The '91 chaos that almost killed endurance racing: Doug Nye

“How many really recall any 1991 WSC rounds with much affection?”

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It’s hard to believe it’s 30 years since world-class endurance racing virtually died on its feet. Only eight FIA World Sportscar Championship rounds were run in 1991, and in general this entirely noble form of racing was being strangled by the near-total pre-eminence of Formula 1.

Back at the end of 1988, new 3.5-litre naturally-aspirated engine rules had been announced for the category, despite doubts amongst manufacturers of how attractive such a prospect might be. The governing FISA body extended the life of the preceding turbocharged cars to bolster grids. But a turbocharged-car weight penalty of 100kg – added to the preceding weight limit of 900 – caused alarm. FISA later allowed Porsches to run at 950kg everywhere except Le Mans, while any other previous-Formula cars had to observe the 1000kg demand.

In contrast the new 3.5-litre ‘atmo’ cars could weigh just 750kg. They were also allowed to use Formula 1 fuel brews instead of the race organisers’ standard pump grades. Their pitstops were speeded by gravity-feed refuelling and (remarkably) were guaranteed the top 10 starting-grid places – probably for promotional photographic purposes (to bury the old makeweight junk behind).

Sprint-race distances were slashed from 480km to 430 so the ‘atmo’ cars would need only two refuelling stops. Perhaps as a sop to traditionalists the Le Mans 24-Hours was re-admitted to World Championship status, the ever-independent ACO having ploughed its own furrow for the three previous years.

Amidst typical Jean-Marie Balestre (unlamented FISA president) bureaucratic chaos a Championship emerged involving only four manufacturers – Jaguar, Mercedes and Peugeot backing the 3.5-litre Category 1 (apart from Mercedes running an old C11 Coupe at 1000kg in the opening races), while Mazda ran its rotary-engined design in the full series (as required to gain an entry at Le Mans).

Ross Brawn, then of Silk Cut Jaguar (Tom Walkinshaw Racing), had spent much of 1990 creating his ground-effect aerodynamics ‘two-seater Grand Prix car’ – the Jaguar XJR-14 with a Jaguar-badged Ford HB 72-degree V8 engine. Having shone in initial testing, it seemed in performance terms set to dominate the opening 1991 Championship round at Suzuka only for Martin Brundle to retire after two laps when a dropped lead cut his car’s engine, then team-mate Derek Warwick’s car had a starter motor failure after his first stop. Peugeot won with Mauro Baldi/Philippe Alliot driving.

At Monza, despite problems, the Silk Cut Jaguars then finished 1-2, the Brundle/Warwick car winning from its Teo Fabi/Brundle sister – TWR using just three suitably compact drivers to share their two compact Coupes.

Silverstone then saw Fabi/Warwick win from Karl Wendlinger/Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes C291 with Brundle a solo third in the sister XJR-14. Derek had swapped to join Fabi after the XJR-14 he should have shared with Brundle lost time with a broken throttle linkage. The FISA stewards controversially docked his points for winning in the sister car – which lost him the WSC Drivers’ Championship. By this point in the season some XJR-14 shortcomings had been identified – low grip in slow corners, sometimes chronic understeer…

“Derek’s sixth place was enough to clinch the title for Silk Cut Jaguar”

At Le Mans, the Silk Cut-TWR team ran four XJR-12s instead, with enlarged 7.4-litre V12 engines. But the 1000kg requirement meant they were outrun by both the Mercedes C11s and the little ear-splitting Mazda which won – yet Jaguars finished 2-3-4.

By the time the WSC series resumed at the Nürburgring in August, Mercedes and Peugeot had caught the XJR-14s in performance terms but lacked their reliability. Martin Brundle, concentrating on F1, was replaced by David Brabham, who shone – winning the race with Derek Warwick, and sharing second with team-mate Teo Fabi.

The story changed at Magny-Cours – Peugeot’s Yannick Dalmas/Keke Rosberg (no less) and Alliot/Baldi 1-2 in 905Bs – the XJR-14s only 3-5. Peugeot dominance was repeated in Mexico City, 1-2, while Fabi’s XJR-14 non-started with an engine problem and Warwick finished only sixth after another starter motor failure.

Still Derek’s sixth place was enough to clinch the World Championship title for Silk Cut Jaguar and TWR. Fabi had a 10-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship and clinched it in the final round at Autopolis (who remembers the Japanese circuit?), where Wendlinger/ Schumacher won for Mercedes, from Warwick second and Fabi/Brabham third for Jaguar.

But never mind who remembers Autopolis – how many really recall any of those 1991 WSC rounds with much affection? Forty years earlier, the Jaguar C-type had won at Le Mans co-driven by Peter Whitehead/ Peter Walker – and the anniversary of their success has been rightly celebrated this past year. The 1991 TWR Jaguar operation had a fraction of its rivals’ budgets. The Jean Todt-managed Peugeot advanced apace from mid-year – thanks to an all-new aerodynamic form, plus Michelin tyre strides.

In November 1991 the FISA Sportscar Commission then announced there would be no such World Championship in 1992. Peugeot, having invested so much, screamed blue murder. A 1992 series was run, with only six rounds – five won by Peugeot, one by Toyota. Not until 2012 would an ‘official’ FIA World Series be reinstated… after a sad hiatus.


Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s