Schuppan with Naohiro Fujita, this having the lower, faster "Le Mans tail" with less downforce.

The name Silvia Turbo suggests a souped-up Datsun road car, but this was in fact the name of a March 83G backed by Nissan and powered by a 530 bhp, single turbo four-cylinder engine which proved fastest of the Japanese entries in the hands of Kaanyoshi Hoshino and Akira Hagiwara. They qualified seventh fastest, in touch with the Porsche customer cars at any rate, and fractionally faster than the Toyota-backed Dome powered by a 480 bhp, 2.1-litre fourcylinder engine, this having two valves per cylinder against Nissan's four-valve design. The car was considerably lighter than the Nissan, though, and no less competitive.

European representation was reduced by one when Fitzpatrick's car went off the track during untimed practice, probably due to a deflating tyre, and was too badly damaged to run in the race. The next day Geoff Lees had a bad fright when his Dome-Toyota caught fire at speed, apparently due to a loose fuel pipe connection, and gave the British driver superficial burns before he could get out. Then, during tinted practice, Philippe Alliot's 956 went out of control and actually broke in two as it somersaulted over a barrier — but remarkably, the Kremer entry was rebuilt for the race, virtually as a new car.

On his first visit to the Japanese track, Stefan Bellof put his works Porsche on pole position three seconds faster than last year's mark, at 1 min 10.02 sec, just half a second quicker than Mass. Surprisingly the nearest challenger was the Matsuda Collection 956 driven by Boutsen, on 1m 11.34 sec, the new car rapidly tuned to race pitch by Fitzpatrick's crew who had been hired in entirety. Wollek was fourth fastest on 1 min 11.69 sec, followed by Fujita in the Team Trust 956 (1 min 11.98 sec), Kenji Takahashi in the Brun 956, then the Nissan-powered March and the Toyota-powered Dome. Tiff Needell and Eje Elgh were 10th fastest in Cosworth-DFL powered Dome.

The practice times made it look like Rothmans-Porsche benefit, and so the proved. Belief went straight into the lead with Mass in hot pursuit, with Wollek soon overtaking Boutsen and Schuppan into thin place. The two German drivers disputing the lead could afford to forget about the opposition as they pulled away, Mass snatching the lead after 16 laps only to lose it, again on the 23rd. By the time 32 laps had been covered, out of the 230 that were scheduled, Wollek had been lapped in third place and the result was beginning to look all too predictable.

Both the Brun 956 and Henn's 956 lost a lot of time having diaphragms replaced in the fuel systems, which seemed to be an unusual coincidence, and Needell / Elgh Dome lost time with a breakage in the rear suspension. The Nissan-powered March 83G was not running as quickly as expected, due apparently to fading turbo boost pressure, but the Toyota-powered Dome was going nicely and holding sixth place, though two laps behind the leaders, at quarter-distance.

By this time the track was becoming exceedingly slippery, and was beginning to break up in places, and when Bell made his pit stop his front tyres were completely worn out due to excessive understeer, while Ickx's rear tyres were badly worn due to oversteer! Henri Pescarolo had caught and passed Hans Heyer into third place, though the Frenchman was by now suffering from sore neck muscles, with Fujita placed fifth — and the works cars were now two laps ahead. The rebuilt Kremer car was understeering badly, and eventually retired without oil pressure, and Henn's car retired when the Japanese customer damaged the front bodywork, and there was no spare.

Soon after half distance Bell, narrowly in the lead, reported to the pits with a slow puncture at the front, and this put him nearly a lap behind Ickx. Soon into the next stint, however, Mass slowed with a shower of sparks coming from the back of the corns a rear tyre had blown, and damaged the bodywork. This forced a pit stop which reversed the positions, Mass now being nearly a lap behind Bellof, and the track had become so slippery that there was nothing the drivers of the number 1 car could do about it. Wollek lost a lot of ground when his 956 was savaged at the rear by a Mazda, puncturing a tyre, and Pescarolo's second stint at the wheel of the Matsuda 956 was slow, letting the Schuppan / Fujita Team Trust entry by into third place.

The race had to be stopped five laps prematurely when the Toyota-powered Dome crashed on the main straight, again due to a puncture, blocking the track. Bell and Bellof scored their second WEC victory of the year, bringing the English driver within 11 points of Ickx in the Driver's championship with one race remaining, at Kyalami on December 10th.

Results

Fuji Raceway 1,000 Kms – October 2nd – 225 laps (978 kms)

1st: D. Bell / S. Bellof (2.6 t/c Rothmans Porsche 956) 4 hr 57 min 6.36 sec – 191.91 kph
2nd: J. Ickx / J. Mass (2.6 t/c Rothmans Porsche 956) 4 hr 57 min 56.2 sec
3rd: V. Schuppan / N. Fujita (2.6 t/c Porsche 956) 219 laps
4th: H. Pescarolo / T. Boutsen (2.6 t/c Porsche 956) 218 laps
5th: B. Wollek / H. Heyer / V. Meri (2.6 t/c Porsche 956) 209 laps
6th: K. Takahashi / C. Schickentanz (2.6 Porsche 956) 203 laps

Fastest lap: Bellof – time not given