Home Rule for Mercedes

Continuing what now looks like a repeat whitewash of the World Sports Prototype Championship, the Sauber Mercedes team notched up another 1 —2 success at the Nürburgring in August. The Silk Cut Jaguars were fast and reliable, finishing in third and fourth places one lap behind, and Mark Blundell was “best of the rest” in a solo drive taking his Nissan to fifth place, three laps in arrears.

It wasn’t that the opposition was disgraced in any way. Last year the Jaguar XJR11 turbos were new and frail; now they’re two seconds faster and virtually as reliable as their German rivals. The trouble is that, while Jaguar, Nissan, Toyota and the Porsche teams were wrapped up with Le Mans, Peter Sauber put the Mercedes through a further development programme which found the C11s another gear.

“Although they had zero opposition last year, they didn’t get complacent,” said Martin Brundle admiringly of the Swiss-German team. Today’s Jaguars might beat the Mercedes C9s from time to time but the C11 is something else, superior to the opposition in almost every department: chassis, handling, fuel economy, and especially power and torque from the stock-block, 5-litre V8 engine.

The Nürburgring. It may be the neue version: wide, safe and modern in every way, but it’s still fast (Schlesser’s pole position average was 126.46 mph), challenging in parts and tricky enough to cause the odd scare. Michael Schumacher, Mercedes’ 21 year old ‘L. driver’, impressed his elders no end when he claimed a temporary pole position on Friday afternoon, but then erred when he lost control of the C11 towards the end of Saturday’s qualifying session, on a damp road, and thumped the carbon chassis hard enough to put it out of commission for the race. Schlesser was another to frighten himself more than somewhat with a huge, 120 mph spin at the Veedol chicane during qualifying, but in the end it was the two silver cars that lined up on the front row with Schlesser/Baldi on pole at 1 min 20.344 sec, and Mass/Schumacher alongside.

Since the disappointment at Dijon Tom Walkinshaw’s team had carried out an in-depth investigation and revised the suspension settings to what they called the ‘Portland’ set-up, a compliment to Tony Dowe’s IMSA team which has come up with a package that the drivers like.

The two cars could hardly have been closer in qualifying: Brundle was third quickest overall at 1 min 22.780 sec in an XJR11 equipped with carbon brake discs, Lammers at 1 min 22.783 sec in a similar car with steel discs, 2.4 seconds faster than last year.

They qualified on the second row and in an ideal world the scale of TWR’s progress should have turned the Jaguars into race winners, but Mercedes have moved not only the posts, but the whole pitch as well! Schlesser had smashed Baldi’s qualifying record by 2.8 seconds, and the gap between the two teams remained as wide as ever.

Huge progress has been made by the factory-assisted Joest Porsches too, but they started from too far back to be anything but also-rans. Hans Stuck’s Supercup ‘pole’ record was 1 min 25.5 sec and laps in the 23s would have been unthinkable for the ageing 962Cs, but in qualifying Jonathan Palmer was timed at 1 min 23.664 sec and Frank Jelinski at 1 min 23.845 sec. Michelin supply a good qualifying tyre but in race conditions the Joest runners were, as usual, sadly handicapped by a lack of rear grip once the tyres had covered half a dozen laps.

The neat two-by-two Mercedes, Jaguar, Joest Porsche grid formation was broken by Geoff Lees in Toyota Team Tom’s Taka Q 90CV which was seventh fastest, heading the two Nissans of Mark Blundell, and Kenny Acheson with Gianfranco Brancatelli.

An amazing oversight by Nissan’s management left Julian Bailey unqualified, since he’d driven in the two morning practice sessions but not in an afternoon one. You could say that team manager Dave Price took his eye off the ball on Saturday, waiting for the drizzle to clear for a chance to run the T-car with the 1000 bhp Le Mans qualifying engine. It would have been pole position or bust, but the car didn’t leave the garage all afternoon and neither did Bailey. Another man who would make a solo run in the race, to 11th place, was 1987 sports car champion Raul Boesel, listed to drive Jochen Dauer’s TicTac sponsored BFG Porsche. Car owner Dauer was clearly unwell and decided even before practice that he wouldn’t take part.

Finances are tightening on the smaller teams. Tim Lee-Davey’s various driver arrangements fell through and he took his two Porsches home on Friday night, needing to settle a bill to get one released from the bailiffs; Hugh Chamberlain and Dave Prewitt ran one Spice apiece and so, even, did the Spice ‘works’ team with a 90C Cosworth DFZ for Cor Euser and Costas Los.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea if FISA put all the fines into a kitty for the benefit of the World Championship, though the authority will think of a thousand reasons not to do so. Jean-Louis Ricci, still smarting from his $50,000 fine at Le Mans, announced his retirement and his Joest Porsche did not start; Otto Rensing was fined $5000 for late payment of his Superlicence fee, and Giovanni Lavaggi $2000 for being late at scrutineering; that wasn’t surprising since he hadn’t raised enough sponsorship to pay for his drive in Lee-Davey’s Porsche, and had little prospect of taking part in the event. There is no hearing and no appeal, according to FISA’s standard procedure. Such fines might be a little more acceptable if FISA were dealing with highly paid drivers and well sponsored teams, but some of the victims are down to their last set of overalls.

Jan Lammers was surprisingly happy when his JaguarSport engine broke five laps into the Sunday morning warm-up session, obviously preferring this to an early retirement in the race, and the TWR mechanics did a fine job in changing the engine in 140 minutes, about half the standard time for the job (complex electronics in the Group C cars prevent the really fast engine changes usual in Formula 1).

Once the race was under way the Mercedes ‘Silver Arrows’ were clearly unbeatable. Brundle made a scorching start from the second row, reckoning that he and Schlesser anticipated the green light at the same moment, and managed to hold off Mass’ car for three laps. The German’s overtaking, on the pit straight, looked absurdly easy and showed just what the Silk Cut drivers have to put up with.

Schlesser went away from Brundle at two seconds per lap, establishing a new Group C record at 1 min 26.092 sec as early as lap six, and for a while Mass pulled away at one second per lap, though the gap steadied, then closed up again as Mass coped with his front tyres overheating. He stopped 10 laps before schedule to hand over to Schumacher, and Goodyear’s harder, 430 compound tyres were fitted like those on Schlesser’s car. The stop was a short one, the car taking 67 litres of fuel in as many seconds, and when the lead car stopped for Baldi to hop in, it took on 86 litres of fuel. The ‘deficit’ of 19 seconds worked in Schumacher’s favour, of course, and flattered what was in any case an outstandingly good drive for one so inexperienced.

With a lighter tank, Schumacher was able to catch and pass Baldi, something the Italian hadn’t expected at all. Although Baldi had the same compound of tyres as Schlesser, and Schumacher of course, he experienced a bad understeering problem that put a second or two onto his lap times. Since he’s known to be one of the fastest drivers of all there was clearly something wrong, and Goodyear’s engineers discovered later that Baldi’s front tyres were like new; they’d never got to their working temperature.

All that was a bit academic for the pursuers, of course. Schlesser made short work of Mass in the final shift to earn a 22 second margin at the flag, and the Jaguars finished almost level, one lap behind, with Lammers rather piqued at being told to ‘hold position’ in the closing stages. Brundle thought he was short of fuel, although that was a telemetry fault, and after a tangle with Walter Brun’s Porsche his XJR’s handling went off, so Lammers was quite justified in thinking that he could have gone a little faster to finish third.

Blundell’s solo drive earned him fifth place, virtually faultless save for a first chicane spin, but Brancatelli soldiered on for too long with a softening tyre and lost three laps having the wheel changed when the cover blew out. Luck ran out again for the Toyotas, Johnny Dumfries and Roberto Ravaglia retiring at half distance with an electrical failure, Lees and Hitoshi Ogawa when they ran out of fuel seven laps from the end.

Jonathan Palmer was the first to retire from the race when water leaked from his Porsche’s 3.2-litre engine and it seized after 15 laps; a pity because he was going really well in sixth place, keeping Lammers’ Jaguar in sight. His demise, and Mass’ early stop, put Euser’s Spice up into fifth place for a while, but co-driver Los made an extra pit stop due to a problem with the nose panel, and they dropped to seventh place in the results.

The best placing for Porsche was sixth, Bob Wollek and Frank Jelinski taking the last championship point for Reinhold Joest’s team. It was a pity that a misfire slowed Richard Lloyd’s car, driven by Manuel Reuter and Steven Andskar, and that a suspension breakage should lead to retirement, because it had a factory supplied 3.2-litre engine installed and was among the quickest of the Porsche customer cars throughout qualifying. The unofficial ‘best Porsche customer’ award went to Oscar Larrauri and Harald Nuysman driving the Brun Motorsport 962C in Hydro Aluminium colours, in eighth place.

This might have been the least exciting WSPC race of the year, but it was a splendid advertising promotion for Mercedes-Benz, and hundreds of their dealer guests. MLC