Shoot for the Stars

I drove my heart out for 300 miles. I took no prisoners on the track, and then I got disqualified on a detail like that. I am totally overwhelmed”. Martin Brundle was dejected and angry the day after the Donington round of the World Sports-Prototype Championship, his solo drive to third place in the Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-11 expunged from the records by the FISA stewards. The offence was to overshoot the 246 litre fuel allocation by 0.8 litres, Jan Lammers and Andy Wallace were disqualified from eighth place for a similar discrepancy, 1.0 litre over the top.

Team Sauber Mercedes, of course, won the race with their fifth 1-2 result of the season and went away with the main prize, the Team’s Championship. Jean-Louis Schlesser and Mauro Baldi, who won the race outright, drew close to sharing the driver’s championship, and Jochen Mass shared the second placed car with Heinz-Harald Frentzen, the young German F3000 driver competing with Mercedes for the first time.

Mercedes, in fact, looked vulnerable at times. The winning car was puffing oily smoke from its left-side exhaust as early as the tenth lap, and this condition worsened steadily. Oil was leaking from the V8 engine onto the turbocharger, and got so bad that Baldi had to make an emergency stop half an hour from the finish to take on five litres of Castro!, in addition to the six litres taken at the second fuel stop.

The risk of engine failure was high, but the risk of a fire was greater still, because on Saturday Frentzen had stopped with just such an oil leak, and with the plug leads melting in flames. Had the race lasted many more laps Schlesser and Baldi might not have collected any points at all, and Mass would have been the clear leader of the world championship . . . . thanking his lucky stars that Frentzen’s unforced spin at the Old Hairpin had missed the wall, missed the gravel trap and done no damage to the car!

The Tom’s Toyotas ran out of fuel even sooner that usual, and the Porsches didn’t get a look-in so the main challengers to Mercedes were Jaguar and Nissan, with Spice Engineering coming into the reckoning as the track would favour the nimble Cosworth DFZ-powered cars.

There was never any doubt that the Mercedes would be quickest in qualifying, only about where they’d leave the GpC qualifying record, established by Baldi last year at lm 19.1s in the Sauber Mercedes C9. Typically Schlesser and Baldi have been knocking two seconds off last year’s records (one second due to the C11, one to the Goodyear tyres), and Baldi, whose turn it was, answered the question with an astonishing lm 16.952s.

“I ‘ad to do it, the computer said we could do a 16.8, and I didn’t want to get the blame” said the Italian driver, who has shared the burden of this year’s programme with Schlesser better than anyone expected. Jochen Mass was the only other to go under last year’s pole, at lm 18.157s. That, though, was in the number 2 T-car, since the intended race car had melted its ignition.

British fans were treated, for the last time, to the thundering sound of Mercedes’ mighty twin-turbo V8, which adopts a lighter, more urgent tone during qualifying when an extra 500rpm is demanded; to the flat tones of the JaguarSport V6, and the racier sounds of the race-designed Toyota and Nissan V8s.

Tickets were offered at Formula 1 tariffs, unfortunately, absurdly priced at £20 to get in on race day (£15 if booked in advance) and another £20 to sit in a grandstand, and it was certainly optimistic to guess at a crowd figure of 15,000. A pity, because the Mercedes are magnificent to watch, even if their performances are predictable, and the race for third place is usually excellent.

Geoff Lees won the race for third place on the grid, reminding us that the Toyota 90C-V is a very good car for qualifying even though the race consumption needs further attention, and Brundle was fourth quickest in the Silk Cut Jaguar. “I can’t get any more out of it” he exclaimed forcefully after recording 1 m 19.863s. “I’ve done a 19.5, a 19.6 and a 19.7, that’s it. I’ve driven it smoothly, banged it over the kerbs, the times are just the same”.

Kenny Acheson, who hasn’t had a particularly smooth run in the Nissan this year, was full of smiles after qualifying fifth fastest, just ahead of team-mate Bailey. “We tried about four different chips, and renewed a turbo pipe because the boost was fluctuating, and eventually it came right” sighed the Ulsterman.

Apart from Jan Lammers, who wasn’t quite satisfied with his Jaguar’s handling, no-one else got below the 1 m 20s mark, though the works-assisted Joest Racing Porsches handled by Jonathan Palmer and Bob Wollek were low in the 80 second bracket. A minor technical breakthrough was marked by the fact that they were equipped with Salisbury limited slip differentials, breaking the habit of a lifetime by the Porsche factory which has long preferred solid, 100 per cent locked differentials. The Spices were 12th and 13th on the grid, outgunned by the high-boost turbo cars but seemingly in with a chance for the race.

Race for Third

Jochen Mass’ intended race car, with a fresh engine installed, would start on the button when the time came to race, so after a few moments of hesitation he climbed into the spare T-car which was nearly as good but, obviously, not his first choice.

And in this car Mass made a customary poor start, while Bailey made a storming take-off from the third row and slipped his Nissan between the two silver cars before Redgate Corner. Brundle and Lees were in threatening positions, and these five quickly broke clear of Lammers, Wollek, Palmer and Acheson.

To make up for the German slip-up, Bailey was allowed to go onto the attack at Donington; if a caution was operated he’d get back onto the fuel allowance, and if not he’d have to slow down at the end. The Londoner made the most of being off the leash and kept well up to Baldi, who must have been wondering why the Nissan wouldn’t go away. On lap nine the Italian made his big effort, lowering the circuit’s sports car record by a second, and only then did he shake the Nissan off.

Mass, meanwhile, was getting comfortable in the second Mercedes and found a way past Bailey, who was happy enough to stay third and keep Brundle’s Jaguar behind. Just as Lees expected, the Taka Q Toyota dropped back as though he’d hit the brakes, as soon as he checked the fuel consumption readout.

Motor racing is a contact sport at a track like Donington. Hugh Chamberlain’s two Spices were in the wars from the beginning, as Otto Altenbach used Robbie Stirling’s rear wheel as a brake at the hairpin on the opening lap, and Beppe Gabbiani rather needlessly took Will Hoy off the road the second time around. A little later Wollek and Dumfries collided heavily at the Melbourne hairpin, and the Scottish earl went to the Toyota pit with bits missing from both sides of the nose panel, the result of a sandwiching operation.

The two Joest Porsches lost rear tyre grip after six laps and began their graceful decline, enabling the forceful Larrauri to lead the Porsche race in tenth place. Up ahead, Harvey and van der Poele were making good progress in the Spices, sixth and eighth after 15 laps.

Even at this early stage there were puffs of smoke from the left-hand exhaust on the leading Mercedes, more noticeable when the car was cornering to the right. As yet Baldi hadn’t noticed anything amiss, but the atmosphere was unusually tense in Peter Sauber’s pit.

A good charge by Brundle took him past Bailey’s Nissan, into third place, and Harvey’s Spice became the next image in Bailey’s mirrors. Behind them, Lammers was having a fearsome job holding off van der Poele, the Dutchman’s XJR oversteering as it never did in qualifying. Almost inevitably the two cars clashed, the Belgian dropping back straight away with a missing wheel spat affecting the delicate handling.

Front tabs were removed from Lammers’ car during the first stop, making life a little easier for co-driver Andy Wallace, and at the second stop the rear wing was cranked up a few degrees. Basically, though, a mechanical imbalance had got into the car, just as it did at Dijon, although Brundle’s was perfect all afternoon. Kenny Acheson wasn’t too happy when Giovanni Lavaggi crossed his path in Tim Lee-Davey’s Porsche at the hairpin, forcing a stop to fit a new nose panel on the Nissan.

So tough is the track that several Porsche runners, Larrauri, Schneider and Pareja among them, had to have new front brakes pads fitted at the first stops. Brakes dissipate energy, of course, and there were few drivers not much concerned about their fuel consumption figures.

Even Mass admitted to being concerned about the consumption, a rare statement for a Mercedes driver to make. Brundle just about caught him by the time the first fuel stops were due, and stayed in the seat to enjoy a nine second lead over Frentzen. “I was pretty ruthless with backmarkers, but we had to keep maximum pressure on the Mercedes team”, said the English driver. “It was the only chance we had”.

It took young Heinz-Harald ten laps to catch Brundle, and for two more they had a ferocious duel which left the young German with mauve paint on the door the first time he tried to pass! Once past he was able to pull away with some ease, but nearly threw it away with an unforced spin at the Old Hairpin. Walkinshaw’s crew whooped as their TV monitor showed the silver car spinning gracefully across the manicured grass, missing a gravel bed by the width of a wheel. Frentzen got it back though, dropping 13 seconds on the lap but still getting back to speed before Brundle appeared. Then, the race was as good as decided.

Sixty laps, half distance, and Schlesser led Frentzen by 58 seconds, Brundle by 67 seconds. Euser, Blundell and Brancatelli were one lap behind, and two laps down were John Watson in Lees’ Toyota, Wallace’s Jaguar, Huysman’s Porsche, Giacomelli’s Spice, then more Porsches handled by Jelinski, Michael Bartels (co-driving Palmer in the Joest entry), Steven Andskar (RLR) and Walter Brun.

Six litres of oil, no less, went into the leading Mercedes at the second pit stop. The leak was getting worse, no doubt, but there was no time to carry out repairs. That particular Mercedes engine was expendable. Lap times weren’t affected, and Baldi was able to extend his lead over Mass in the final stint. Just as well, since he had to make an unscheduled stop for another five litres when the pressure gauge started fluctuating.

Rival teams were willing the lead Mercedes on! If it failed most of them would have to do another lap, and towards the end Bailey’s Nissan was very marginal as were most of the Porsches. As it was, Bailey toured slowly around his final lap and dropped two places to Euser and Acheson, and suffered the indignity of being hit by Lavaggi, the same driver who had nearly taken Acheson out earlier.

Baldi took the flag safely, lifted off the throttle, and his Mercedes was almost lost from view as more smoke erupted from the engine bay. It’s very doubtful that the C11 would have lasted more than a handful of laps, but no-one from Mercedes would admit that. Wollek stopped over the line, out of fuel, and the unfortunate Larrauri urged his Brun Porsche a kilometre from the Melbourne hairpin on the starter, losing his eighth place then being excluded because his last lap took too long.

After the prizegiving, the rumours . . . . had Spice protested both Jaguars for taking on too much fuel? Would Brundle’s car be excluded for having an external battery start in the pits? Big problems in the scrutineering bay, a long wait for the final results. Then, when the paltry crowd had drifted home, came the news that both Jaguars were out. The fact that several litres were taken from their tanks afterwards was of no consequence, and the entire weekend was wasted for the ‘home team’. “All that for nothing,” said Brundle the next day. “I can’t wait for next year, when we’ll have real racing again”. So say all, in Group C racing. MLC