Second is good enough
Second place is never as good as winning, but it gave good cause for celebration at Spa-Francorchamps in September, providing the Tom Walkinshaw-directed Jaguar team its second successive World Championship, and enabling Martin Brundle to go ahead in the driver’s title-chase for the first time.
Last year Jaguar wrested the teams’ championship from the safekeeping of Walter Brun and Porsche, and this season the British marque has defended successfully from the AEG Sauber Mercedes team.
The going has got tough since Le Mans, though, and the Saubers have looked stronger each time they come out. In recent races they have shown a superior fuel-economy on wet tracks, and Michelin has produced a rain-tyre which equals anything from Dunlop’s depot. The sight of McLaren’s designer Steve Nichols with the Sauber team at Spa, checking Leo Ress’ design for the C10, suggests that the Swiss-German team’s involvement next year will be one of total commitment.
Just 60 miles, and three weeks apart, the Nurburg and Spa-Francorchamps races were held in equally beautiful settings, but were equally spoiled by dark grey clouds which meandered among the pines, drizzling constantly.
A feature of the German race (Motor Sport, October 1988) had been the ability of the Sauber C9 to run for 110 minutes, (admittedly behind the pace car for 36 minutes), enabling Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jochen Mass to get away with one stop in the first heat, rather than the two stops made by the Jaguars.
At Spa, the fuel consumption of the Jaguars became so bad in the early stages of the race that Eddie Cheever’s XJR-9 simply ran out of petrol at the “bus-stop” chicane, an uphill section which gave him no lucky breaks, because neither he nor the team, in radio contact, actually believed that the reading could be so bad. The American, running fourth after two hours, rolled to a stop a few minutes after being told to go round again.
Fortunately, Martin Brundle had not stepped into the car at that point, and was able to convert easily to Jan Lammers’ car, which was third behind the two Saubers, but lapped. The Dutchman was cruising round, crunching his gears once or twice, seemingly in terrible trouble with his transmission.
Perhaps not, though. The No 2 Jaguar was drinking fuel as well, but a new electronic control unit (ECU) seemed to bring it back on schedule, for soon Brundle was blasting past the pits at full speed in a completely healthy car. He was still third, still lapped, but the car no longer looked like an imminent retirement.
“The gearbox?” Lammers said with a sly grin. “You mean, when I missed gears in front of the Mercedes pit? I had to cruise round for a few laps because of the fuel, so I thought I’d make it look good!”
There is a humour in Group C racing. An hour later Stefan Johansson went past the pits in Mauro Baldi’s Sauber, doing about half his normal speed. Brundle took four seconds off him in one lap, but none the next time around. Johansson admitted to having had a clutch problem, saying he nursed the clutch for a few laps and it recovered perfectly. No-one drives at half-speed past the pits with a soft clutch pedal, though, and it seemed that the opposition was getting its own back.
The last ten minutes of qualifying had been electrifying, Baldi claiming pole position on the last lap of the dry morning session at 2min 02.25scc, nearly two seconds quicker than Mike Thackwell had gone twelve months previously in the Sauber. With an average of 126.99mph, the Spa track is now getting back into the “fast” league, the old public-road sections always having been very quick but the new link-section quite slow. Until that last moment Lammers had pole position at 2min 03.11sec, Baldi being a couple of tenths slower followed by Cheever on 2min 03.84sec. Schlesser improved to 2min 03.65sec, complaining of a baulky third gear, and the four cars from rival teams were then covered by 0.73 seconds.
The form of the Jaguars was quite amazing: without the help of a turbo control they had cut last year’s times by nearly three seconds, the improvements attributed by the drivers to a better chassis, better tyres and a more powerful engine. The V12 has now undergone special development for fast tracks, and was developing all of 750 bhp at Spa , clearly losing little or nothing to the Mercedes twin-turbo V8.
Pedro and Seppi might have been laughing out loud as Jan and Mauro went side-by-side down the hill into Eau Rouge for the first time, the Jaguar and the Sauber practically touching at the approach to the left-right sweep. They were much closer together than the Porsche 917s had been before they collided in 1970, and conditions were far wetter; but the two drivers, both headstrong at times and from opposite ends of Europe, managed not to make contact, Baldi yielding at the critical moment. Not until the two cars went from view safely heading for Les Combes did everyone breathe out. Jochen Mass was far from our view when he spun the Sauber spectacularly at Blanchimont, continuing safely.
Lammers opened a spectacular lead of nine seconds on the opening lap, negotiating Eau Rouge for the second time as Baldi braked for La Source, but settled for a 13-second advantage on the second lap. He looked the hero of the race, and might have been but for a punctured rear tyre as he started his sixth lap. The pit-stop dropped him to seventh place, 46 seconds behind Baldi and Mass, whilst Cheever was already falling back with his eye on the fuel computer.
As the Ferraris proved at Silverstone to everyone’s surprise, today’s high-downforce cars can use more fuel in the rain than on a dry track. The use of lower gears, higher engine speeds and more wheelspin can all conspire to confuse and defeat modern computer-controlled management systems — certainly to Jaguar’s detriment until a new microchip was put into Lammers’ car — yet the Saubers were unscathed. . . the drivers had so much torque that they could stick them into fifth gear and leave them there all the way round, except for La Source! Therefore they had no traction problems, little wheelspin and excellent consumption.
The race settled down in the third hour with Schlesser leading Johansson, Brundle a lap down in the Jaguar, and the opposition far behind.
Derek Bell and Martin Donnelly had easily the best Porsche, Richard Lloyd’s unique 962C, but the engine failed at half-distance. Bob Wollek retired his Joest Racing Porsche after an hour as the Dunlop rain tyres lacked grip (the entrant pointing out that the ex-works car had not been set up properly for the conditions), and in the second half of what proved to be a six-hour time-elapsed race, the only competitive Porsche remaining was the Brun Motorsport 962C driven by Oscar Larrauri and Manuel Reuter.
Fifth and sixth overall, eventually, were the two “works” BP Spice entries, Thorkild Thyrring/Almo Copelli two laps ahead of Gordon Spice/Ray Bellm, who had driven half the race without a windscreen-wiper. Their performances were superb, as usual, Thyrring’s car covering 94.4% of the winner’s distance on merely 71% of the fuel allocation, something the C1 car designers might ponder when they have the time. Next year, Spice Engineering will be a C1 competitor, although the power-unit has not yet been chosen.
The Spa “six hours” went to sleep in the middle, but came back to life when Mass lost four laps having the right-rear top suspension link changed. It had fractured, for no reason anyone could think of, and dropped Mass and Schlesser down to third position. The Frenchman thus lost his lead in the driver’s championship, but by then it was far too late for him to switch to Baldi’s car.
Brundle led for a while when the Sauber made its last stop, but fell back when the Jaguar needed its last 37 Litres, and a frenzied dash to catch Baldi just failed to produce a victory. The entire TWR team settled for second place in the last few minutes, and told Brundle to take it easy in worsening conditions, since the secure second place would give Jaguar what it went for, the World Championship, no less. The reason for doing it in the first place.
Having won the Daytona 24-Hours, the Le Mans 24-Hours and the World Sports Prototype Teams’ Championship in a single year, Sir John Egan and Tom Walkinshaw had every reason to be pleased with themselves after the Belgian race. At times it seems hard to remember that between 1982 and 1986 there was little to relieve the tedium of Porsche successes, so reliable that even the Stuttgart manufacturer welcomed competition. Now Silk Cut Jaguar is the top team, but the pressure from Switzerland is not going to lessen next season. MLC