Martin Brundle took a sabbatical from Formula One racing in order to win the World Sports-Prototype Championship for Drivers, and the ambition was realised at Fuji on October 9 when he and Eddie Cheever won the Japanese 1000km in their Jaguar XJR-9.
Brundle’s season began with a rousing victory in the Daytona 24-Hours, and he continued to win five World Championship events (of ten to date) and wrest the title from the eager clutches of Jean-Louis Schlesser for Sauber Mercedes.
Their contest was neck-and-neck before the penultimate round at Fuji. With four victories to his credit Brundle needed to win or finish second to become champion, while, with three to his credit, Schlesser needed to win with Brundle placed lower than fourth. Given the impressive reliability of both cars, the odds were in the Englishman’s favour despite the recent excellent form of the Swiss cars, and as the race developed Sauber’s prospects went from bad to worse.
Fifth place was the best Schlesser could muster in the C9/88 he shared with Jochen Mass and Kenny Acheson, delayed once by a minor electrical fault and again by a turbocharger wastegate problem. The dark-blue car finished four laps behind the Jaguar, which had had a perfect run from start to finish.
Mauro Baldi led for most of the first hour in the second Sauber. But it was just as well for Schlesser that he didn’t go into Baldi’s car, because 70 minutes from the end a brake-disc shattered as the Italian braked at the end of the one-mile, 200mph straight, ripping a tyre.
Baldi was extremely lucky to stop in a run-off area with only light damage at the front, Volker Weidler also spinning Kremer team’s Porsche into retirement to avoid the Sauber, and its brake-caliper was bouncing along the road in front of him!
An intriguing sideline to the race was that both Alain Prost and Martin Brundle have been made handsome offers to join Sauber Mercedes team next year, a fact which indicates just how seriously the Stuttgart manufacturer is taking the business sports-car racing!
It hardly seems likely that Prost will consider seriously any offer that would dilute his commitment to Grand Prix racing in 1989, yet the story would hardly have leaked if the Frenchman had been unequivocal, and by the same token Brundle is considering the approach very seriously. With Eddie Cheever almost certain to leave the Silk Cut Jaguar team (with regret, in order to concentrate on single-seater racing), Tom Walkinshaw is faced with the prospect of rebuilding his immensely successful team around just one man, Jan Lammers.
The Japanese race is likely to have been significant in a number of ways. It may have been the last 1000km World Championship race, since FlSA wants to change the format to shorter events. It was the last appearance of a Porsche factory Group C car, a 962C sponsored by Omron which Klaus Ludwig and Price Cobb steered to a strong second position, and of a car in Rothmans colours, the Japanese subsidiary now having ended its support of Vern Schuppan’s local team; it was also the last World Championship race of Louis Krages — alias “John Winter”, winner at Le Mans in 1985— whose third place with Frank Jelinski in the Joest Racing Porsche will almost certainly allow him to retire from the sport clutching the coveted Porsche Cup.
Fuji was also the first meeting this year of all six major manufacturers with an interest in Group C — Jaguar, Mercedes, Porsche, Toyota, Nissan and Mazda — with the prospect of being more keenly contested than ever before. Mazda’s 767 quad-rotor car is never likely to be a leading runner, but Nissan’s R88C has ample power from its racing-design, twin-turbo V8, and Toyota’s V8 powered 88C-V was an unknown quantity for the Europeans. For some reason Nissan has never mastered the combination of speed with good fuel consumption, but Toyota has usually offered good competition.
Helped by a unique 3.2-litre water-cooled engine, Hideki Okada set a new qualifying record in the From A Racing Porsche shared with Stanley Dickens, establishing a new mark at 1min 18.210sec (127.85mph). Also under the previous record were Masahiro Hasemi in the Nissan (making the front row a Bridgestone preserve) and Mauro Baldi on Sauber’s first visit to Japan.
Heavy drops of rain were already hitting the windscreens as the best times were made, Klaus Ludwig managing fourth quickest in the works Porsche which was sold to Vern Schuppan straight after the race, and competed in the colours of his sponsor, Omron. Within minutes the track was wet, then flooding, and conditions remained bad all day.
The Jaguars were just inside 80 seconds: good times, but as Brundle pointed out, “We lose 100 rpm on the straight with qualifying tyres, due to the extra drag, and we need a turbo boost-knob to overcome it.”
Joest’s No 7 Porsche, another ex-works car for Bob Wollek and Harald Grohs, was slow and visibly difficult to handle in the rain, and overnight it was converted from Dunlop cross-ply tyres to Goodyear’s radials. The track was dry all day on Sunday, against all expectations, so the team probably didn’t gain anything, but Baldi certainly caused Sauber some anxiety by spinning and damaging his race car during the Sunday warm-up. A new nose panel and mounting points repaired the physical damage, but the brake-pads had not had time to bed-in properly. . .
There are very few circuits nowadays where racing cars can run at 200mph for more than a second or two, and Fuji’s long straight provides a good quota of excitement as drivers slipstream and weave, looking for overtaking opportunities. Inches apart sometimes, they give some idea of the excitement of American oval racing, and there was one especially tense moment when Ludwig and Lammers ganged up on race leader Baldi and tried to block him into turn one. Later, Cheever found himself sandwiched between two Porsches in the braking area and scraped both while lapping them, expecting his Jaguar to pop out like a cork!
Baldi led for most of the first hour, though never more than a blink ahead of Ludwig, Lammers and Mass, whilst in their slipstream were Wollek, Geoff Lees’ Toyota, Okada and Cheever. After 45 minutes, however, Baldi was heading for the pits with next to no braking, and new pads and a fluid top-up did not do much good. Only a few minutes later Jan Lammers’ Jaguar hit a barrier hard when the left-front tyre blew out, evening up the contest once again.
In the second hour Kenny Acheson, recruited to the Sauber team, maintained a lead of almost half-a-minute on Cheever’s Jaguar, and Schlesser went into the lead Sauber for the third stint.
Brundle took the Jaguar out at the same time, and gratefully seized the lead when Schlesser made an unscheduled stop. The engine was misfiring, due to fuel pick-up the Frenchman guessed, but it did not happen again and later the probable cause was pinpointed to an electrical surge, cured by flicking the ignition switch off and on.
The Jaguar was fairly secure in the lead from that point, and Brundle made it sound completely routine when he ticked the progress sheet at the finish: “We had the best car, we had a perfect race . . . no moments, no missed gears, no time lost at all.” And that, of course, is how championships are won.
Nowadays the Porsche 962C chassis seem dated on most tracks, but they remain competitive at Le Mans, and at Fuji. Ludwig and the American Price Cobb kept well up with the lead contest throughout, the IMSA driver finding the Group C car much heavier, with higher downforce, but speeding up as he gained confidence.
The two Joest Porsches kept in touch as well, as did the From A Porsche team. Wollek went out unexpectedly with a suspected piston failure, but Jelinski and “Winter” had no difficulty in claiming third place.
For Schlesser, the turning point came in the fourth hour, when a small bolt fell out of the Mercedes’ turbo wastegate. Boost pressure dropped at once, and another unscheduled stop was needed, dropping him to an eventual fifth place. “You are talking to an ex-champion . . . non, a non-champion,” said the Parisian, struggling to find the right words. Even if Brundle had retired unexpectedly, the Sauber would still have needed to overtake three Porsches which were going well, and they were just too far ahead for this to be a realistic possibility.
Thorkild Thyrring and his Le Mans co-driver Eliseo Salazar won the poorly supported C2 category with ease in the works Spice-Cosworth, World Champions Gordon Spice and Ray Bellm having retired with a rare engine failure. They were followed in second place by Costas Los and his American co-driver Tom Hessert, both of whom found Fuji to be very hard work.
The C2 cars are virtually as quick as the C1s through the turns and generate just as much g-force, but with a smaller fuel-allocation the drivers have individual stints perhaps 50% longer. “It’s the last ten laps that hurts, it can be hell,” commented Thyrring, an extremely fit Dane.
The Japanese cars were disappointing, the Nissans not being much quicker than the Spice C2 cars in race trim and finishing ninth and twelfth. Both Toyotas had gearbox problems, and the new V8 cars were generally so under-developed that Geoff Lees was prepared to resign on the spot, while Yojiro Terada and David Kennedy finished 14th in the IMSA GTP-class Mazda.
Again, unfortunately, the Nipponese manufacturers had had an inauspicious race, and one can understand their reluctance to commit themselves to the entire World Championship. MLC