What lover of sports car racing doesn't have his own images to attach to names like Arnage, Mulsanne, Tertre Rouge and Maison Blanche? But more than a race, it is an event, a gathering of racers and fans paying homage to speed and history and tradition.
'Certainly, few people go there for the racing; that part is almost always a bore with one team or, as in recent years, one make totally dominating. . . but nobody cares. Even the drivers question why they bother. The prize money for I st place won't even cover expenses for well equipped equipage.
We know one driver who swore to stop racing a couple of years ago, after a good finish in a privateer car; the recent spate of accidents on the Hunaudieres straight, and the birth of a son, finally convinced him to stop. But every year he comes back, every year he brings his helmet and suit, every year he comes that close to buying a decent ride. Every year they come back, drivers, crews and fans alike, to this Holy Place, this combination of race, endurance run and county fair. If one were to ask them why, most would not have a coherent answer.
For the first time in many years, this year's running of the perennial 24-hour French classic promised to be a real race, rather than a Formula Porsche event. The result was by far the largest crowd in recent memory. People actually expected a race to take place! Britons flocked across the channel, despite rumors of a ferry strike, in record numbers. Fully one-quarter of the crowd were Anglais. And they found a number of amenities waiting for them, including English-language supplements in the local papers and a professionally staffed, around-theclock English-language radio station giving nonstop race reports, color commentary and interviews. .
Every year at Le Mans, the hucksters find a new gimmick to unload on the rubes. In years past, we've seen glow-in-the-dark plastic strips and Deelyboppers, those wire antennas worn by children and aliens. This year it was hats. You could buy baseball caps with various parts of the human anatomy (your choice) displayed in soft sculpture on the brim or, if you were serious, a radio hat. With its antenna, knobs and twin earplugs, it might have made the wearers look like nerds, but, thanks to Radio Le Mans, they were well-informed nerds.
In the first four races of the season, Jaguar had convincingly defeated the best efforts of the Weissach racing department. In the first event, at Jarama, the factory Rothmans Porsche 962 of Derek Bell and Hans Stuck finished a mere 1.64 seconds behind John Watson/Jan Lammers in a Jaguar XJR-8. It got worse from there. At the next three events, Porsche couldn't even finish on the same lap as the Jags; at the Jerez 1000 Kilometers, they were 3 laps back, finishing 3rd behind a privateer Kremer Porsche and the winning Jag. Unthinkable! At Monza,the margin was 2 laps; at Silverstone, I lap but again 3rd place. Jaguar used the Silverstone event to let its Le Mans-only cat, the XJR-8LM, out of the bag. As it turned out, the LM broke an engine, but Jaguar engineers were happy-they had wanted to find weak spots. Silverstone also showed clearly that the old Weissach dog is getting long in the tooth. So Jaguar went to Le Mans as the clear favorite. In fact, one fan, visiting Le Mans for the first t'ime, confessed that she was rooting for the Porsches "because they're the underdogs."
Porsche went with an even greater handicap after losing four for four, To ensure a victory at the Sarthe circuit, it helps to have lots of spares. Porsche had four of its old warhorses, the Type 962, to occupy three starting positions. That is, until Hans Stuck, testing at Weissach the week before the race sailed majestically into the catch fencing, destroying the car intended for Jochen Mass and Bob Wollek. As punishment, Derek Bell and Stuck got stuck with the reserve car instead.
Four quick factory Porsches As quick as they could be; Stuck wrecked one at Weissach, Then there were just three.
But Porsche's problems were just starting. At Le Mans, on the Wednesday before the race, IMSA star Price Cobb had spun on oil and written off the third car. He was lucky to get out with no worse than singed eyebrows; the impact with the guardrailh had ripped open the fuel tank, and the car was blazing merrily. Cobb had difficulty activating the extinguisher, as the knob couldn't be seen through the flames. This was the first of two accidents at this event that could have been fatal. Porsche asked Cobb to leave, but he found a privateer 962.
The weather for the race was the wettest in recent memory. It had been raining off and on all week, not letting up until minutes before the race. The wet weather put somewhat of a damper on the usual pre-race hoopla, but Le Mans wouldn't be Le'Mans without the color of the grid, surrounded by crews, fashion models and hangers-on. with French paratroopers, thrown in (literally) for good measure. Most teams started on intermediate tires, including the Jags and Porsche works cars. It has been a long time since we've seen rooster tails at Le Mans, but they served to dry the track in no time at aIl and soon the cars were coming in to change to slicks, causing no end of confusion as to who had the lead.
Adding to the confusion and to Porsche's woes was a very serious fuel problem. It seems that Friday night. after the last practice session', the organizers of the event had restocked the fuel reservoir with dinosaur juice of lower than expected quality. Although.it was claimed that the stuff was local premium grade, accusations were flying as to its octane rating. density, volatility and any other measurable parameter. Porsche attempted to get a handle on its quality by putting the stuff into a production 944 Turbo. taking it out on the public road and, by monitoring the fuel injection black box, determining if the knock sensor was retarding the timing. It was. The pump octane rating was estimated by Porsche to be 97.0 instead of 97.8.The French petrochemical concern, Elf had offered to put some octane booster into the batch of bad fuel; 6 Ib of the stuff would have done it. But they would have had to assume responsibility for engine, damage and declined. The turbo engines run very lean to be competitive on fuel consumption, and the ignition advance is right up against the knock limit.
Whereas the 0.8 octane discrepancy was enough to cause problems in Porsche's turbos, the normally aspirated V-12 engines of the Jaguars didn't seem to mind. Apparently the Porsche factory team knew enough to change the fuel injection computer chips in their cars. Most privateers, however, don't know what's going on in the chips installed in their black boxes anyway and follow the factory's recommendations. For whatever reason, those recommendations were wrong, with serious consequences. Within the first half hour, three privateer 962s were out of it, all with exactly the same problem: holed pistons. Victims included one Kremer machine and both Joest cars. Joest, far from being a spear carrier had won this event in 1984 and 1985, much to the consternation of the factory. In fact, Porsche's Peter Schutz was heard to say after the 1985 event that "Porsche must win Le Mans"; any customer interference was unappreciated.
There was considerable grumbling among the non-factory 962 teams; some hinted darkly that the factory was using them as guinea pigs. to see how far one could go with the black box chips before engines grenaded. If that was the case, they cut it too fine; 62 minutes into the race the factory car of Mass/Wollek/Schuppan dropped out with a holed piston.
Two outnumbered Porsches, The race not yet begun; Someone spiked the gasoline, Then there was just one.
This left one solitary factory Porsche fighting against the three Jaguars, the remaining privateers, and any other upstarts who could make a fight for the lead. Of the first dozen qualifiers, nearly half were Porsches (if we include the Porsche powered Cougar, a new French design). The privateer Porsches are always a force to be reckoned with. The interlopers in this Porsche/Jaguar head of the pack were the very clean Mercedes V-8-powered Sauber C9s of Mike Thackwell/Henri Pescarolo/Hideki Okada and Johnny Dumfries/Chip Ganassi. It is rumored that Mercedes is giving Peter Sauber's team quite a bit of help at least two Mercedes engineers are on temporary duty, attached to the Swiss team. With surprising qualifying performance and in their black Kouros aftershave livery, they were dark horses. Dumfries. in fact, set the fastest race lap in the third hour, but his car's engine failed.
The engine is not the only thing that broke. While Pescarolo was out in the other C9, a universal joint gave up the ghost. For just about any other driver, in any other race, this would be The End. Not at Le Mans - not with old hand Henri. After two hours of wrenching out on the circuit, Pescarolo managed to rig a repair using his onboard tools and limped back to the pits. Only to find nobody home. It seems that the Swiss Sauber team had decided to pack it in. They had, in fact, declared the car as out of the race. Pescarolo (and an embarrassed team chief) managed to convince the organizers that reports of the Sauber's demise were greatly exaggerated, and after repairs it was allowed out, at II: II p.m. All for nought. as the car finally succumbed to a burst tire on the Mulsanne at 4:36 a.m. In the future. we may be treated to the Saubers, possibly with more. open, above-board Mercedes support as a force to be reckoned with. After they learn a lot more about racing.
As the race wore on, the crowd was treated to the spectacle of the three Jaguars beating up on the works Porsche. The No. 4 Jag of Eqdie Cheever/Raul Boesel led after one hour, but the Rothmans Porsche was just 30 yards and a half-second behind. An hour later, the Porsche led by 11.4 sec, 700 yards, over the Silk Cut cat of Martin Brundle and John Nielsen. At three hours, they were nose to tail, the Porsche leading by 0.9 sec, with all three Jags led by the Porsche and followed by the privateer Liqui Moly Porsche 962 of Jonathan Palmer/James Weaver/Price Cobb (remember him?) still on the same lap, but soon to drop back and eventually to retire after an unexplained fire. And so it went on into the night. It doesn't get really dark at Le Mans until about II :00 p.m. Nobody was going to bed early this night, not the spectators, not the drivers and most certainly not the crews. The lead was being contested by the Jaguars and the lone works Porsche, with nobody else really within striking distance-unless something should happen to all front runners. The works 962 dropped to 3rd for a few hours but made good and regained the lead around midnight. One Jaguar would always maintain contact with the Porsche, which never got a lap on the Englander; after midnight, it was the No.6 car that harried the 962.Porsche racing boss Peter Falk and crew chief Norbert Singer had one simple strategy: win or bust. There was no margin for fuel. Each car is allowed 2550 liters of fuel. The organizers keep very accurate records of the amount taken on during pit stops and publish them immediately. When the data were examined. one could see that Porsche was cutting it very fine indeed. If nothing went wrong, the car would use the last of its fuel to cross the line. Not only were the managers cutting it fine the drivers were too. The fuel tanks have a capacity of 100 liters; on one occasion the tank took the full 100 liters on many others it took 95, 96. 97 liters-the remaining gallon or so wouldn't have taken the car as far as the Hunaudieres straight had it missed the stop.
The Hunaudieres straight turns a good car into a very bad airplane.
The Jaguars, on the other hand, were being real cool cats. They seldom took on more than 90 liters. and their big normally aspirated V-12 plants were using it at a rate about 5 percent lower than the turbocharged Porsche: The way things were going the finish was going to be veeery interesting.
Until the now almost obligatory Main Straight Shunt occurred. This year the lottery winner was Win Percy in the No.5 Jaguar. At about 2:40 in the morning. Winston was just 3 laps into his first turn at the wheel when a rear tire burst. At Le Mans, on the Hunaudieres straight, the longest on any race track in the world, this sort of thing turns a good car into a very bad airplane. Derek Bell, in an interview the morning after the race. said he could see fresh marks halfway up the trees caused by Percy's passage. The car or, better said the cockpit finally came down; Percy undid his safety harness and walked away. The side of his helmet had been flat-spotted against the pavement. Bell and Jaguar's Ian Norris both called Percy the "luckiest man alive today." Percy's car was scattered along a 400 yard stretch of road; this brought out the yellow lights and the pace cars until the course could be cleaned up. Jaguar was dealt a double blow losing not only one car but also any hope of pressuring Porsche on fuel consumption. And to play it safe, all cats went to harder rubber as it was feared that the tire had failed. Which didn't help lap times. Later inspection of the blown tire showed it had overheated as a result of a puncture.
When the course finally went green again at 4:33, the chase resumed. The No.6 cat of Martin Brundle/John Nielsen began making up for lost time on the Porsche. By 6:00 a.m., Nielsen found himself within a couple of miles of the leader. Then it all started to go wrong. First Nielsen, taking over from Brundle at 7:00 a.m., found the car to have a front-end vibration. Time was lost while the tires were swapped again. The chase was resumed but not for long. At 7:54 No.6 came in for the last time: water dripping from the exhaust - a cracked cylinderhead. Meanwhile. Cheever in No.4 had found reverse gear and holed the gearbox case. An epoxy patch was tried, but the pits noticed flames from burning transmission oil as the car went by, so a more thorough repair was necessary, lasting only 42 minutes but dropping the car to 5th, where it stayed for the duration of the race. And that's the way it stayed. There were no changes among the first six cars for the last quarter of the race. A 6-hour parade. In the end. the works Porsche motored home 20 laps ahead of the privateer 962 of Jurgen Lassig/Pierre Yver/Bernard de Dryver, followed by the Cougar-Porsche to give the French something to cheer about. The Kremer team's surviving 962 finished 4th, and the lone surviving Jaguar came home 5th and 30 laps down. The English fans had something to cheer anyway. (They were determined to find something to cheer). Derek Bell won his fifth Le Mans. And the Jaguar mechanics hurriedly spray-painted a sign saying "Thank you again-we will be back."One remaining Porsche, Its hopes were looking thin. But Porsche wins Le Mans again, It take just one to win.
The morning after the race, I asked Derek Bell when he first realized they had the race won. Surprisingly, he said, "About seven in the evening." This might sound incredible, seeing as No. I 7 was soon to drop to 3rd, but Derek has been at Le Mans more than most; he knows when things are going right. In the evening, when dicing with the No.6 Jag, he felt the Coventry cars didn't have anything over the Porsche. He would hold off the Jaguar as best he could in the twisty bits, then catch a tow after it blasted by on the straight, pass it in the low-speed sections where Tony Southgate's aerodynamics couldn't help the cats, then repeat the whole thing, lap after lap. And how did it feel to win a fifth time? "It was an emotional experience, going around for that last lap, all of the marshals waving their flags. I had tears in my eyes." So did many a racing fan.
Porsche won the battle, but Jaguar won the war. Two weeks later, at the Norisring race, in which the works Porsches failed to finish, the Stuttgart factory announced its withdrawal from the World Endurance Championship, citing pressing commitments with the Indianapolis project and the TAG Formula 1 engine. The real reason may be that the writing is on the wall for the 7-year-old 956/962 design. It was already known to insiders, immediately after Le Mans, that Porsche management had decided they would never again compete with such an outclassed design. Jaguar had turned up the heat, and Porsche, rather than meet the challenge with a modern design, got out of the kitchen.
Although the Stuttgart factory held out some hope that it would soon return to the WEC. with a new design, the official announcement leaves enough disclaimers and loopholes to make one wonder. The 1987 running of Le Mans may well be the last appearance of a works Porsche for a long, long time, and, as such, be one of those years that will be remembered by all who were there - and still can't tell you why they went.
It was an emotional experience, that last lap - I had tears in my eyes - Derek Bell