Ford Denied Once More

The racing circuit of Spa, just outside the town of Francorchamps, is a very special place, for spectators as well as for drivers. As the road dives and weaves through the beautiful Ardennes countryside, it captivates all who are fortunate enough to drive on it. It is a cruel track, many a life having been lost there over the years, but that is not enough to deter touring car drivers from flocking to it with an enthusiasm which the 24-hour sports-car race at Le Sarthe cannot claim.

This year, though, many of the teams came to Belgium with a heavy heart. Rumours emanating from Hockenheim the week before had cast the future of the European Championship in doubt, the reason given being that the series was poorly supported by manufacturers.

The root of the problem lay, as it so often does in motor sport, with FISA, the governing body. After the mess it had created with the World Touring Car Championship, and the late cancellation of that series for this year, it could scarcely have been a great surprise that the plans and budgets of many manufacturers had already been allocated to other activities. Fortunately the two exceptions were those stalwarts of motor racing — Ford and BMW.

While the general line taken by the top teams was to wait and see what would come out of the October meeting of the World Motorsports Council, as FISA’s Executive Committee is now grandly called, the sheer nttmber of cars competing in Belgium cocked two fingers at the governing body as if to say: “From your ivory tower your vision of motor racing may not extend beyond Grand Prix racing, but here where the action is we have a close championship, the prospects for another great race, and a large crowd, and we do not need your interference.”

This year’s 24 Heures de Francorchamps was the eighth round of the European Touring Car Championship, despite claims printed on the outside of the programme that it was a round of the now defunct World Championship! Ford came to Spa with its tail high, having won six of the seven races so far, and with ten Cosworth-powered Sierras in the 57-car field; its best hope of victory lay with one of the three Texaco-backed RS500s taking the chequered flag.

Run by Eggenberger Motorsport, the purposeful black-and-red cars were clearly the cars to beat, their only 1988 failure being at Donington in April. To try to prevent a repeat of its 1987 heartbreak (when both cars retired, one having led for 21 hours), the Swiss team entered three cars. Regular driver Klaus Ludwig claimed pole position in care No 1; Gianfranco Brancatelli qualified No 3 next on the grid, followed by Steve Soper in No 2. The big question mark, however, was whether the cars would be reliable enough over 24 hours, never having done so before.

With the Wolf Racing RS500 entry having been scratched at the last moment, leaving Jeff Allam without a drive, the only other Fords likely to give Eggenberger a run for its money were from EuroLuigi Racing, with local ace Thierry Tassin alongside Andruet and Feitler, in one car, and Ricci, Ballot-Lena and Cremer in the other.

Looking for its fourteenth victory in this classic race, BMW was numerically-strongest. Of the 22 marque representatives which vvere to line up on the grid, 17 of which were M3s, the works-supported Schnitzer, Bigazzi and Prodrive teams seemed the most likely to offer stiff opposition to the Cosworths. It was no surprise, therefore, when the next four grid placings read Schnitzer, Bigazzi, Schnitzer, Bigazzi, all four being shod by Yokohama.

The Garage du Bac M3, which came third last year, was next on the grid, just ahead of the first Prodrive car of Danner/Beguin/Joosen, the sister car of Schlesser/Jabouille/Duez took the outside of the sixth row, alongside the third Schnitzer entry which in fact was withdrawn before the start.

Adding interest to the field was the Nissan GTS-R which had made such a fine European debut at Donington. The regular driver pairing of Allan Grice and Win Percy was joined by Anders Olofsson, who brought with him experience of racing the machine in the Japanese saloon car championship. It was a little surprising to see it start the race in fifteenth place, but brake problems had hindered its qualifying runs.

There were four handsome Toyota Supras on the grid, but it was the normally-aspirated car of regular entrant Bemani Motorsport, which lined up seventeenth, three rows ahead of the Fina-backed turbos.

The class for small cars was a Japanese benefit, two Honda Civics giving battle to twelve Toyota Corollas. Including a Mazda 929 in the middle class, there were altogether twenty Japanese cars in the field. Of the remaining runners, there were two ex-Tom Walkinshavv Rovers, a Volvo 240T, a Maserati Biturbo and a 3.0 Alfa Romeo, none of which were going to be outright contenders.

As usual at Spa, the race started late in the day so as to cram in a number of support races, including an entertaining historic race, and enable a number of local big-wigs to be chauffeured around the circuit. But at five o’clock on Saturday evening the lights turned to green as the pack came through La Source.

As the pace-car pulled off into the pits, it was the three Texaco Fords which leapt into the lead, Boutsen ahead of Schneider and Theys. The dream of a 1-2-3 formation was soon dispelled, for within ten minutes Boutsen came into the pits to have a suspect wheel changed, losing ten places, while Grouillard in the leading Bigazzi M3 and Oestreich in the Schnirzer car pushed Theys down to fourth place. But it was early days; no cause for consternation yet for Eggenberger’s team manager Luther Pinske.

Unlike other teams! Ballot-Lena’s RS500 had dropped out on the formation lap while Jelinski wrote off his turbocharged Supra on the pace lap. Metge’s Ford lasted but four circuits while Tassin, with more than 1000 guests in attendance, completed only five and Bolderhej retired after six laps. The Ford runners were being decimated, and it wasn’t even six o’clock. . .

Theys then added to Ford’s woes when he had a wheel collapse while entering Bianchimont and crashed heavily into the bank and concrete blocks. So much damage was done to the track that the pace-car was out on the circuit for almost an hour and a half.

Since it was Steve Soper’s and Pierre Dieudonné’s car which was out, both were allocated to the Eggenberger cars still running, Soper replacing Gachot in the leading car and Dieudonné replacing Brancatelli in the other. Initially this was of a great benefit to Soper since Dieudonné, who is also in contention for the championship, had to take on a car which had dropped to fifteenth place after developing alternator problems.

As evening turned to night, it was thus the leading Ford of Soper/Schneider/Biela disputing the lead with the Schnitzer, Prodive and Bigazzi M3s, seven cars remaining on the same lap after four hours of racing. During the hours of darkness, the lead was constantly changing, the BMWs only needing to pit twice for every three Ford stops.

Inevitably there were casualties among the leading runners. Van de Poele in the leading Schnitzer car had the frightening experience of his lights failing while out on the track, which caused him to go off. Instead of waiting to tag along behind a slower car, he charged off again into the darkness but misjudged a corner and badly crumpled the side of his M3 in the process. This meant a lengthy delay in the pits to rectify the damage.

Roberto Ravaglia, the reigning World Touring Car Champion doing his best to keep his European Championship hopes alive, had delayed driving for eleven hours so as to see which of the Schnitzer cars looked the better bet. Following van de Poele’s accident he opted for the Heger/Quester car, which was still swopping the lead with the Ford and other BMWs but was gradually getting the upper hand.

By seven in the morning, Ravaglia and his team-mates had managed to take the lead and extend it by 70 seconds over the Soper Ford, in turn 13 seconds ahead of the Prodrive car of Danner/Beguin/Joosen, which was five seconds ahead of the Grouillard/Laffite/Martin Bigazzi M3. Then came Jabouille in the second of the Prodrive cars, two laps down, and Dieudonné a further lap behind.

Both Eggenberger cars were by now beginning to sound rough and their prospects for victory looked slim, but it took a suspension strut failure to finally cripple the leading Ford. As Schneider chased Ravaglia he suddenly felt the car let go. He managed to avoid serious damage as he went off, and got back to the pits, where both struts were changed and a good number of laps lost.

By midday, therefore, Ravaglia had managed to eke out a lap over the Prodrive and Bigazzi M3s. Dieudonné’s Ford was now up to fourth and looking for third, while Soper’s languished in sixth place, five laps behind.

As the race entered its final 90 minutes, it was the Prodrive car which suffered the cruellest luck: without warning the engine blew as Danner was entering the chicane. Ludwig/Boutsen/Dieudonné thus moved up to second place ahead of Grouillard/Laffite/-Martin. Up into fourth came the second Ford, while fifth went to HolzI/Hollinger/Menage in the Bemani Toyota Supra.

The Nissan achieved a good result by finishing sixth, which could have been even higher had it not had consistent problems with wheel bearings. In the small-car class, victory went to the Fina-backed Toyota of Fermine/de Liederkerke/Close, seven laps ahead of Charouz/Alber/Eeckhout.

Altogether 25 cars finished: ten BMWs (including nine M3s), three Fords, the Toyota Supra, the Nissan, the Volvo and the Mazda, and in the baby class, seven Corollas and one Honda. The last classified finisher was the Australian-driven Corolla, 149 laps behind the leader. WPK