Musical Chairs

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In the 1950s it was quite common for a Grand Prix car to be handed over to the team leader midway through a race so he could collect a higher quota of points, but the FIA sensibly put a stop to the practice, not least because it was thoroughly confusing for the spectators.

Working the system came back into fashion in the 1970s, when Georg Loos and the Kremer brothers were locked in combat for Porsche Cup points, and World Championship placings, with their Porsche 935s. John Fitzpatrick, Bob Wollek, Clemens Schickentanz, Tim Schenken and their peers would routinely start a race in one car then switch to the other, and would frequently finish in sixth and eighth places overall, or first and second as the case might have been.

The FIA put a stop to that, too, by stipulating that drivers could score points only with one car. Quite right too, we all said. If journalists, who are supposed to watch the races with an eagle eye and know exactly what happened, lose track of who’s driving what, how can people out at Stowe, or the Flugplatz, understand what’s going on? Any idiot could tell the difference between Fangio and Fagioli or Moss and Brooks, in the cockpit of a Fifties F1 car, but catching a glimpse of a helmet inside a 935 travelling at 150 mph wasn’t always quite so easy. . .

Tom Walkinshaw brought the system back into play at Fuji in October 1986, with the highest motive of securing the World Drivers’ Championship for Jaguar’s Derek Warwick, and again last September to ensure Raul Boesel’s title at Spa. But now the system has backfired on the Scotsman, as the Sauber Mercedes team plays musical chairs with Jean-Louis Schlesser. Martin Brundle, for one, is not amused.

“It’s so frustrating,” said Brundle after the Brands Hatch 1000km. “I’d like to get into the car and win the championship. . . in my car. But Sauber started this, so we have to do it too. Nice guys don’t always win championships!”

The key, this time, is that the lead driver doesn’t actually start the race, so that options are kept open as long as possible. While Porsche dominated the Group C scene it didn’t really matter which of the factory employees won the Drivers’ Championship, but it became terribly important all of a sudden when D Warwick had a chance to wrest the laurels from D Bell and H-J Stuck.

At Fuji, I was told an hour before the race began that Silk Cut Jaguar’s starting drivers would be Eddie Cheever, from 13th place and handing over to Jean-Louis Schlesser, and Derek Warwick, from 17th place and handing over to Jan Lammers.

Maybe Walkinshaw and Silman changed their minds in that hour, but much more likely they wanted to keep their secret, because it was Lammers who started the race in number 52, and stayed in for the second stint, in the course of which a front wheel-bearing gave trouble and needed to be changed. Warwick moved into Cheever’s car for the third stint, renewing a partnership that had been broken, acrimoniously, after the Norisring race in June, and Schlesser switched over to join Lammers and Gianfranco Brancatelli.

They hear a lot of Schlesser’s name these days at Kidlington, but now he is the arch-rival, the man standing in Martin Brundle’s way. Life is full of ironies, because TWR sacked Schlesser after the Fuji race, feeling that he hadn’t pulled his weight in the team for most of the year.

At Spa-Francorchamps last September Jaguar’s position was perfectly straightforward: it had already won the Team’s Championship, and if Raul Boesel won the race he would secure the Driver’s Championship, finally ending the reign of Porsche’s “BEST” partnership, as the Bell/Stuck combination was sometimes known. There were three cars to choose from, and at half-distance it seemed most likely that the XJR-8 driven by Brundle and Dumfries would be the vvinner, so a seat was kept warm for the personable Brazilian.

So far, so good. As a season draws to a close team managers will want to play a joker or two, to extract what they can from the game. But what Brundle seemed to be questioning was the ethic of playing musical chairs half-way through the season, and the point he raised was a valid one.

Lap charting at Brno from a position facing the pits, and perhaps 200 metres from Sauber’s pit, I thought that Jochen Mass and James Weaver had won the Czech race. The storyline forming in my mind was changed completely by the knowledge that Jean-Louis Schlesser had been installed in Weaver’s place, and I’d be surprised if many spectators, other than those near loudspeakers, knew what was happening (but they went to see the cars, and the drivers were probably somewhat incidental).

If you think about it, Peter Sauber’s motives were impeccable. He blew his chances of winning the 1988 World Sports-Prototype Championship for Teams when he withdrew his cars from Le Mans, and that fact was confirmed when Jaguar won the race. But Brundle didn’t add to his personal points tally, and Schlesser remained at the top of the Drivers’ table. Of course Sauber kept the Parisian out of the cars until half-way through the Brno 360km event, and he was vindicated by the puncture that affected the car Schlesser would have shared with Baldi!

At Brands Hatch no-one knew for sure who was driving which Sauber. Nominally the pairings were Schlesser with Baldi in No 61 and Weaver with Mass in No 62. But 61 was qualified by Baldi on pole position, by Schlesser and by Weaver, and 62 by Schlesser for the second grid place, by Baldi and by Mass.

Brundle, at least, drove only Jaguar number No 1 in qualifying — “his” car — but he raced that car only after 2 hours and 39 minutes, having missed the best bits of the action. This situation will certainly continue at the Nürburgring, Spa, Fuji and Melbourne, and many people will question whether. a rule . . . yes, another damned rule! . . . is needed to prevent it.

Personally, I would hate to see this game going on all season, but I see no harm in it at all as the year draws to an end . How about a “close season” until the last three races?

The Brands Hatch debut of TWR’s 48-valve Jaguar V12 engine was most encouraging, and Brundle was quite enthusiastic about it after pre-qualifying on Friday. It’s all the work of Allan Scott, the talented New Zealander who works for Tom Walkinshaw, and 30 laps into the race John Watson was going like a good ‘un in second place, merely 18 seconds behind the race leader.

The 48-valver, which sounds even crisper than the usual engine, retired after an hour or so with a misfire which Scott wanted to investigate before the V12 was seriously damaged, and naturally further development work is now needed. Walkinshaw reminded us that Jaguar Sport was set up jointly by Jaguar and TWR to develop special products, and hinted strongly that the new company might build 200 special V12s, and sell them, to gain homologation for racing.

It has often seemed that German tuners such as Alpina and Schnitzer get an inordinate amount of publicity for what they do to BMWs, and it is most encouraging to realise that, soon, TWR and Jaguar will join forces to produce some truly magnificent British machines, with potential for up to 750 bhp. Even the German autobahn-blitzers would be well satisfied with that! MLC

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