The Pearl Of Warwick

You have to sympathise with Jean Todt and the Peugeot Talbot Sport team. Winners of four Sportscar World Championship races this year, dominant at Le Mans, and confirmed as world champions in August, they find that paddock talk is confined to the paucity of entries, and the near certain demise of the series in October. Derek Warwick, who shares the drivers' championship with Yannick Dalmas, expressed their frustration: "We've been going three to four seconds quicker this year. The cars have been reliable and Toyota have given us good opposition. I know the grids are thin, but even if we'd had full grids the result wouldn't have been any different. We'd have won.

He's right. Peugeot's team has appeared to be almost invincible this year, bar a couple of early-season mechanical failures which Todt now admits to being due to engine block porosity, "from an outside supplier, not within our immediate control."

Philippe Alliot admires Todt, Peugeot and Michelin fulsomely, ignoring the audible jibe about "contract time" from the back of the room: "I have spent seven years in Formula 1 and two years with Peugeot, and I can honestly say that this is the finest team I have ever driven for. Quite so, and Alliot is possibly destined to drive for Guy Ligier and Renault next year, so never mind the contract!

Peugeot showed again in Suzuka how and why it is the champion, as strong and as worthy as Team Sauber Mercedes in 1989 and 1990. When pressure came from Toyota the French cars simply went a little faster, and when Warwick thought he had pole position Alliot trumped his time.

The 905s were not infallible, Alliot having a power steering pump failure for the second time in three races, but the pump was changed in 14 minutes and he got to the podium anyway. Above all, Todt has completed his portfolio, and certainly earned the right to take Peugeot into Formula 1 in 1994. He has been a successful professional rally co-driver, masterminded the World Rally Championship title bids in 1985 and 1986, and transformed the Peugeots into Paris-Dakar winners in each year between 1987 and 1990 (when the Peugeot was transformed into a Citroen).

Finally, Todt took on the new discipline of circuit racing and became the master of that, welding together a team of cosmopolitan nationalities. He is not free to say that Peugeot aims to go into Formula 1 because the decision hasn't yet been taken, but his ambition is perfectly clear.

It was his boss, Frederic Saint-Geours, who came close to spilling the beans at Suzuka, saying that the SWC has been disappointing in terms of public interest, media and TV coverage, and a poor return on Peugeot's investment. "We want to compete on a global basis where there is a strong level of interest. Peugeot is interested in image building and is looking for a return on a large investment," says Saint-Geours, director-general of the PSA Group.

"We would wish to compete with our own chassis and our own engine, but any decision about the future will be made after FISA's announcement on October 6." Not surprisingly this public statement brought a smile to Todt's face, and had deadline journalists rushing to the telephones.

Toyota Team TOM'S has done very well, too, in a single year. The TS010 has raced against Peugeot only six times and beaten the French team once, at Monza, with a near-miss at Silverstone when the late Hitoshi Ogawa's engine stopped due to a temporary electrical glitch.

Although TTT has been good enough to keep real and determined pressure on Peugeot, it hasn't actually headed the French on time sheets or lap charts since that day in May, at Silverstone. Every time Toyota raises its hopes, Peugeot finds reserves to raise its own performance, but both teams would acquit themselves well in the front half of a Formula 1 grid... and wasn't that Bernie Ecclestone's undeclared hope, from the day the 3.5-litre Group C formula was announced?

French cakewalk

Qualifying resulted in a familiar looking grid, with Peugeots on the front row, Toyotas on the second, and Mazda vying with Euro Racing Lola for the third. Not familiar, though, was the Nova Engineering/From A Nissan R92C which Mauro Martini drove to fifth place on the grid, the first appearance by Nissan in a World Championship race since October 1990.

It was a full six mph quicker on high boost than Alliot's Peugeot and Geoff Lees' Toyota across the timing line, but visibly slower through the many turns. The Japanese team was a welcome addition to the race and finished a strong fourth, only to receive the snub of being removed from the final results sheet. It was as though the car hadn't raced, but of course FISA in its wisdom couldn't allow an unregistered car to gain any kudos in a World Championship event!

Alliot, on pole position, carved a mighty four seconds off Warwick's 1991 pole, established of course in the Jaguar XJR-14 on its debut outing. Warwick was itching to respond, but was firmly strapped into his race car setting it up for the morrow and had to be content with Friday's time, merely three seconds quicker than he'd gone the year before.

Peugeot apparently gambled with the hot (31-33 degC) and humid (70 per cent minimum) conditions, keeping the same driver pairings as usual. Although cockpit temperatures reached 45 deg, and the heavily clad drivers had to work unbelievably hard for 40 minutes at a stretch, they felt they could cope. They had power steering, after all, and side radiators... air conditioning was the only luxury they lacked.

Toyota brought in Masanori Sekiya and Kenneth Acheson to build the driver line-up, these two joining Andy Wallace while Jan Lammers partnered Geoff Lees and David Brabham. For them, front radiators meant gales of hot air raising the cockpit temperatures above 50 deg, "like working in an oven with the door shut" as Acheson put it.

There hadn't been a 1,000 km Group C race since 1988, and the European drivers felt some trepidation about the fatigue factor. The Toyotas were equipped with boxes of ice and a small fan driving cold air to the drivers' helmets, while the Peugeots simply made the best they could of ducting what air came free. No one disagreed when Toyota Alistair McQueen forecast that "this is going to be tougher than Le Mans."

The first hour was the worst for everyone, when the sun was high. Once out of the cars, Alliot, Warwick, Lees and Wallace dreaded the thought of going back in later, but the heat of battle was their inspiration.

Alliot led for 20 laps then felt his steering system become leaden, as it has done twice before, and Baldi lost eight laps having the pump changed. Warwick and Dalmas then had the job of fending off the Toyotas, and it wasn't that easy because the Peugeot was less than ideally set up, tending to porpoise at the front and lose grip at the rear.

Euro Racing's second Lola retired when an oil leak led to engine damage while Canadian David Tennyson was driving, and Mazda's MXR-01 expired in a cloud of smoke when it lost fourth and fifth gears, then its clutch.

The smoke pall was nothing, though, compared with that which followed Andy Wallace out of his Toyota's cockpit just before half-distance. A broken exhaust pipe set light to the surrounding bodywork, and apart from a smell of scorching plastic the Oxford driver realised little until smoke filled the cockpit so much so that he couldn't even see the steering wheel and suddenly that he had to make an emergency stop and set an Olympic standard 20 metre record with smoke in his lungs. In-car camera work was superb in Wallace's Toyota, and everyone in sight of a monitor screen knew about the smoke at the same moment as the driver.

Then it was a one-to-one contest, Warwick's Peugeot versus Lees' Toyota. With 500 km covered the French car led by a minute, usually extending the advantage by a second per lap. The pit stops usually cost Toyota an extra five seconds, the time it took to refill the left-side reservoir with ice cubes, and as the afternoon went on it was the three Toyota men who looked hot and tired, while the Peugeot men were increasingly buoyant as they went a lap ahead.

Lammers made one last effort at the end, as the Peugeots lined up for a grandstand finish. The Toyota driver made a determined effort to unlap himself but was firmly rebuffed by Baldi, eight laps behind and going strongly. Behind them, the turbocharged Nissan finished fourth and the Euro Racing Lola fifth in the hands of Jesus Pareja and Hideshi Matsuda.

Sixth and seventh on the road were Chamberlain Engineering's two Spices in a fine display of regularity. They ran to FIA Cup regulations although this wasn't a qualifying round, and Chamberlain Engineering and their lead driver. Ferdinand de Lesseps, maintained their 100 per cent record; in fact seven starts this year have produced seven finishes, all trouble-free except for damage sustained at Le Mans.

Only one race remains this season, at Magny-Cours on October 18, an event in which Peugeot displayed great strength last year before a very sparse crowd. If there's any justice in the world there should be a huge crowd this time to pay homage to Peugeot's champion team. M L C