World Sportscar Championship: Spa 480kms

Half a crown

Half a litre of fuel, or the lack of it, was all that prevented Jean-Louis Schlesser from leaving Spa as the World Champion sportscar driver. Perhaps due to a minor mishap in the Sauber Mercedes pit, the Parisian set off for the last part of the race with the tank not quite filled, and this led to the team’s first retirement of the 1989 season. Bad luck for Schlesser, but the best possible news for race winner Mauro Baldi, who could now claim the title by winning the final World SportsPrototype Championship race in Mexico City on October 29.

The Swils-German team has been dominant all season, except at Dijon when tyre performance became a factor, and at Spa even the improving Nissan was less of a threat than expected. Baldi was on pole position with Jan Lammers alongside in his Jaguar, appearing just as they did last year at Spa, and they would have an equally hectic tussle for the first corner.

The difference was that the start was from the “Grand Prix” line heading for the hairpin at La Source, and (in the absence of television) only a handful of people understood how the little Dutchman again lunged for the lead, only to be outfumbled on the exit by the little Italian. Schlesser, though, started from the third row, having experienced a rare mechanical failure during the vital, drying second qualifying session, and although he was in Baldi’s dust at La Source he was never in a position to win the race. Retirement, in the last moments of the contest, robbed him of any points at all. Bob Wollek and Frank Jelinski moved smartly up to second place in the Joest Racing Porsche, with the Nissan of Julian Bailey and Mark Blundell third, after a minor delay. Reinhold Joest’s Porsche team from Absteinach in Germany secured a certain runner-up position in the Team’s Championship, and again showed how much life remains in the oft-dismissed Porsche 962. Wollek finished on the same lap as Baldi, just, and remarked afterwards that there wasn’t any speed left in the Porsche. Baldi had powered away from the field at the start of the race and no-one, not even Schlesser, could find the right response.

The Silk Cut Jaguar team put itself into a very good position in qualifying, a difficult session on Saturday afternoon as track conditions improved gradually and allowed slick qualifying tyres to show an advantage right at the end. Baldi claimed an outstanding pole position at 2 min 05.90 sec, less than four seconds off his pace last year even though the track was wet and treacherous a metre off the line. Lammers took his Jaguar XJR-11 turbo round in 2 min 07.48 sec followed by team-mate John Nielsen in another XJR-11, Wollek, Johnny Dumfries in the Toyota, Schlesser who missed the best of the session while parked with a broken stub axle, and Julian Bailey who couldn’t find the right tyres to suit the Nissan R890 in the conditions.

The two Spice-Cosworths were surprisingly quick on a track that shouldn’t have suited them particularly well. Eliseo Salazar started from the fourth row while Oscar Larrauri showed that Yokohama’s rain tyres are among the best on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, but slipped back to ninth when the track dried.

Fermin Velez ruffled some feathers when he qualified his Group C2 Chamberlain Spice-Cosworth 3.3 twelfth fastest overall at 2 min 16.83 sec, ahead of 13 C1 cars, some of which would be considered as strong entries.

Only 1.5 sec slower, though, was 24 year old James Shead in his father’s Team Make Spice C2. Co-driven by Robbie Stirling this car went on to win the category at a canter. Neither driver had raced before at Spa, and it was only 12 months before that Don Shead, former powerboat racer and currently a constructor, went to Spa with the Spice works team to finalise his plans for 1989. Team Mako’s Spice has been run in its first season by John McNeil and took victories at the Nurburgring and Spa, and could be sure of the runner-up position in the C2 championship.

A year after Silk Cut Jaguar settled the Team’s Championship at Spa, it fought — and lost — a contest to be in the top three in 1989. Despite a super start to the race, neither XJR lasted through the first hour, and unless Jaguar can finish a car ahead of the Nissan in Mexico the British marque won’t even be fourth in the championship, but fifth. Again the decision to concentrate fully on the turbos, and not to can the XJR-9, deprived Jaguar of any points, but Andy Wallace and Patrick Tambay reminded us during qualifying that the Coventry V12 is still one of the nicest sounding engines in motor racing.

“Crazy” is the word Mauro Baldi used to describe Jan Lammers start, and “hooligan” might be another. Last year the downhill rolling start produced the moment of truth as the two Continentals aimed their cars together at Eau Rouge, and Lammers came out the winner. There’s nothing so inspiring about La Source though, and few people understand how Lammers went from the left side to the right, separated by the thickness of a coat of paint from Baldi on one flank and the armco on the other. Inevitably the Jaguar ran wide on the exit, and both Baldi and Schlesser powered past on the downhill stretch, effectively putting their stamp on the race from that point.

Eight of the fastest ten drivers set their best times on lap two, the critical lap before traffic becomes a problem and fuel readouts have to be obeyed. Baldi set the fastest lap of the race at 2 min 07.86 sec, Schlesser was next at 2 min 09.65 sec and at the time Dumfries, Wollek and Lammers were next in the 2-11s. The times are not without significance because they represented average race performances and indicated Baldi’s superiority over Schlesser, and Schlesser’s superiority over everyone else!

Baldi cruised away at one or two seconds a lap, his cause helped even more when “Schless” made a mistake and briefly visited a run-off, and was hailed as a hero by his own co-driver Kenny Acheson. “We made some changes after the warm-up and the car was … beautiful,” Baldi claimed. “It was very strong in the first hour and I could really push without going over the consumption.” Schlesser didn’t have quite the right package, having lost too much time on Friday and Saturday going up blind alleys. “We turned the boost down for the first hour, but we didn’t do it right,” said the Parisian later. “There wasn’t enough power, but I was three litres inside when I stopped. I had less downforce than Mauro, I couldn’t get to him.

Lammers managed to keep Wollek, Larrauri and Dumfries at bay for eight laps, but his was a lost cause. Sixteen laps into the race a turbocharger malfunctioned, raised the back-pressure and ruined one bank of the V6. In the number 2 Jaguar, Nielsen, totally disenchanted with “economy” racing, was coasting past the pits to save fuel. He might have saved the effort because a major electrical failure prevented the XJR-11 from leaving the pits after an hour when Patrick Tambay was at the wheel. Richard Lloyd’s Porsche Cars GB-backed Porsche was an early retirement too, when the crankshaft oil seal broke while Tiff Needell was driving, the same failure which stopped the car during morning warm-up at Donington.

Disqualifications for assisted starts took two good cars out, the Brun/Hydro Alu Porsche driven by Harald Huysman and the Mussato Lancia LC2 driven by Franco Scapini.

Geoff Lees lost contact with the leaders when the Toyota’s undertray worked loose and ruined the handling, and then Vern Schuppan was knocked out of the contest by Baldi’s Mercedes in the uphill, fifth gear Blanchimont corner. The two experienced drivers clearly had some sort of misunderstanding, but Tim Lee-Davey’s new composite monocoque Porsche driven by Schuppan was badly damaged.

At half distance, 35 laps, Acheson was maintaining his lead over Jochen Mass but was a little heavier on fuel, something the Mercedes technicians could see quite clearly on their monitors in the garage. Frank Jelinski was third in the Joest Porsche, Roland Ratzenberger was still waiting to relieve Larrauri in the Brun Porsche, and Mark Blundell was fifth in the Nissan. Acheson was brought in three laps early so that Baldi could finish the race, and that allowed Mass six more laps in the lead. Blundell brought the Nissan in early, too, with smoke pouring from the bodywork over the right-rear tyre after a collision with Larrauri, and the team was unable totes the last seven litres of fuel into the tank. Bailey decided to pace himself for the last hour rather than make an extra stop, and that effort was rewarded with third place and 12 points.

Ray Bellm (Spice) and Herve Regout (Cougar) both spun after a bad-tempered collision; the Cougar was towed out and retired, while Bellm went a little further then retired with a damaged engine. Thorkild Thyrring and Wayne Taylor, though, headed for a well-deserved sixth place in their 31/2-litre Spice-Cosworth.

A cloud of smoke signalled the end of the David Leslie/Michael Roe Aston Martin at La Source, as a rod went through the crankcase, but Le Mans winner Stanley Dickens joined the team happily to finish seventh with Brian Redman.

The end of the race came in record time. Wollek unlapped himself just before the end (coasting over the line, then claiming to have three litres in the tank and to have played a trick on Joest), then Baldi took the chequered flag and we waited for Schlesser…who didn’t come into sight. He was on the farside of the “bus stop”, out of fuel and stranded.

The next six weeks would pass slowly in Schlesser’s household. MLC