Spa 1,000 Kms

Lancia victory – without joy

Lancia’s victory in the Spa-Francorchamps 1,000 Kilometre race on September 1st should have been a happy occasion for the Italians, but it was marred by Stefan Bellofs fatal accident which led the organisers to halt the race at the five­ hour mark, as a token of respect. International motor racing has been free of fatalities for a couple of years, but the sportscar teams were still recovering from Manfred Winkelhock’s death in Canada, and Jonathan Palmer’s severe accident during untimed practice on Friday.

When Bellof hit Ickx at Eau Rouge, at the three-hour mark, it was in full view of the pits, and a grandstand full of spectators. It was a particularly unpleasant accident and none of the participants had any wish to carry on. The stewards talked with Porsche’s Peter Falk, Lancia’s Cesare Fiorio, Jaguar’s Tom Walkinshaw, and Reinhold Joest before wisely bringing the race to an end.

The three accidents, within as many weeks, were for different reasons. Careful examination of Winkelhock’s Kremer Porsche revealed no reason for the accident, and it is now supposed that he suffered a blackout before arriving at Mosport’s Turn 2. At Spa, Palmer’s accident is attributed to the right-front tyre deflating suddenly, and though he sustained a broken leg the English driver owes his life to the fact that the armco barrier deformed about four feet . . . and to the honeycomb construction of the Silverstone-built, special Porsche 956B, since honeycomb crushes more progressively than sheet aluminium.

Stefan Bellof’s fate was sealed by his own driving error, pure and simple, challenging Jacky Ickx too hard at the wrong place. No criticism should be made of the car, for a 130 mph-plus head-on impact with a barrier is not survivable in medical terms. All the same, the armco was backed by a concrete wall, and the WEC teams now question the logic of retaining any track with a solid wall.

Although it is not suggested that Bellof hit Ickx’s car deliberately, he certainly meant to be uncomfortably close, having gone through the “bus stop” chicane a few moments before side-by-side with Ickx, their wheels bouncing over the kerbs. Perhaps they were smiling, the former team­mates locked in a duel for second place (Barilla, in the Joest Porsche 956, was 30 seconds ahead of them at that point). Poor Bellof, the 27-year-old reigning World Endurance Champion driver, went out the way he normally drove, attacking, being aggressive, and entertaining.

This may be the time to draw attention to the increasingly aggressive behaviour of several leading drivers in Porsche and Lancia teams. It is appreciated that the wide speed differentials in endurance racing cause special problems; the Group B cars, in particular, are slow and often badly driven too. In the past couple of years, though, there has been an increasing tendency for the professional drivers to barge their way past the slower competitors, even taking deliberate swipes at them as they go by. Accustomed to open-wheel single-seaters, perhaps they feel secure in a closed car, with enclosed wheels, and surrounded by tough kevlar/carbon-fibre bodywork. We are making a serious accusation, having witnessed several incidents of this nature and heard of a great many more. If safety in Group C racing is now in question (and it is, especially in Germany), it’s not so much the inherent safety of the machines that FISA should be considering as the behaviour of some drivers, and the positioning of armco (not walls) and catch-fencing.

Generally; with up to 800 bhp in qualifying, and superb ground effects, these Group Cl cars which weigh around 950 kg with driver and fuel aboard, are going too quickly for the tracks. At Le Mans, they’re too quick on the Mulsanne Straight, especially as regards the tyres. John Sheldon and Joel Gouhier will testify to that. While a slow puncture may be a nuisance in a slower car, at speeds of over 180 mph it can become a lethal explosion, without any warning to the driver.

Tinkering with the rules may not be much good. Perhaps it’s time to go back to basics, to say that if this is Sportscar racing (the title the entrants have themselves chosen for the series next year) then it should be for sports cars such as Porsche 959s, Ferrari GTOs, Chevrolet Corvettes, Lamborghini Countachs Lotus Esprit Turbos, Toyota MR2s and the like. Would that be so awful? One suspects that the Automobile Club de l’Ouest is thinking along these lines, anyway.

The entry for the Spa 1,000 Kms was the best seen in the Group C formula, which came into being in 1982. Lancia and Jaguar would challenge the factory and private Porsche teams, and Aston Martin too was represented with two improving cars. Jaguar would be outgunned in Saturday’s qualifying session, and Martin Brundle’s time of 2m 10.07s was better than anyone expected. The Tony Southgate designed car was handling really well (though compromises still had to be made with springs, since a full range of anti-roll bars was not yet ready), and the understeer problem has been cured completely by the use of wider Dunlop Denloc tyres. Brundle reckoned that he was losing a couple of seconds to the turbo cars on the run up to Les Combes, and perhaps that much again on the uphill stretch to La Source. To paraphrase, there’s no substitute for a boost control knob!

Qualifying was a personal duel between Hans Stuck and Riccardo Patrese, and the Italian won. Quickest on Friday, on race tyres, Patrese secured pole position on Saturday morning with a time of 2 min 05.91 sec, a speed of 198.42 kph. That’s nearly four seconds quicker than Boutsen’s pole time last year, and while the track resurfacing (which stood up well all weekend) may account for a couple of seconds, the rest was down to car improvements. Stuck made three attempts on qualifying tyres, two spoiled by slower cars, the third when his 962C ran low on fuel, and the reserve switch had to be used. In the circumstances a time of 2 min 06.38 sec was pretty good. Boutsen, too, cracked the 2 min 0.7 sec barrier in the Brun Motorsport/Schiesser 956, while under 2 min 08 sec were Ludwig, Baldi, Ickx and Surer, the latter in Kees Kroesemeijer’s 956 run by the Kremer brothers.

Brundle led the second group, at between 2 min 10 sec and 2 min 15 sec, including “John Winter” with Marc Duez, Larrauri/Sigala and Schlesser/Heyer in the second TWR Jaguar XJR-6. In the C2 class Gordon Spice and Ray Bellm were on “pole” as usual in the Spice Engineering Tiga 3.3-litre DFL, and needed only a good result at Spa to sweep up all the C2 titles. This year they have been first at Mugello, Monza, Le Mans, Mosport and Spa, second at Silverstone and Hockenheim. Preparation, and good luck that springs from good planning, is the key to this Silverstone team’s success, contrasting sharply with the fortunes of reigning champions Carma­/Alba. After a second place at Mugello it has been downhill all the way for Martino Finotto’s team, with a succession of gearbox and engine problems, and minor accidents. Rather, it is the Ecurie Ecosse team which Spice watches most carefully, with two wins to its credit this year.

Spice’s time of 2 min 19.6 sec was followed closely by Frank Jelinski in the Labatt’s Gebhardt (also 3.3-litre DFL powered). They were both quicker than the Aston Martin powered Cheetah and EMKA driven respectively by Bernard de Dryver/Pierre Dieudonne/Claude Bourgoignie, and Steve O’Rourke/Tiff Needell/James Weaver. Swiss entrant Chuck Graemiger has now taken over his own engine preparation, discovering that the 5.4-litre V8 gives not 580 bhp, as suggested by Tickford, but 540 bhp. “Our power to weight ratio is inferior to that of the C2 cars. It explains a lot of things” says Graemiger.

When Brundle forecast that his Jaguar “could run at 2 min 14 sec all day” rival Porsche and Lancia drivers expressed doubt. That was below Bellof’s sportscar lap record, and the prediction sounded too good to be true. Brundle did start off at 2 min 14 sec … and saw Patrese, Bell, Mass, Boutsen and Ludwig disappear from sight, all five of them lapping below 2 min 12 sec! The first hour saw some stirring sportscar racing, Mass establishing a new Group C record at 2 min 10.73 sec (191.1 kph) as he passed Patrese for the lead on the 14th lap.

Then Boutsen attacked, putting Patrese down to third place, and Ludwig started to challenge. Closing on the Lancia was one thing, passing it another . . . “Patrese blocked me four times, dangerously,” said Ludwig, normally amiable but now in a black mood. “He is an animal!”

Bell.had dropped back, then pitted early with a bad vibration at the front of his Rothmans-Porsche. A tyre had turned on the rim, something unusual, and the stop was a short one since a light fuel load was needed. That was to be significant, as Stuck took over, for like Surer and Winkelhock at Monza earlier this year their pit stops were out of synchronisation with the others. Schlesser’s Jaguar was retired with a malfunctioning differential which made the V12 powered car difficult to handle in the slower corners, Jelinski’s Gebhardt was delayed by a cracked suspension upright, due to a collision, and the EMKA retired with a faulty mechanical fuel pump, which would take 90 minutes to change. And later the Ecosse, which had been romping away with the C2 class with David Leslie at the wheel, was brought in by Wilds with suspension and steering damage after a collision with Brundle, and lost 34 minutes. Then, Spice and Bellm had only to keep out of trouble to win the C2 class, as Finotto’s Carma-Alba was in dire braking problems.

Fuel consumption checks showed that the leaders would have to slow down: Patrese’s Lancia, the Rothmans-Porsches and the Boutsen/Bellof Porsche were all around 57 litres per 100 kms, the consumption far too high to finish the race easily. By contrast Baldi’s Lancia, running fifth at the end of the first hour, had a consumption of 49 litres per 100 kms, and could attack whenever the drivers chose. Patrese’s car was in trouble as soon as Nannini took over, passing the pits with a serious misfire and stopping at the top of the hill from Eau Rouge. Nannini got it going again, and a new Weber/Marelli engine management box restored it to health, but it was nearly two laps behind and Patrese moved into the Wollek/Baldi car for a stint.

At 75 laps, close to the three-hour mark, Barilla was leading by 30 seconds in the Joest Porsche. Behind him Ickx and Bellof were duelling hard for second place, then came the Baldi/Wollek/Patrese Lancia fourth and Stuck/Bell fifth, all on the same lap. A lap down were the Brundle/Thackwell Jaguar and Nannini’s Lancia. Larrauri’s Porsche had just retired with a broken distributor arm and the rest, led by Costas Los’ March-Porsche, de Dryver’s Cheetah and Spice’s Tiga, were all far behind.

Down the hill to Eau Rouge for the 78th time Bellof was tucked in behind Ickx, mere feet behind. As Ickx turned in to the difficult left-right sweep the Schiesser car hit the back of the Rothmans car and spun it around. In a moment Ickx was sliding backwards into the guardrail, and Bellofs turned sharp left hitting the barrier about 20 metres away. So violent were the impacts that the noise could be heard the length of the pit lane, and both cars caught fire briefly, though the marshals were efficient. Ickx was helped out of his car, deeply shocked, with a sore neck, but nothing could be done for Bellof.

The pace cars were out for 40 minutes and there was no pleasure for anyone in what remained of the race. At 100 laps, covered in just over four hours, the Wollek/Baldi/Patrese Lancia had moved unobtrusively into the lead, a full lap ahead of Ludwig/Barilla, Nannini/Patrese, Brundle/Thackwell and Bell/Stuck.

More pit stops would decide the final order, which was established 22 laps later. The surviving Rothmans-Porsche of Bell/Stuck was just on the same lap as the Lancia when the flag went out, and further back the TWR Jaguar had Winter’s Porsche 956 right on its tail, challenging for fifth. It should have been a good day for Lancia, for Rothmans-Porsche who won the World Endurance Championship for Teams, and for Gordon Spice and Ray Bellm who clinched both the C2 Teams and Drivers titles. No-one celebrated, but the achievements will have sunk in later. MLC