A momentary lapse of reason

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Had the Hockenheim Formula 3000 race lasted two laps longer, chances are that Franck Lagorce might not have won it. For that was as far as he got into his next test session before his engine, the same one that he had used in Germany, blew up. That can be just the sort of luck that brings you championships, and Lagorce has certainly enjoyed moments of good fortune this year: spinning without either stalling or hitting anything in Pau, earning the benefit of a restart in Enna (admittedly in the company of several others) after he had fallen off at the first corner, clambering into the points on the back of a spate of retirements in Barcelona, where a practice error had left him well down the grid. . .

No matter what his adversaries accomplished, Fate appeared to be giving Lagorce a helping hand. And the story looked to be pretty much the same in Spa. He converted a convincing pole position into a lead of almost two seconds by the end of his first lap, and his closest championship rival, Gil de Ferran, had spun and stalled at the first corner, damaging his car in the process.

At that precise moment, Lagorce held a two-point championship lead. What odds would you have been offered on the two being level at the end of the afternoon?

Long, one suspects. . .

Even by the time de Ferran had trickled forward in the La Source escape roads coaxing a bump start from his KV, his position still looked forlorn. But it was to be the start of a remarkable recovery drive. The absence of his Reynard’s ‘bonnet’, the cowling that covers the shock absorbers, might have looked ungainly, but in the wet conditions that hardly mattered. Its benefits are chiefly aerodynamic, and in these conditions maximum speeds were reduced: When the circuit was at its wettest, towards the end of the race, de Ferran was consistently four seconds a lap quicker than most other cars on the circuit, sometimes six. . .

By that time, Lagorce had boobed.

He had been usurped within the first half-dozen laps by Jules Boullion, who at last went on to win his maiden F3000 race after a stupefying passing manoeuvre at Blanchimont, the audacity of which left him far less excited than it did those who saw it. As Bouillon disappeared up the road, Lagorce dropped back into the clutches of de Ferran’s impressive Paul Stewart Racing team-mate Didier Cottaz, a Spa rookie. By mid-race, Cottaz was hot on Lagorce’s heels, and Lagorce was on the radio to the pits, asking whether a set of slicks was prepared for him. The Apomatox team replied that there was indeed, but he was counselled not to come in. When Cottaz passed him one lap later, however, Lagorce chose to ignore that advice.

At the time, he explained later, he thought that the fickle Ardennes skies were brightening and that it was a no-lose gamble, what with de Ferran being, he assumed, so far back. But Gil was by then in the lower reaches of the top 10, and gaining. Formula 3000 pit stops are, literally, the work of a minute. Tyre stops not being a part of regular race strategy, there are no air hammers: everything is done manually. And in Lagorce’s case, it had to be done twice, for he was back in within two laps for a fresh set of wets, the rain having returned in earnest.

As de Ferran continued to make ground, so the mood in the Apomatox pit declined. Dominique Delestre’s team presently bares little resemblance to 1989-1993 vintage Apomatox. Little has changed in terms of personnel, but the arrival of Lagorce has proved the catalyst which has transformed this erstwhile bridesmaid into a valid championship contender. Hence the accentuated feeling of deception at the loss of what should have been an extended championship lead.

De Ferran, eventually fifth, could hardly believe his luck. “I just don’t know what he could have been thinking about,” reflected the Brazilian. “I mean, no way was it dry enough for slicks when he stopped.”

The upshot is that Lagorce and de Ferran are tied on 28 points, with two races remaining. There will be no pre-event preparation for Estoril (on September 24, shortly after MOTOR SPORT was printed); nobody has tested there, and the first time the cars will see the track is when they stream out for the first qualifying session. De Ferran has raced there before, however, in Formula Vauxhall Lotus, and last autumn he undertook some F1 testing at the venue for Footwork. Both drivers know Magny-Cours, Apomatox’s home circuit and the site of Lagorce’s maiden F3000 win last October. Lagorce could settle the title in Portugal if he was to win and de Ferran fails to score, for if that result were to be reversed at Magny-Cours the title would go to the Frenchman by dint of his having scored a greater number of second places. Both drivers’ consistency, however, suggests that the title won’t be settled until the series concludes in France.

Boullion’s victory at Spa was appropriate. It was DAMS’s first success of the season, but it was fitting that the French team, which has an F1 project on the stocks for 1995, should win the 100th FIA Championship race. DAMS has won more championships (two), more races (16) and more pole positions (13) than any other team in the formula’s history.

The result gives Boullion a ghost of a chance in the championship, too. Good as his current form is, however, the 10-point gulf will be hard to erode.

Vincenzo Sospiri effectively kissed his title hopes goodbye in Belgium. He walloped a kerb at the start, avoiding de Ferran amongst others, and he pitted immediately to have the car checked over (the pit entry was at the exit of the first corner, the F3000 cars still using the old pits but starting from the F1 grid to avert potential hazards at the new Eau Rouge chicane). The team threw on a set of slicks in a desperate gamble to retrieve something from the situation, once it was clear that the car was unharmed, but the Italian rejoined too quickly, taking his air starter bottle with him and wrecking his rear suspension. It is unlikely that he could have gone much further; when he hit the kerb, the steering wheel recoiled and a subsequent X-ray showed that he had broken his left wrist and the first finger of his left hand. Last year, he sustained an almost identical injury to his right wrist when he banged a kerb at Hockenheim.

Mathematically, and with a little miraculous intervention, Sospiri, Massimiliano, Papis and Cottaz could all still take the crown, but few doubt that it is anything other than a two (maybe two-and-a-half) horse race. Lagorce’s first serious mistake of the year could prove to be more costly than he had ever imagined possible. S.A.

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