SWC Mexico City

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Double and quits

It took a while for the Silk Cut Jaguar team to react to the success in Mexico. Derek Warwick was heading for second place in the Sportscar World Championship encounter and made a late dash to the pits for slick tyres, all the better on a drying track to catch race leader Keke Rosberg.

It was a racer’s choice, not a strategist’s, and the gamble failed when the Jaguar’s starter motor refused to engage. Nearly ten minutes later Warwick got back into the race, down in sixth place and bitterly disappointed. Success? Why, the World Championship for Teams, the most important trophy to have, was secured again for Jaguar after a two-year loan to Mercedes!

Winning the race is the most important thing, and the team was so dejected about losing a top-two result that the Teams Championship seemed almost incidental, until celebrations began in the Hotel Fiesta Americana and continued well into the night.

Jean Todt went to Mexico with a message for Jaguar and Mercedes: Peugeot’s victory at Magny-Cours was no fluke! The French cars were quickest in all four practice sessions, the Sunday morning warm-up, and finished the race in first and second positions, so no doubt remains that this is the team to beat.

The implications were rather serious for Teo Fabi and Derek Warwick, as they waited three weeks for the final encounter at Autopolis. Championship leader Fabi didn’t even start the Mexican race, the oil pressure having failed in his Jaguar’s engine before the event, and Warwick didn’t capitalise as he hoped.

Mauro Baldi (still the reigning world champion driver, sharing the title with Jean-Louis Schlesser) and Philippe Alliot finished second to Keke Rosberg and Yannick Dalmas, and improved their title hopes considerably. What seemed like a two-way battle between Fabi and Warwick became a four-way contest as Baldi and Alliot closed in.

Fabi went to Japan with 74 points, Warwick with 64, the Peugeot pairing with 59. Such is Peugeot’s race advantage now, likely to be enhanced on the slow Autopolis track, that the Baldi/Alliot pairing could be expected to win.

Todt would certainly not allow Rosberg and Dalmas to finish ahead of them. Fabi must finish not lower than sixth to score 80 points but nothing less than a victory will do for Warwick, who still gets angry every time he thinks of the 20 points he was denied at Silverstone in May.

There is an enormous difference between the Magny-Cours and Mexico circuits, but Peugeot’s advantage was just as well defined. Magny-Cours is on the low plains of central France, with only one decent, fast corner, lots of stop-go turns, and a Group C lap record standing at 179 km/h.

The Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez is 2,000 metres above sea level, though ringed by mountains, has four high-speed turns including the breathtaking fifth-gear Peraltada, is notoriously bumpy, and has a new Group C record at 195 km/h.

It was comforting for the Jaguar team to think of Magny-Cours as an aberration, a place that suited the Peugeot cars and their Michelin tyres, and where the XJR-14s proved difficult to set up properly. No such comfort was justified in Mexico where the Peugeots were again at least a second a lap quicker, even though the Jaguars were apparently well adjusted, and where even their reliability factor was superior on race day.

Throughout the season, though, the Silk Cut Jaguar team has performed with distinction. Ross Brawn’s XJR-14 design was immediately the best in the field, even though the first trials were carried out only three weeks before the opening round at Suzuka.

There was a setback in Japan which benefitted Peugeot, but the Jaguars were consistently four seconds a lap quicker there, at Monza where they finished first and second, and at Silverstone where they were first and third. The British team’s speed advantage had virtually disappeared when put to the test at the Nürburgring in August, but it was another 1-2 result which, on reflection, secured the Teams Championship.

Over the greater part of the season Silk Cut Jaguar ran rings round Peugeot and Mercedes, both in terms of speed and reliability, and a couple of late-season defeats should not cloud the fact.

More development work is needed on the XJR-14 in preparation for the 1992 World Championship, but before then a new major sponsor will have to be found to replace Gallaher’s Silk Cut cigarette brand.

There are signs that the budget has been cut back already, in terms of manpower and development. TWR’s failure to send a spare car to Mexico was a savage blow to Teo Fabi’s championship aspirations, because although both XJR’s had performed faultlessly throughout qualifying Fabi’s developed a fault in the oil system on Sunday morning.

A new engine was installed in the four-hour break between the warm-up and the race (neither Mercedes nor Peugeot could have done this) but the new V8 didn’t have any pressure either, so the car was pushed back from the pit-lane exit while the others set off for the warm-up lap. Warwick, on the pit wall watching David Brabham take the start, must have felt optimistic about closing the gap on Fabi.

Mercedes came right into the reckoning, both in qualifying when Michael Schumacher made a supreme effort to snatch a place on the front row, and in the race when the C291’s remained honest until well into the second half of the race. At 60 laps, out of 98, they lay third and fifth overall, Schumacher merely 18 seconds behind the Peugeots after a great catch-up drive.

Schumacher has emerged not merely as a promising youngster, but as a future champion who sets the pace in Peter Sauber’s team, and is now tipped to lead the TWR-managed Benetton Formula 1 team into 1992.

All credit is due to Jochen Neerpasch, Mercedes’ team director, who insisted on continuing his ‘junior programme’ at Mercedes when others would have preferred to forget the whole thing and rely on age and experience.

Philippe Alliot’s pole position time of 1 min 19.229 sec was quite out of the ordinary, although the suave Frenchman shrugged it off. “It wasn’t a good lap really. Half way round the engine made a bad noise so I eased off a bit. The engine was damaged by the end, so I was surprised to see a 19.”

Even so, it was more than a second quicker than Schumacher could manage with a huge effort in the Mercedes, and 1.5 seconds quicker than Warwick’s best. It was four seconds quicker than Rosberg had gone the year before, second time out in the 905, and 1.5 seconds quicker than Martin Brundle’s scorching pole position in the turbocharged XJR-11.

What is more, Alliot was only 2.5 seconds slower than Riccardo Patrese’s Formula 1 qualifying record set in June and would have put the Peugeot onto the eighth row of the Grand Prix grid, so let no-one doubt the quality of the French team.

Keke Rosberg, pushed back to the second row of the SWC grid by Schumacher’s brilliant lap, was in a black mood after being fined $15,000 by the FISA stewards for careless driving. He had driven into the side of the Kremer Porsche during the Saturday morning session, under braking at the end of the long straight, but claimed he didn’t know it was there!

So far as Rosberg was concerned he passed the Porsche at the beginning of the braking area and then ceased to consider it. “Everyone knows that a 750 kilogramme prototype with carbon brakes stops quicker than a 950 kilogramme Porsche with steel brakes. It should not have been there, in my estimation.”

But it was, and local hero Tomas Lopez was the one who went for a damaging spin along the guardrail. The Kremer Porsche didn’t last long in the race, as Lopez parked it in gravel.

Rosberg was in the wars again even on the warm-up lap, managing to collide with team-mate Alliot in the Peraltada curve and upsetting the Peugeot’s handling. Two corners later, when the race was under way, Bernd Schneider’s Joest Porsche hit Schlesser’s Mercedes in the rear, neatly slicing off the wing end-plate and giving the C291 a tendency to oversteer.

At first the 430 kilometre race was rather pedestrian, as Alliot paced out a five-second advantage on Rosberg, who complained of understeer in the vital Peralta curve and consequent loss of 200 rpm down the straight. David Brabham kept a distant watch on them in third place, and Karl Wendlinger fell away in fourth position as cramp seized his right leg. He was passed by Schlesser, then stopped early to hand over to Schumacher who entered the race with enthusiasm a lap behind the Peugeots.

The Joest Racing Porsches driven by Schneider, with John Winter, and Derek Bell with Gianpiero Moretti were doing nicely in fourth and seventh positions, performing as well-prepared Porsches always do, and would both finish in the top five.

The rarified atmosphere at 2,000 metres suits the turbocharged engines much better than the high-revving 3.5-litre engines which are reckoned to lose 10 per cent of their power (and in qualifying Baldi set a new record, missing his shift into sixth in front of the pits and wrecking the engine at 15,500 rpm!).

A fall of rain, light at first at around 63 laps, gave the race a new look. Race leader Baldi pitted a couple of laps early for the handover, and Alliot went out on Michelin intermediates; Baldi had wanted rain tyres, but the radio signal broke down.

Dalmas went to the pits next time around, when Rosberg took the car on ‘full wets’ but Warwick, the race leader for all of 30 seconds, and Jochen Mass decided to get another lap out of their slicks. The braking zone was like a skating rink at the end of the straight, and there was a rare sight of the Mexican ballet company, Mass, Warwick and Yojiro Terada (Mazda 787) pirouetting in company on the grass without coming to any harm.

Soon Alliot spun and went a lap behind Rosberg, with Warwick joyfully splitting them and making up four or five seconds a lap with Goodyear rain tyres fitted. Rosberg’s 38 second lead over Warwick on lap 70 was slashed to 11.6 seconds on lap 78, but the rain had eased off and the purple Jaguar didn’t make up any more ground.

It was then that Warwick decided to dive in for slicks, and an inoperative radio link prevented the team from keeping him out, for safety. Victory seemed a little unlikely, to be honest, after a pit stop with nine laps remaining, but tactically second place and 15 points would have been almost as good.

The duff starter motor put paid to that, a supreme irony since TWR have taken considerable trouble to make the system reliable after experiencing failures at Suzuka and Monza.

As the rain started Schumacher’s fine drive came to an end with failing oil pressure in the Mercedes flat-12, and a few laps later Schlesser’s Mercedes stumbled to a halt with water in the electrical system. The luck that always rode with the C9 and C11 seems to have abandoned the C291, but the Stuttgart engineers hope to have overcome the porosity of the engine blocks before the season ended.

A three-way fight to the finish — even a four-dimensional scrap, if the new Toyota is as good as it sounds — will provide a welcome boost for the Sportscar World Championship series, which needs a dose of optimism during the off-season. — MLC

***

Results (top five) SWC Trofeo Mexico, October 6

1. Rosberg/Dalmas (Peugeot 905B) — 2h 29m 25.811s

2. Baldi/Alliot (Peugeot 905B) — 97 laps

3. Winter/Schneider (Porsche 962) — 94 laps

4. Euser/Zwolsman (Spice SE90C) — 93 laps

5. Moretti/Bell (Porsche 962) — 92 laps

Fastest lap: Schumacher, 1m 21.611s, 121.18 mph

Drivers’ World Championship(top five): Fabi 74 pts, Warwick 64 pts, Alliot and Baldi 59 pts, Euser 48 pts

Teams’ World Championship (top five): Silk Cut Jaguar 93 pts, Peugeot Talbot 69 pts, Sauber Mercedes 50pts, Euroracing 48 pts, Mazdaspeed 44 pts.

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