Memorable for the Wrong Reason
History has a nasty habit of repeating itself, as the World Championship sports car teams were reminded when they went to Canada. The first and last time Group C was run in Canada, 50 races ago in August 1985, the Jaguar XJR-6 made its debut at Mosport but the occasion was overshadowed by the accident which took the life of Manfred Winkelhock.
This year, in September, the Peugeot 905 made its debut but the event was cut off in its prime by a terrible crash caused by a loose manhole cover, of all things. Fortunately the Spanish driver, Jesus Pareja, walked out of the inferno of his wrecked Porsche with nothing worse than a singeing, but there was a feeling of deja vu . . . some professional drivers had voiced their concern about safety, just as they had at Mosport, and they'd been proved right.
In the lead, when the red flag was displayed just after half distance, was the Sauber team Mercedes C11 driven by Jean-Louis Schlesser and Mauro Baldi, so they notched up their sixth victory in eight championship races and were duly declared the World Champion drivers.
It wasn't in the usual style of Mercedes' runaway victories, though, for Martin Brundle's Silk Cut Jaguar had led most of the first hour, yielding to Julian Bailey's Nissan. With the gift of hindsight Bailey shouldn't have been slowing down, to save fuel, and certainly shouldn't have allowed himself to be overtaken by Baldi just two laps before the race was stopped, but hindsight is a rare gift.
Both Jaguars retired with broken driveshafts, so only one chance remained, in Mexico, for the Kidlington team to beat Mercedes fair and square before the current GpC expired.
There can be few tracks in the world more attractive than the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, on the Ile de Notre Dame. The Grand Prix teams know it well, and Thursday's raft race for the mechanics is a popular feature of the calendar. The inaugural raft race for Group C mechanics was won by Team Obermaier, since they adopted the "softly, softly" approach also used on the track, and were the only ones not to be capsized by rivals! The class of the field, before they were sabotaged, were Nissan's pit crew, the same men who won the pitstop competition earlier in the day.
The 2.72 mile track is set in lush parkland, reminiscent of Crystal Palace, but has walls and armco like a street circuit. Baldi expressed his concern on Friday, that it might just suit Grand Prix cars but Group C cars were bigger and heavier, and needed more space, especially in the braking areas. Brundle added his thoughts about the Esses, "Which we take at 185 mph with concrete walls a few inches away. It's scary. Street circuits are all very well, but speeds are lower."
The manhole covers in the road weren't mentioned, either because they hadn't been noticed or, perhaps, because everyone assumed that they'd been welded down, as is customary on North American temporary circuits.
Safety wasn't really a leading topic once the qualifying got under way. Then the focus of attention became the pristine Peugeot, which looked so small and fragile among the Porsches and Mercedes. The sound was something from a forgotten past! Keke Rosberg's approach to the slow Turn 1 was quite spectacular, braking heavily on a piece of road not entirely straight, deftly working down through the six-speed gearbox, and passing one, two or even three heavy Porsches at a time.
Formula 1 drivers were able to forget about fuel consumption a couple of seasons ago, and drive like that all the time, but this was something new, and refreshing for Group C, and of course the speed differentials were huge. Rosberg wasn't used to the differentials, and didn't like the average driving standard at all, but if the new-look WSC series achieves anything in 1991, it will be to weed out the Salamins and Almerases (nice people though they are!) and distil some of the best at a new level of competitiveness.
Jean-Louis Schlesser was on pole position, as usual you might say, but not with the usual ease. "We have lost our usual aerodynamic advantage this weekend," said Dr Hermann Hiereth, Mercedes' racing technical director, but it was hard to feel too sorry for the team. Montreal consists of a couple of short, but fast straights, a fast swerve onto the pits straight, and a number of very slow second gear corners. There wasn't enough room for Mercedes to exploit their high-speed dynamic advantages, nor enough fast corners to induce much downforce; rather, they had the advantage of huge torque, well illustrated out of Turn 1.
The quality of the fuel supplied by the organisers was poor, right on the minimum 97 octane level, and Mercedes' sophisticated Bosch MP 1.8 system was retarding the ignition timing as far as it would go. Dr Hiereth tricked the Motronic on Schlesser's car to make the fastest time on Friday, at 1 min 25.407 sec, but risked an engine blow-up in the process and said that the team wouldn't try again.
Their prayers were answered by rain on Saturday afternoon! This was the one track on which Martin Brundle might have made pole, for Silk Cut Jaguar. He knew the circuit, the XJR-11 was performing well, and only a nasty bit of blocking by Schlesser on the very last lap prevented him from setting the fastest time on Friday.
Brundle was fuming after being baulked, having to settle for an earlier time of 1 min 26.034 sec, seeing Mark Blundell go faster in the ever-improving Nissan (1 min 25.897 sec). Brundle, incidentally, had Jan Lammers as his co-driver for the last two races of the season, having been a little disappointed with Alain Ferté at times. Davy Jones, TWR's IMSA driver, shared the second Jaguar with Andy Wallace.
Jochen Mass, partnered in Canada by Karl Wendlinger again, was fourth quickest after coping with a very noisy misfire in his Mercedes engine — they didn't bother to "trick" Mass' V8, and it clearly didn't accept a higher boost level with that fuel. Fifth were Jonathan Palmer and Hans Stuck, for the Joest Porsche team that still springs the odd surprise, and sixth were Jones and Wallace, delayed half an hour by a broken driveshaft. Another broke on Saturday, a bad omen for Jaguar's race.
A Real Race!
It looked as though Mercedes had some real competition at last, too late, of course, in the penultimate race of the fuel consumption formula. Brundle started his Jaguar from the second row on Goodyear's soft 160 compound tyres, guessing that the Mercedes team had opted for the safer 240 compound.
Soon pushing Blundell's Nissan out of the way, Brundle latched on to the Mercedes and neatly outbraked Schlesser going into the hairpin on the second lap, giving the World Champion a nudge when alongside, to make sure he had the message. Blundell soon had to yield third place to Mass, the Nissan suffering a low-speed pick-up problem, and Davy Jones had a similar ailment in his Jaguar's V6, caused by low water temperature.
The race was only three laps old when Francois Migault had a tyre blow-out, hitting the wall and parking his ALD on the outside of the hairpin with its wheel askew. That brought out the pace car for a tedious 10 laps, robbing Brundle of a hard-earned 2.7 second lead.
At this early stage the Peugeot was running tenth, and Rosberg was having difficulties with low fuel pressure; slow running behind the pace car was making life even more difficult for the Finn.
Brundle extended his lead again when the pace picked up, but it wasn't much. Just 1.4 seconds separated his Jaguar and the two Mercedes at the 20 lap mark, and now Geoff Lees had moved his Toyota into fourth place ahead of the Nissan. Wayne Taylor, in the works Spice, was giving Rosberg a hard time and nudged him into a spin at the hairpin. Rosberg recovered with a flick turn and set off in hot pursuit, keeping Taylor wide awake as he watched his mirrors!
Another pace car interval dropped the speed and the Peugeot was soon gone, lacking fuel pressure completely. It had been a good debut, and promised a great deal for 1991.
Leading cars were aimed for the pits, Blundell being the first to go in for fuel and a driver change. Bailey took the Nissan out before the pace car came round and caught up with Harald Grohs' Porsche, Pascal Fabre's Cougar and Bernard Santal's Porsche, none of which had yet stopped.
Lammers, fifth on the road when he came out of the pits, was picked up by the pace car purely on the basis that his Jaguar had been leading before the stops, and although it was clearly a mistake the French FISA officials were still defending their position volubly three hours after the race ended. When the three late stoppers had been put in their place, Bailey led the race by 76 seconds.
Despite the slow average speed a number of teams were in trouble with fuel consumption, as predicted for this slow and difficult track. Some admitted the fact, others were less revealing, but there was no mistaking the fact that Lammers and the two Mercedes drivers, Wendlinger and Baldi, were hauling Bailey in at two or three seconds a lap. On instructions from his pit the Nissan driver was making great efforts to get back on the fuel schedule but later, with hindsight, he heartily wished he'd kept going!
This was some of the best racing of the season, as Wendlinger attacked Lammers, and Baldi attacked the pair of them. The Austrian, who actually led the World Championship after Spa, showed that his induction course was finished when he made a daring move on Lammers, only to find Baldi by his back wheel.
At last, on lap 39 (out of the planned 110) Wendlinger did get past the Dutch driver, and it was only a few seconds more before Baldi passed as well and Bailey's lead was down to 29 seconds, shrinking rapidly.
Wendlinger lost his chance of a result when a rear tyre went flat, after he nipped a Porsche in a slow corner and broke the valve. He returned to his pit with difficulty and lost the best part of two laps.
The moment of truth came on the 58th lap when Baldi and Lammers caught Bailey. The Mercedes driver spent a lap sizing the Nissan, then took the lead from the unresisting Bailey, but the Jaguar disappeared from sight its driveshaft had broken, just as Wallace's had done a short while before.
Soon the race was over. Kenny Acheson, whose Nissan was classified fifth, thought he dislodged the manhole cover when he passed the spot on the previous lap. No-one seemed quite sure where the cover went but the rim, a heavy piece of cast-iron, was hit first by Fermin Velez in the works Spice, then by Denis Morin's Cougar, and immediately afterwards by Pareja's Brun Motorsport Porsche. Just behind Pareja was his team-mate Harald Huysman, whose Brun Porsche was also heavily damaged after swerving into the wall.
The impact ripped open the oil tank of Pareja's car, and the Spaniard was extremely lucky to escape from the wrecked, blazing Porsche. The race had to be red flagged, just as the Portuguese Grand Prix had been earlier in the day, and once the scale of the problem had been realised there was no more talk of a restart. The professional drivers were, frankly, shocked that such an accident could happen in 1990, when the danger of manhole covers is so well known. It had been a lively race, certainly, but will be remembered for the wrong reason. MLC