World Sportscar Championship: Nürburgring 1000kms

First win for Kouros Sauber-Mercedes

The turbocharged, Mercedes V8-powered Kouros Sauber earned its first success in the World Sportscar Championship at the Nürburgring on August 24, Mike Thackwell having dominated proceedings with the help of Henri Pescarolo. Though the results reveal that Rothmans-Porsche and Silk Cut Jaguar lost all their cars it wasn't a hollow victory, for in dreadful weather conditions Thackwell had commanded the race until it was stopped by a multiple accident.

The weekend began badly for Tom Walkinshaw's Jaguar team when Derek Warwick crashed one of the three entries during the untimed practice session, putting a wheel up the kerb on a fast, uphill left-hander and spinning wildly into the armco. The car was extensively damaged and Walkinshaw had the job of fitting six drivers into two cars, nominally Eddie Cheever/Jean-Louis Schlesser/Hans Heyer in one, Warwick/Jan Lammers/Gianfranco Brancatelli in the other. Again Warwick was not the most popular man around, Cheever protesting that he didn't want the Englishman's cast-off in his car, but the situation resolved itself: Brancatelli was gripped by a fever on Saturday night, unable to rise from his bed on race day. Heyer was told his services would not be needed, and six laps into the race the transmission failed on Cheever's Jaguar leaving the American stranded in the Eifel countryside. Two down and one to go!

As a generalisation, if it is raining anywhere in Germany it will be pouring at the Nürburgring. While the southern part of the country basked in temperatures of 30 degrees the three days of the meeting were marred by rain, never worse than when the 31 cars lined up for the start. At times visibility was down to 200 metres as low clouds blew over at ground level, very much like conditions for the infamous German Grand Prix of 1968. Today's ground effect cars send a wall of water 10 metres into the air and the drivers were practically on compass bearings, relying on a mixture of skill, reflexes and luck to keep out of trouble.  In mind, too, was last year's Fuji 1,000 Kilometre race which was boycotted by all the European teams, though in Japan track flooding was far more severe.

Thierry Boutsen's Brun/Jägermeister Porsche 962C was on pole position with Hans Stuck's Rothmans-Porsche alongside. Stuck is rarely denied pole position but his PDK semi-automatic transmission was not behaving well in qualifying, and the most interesting of the three works cars at the circuit was the spare machine which has PDK with automatic upshifts which make the driver's job a little easier. On the second row were Cheever and Mauro Baldi in the Liqui Moly Porsche, with Jochen Mass (Rothmans-Porsche) and Mike Thackwell on the third.

A good start was more critical than ever and, as Boutsen moved from right to left for the "chicane" turn, Stuck went to the right and gained the lead, the only driver to have a clear view of the road. Within four laps the Bavarian had increased his lead to 10 seconds but Thackwell was gaining in the blue Sauber, helped by superior Goodyear rain tyres. Having disposed of Cheever (about to retire) and Boutsen, the New Zealander rapidly closed on Stuck, though it took him an uncomfortable eight laps to penetrate the spray and move ahead.

Warwick was redeeming himself with a fine drive in the Silk Cut Jaguar, finally dealing with Boutsen after 20 laps though now 30 seconds behind the leaders. At this point Piercarlo Ghinzani, driving a Porsche (Joest Racing Team's) only for the second time in his life, was fifth and everyone else had been lapped including Mass, Baldi, and the Brun Porsches of Oscar Larrauri and Frank Jelinski.

But 42 minutes into the race the main straight was full of spinning and crashing cars, a situation that seemed almost inevitable. Pierre Chauvet, in the Lucky Strike Argo, had been blinded by spray and crashed into the back of the Roy Baker Tiga driven by David Andrews, at the first corner. Further round the track World C2 Champion Ray Bellm, also unsighted, crashed into the back of the slow-moving Isolia, and these two accidents brought out the pace car. As at Brands Hatch, and strictly in accordance with FISA rules, the pace car did not seek the leaders but brought into line Heuclin's ALD, Volker Weidler who was going well in Costas Los' March-Porsche, Warwick in third place, and the Porsches of Boutsen (fourth) and Mass.

Controversially, but again strictly in accordance with the rules, a white flag was shown at the startline though even those who saw it (and most did not) were not to know that a queue of cars was 300 metres ahead and travelling at snail's pace — the Jaguar pace car almost stopped where the Argo was parked at the chicane.

Out of the gloom burst the Kremer Porsche driven at full speed by James Weaver, with Baldi on his gearbox. Spectators in the main grandstand were horrified to see the accident in the making: "The inside of my car was a fog, and although I saw the white flag I just lifted off", said Weaver, "I knew Baldi was there and I dared not brake — but then I saw the other cars and I had to brake; Mauro never stood a chance."

Inevitably Baldi hit Weaver's Porsche and spun wildly across the track, through the queue of almost stationary cars. In the Jaguar pit manager Paul Davis showed great presence of mind, shouting to Warwick over the radio: "Go left there's an accident." Warwick accelerated clear, followed by Boutsen who said: "I saw Baldi coming straight at my door.  I just had time to hit the throttle, and he glanced off the back of my car.

Worse was to come, for Thackwell and Stuck were also completely unaware of the situation. Thackwell, at least, had visibility and was able to slow sufficiently to avoid the melée. Stuck, six seconds later, only saw spray from the Sauber and, too late, braked and swerved to avoid one car only to collide with Mass, a terrible blow which removed the entire left side of his Porsche and the right rear of his team-mate's. Just on two right-hand wheels Stuck 's car careered on another 200 metres, coming to a halt at the chicane after grazing the side of the Sauber. “If I'd hit Jochen's car on the other side I'd have been dead, for sure," said Stuck in a state of mild shock.

Although three wheels flew high in the air, and debris littered the track, the only casualties were two marshals who bravely but impotently ran onto the track with yellow flags and were bruised by flying fibreglass. They returned for duty at the restart, three hours later.

Feelings ran high among the drivers, Jochen Mass being all in favour of suing the organisers, but in the final analysis it is the rules that need changing. Having said that, it needed only a grain of sense to put out yellow flags, and the yellow warning lights at the start-line gantry to have avoided the accident. It was a miracle that no drivers were hurt, and only two cars were too badly damaged to restart.

A new race was announced, then delayed, and a three-hour race was started three hours after the accident. The results were on aggregate, but even now there was no precedent for fuel consumption and the second race was free so far as consumption was concerned, a matter which may concern FISA when it comes to confirming the result for it was not strictly to Group C regulations. Conditions had not improved and Walter Brun, who had first-hand experience of the risks, withdrew his three cars: Reinhold Joest and the Kremer brothers withdrew their single entries and only 18 cars restarted. The Kouros Sauber team and Tom Walkinshaw were all in favour of carrying on both sensing victory and both feeling a lot of pressure. Jaguar badly needed a result, while Peter Sauber was obliged to Kouros who sponsored the race and brought 1,000 guests (apart from which, the continuation of the Yves St. Laurent sponsorship has not been confirmed for 1987).

Warwick was determined not to extend his run of bad luck and, still in dreadful conditions, drove doggedly six seconds behind Thackwell keeping as far out of his spray as possible. Baldi had taken the restart, the Liqui Moly Porsche needing no more than a new nose panel, and held third place from de Villota until pitting to have a missing wiper blade replaced.

The rain stopped, the spray dwindled, and 40 minutes into the race Thackwell 's lead reduced as his rain tyres started overheating. The blue car spun, under pressure, and Warwick went into the lead for the first time as the Sauber came in for another set of rain tyres, of harder compound. "We made a mistake there," said Thackwell.  "The second set was worse than the first, I'd have been quicker on slicks."

Baldi stopped again when drive to the wiper arm failed, Richard Lloyd's team now realising that the dislodged nose panel had done more damage than was apparent. Klaus Niedwiedz took over, on slicks, five laps behind and began a spectacular climb up the leader-board. From 14th he quickly moved up to 10th, setting a string of fastest laps while the better placed teams hung on waiting for refueling before changing tyres. As yet, they could not see the threat.

All the teams kept to a regular fuel schedule, which should impress FISA, and at half distance Lammers and Thackwell were a lap clear of Gordon Spice's C2 entry, de Villota, Los, and Marc Duez in the Ecosse. The C2 cars would refuel only once, the C1 cars twice, which brought the little ones closer than usual to the race leaders, but the Spice, the Ecosse and the Gebhardts were extremely impressive that day, humbling some Porsches. It was surprising that the Spice was in the race at all after Bellm's accident, which pushed the left front wheel against the bulkhead, but the brilliant Graham Humphrys design allowed for a complete front end strip down and rebuild with new parts within the three-hour interval — and the car was as good as new placed fourth in the "second heat" though seventh on aggregate.

The Austin Rover powered Ecosse V6 was, as at Brands Hatch, sufficiently powerful, reliable and economical to scoop the C2 division, placed fifth on aggregate. ARG's contracted rally ace Marc Duez partnered Ray Mallock, indicating a higher level of interest and support from Austin Rover for Hugh McCaig's team, and the two drivers did a sterling job to see off the works Gebhardt driven by Walter Lechner, Max Payne and Ernst Franzmeier. Ian Harrower and Evan Clements were just off the pace, though fourth in class and eighth overall was enough to keep the team narrowly ahead of Spice Engineering in the C2 Teams Championship.

In second place now, the Sauber was refuelling out of sequence after the initial tyre change, and when Thackwell finally handed over to Henri Pescarolo the track was merely damp, and the Mercedes powered car again went a lap down. In the Jaguar pit Walkinshaw's hopes were soaring, but puffs of smoke from the back of the car were clearly not based on water The puffs became a haze, then a cloud, from a severed oil pipe to the right-hand camshaft bank.

Then it was over.  Lammers pitted, the Jaguar mechanics "took a chance" as they admitted, by crimping the metal pipe which could not easily be changed. Another two laps and the Dutchman was parked on the grass with a camshaft seizure.

Pescarolo was able to wind off the pace and Niedwiedz, going like a train, unlapped himself three times in two hours to finish two laps behind on aggregate, narrowly ahead of the steadily driven Fitzpatrick/Danone Porsche. Another unusual sportscar race, memorable mostly for the wrong reasons, produced Mercedes first World Championship victory for over 30 years and everyone hopes there will be more.  Tom Walkinshaw revealed at this race that although the Silk Cut Jaguars are entered as having 6-litre engines, the true capacity since the start of the season has been 6.3 litres, and race power as high as 680 bhp at 6,500 rpm, so clearly this British team, too, has the potential to win a second time — M.L.C.


Results (top five) --  Nürburgring World Sportscar Championship Race, August 24

Aggregate of 22 laps and 3-hour restart

1.  M Thackwell/H Pescarolo (5.0 t/c Kouros Sauber-Mercedes)  --  122 laps in 3hr 42min 30.02sec

2.  M Baldi/K Niedwiedz  (2.8 t/c LiquiMoly Porsche 956B)  --  119 laps

3.  E de Villota/F Velez  (2.6 t/c JFR Danone Porsche 956)  --  119 laps

4.  J Lassig/F Ballabio/H Grohs  (2.6 t/c Obermaier Porsche 956)  -- 115 laps

5.  R Mallock/M Duez  (3.0 Ecosse ARG V6 C2)  -- 115 laps

Average speed and fastest lap not given.