It was predictable, really, that the Sauber Mercedes team would return to Dijon-Prenois in a determined mood. Last year’s result was the one blot on the team’s record sheet, and that was motive enough. Then, Sauber had the luxury of developing and testing the C11 right through June, when all the rival teams were preparing for Le Mans and recovering from the ordeal. The result? Mercedes’ third 1-2 walkover of the season, and an aura of invincibility in the 1990 World Sports-Prototype Championship.
World Champion Jean-Louis Schlesser dominated the meeting in Burgundy, fastest on Friday and Saturday and then, with back-up from Mauro Baldi, leading all but four of the 127 laps in the 480 kilometre (300 mile) race. During qualifying all the pressure came from 1988 World Champion Martin Brundle, but once the sweltering race was underway the Silk Cut Jaguars slipped and slid back to fourth and fifth places.
Schlesser and Baldi felt pressure from their own team-mates, Jochen Mass and Michael Schumacher, who finished four seconds behind. ‘Were you trying to pass Schlesser?’ Mass was asked at the postrace conference. Before he could reply in the affirmative Schlesser waved his hand at his lobster-hued chum — ‘look at him, do you think he wasn’t trying?’ The atmosphere in the Mercedes team is very relaxed this year, even more than last season when Sauber’s crew had things all their own way, but felt keen rivalry between Schlesser and Baldi. Some people believed that the rivalry would become keener this year as they share one car, but each has high regard for the other and they seem happy enough to take turns at qualifying and starting the race. That will be Baldi’s privilege at the Nürburgring and Montreal, Schlesser’s at Donington and Mexico. If Sauber Mercedes won at the Nürburgring on August 19 (after this issue went to press) the Swiss-German team will come to Donington hoping to clinch the team’s championship for the second year running. Jochen Mass led the driver’s championship after Spa, in company with Karl Wendlinger, and his second place at Dijon enabled him to share the lead with Schlesser and Baldi, all on 27 points. So Mass wants to beat his team-mates at least twice in the remaining races, by no means impossible, to lift the title from under their noses — nothing would give him more pleasure!
The German veteran was a strong supporter of Neerpasch’s policy to promote a trio of 21-year-olds, and readily volunteered to be their tutor. What sweet pleasure, he now says, to become the World Champion in what may be his last competitive year, helped by these youngsters.
Like last year, the Dijon race was all about tyres. Bob Wollek and Frank Jelinski made the best use of Goodyears to win the race 14 months ago, but are now contracted to Michelin; Mercedes and Jaguar have the Goodyear equipment and although they were fairly evenly matched in qualifying, their identical tyres served them very differently in the race. Why, though, was one of life’s mysteries as Jaguar’s TWR engineers contemplated the two XJRs afterwards. ‘Pathetic’ said one. ‘Rubbish’ agreed the other. It wasn’t really a time for Tom Walkinshaw to bang the table with his mighty fist, because the whole team was utterly perplexed by the lack of grip which became evident, for the first time all weekend, just four laps into the race.
Nissan achieved their third podium result of the season, third at Suzuka, Spa and now Dijon, with Julian Bailey and Mark Blundell sharing the honours. Dunlop helped them on their way, and even after the Sunday morning warm-up the third quickest time, behind the two Mercedes, should have been indicative of something to come.
Brundle duels for Pole
Grand Prix racing’s loss is Jaguar’s gain. Martin Brundle is almost certainly the best driver not currently in Formula 1 racing, and that’s the opinion of arch-rival Schlesser who called round to congratulate the Englishman during qualifying. ‘I have to congratulate Martin on his time’ said Schless, leaving his compliments on hearing that Brundle was out — trying to go quicker still.
There seemed to be no after-effects of Brundle’s heavy accident the week before, while testing at Dijon, and with further revisions the XJR-11 has come within a half a second of the Mercedes C11, instead of a full second as at previous races. Last year Schlesser was on ‘pole’ in the C9 at 1 min 07.725 sec, and Baldi set the Group C lap record at 1 min 11.739 sec. These times were in for a beating, for on Friday morning Brundle was first into the ‘fives’ in the Jaguar, on the softest (160) compound race tyres.
Temperatures climbed into the mid nineties each day, and the afternoon qualifying sessions were run with track surface temperatures of 45°C, or 115°F. Grid times were inevitably somewhat slower on Friday. Schlesser claimed the provisional pole at 1 min 06.100 sec, followed by Brundle on 1 min 06.352 sec.
Early on Saturday afternoon Brundle threw down Jaguar’s gauntlet at 1 min 05.965 sec, forcing the Silk Cut car around the winding 2.36 mile track with an awesome effort. There was, perhaps, a little more to come, but it all depended on traffic. Then Schlesser rumbled out in the 5-litre Mercedes, its silver paintwork gleaming in the sunshine. The sea of traffic parted, and with a thunderous noise the C 11 crossed the line at 1 min 05.527 sec. Brundle just shook his head, and got on with the business of readying the XJR for the race. Jan Lammers and Andy Wallace had to spend Friday afternoon in Jaguar’s T-car, having had the engine fail earlier, and their fourth fastest time was to stand because a turbocharger failed at the vital moment on Saturday. Mass and Schumacher also qualified on Friday, spending Saturday’s two hour session in their T-car due to a fuel pump failure. The usual 1-2-3-4 number order on the screens became 1-3-2-4, a slight change that proved not as significant as Walkinshaw hoped. Usual question though; who’d be fifth? At Dijon it was the turn of the Tom’s Toyota team, so desperately out of luck in recent races, and it was Geoff Lees who made the time 1 min 07.614 sec. The 90C-V was a Le Mans car with the six speed gearbox, wider track front suspension, and a 3.6-litre V8, twin-turbo engine which is ‘very nice, with lots of power’ according to Lees. There was still a question mark over the fuel consumption, and this certainly wasn’t resolved at Dijon.
Julian Bailey was close behind Lees at 1 min 07.750 sec, happy at last to have some useful qualifying tyres for the Nissan, but desperately unhappy with the traffic that’s often a menace on ‘handling’ circuits.
Then came the Porsches, old and truck-like on the slow tracks. With a factory 3.2 litre engine in his Joest Racing 962C Bob Wollek showed that Michelin could do the job by posting the seventh best time on Friday, at 1 min 08.017 sec, and next day co-driver Frank Jelinski improved fractionally without altering the grid position. Jonathan Palmer, paired with David Hobbs at Dijon, was eighth quickest in his Joest Porsche despite a swollen left hand, the legacy of his Le Mans crash, prevented even from trying to improve as his oil pressure sagged on Saturday.
Three broken engines in qualifying alone prevented the Spice Engineering team from bettering a fifth row grid position, one place ahead of the unusually quick Cougar-Porsche 245 of Pascal Fabre and Lionel Robert.
The underlying feeling at Dijon, again, was of disquiet. Despite the fine weather a pitifully small crowd turned out (about 1% of the town’s 220,000 inhabitants, it seemed); some money had been spent on an extension to the pits, tripling of guardrail in places and on some new temporary grandstands which were not filled, but the track surface remained polished, low on grip, and exceedingly dangerous in the run-offs.
‘You wouldn’t drive a Jeep across there’ said Kenny Acheson after a trip along the boulder-strewn verge in his Nissan, and the normally reticent Andy Wallace described the place as ‘bloody dangerous’; ‘scary’ was the word Bob Wollek used. Paddock amenities remained absolutely basic, a throwback to Mallory Park in the Sixties, and it was clear that the FISA code of standards which forces other circuit owners to spend millions simply doesn’t apply to Dijon. Something to do with circuit director François Chambelland being the vice-president of the FISA, one cynic was heard to say.
A silver rout
For the first time in many years red flags were hung out at a World Championship Sports car race, even as Schlesser and Baldi headed the field through the first turn. From somewhere near the back of the grid Harald Grohs made an early charge on the pace lap, in the big Pouas turn approaching the main straight, and may have been in fourth gear when Schlesser and Brundle checked their speed in front of the red light.
Manuel Reuter was off the throttle in Richard Lloyd’s pink Porsche when Grohs’ Obermaier team Porsche made a heavy strike, damaging both cars severely. Anthony Reid was involved in the Convector team’s new Porsche, so were Tim Lee-Davey’s Porsche and Wayne Taylor’s Spice, and since the light had not turned green at the moment of impact, the organisers were well within their rights to call a restart. Again Schlesser and Mass powered away from the field, and on the third lap the champion lowered the lap record decisively to 1 min 08.973 sec (123.24 mph). Bailey took his Nissan past the Jaguars into third place with suspicious ease, but he was losing two seconds per lap to the silver jobs. ‘Nobody’s going to live with the Mercedes today’ said Bailey. ‘I’m just concentrating on being third’.
Both Brundle and Lammers suffered a major loss of grip through the rear tyres four laps into the race, and it never came back. They were mystified. When the tyres were examined they were found to be 4 psi over-inflated, probably due to the slipping and sliding, but compensated pressures in the tyres prepared for the third stint didn’t make more than a jot of difference.
Michael Schumacher was impressive in the middle shift, taking eight seconds off Mauro Baldi and actually using less fuel – the Italian said that his car was oversteering and short of grip – enabling the Mercedes to stay in sight of each other from start to finish. Bailey and Blundell were one lap down at the end, the two Jaguars two laps behind, and the remaining World Championship point was earned by Taylor and Eliseo Salazar in the works Spice-Ford DFR.
The Spices were just a little disappointing on a circuit where they’d been expected to shine. Taylor’s car damaged its undertray in the pace lap schemozzle and didn’t handle properly afterwards, and Fermin Velez had a tyre blowout in the first hour which ruined his chances; the team’s fourth engine failure of the weekend finally ended that outing. Reinhold Joest’s Porsches were seventh, eighth and ninth, simply outclassed, Fabre and Robert were tenth in the Cougar Porsche, and then came a pair of Walter Brun’s Porsches. It’s rather sad to see these once omnipotent cars at the circuits just to make up the numbers, and it seems that they may be withdrawn en masse when FISA’s 100kg extra weight penalty is applied for the 1991 season.
Tom’s Toyota took two pristine cars back to Norfolk, which makes a nice change, but the V8 engines had blown on the seventh and ninth laps respectively. A mistake with the ignition mapping have been the cause of detonation and piston failures, though any miscalculations should have shown up during qualifying.
Those of us who watched the Porsche Show in the 1983-86 seasons, the Jaguar Show in 1987 and the Mercedes Show in 1989, feel that we’ve been here before. It would be nice to go to a race having no idea who’ll win, a situation we enjoyed when the Mercedes team rose to greatness and jousted with Jaguar in 1988, but we’re not yet in that happy state. Unless Walkinshaw’s team can pull something special out of the bag, it’ll be Mercedes uber alles time again at Donington. MLC