The Last Post

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The fuel consumption era was ushered out in the rarified atmosphere of the Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez on October 7, but gave one last dying kick as the winning Mercedes driven by World Champions Jean-Louis Schlesser and Mauro Baldi got disqualified for being overfuelled, by one tenth of a litre. The fact that 25 litres were drained from the tank afterwards made no impression on the stewards, whose job was simply to see that the correct amount went in to the tank.

Jochen Mass and Michael Schumacher, who inherited the victory, were the moral winners anyway since their Mercedes had been quicker all weekend; only a wrong decision by Mass to complete another lap on slicks, when a rainstorm swept the track, lost them the lead in the last half hour of the race. Second, in the final classification, was the Nissan R90C of Julian Bailey and Mark Blundell, and third the Silk Cut Jaguar of Andy Wallace and Davy Jones.

Pole winner Martin Brundle, in his last race for Jaguar for the time being, fought an inspiring battle with the Mercedes in the first hour but had to give up when a dud alternator defeated the XJR-11’s engine.

If Pedro and Riccardo were up there, looking down on the event, one can imagine their reaction to the petty adjudication going on in the steward’s office after the event. They were real racers, as indeed are today’s professionals, and the many and various farces brought about by the ‘economy’ formula — if that’s what you call an equation which demands 4.5 mpg from the Group C cars — would have held no interest for them.

May the present Group C Rest In Peace. Any teams unfortunate enough to need to run turbocharged cars next year, Nissan and Toyota perhaps, will be increasingly frustrated by the weight penalty and the slow refuelling procedure. The ‘unlimited’ cars (which could include the 7-litre Jaguar XJR-12 at Le Mans) will need to weigh at least 1000kg at scrutineering, to refuel at 1 litre per second, and to use commercial grade fuel supplied by the organisers. The 3 1/2-litre sports cars will weigh a minimum of 750 kg, and will benefit from gravity fuelling and special (but not exotic) fuel at around 102 octane.

With the advantage of perhaps 100 horsepower, the ‘unlimited’ teams might have a theoretical advantage only at Le Mans and in Mexico City, unless FISA raises the weight handicap still further.

Effectively, if not in fact, Mexico was the last race in which turbo teams could enjoy their advantage, and even an exceptional effort by Keke Rosberg couldn’t produce anything better than 11th place on the grid, his Peugeot 905 down to an estimated 440 bhp on account of the 7200 feet altitude and restricted to a speed of 156 mph across the start-finish line. By contrast, the Mercedes were both timed at 182 mph and a Nissan at 181 mph, and they were just changing into fifth at the time!

The two Peugeots (the race car and the first-built T-car) had been air freighted back to Velizy after Montreal for special preparation. As well as tuning the V10 engines for the altitude, chief engineer Andre de Cortanze — the man who drove an Alpine-Renault to eighth place at Le Mans in 1968 — had instituted changes inside the six-speed gearbox to make for easier changing, and fitted new fuel pumps off the shelf, from the old ParisDakar ‘Raid’ cars.

The team was well-rewarded with a total of 171 laps in qualifying, almost free of difficulties, and a race that was mechanically sound, although time was lost at each pit stop with restarting problems. During qualifying a powerful offboard starter motor is used, complete with a long T-bar for the mechanic to hang on to, but the rules don’t allow that in the race.

The procedure is to start the car with the external motor, cut the ignition then restart on the button, something the V10 isn’t very good at. But that’s exactly why Peugeot has taken part in the last two races, to get miles on the car and to give the entire crew good race experience, and all these problems will surely be solved before next season gets under way.

Martin Brundle’s class, as a driver, earned him and Silk Cut Jaguar the pole position in Mexico, when a huge effort on Saturday afternoon put him in the lead at 1 min 20.626 sec. That was 1.9 sec quicker than Mauro Baldi’s pole time last year, in the Sauber Mercedes C9, and this time Baldi wasn’t able to respond.

The C11, twice as stiff in the chassis, was bouncing around like a drum on the rippled, earthquake affected surface, and at 1 min 21.124 sec the Italian called it a day. “Eet’s getting dangerous,” he conceded, although Jochen Mass’ car was for some reason set up better, and the German went onto the front row with a time of 1 min 20.923 sec.

Just how good was the number 2 Mercedes was shown when Schumacher, the 21 year old ‘apprentice’, lapped at 1 min 21.9 sec on race tyres, and with normal boost. In the race, Schumacher would set a new Group C record at 1 min 23.25 sec, nearly two seconds faster than the existing record.

Since Le Mans the cautious Japanese manufacturers, Nissan and Toyota, have allowed their World Championship teams a little more boost for qualifying, and this had certainly livened things up a bit and made them look more respectable. Geoff Lees, the last man to deprive Mercedes of their customary pole position at Suzuka back in April, was fourth on the grid in his Toyota, and the two Nissans qualified fifth and seventh, sandwiching the Andy Wallace/Davy Jones Jaguar XJR-11.

Then on what may well be their last World Championship appearance, the two Joest Racing Porsches qualified safely in eighth and ninth places. The first nine cars were all quicker than last year’s pole position, which shows that development didn’t stop altogether in the last year of the formula.

The best showing undoubtedly came from the Tom Walkinshaw directed Silk Cut team, since it was the first time Jaguar had run a turbo in Mexico. Last year they dusted off a pair of V12s, which showed just how desperately they needed to get on with V6 turbo development during the winter months. Walter Brun, whose team was decimated in Montreal a fortnight before, has set a team of lawyers to work on a Cda$3 million lawsuit taking into account one singed driver, one crashed and burned out Porsche 962C, another damaged 962C which was repaired in the meantime, and the cost of flying another to Mexico. Compounding his misfortunes, Bernard Santal damaged the nose of the replacement car on Saturday morning, and removed the left side almost entirely in a crash in the Sunday morning warm up. Neither of the Brun Porsches that started the race got much beyond the halfway mark, either.

Jaguar leads!

The first hour of the race provided the spectacle we’d been waiting for all season, though the Montreal round had given a pointer to current form. Knowing all about the prodigious torque of the Mercedes alongside him, Brundle floored his Jaguar’s throttle coming out of the Peralta turn and was travelling at pretty well full speed when the starting light turned green, leaving Mass well behind. Jaguar’s experience of IMSA racing, mainly on bumpy streets, was undoubtedly paying dividends in the last couple of World Championship races and for six happy laps Brundle kept his Silk Cut XJR in the lead. Mass trying all ways to pass, and time after time Brundle veered to the right towards the end of the main straight; if the Mercedes driver wanted to pass, he’d have to do so on the wrong side. At last, Mass found enough momentum to get past before the end of the straight early in the seventh lap, by which time Baldi had caught up after a poor start. He couldn’t get by, though, but enjoyed a mighty scrap with the Jaguar driver, a battle that real professionals can engage in without having each other off the road.

Eventually Baldi did get a nose ahead, only for the future Brabham driver to come back at him, but moments later the Jaguar got into an enormous 360 degree spin. Recovering from that Brundle went straight to the pits with blistered tyres and returned to the track in the shadow of team-mate Wallace, but a lap down.

The difference between the two cars was marked, because Brundle overtook his team-mate and, even with a full tank, drove away. Wallace and Jones had never been happy with their XJR’s balance, especially after a front wheel fell off during Saturday’s practice, and only ever looked able to pick up a few points. To the dismay of the whole team, Brundle’s engine started to misfire, and the popping and banging got progressively worse. Two battery changes later co-driver Jan Lammers had to retire the car with a broken alternator.

A very determined drive by Baldi got him within a second of Mass when the pit stops were due, but now the presence of Julian Bailey, in the Nissan, was keeping them awake. Thanks to an early (and therefore, shorter) pit stop Mark Blundell was well placed to seize the lead on the 40th lap when Mass stopped, keeping ahead until lap 46 by which time his mirrors were full of silver images. If he’d had time to study them, the Londoner might have recognised Schumacher and Schlesser as the drivers.

Schlesser had a problem which prevented him from pursuing his young team-mate into the lead, as the Mercedes was vibrating badly at the front. “I thought a wheel was falling off,” said the Frenchman, who considered stopping to have the car checked.

Earlier Baldi had experienced the vibration, though not so badly, and the team had expected this to be due to an imbalanced tyre, or wheel. It was, in fact, a damaged front splitter which caused the nose panel to move about, more so at high speed, but even at the second stop the cause wasn’t established.

With some reason, Schumacher was able to consolidate his lead, from seven seconds at the 50 lap mark to 17.7 seconds at 70 laps. A rather tardy stop for number 1, while the technicians looked for the problem, put Baldi 42 seconds behind when he was back up to speed again, and he was still losing half a second per lap to Mass. So far as Peter Sauber’s team was concerned the contest was as good as finished.

Darkening skies, and a brief but heavy rainstorm, changed the whole race. Mass, 48 seconds in the lead, hesitated in the Peralta turn and decided to go round again on slicks. “I knew, I just knew, I had made a mistake as soon as I went past the pitlane,” said the mortified German later.

Cameras around the track picked up Mass’ Mercedes floundering on a road that was soon awash, seemingly going at half speed. Baldi benefitted from being half a lap behind and went straight in for rain tyres, emerging with a lead of 38 seconds. It really was his lucky day, so far, because although Mass drove his heart out over the last dozen laps there was no chance that he’d get back on terms.

That storm had Bailey and Brancatelli spinning their Nissans, Wallace his Jaguar and Fabre his Cougar, but fortunately none came to any harm. At the finish Baldi had a lead of 21 seconds over Mass, and challengers Nissan and Jaguar had gone two laps behind.

Half an hour later came the Last Post, the requiem for fuel consumption racing as the stewards announced that the Schlesser/Baldi car would be excluded for taking a cupful too much fuel on board. The error was made by the most senior member of the team, Peter Sauber himself being one tenth of a second too late in moving the ‘off’ handle, and if that’s what sports car racing is all about, most of us wouldn’t want to give it the time of day.

It remained a mystery why Sauber’s team should want to claim every last drop of fuel, since the reduction in power meant that nobody could use the entire allocation anyway. Most teams under-fuelled by a litre or two at the last stop just to be on the safe side, but memories of Schlesser’s retirement last year, at Spa, must still be sharp in Sauber’s mind.

Despite the disqualification, the year ended well for Mercedes with their customary victory, and their sixth ‘on the road’ 1-2 result. Nissan were deservedly third on the road, Jaguar fourth, and promotion in the classification was a bonus. Up, too, went the Joest Porsches to fifth and sixth, behind the Acheson/Brancatelli Nissan which had recovered well from a delayed start. Hans Stuck, a welcome returnee, and Jonathan Palmer overcame an understeer problem to claim fifth place, ahead of Bob Wollek and Frank Jelinski who’d had to cope with a turbo over-boosting, and overheating.

The fuel consumption formula has produced some good races, notably in 1986 when the World Championship was keenly contested by the Brun and Silk Cut Jaguar teams, and in 1988 when Sauber Mercedes tried to wrest the advantage from Jaguar. In other years, though, a certain dominance was exercised by three of the most esteemed car manufacturers in the world, first by Rothmans Porsche, then by Silk Cut Jaguar, and finally by Sauber Mercedes.

In theory the new World Sportscar Championship should provide better racing, foot-to-the-floor stuff from start to finish, and all the manufacturers involved will hope fervently that the crowds return in large numbers. There was a sort of a crowd in Mexico, unofficially put at 40,000, but sports car racing needs more. The next two seasons will be very critical for the formula. MLC

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