World Sportscar Championship: Nurburgring 480kms

Almost there

The ADAC Trophy race at the Nürburgring proved to be a game of bluff, and Peter Sauber's Mercedes team had to face severe challenges from Nissan and the Joest Porsche team before achieving its now familiar 1-2 result. As has happened so many times before in the fuel-regulated Group C series, some leading teams were prepared to race beyond their allocation hoping for a Pace-car period to slow the pace and bring them back onto the consumption. However Mercedes couldn't afford to underestimate Nissan or Joest and had to go with them, only to see the pretenders drop away in the closing stages.

A cursory glance at the results, when the race is half forgotten, may indicate that the "Silver Arrows" crushed their opposition. Jean-Louis Schlesser and Jochen Mass beat Mauro Baldi and Kenny Acheson by two seconds after nearly three hours of racing (their cars had never been out of sight of each other) and third, two laps behind, was the improved Kremer Porsche 962 K6 driven by George Fouche and Giovanni Lavaggi. There were four more cars queuing up behind Fouche at the flag with Johnny Dumfries' Toyota at the tail, moving entrant Glenn Waters to say: "There was just half a gallon between seventh and third"! True enough, but the principal opponents had come to a standstill on the final lap and World Sports-Prototype Championship regulations insist, as usual, that if you don't see the flag you don't get classified. So the efforts of Bob Wollek and Frank Jelinski in the best Porsche were in vain, and so too was Nissan's contribution although the R890, well driven by Andrew Gilbert-Scott and Julian Bailey led for 69 of the 106 laps...but not the vital one at the end, of course.

What worried the Sauber Mercedes team was the way that Gilbert-Scott, the fresh-faced Englishman with next to no experience of sportscar racing, sized up the silver cars, passed them and pulled away as if it was a routine. For a long while the blue and white Nissan had the look of belonging, just like Geoff Brabham's Electromotive Nissan in the IMSA series, and when he took the lead Gilbert-Scott pulled away from the champions-elect at a second per lap. Bailey had to watch all this going on, standing in the pits as a wrist-slap for his escapade at Brands Hatch, but he was in the Nissan at the 60-lap point when its advantage was greatest, at 29.5 seconds.

By then, much to their concern, Acheson and Mass couldn't see the Nissan any more. All the while the Joest Porsche, which won at Dijon in May, was shining its headlights at their gearboxes and adding to their discomfort, and the Mercedes drivers were being told to hold on because they were, if anything, above their fuel ration.

The instincts of racers are always put to the test in situations like this because tactical skills are brought to the fore. "We're over the limit, they must be too," said one Mercedes engineer as he looked at the telemetric readouts inside the pits, but how certain could he be? Acheson backed off a little because he had to, but Mass' far greater experience of "economy racing" enabled him to nip past the Ulsterman and effectively win the race. Bailey was the first leader to yield however, as he responded to manager Keith Greene's urgent "slow down" arm waving over the pit rail. Even in the days of sophisticated communications the old-fashioned messages, the waved hands and shaken fists, still have their place but it can't be long now before the telemetry works in reverse, and the engineers can reduce throttle openings, lower the revs or cut the boost pressure. Then Bob Wollek might have been third and Julian Bailey fourth. We had a cameo of the race as the leaders entered their 91st lap. Bailey, slowing, was caught on the line by Schlesser but Wollek was level with the Mercedes' door. Didn't they know it was World Championship sportscar racing, in which excitement is strictly rationed? The German crowd was on its feet, roaring for Mercedes or Porsche (who cared, they’re both made in Stuttgart!)

The Blaupunkt/Sachs sponsored Porsche power-slid through the Romer Curve next time but entered the pits straight too slowly and Schlesser managed to extend a few car lengths. Eventually, with 95 laps completed Wollek made his successful bid on the main straight and led for the first time. Only he knew how much fuel he’d got, and Schlesser wasn’t privy to the information. Bailey was only a memory now, cruising round and soon lapped, and would roll to a stop on his 104th lap.

Into lap 104 Wollek caught the Aston Martin out of the Romer curve and, just as Mansell took Senna at the Hungaroring, so Schlesser took Wollek. The Porsche man retaliated at the Dunlop Curve, led for a couple of hundred metres up the hill, but then slowed visibly. He was out of fuel, and the race was decided. Schlesser and Baldi went by almost as one car and although Wollek passed the line again at half speed, he’d have been better advised to wait, alongside Harald Huysman’s Brun Porsche, for the flag.

The victory took Mercedes a large step closer to the main goal, the World Sports-Prototype Championship for Teams, only a placing needed at the next race to do the trick. Schlesser too could sleep easier after extending his advantage over Baldi by five points. The Frenchman wants the World Championship badly, having been beaten narrowly last year by Jaguar’s Martin Brundle.

But what about the Silk Cut Jaguar team? They had their backs to the wall all weekend at the Nürburgring and Patrick Tambay’s third place was the high point of the trip to Germany. The other Jaguar turbo driven by John Nielson and Andy Wallace burst an oil line on Friday and pulled up in flames, and neither car showed anything like a competitive speed with correct consumption.

We expect too much of the TWR prepared Jaguars, of course. It took the Electromotive team three years to turn the Nissan GTP into a regular IMSA winner, and it took Mercedes three years to make the C8/C9 model the almost omnipotent machine it is today (allowing for Peter Sauber’s groundwork). The XJR-10 and 11 turbo models by contrast were first thought of in March 1988, and it’s something of a miracle that they’re ready for racing now. The trouble is that the Silk Cut Jaguar team claimed the top titles in 1987 and 1988, and had so much further to fall. “Our performance at Brands Hatch was misleading” says Lammers. “Clearly we still have a lot of work to do, but we’ve learned a lot this weekend so it hasn’t been wasted.” The Dutchman, last year’s Le Mans winner, has come a long way in the diplomatic stakes too, and his reward for a heads-down, no fireworks race was tenth place, a single championship point, five places behind Neilsen and Wallace.

On Saturday Wallace had run the V12, the team’s spare car, during qualifying and settled easily at 1:28 and 1:29, a race winning pace it seemed, and it was time again to regret that the stock-block XJR-9 model wasn’t further developed during the winter. Even the latest tyres produce a better performance, and the rapid progress of the Aston Martin team shows that a stock-block configuration isn’t history, although neither is it a winner.

David Leslie and Brian Redman may not have been as delighted with their eighth place as they were with fourth at Brands Hatch, but the British race had produced a rather fortunate result, one that came from out of the blue. The AMR-1 is still being reduced in weight and the team predicated that it would find a new level of competitiveness in September, at Donington and Spa.

Aston Martin achieved something of a coup in signing Stanley Dickens, the Le Mans winner, for Spa. The Swede has raced Porsches for a number of years, recently with the Joest and Brun teams, without managing to win a World Championship race, but was a first-time winner with Mercedes and reached the top of Richard Williams’ list of prospects for next season. Dickens claims a distant descendancy form the famous author, and might fit a British team rather well.

At the Nürburgring Walter Brun’s team went well on newly developed Yokohama tyres, perhaps firming a relationship that was getting shaky. Brun and Jesus Parja were fourth, and excellent result for the owner, and Oscar Larrauri and Franz Konrad were sixth, after having an unscheduled brakepad change.

Brakes were the bane of Richard Lloyd’s team too, as they had been at Brands Hatch. Carbon discs were experimented with on Friday, but put aside, and with iron discs the RLR Porsche 962 GTi shared a definite deficiency in braking with the Brun team’s cars. Steven Andskar, another young Swede little known in Europe but a regular Porsche man in Japan, proved to be the quickest member of Lloyd’s team at the Nürburgring, ably backed by F1 driver Bertrand Gachot on his maiden sports car race.

They finished 11th despite Andskar’s visit to a gravel trap and lack of braking, while Derek Bell and Tiff Needell seemed to experience even worse difficulties in RLR’s lead car, and finished 15th.

Hugh Chamberlain was frustrated in his effort to tie up the World Championship for C2 teams as Fermin Velez and Nick Adams posted their first title-race retirement of the season. They’ve won the C2 category at a canter at Suzuka, Dijon, Jarama and Brands Hatch, in the latest model Spice-Cosworth SE89C, but retired in Germany with a blown relay in the fuel pump circuit.

James Shead was the lucky man, celebrating his 24th birthday with a victory in the Team Mako Spice SE88C. He and Robbie Stirling drive an ex-works car, one that’s used to winning, and they won C2 in their very first year of WS-PC competitions. Don Shead, former powerboat racer and now a successful constructor, has put together an excellent team, one that has now finished fourth at Dijon, second at Le Mans, second at Brands Hatch and first at the Nürburgring, which is most impressive for a first half-year.  MLC