Category Archives: Nostalgia

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The French Class

Driver shoots, don’t ya just love ’em? Herding cats would be easier and nothing has much changed in the 49-odd years since this scene at Le Mans. Even the scrum around local favourites still continues, the only thing missing is a selfie-stick………….but this bunch of drivers from the 1968 Alpine Le Mans team is also a bit special.

L to R as far as I can tell: Bob Wollek, Jean-Pierre Nicolas, Alain Serpaggi, Christian Ethuin, André de Cortanze, Jean-Luc Thérier, Jean Vinatier, François Castaing, Alain le Guellec, Jean Rédélé, Bernard Tramont, Jean Guichet, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Henri Grandsire and Gérard Larrousse.

They would win Grand Prix, Le Mans (driving and designing), rallies and many, many races, a very select bunch.

John Brooks, February 2017

 

Thirty Year Itch

The Daytona 24 Hours in 1987 was an almost exclusively Porsche affair in the leading GTP class, no less than nine 962s chased victory. Five of these were powered by a 2.8 litre flat six and the other four a 3.0 litre version of the classic Porsche unit, power was traded off for less fuel stops, a bit of a leap of faith at Daytona.

Leading the charge was Jochen Mass in Bruce Leven’s 962 posting a pole lap of 1:41.005. The German star shared the car with the owner and Klaus Ludwig. They led the first four hours or so of the race but contact while passing a back marker on the banking led to a big shunt and retirement.

Also in the wars early in the race was the other front row Porsche of Jim Busby sharing with Bob Wollek and Darin Brassfield. Valve failure after 89 laps put the BFGoodrich 962 out.

Three 962s were left at the top contesting victory. The American road-racing royalty of Rob Dyson, A.J. Foyt and Al Holbert each had a car capable of winning. Dyson shared with his regular co-driver Price Cobb and they were supported by Vern Schuppan.

Holbert, running the same #103 chassis that had been the winner in the 1986 race, was on a roll, chasing a third consecutive 24 hour win with co-driver Derek Bell, having triumphed at Le Mans the previous June. Initially Holbert did not plan to drive leaving that to Al Unser Jr., Chip Robinson and Mr Bell. The demands of the race would change that strategy

The legendary A. J. Foyt, twice a winner at the Daytona 24 Hours was looking for his third win, running with Danny Sullivan and Al Unser Sr. The race would come down a dog fight between the #1 and #14.

Best of the non-Porsches was the Chevrolet Corvette GTP-T710 of Sarel van der Merwe and Doc Bundy but they went out in the night with engine failure after running in the leading pack.

Another car that succumbed in the darkness to engine problems following a fire was the Jaguar XJR-7 of Bob Tullius, Hurley Haywood and John Morton after running as high as second.

Less impressive in the GTP ranks was the Zakspeed Ford Probe GTP of David Hobbs, Whitney Ganz and Momo Moretti. Not really competitive, they also disappeared in the night with engine maladies.

IMSA GTP Lights were the property of the factory entered Spice-Pontiac Fiero.

Bob Earl, Don Bell and Jeff Kline overcame electrical issues in the night to run out winners.

IMSA GTO class was hotly contested. The Roush Ford Mustang was chasing a hat trick of wins at Daytona. NASCAR star Bill Elliott ran with Scott Pruett, Lyn St. James and Tom Gloy.

More NASCAR talent was on show in the Protofab Chevrolet Camaro of Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte and Greg Pickett. They led the class at the halfway point but lost a wheel out on track and that was that.

Another strong Camaro was the Rick Hendrick-entered Peerless version for Jack Baldwin and Eppie Wietzes but they were another victim of engine issues.

Dan Gurney had a pair of Toyota Celicas, #98 for Chris Cord and Steve Millen, #99 had Ricky Rudd, Jerrill Rice and Juan Manuel Fangio ll on driving duties.

Problems late in the race struck both All American Racing cars with #99 retiring  and #98 clinging on to second spot despite rear suspension issues.

All of which propelled #11 to the top step of the podium. A sweet victory for the Roush Ford outfit.

Back at the head of the field things appeared to be going the way of Foyt’s 962 but there was not much margin in it. The Unsers engaged in an early morning Father and Son duel after which they had breakfast together. There were epic battles between the two teams and any advantage gained was soon pulled back.

Al Holbert had to change his strategy as both Al Unser Jr. and Chip Robinson were exhausted and Derek Bell needed time to recover for the final stint. Al jumped into the Porsche to take the fight to rival 962.

The race was decided in the final hour when the normally bullet-proof Porsche motor in the #1 car let go with 50 minutes left to run. Victory for the Holbert car, huge disappointment for Foyt’s outfit.

Second place fell to the Brun Motorsport 962 that had lost 14 laps in the first hour with a faulty weld on a pipe. Once that was fixed they began the long climb back from 54th place. They were the quickest car on track during the night, sometimes as much as five seconds a lap! Once the Foyt car stopped they were elevated to the podium just ahead of the Dyson 962 with the unfortunate Texan effort classified as fourth. It was a just reward for Walter’s team of Oscar Larrauri, Massimo Sigala and Gianfranco Brancatelli.

Messrs Holbert, Bell, Robinson and Unser Jr. celebrated a famous victory, a really tough race for them. The race was flat out from the start and the winning crew covered 753 laps breaking the previous record set in 1986 by 41 laps or 146 miles. The race average speed was 111.6mph, a champion performance by any standards.

 

 

A Champion Porsche

Over the years I have found that seeing old race cars for the first time in ages is a bit like bumping into an old flame or at least I imagine that’s what it might be like.  There is a natural tendency to don the rose tinted spectacles, remember the good times and forget the bad. Racing imitates Life.

A while back I was a guest of Porsche AG at their Leipzig Factory. Like all good hosts they made me feel very welcome and when they showed me up to the museum/display area it was an opportunity to meet up with some old friends, the Dauer 962, the TWR Joest WSC and of course the Champion Porsche 911 GT1 Evo, chassis 005.

The distinctive livery of Dave Maraj’s team is unmistakable, having graced many Porsches and Audis in endurance racing both sides of the Atlantic, culminating in a overall win at Le Mans in 2005 as well as multiple ALMS Championships.

Not only did I get to shoot the 911 but none other than Norbert Singer explained what made this car special.

But back to the 911 GT 1………..where did it come from? What caused this evolution of the iconic 911 to be created?

1992 saw the premeditated destruction of Sportscar World Championship by the FIA under the control of Mosley and Ecclestone. They were determined to promote Formula One at the expense of endurance racing, only Le Mans was strong enough to survive. The final SWC formula of 3.5 litre engines cars and high tech machines proved way too expensive even for manufacturers and there were no cars for privateers to buy, despite a valiant effort from Lola, so the grids dwindled to single figures. There were projects from Konrad, Brun and BRM but they were too little, too late.

The impulse to race long distances as opposed to sprints still existed and, as ever, where there is a will there is a way. To the rescue came ‘Three Musketeers’ in the form of Stéphane Ratel, Patrick Peter and Jürgen Barth and they launched the BPR Series in 1994, having dabbled with GT Racing in the previous seasons. BPR was firmly aimed at the gentleman driver as opposed to factories, providing 4 hour GT races with 911s and Venturis as the staple diet on track, with the spice being provided by a Ferrari F40.

Barth, an ex Le Mans winner, was Manager of the Customer Competitions Department at Porsche, Peter was a well respected race promoter and Ratel was an executive/investor in the Venturi project.

In 1995 the BPR expanded in both numbers and importance with the début of the McLaren F1 GTR. Of course the arrival of the Woking super-car made the 911 somewhat second class even in the fearsome GT2 spec. A BiTurbo variant was explored but in reality there was no way that a 911 was going to get on terms with a F1 GTR with its carbon fibre chassis, mid-engined layout and central driving position. Finishing down the order is not what Porsche or their customers had come to expect, so as the saying goes “Something must be done”.

The solution was to create their own mid-engine racer, which had as much in it in design terms from the 962 as the 911, no matter what was said at the time. The front unibody and windscreen (derived from the current model 911 and taken from the production line) was attached to a steel sub-frame and behind that was a 3.6 litre twin turbo engine.

In reality the 911 was a proper racing car but in order to get the car homologated as a GT car a road going version had to be produced. This completely undermined the principles that BPR had hitherto been run on, ie. take a real road going GT and adapt it for the track, not homologate a racing car for the road. It would prove the undoing of a very fine race series.

Initially the plan was to run the car at the 1996 Le Mans with outright victory the aim. However the opposition was not just the slower GT cars such as the McLarens and F40s but also prototypes such as the Ferrari 333 SP and the TWR Joest Porsche WSC95.

The latter would prove to be too well run, too fuel efficient and too fast for the Werks GT. So the 911 GT1 had to settle second and third overall, triumphant though in the GT class.

After La Sarthe the fun and games really started. Porsche stepped up the pressure on the BPR to allow the 911 GT1 to race in BPR, Jürgen Barth’s position was somewhat compromised with his dual roles and conflicted loyalties. The existing teams, still reeling from the drubbing they had received in France, were adamant that the 911 should stay away, it was not eligible they argued and was outside the spirit of the regulations.

As a temporary solution, and in order to not destroy the 1996 title race, eventually the Porsche was allowed to start but would not be able to score points. At the first race after the decision held at Brands Hatch, Stuck and Boutsen drove away from the opposition as if in a different class, a feat that they repeated at Spa a few weeks later. It was a Sunday drive in the country with both pilots barely breaking into a sweat.

The atmosphere in the paddock grew increasingly rancorous and poisonous, a split was on the way. The BPR would lose Patrick Peter and mutate into the 1997 FIA GT Championship under the guidance of Messrs Ratel and Barth, where it flourished till 2009. There is an old saying warning those who desire something strongly to beware of getting what you wish for and Porsche Motorsport got that in spades for 1997.

From the outside the 1997 FIA GT Championship was fantastic, factory supported GT racing featuring super-cars cars from Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, Lotus, Chrysler and Panoz. But there was a rotten core to all this, in theory a road car was to be built as the foundation for homologation of the race version but the time limit for presenting the road car to the FIA was eventually set at December some months after the Championship was decided. BMW were outraged at the advantage handed to their rivals from Stuttgart just as the season got underway.

As to Porsche they did not fare so well, with the regulations on engine power favouring normally aspirated entries, and despite a development to an Evo specification (at a significant upgrade cost!) they were not really competitive with the Schnitzer McLaren BMWs or the AMG Mercedes squad. Furthermore they had sold 8 cars to privateers who also found that they were bog slow, and having spent a small fortune, collectively they were not happy bunnies.

So as ever Porsche looked to victory at Le Mans to rescue their season, a win in the French Classic covers a multitude of sins. The main opposition was again the prototype Ferrari 333 SPs and the TWR Joest Porsche plus a trio of Nissan R390s run by TWR. The tactics of the 1996 winners had been taken into account by the Werks, now the 911 GT1 had the speed and the fuel economy to handle the Joest car, did it have the reliability? The simple answer was no. Bob Wollek hit the barriers at Arnage with 8 hours to go while comfortably leading his team mate and the rest of the pack, a driveshaft failure caused the disaster. Some 6 hours later Ralf Kelleners was in cruise mode heading for the Chequered Flag when cresting Les Hunadières Hump swarf in the oil cooler caused a failure and the car went up in flames, leaving the way clear for a second Joest win. Incroyable!

The disaster of 1997 led to the development of the 911 GT1 98 for the following year. Initial reliability issues handed the AMG Mercedes team the first two races and thereafter with the introduction of the CLK LM it was a clean sweep for Stuttgart in the FIA GT Championship. At Le Mans however the reverse was the case. Against the strongest opposition (BMW, Mercedes. Toyota and Nissan factory efforts) Porsche triumphed………..who remembers the ’98 FIA GT Championship now?

The old 911 GT1s were stuffed into barns or sold across the Atlantic. In North America for 1998 there were a multitude of series and races sanctioned by SCCA, USRRC and PSC that the 911 GT1 appeared to be eligible to race in. And this how I first encountered the Champion car, at the 1998 Daytona 24 Hours.

At that race there were two other 911 GT1s, an Evo entered by Jochen Rohr and a old spec car for Larbre Compétition. Late rule changes (imagine that at Daytona!) imposed on the GT1 class, and aimed at the Panoz GT effort, effectively excluded them from a real shot at overall victory. Politically it was expedient for a prototype to be the car driving into Victory Lane at the Daytona International Speedway and certainly not one of Doctor Don’s cars.

Despite there being three Ferrari 333 SPs and a brace of Dyson Riley & Scott Fords, all of whom had much greater pace than the Porsches, the GT1 nearly snatched victory in the time honoured tortoise/hare mode.

Late in the race suspension problems for the Moretti Ferrari 333 SP caused a few missed heartbeats but repairs were completed in time for the Italian to take a very popular win. Second place was the reward for the Rohr Motorsport outfit with their 5 driver (?) team of Allan McNish, Danny Sullivan, Jörg Muller, Dirk Muller and Uwe Alzen who finished 36 laps up on the Larbre 911 back in third. The Champion car retired with overheating issues – very un-Porsche like.

My next encounter with the Champion car was at the inaugural Petit Le Mans held at Road Atlanta in the fall of 1998. This race was to be the overture for the American Le Mans Series, which was so successful till 2013. The day-glow car was outclassed by the more modern GT1 cars such as the factory GT1 98 and the Panoz GTs but at the finish the old girl was still there up on the podium with a third overall and another class win. It had not fallen apart or flown unlike its more modern rivals.

And that might have been that, but Dave Maraj’s car reappeared at Sebring in 1999 to challenge for the GT class of the ALMS, except that the 911 GT1 Evo was judged to be a prototype and forced to compete with the BMWs, Audis and Panoz in the top class. So despite having Thierry Boutsen, Bob Wollek and Dirk Muller to steer the beast there really was no hope of a decent result, a fourth place was as good as it got in 1999.

1999 was the first season of the ALMS and like many Europeans I flew back and forth across the Atlantic as the races had a strong European element to them, the series was always been cosmopolitan by American standards.

Sears Point, Portland, Laguna Seca, Las Vegas – the circuits rolled on and on, the air travel getting less and less “Jet Set” as I clocked the miles clocked up but still #38 would be present in its dayglo warpaint. Even Allan McNish could not drag the Champion 911 on to the podium, it was time for retirement.

Except that it wasn’t, #005 reappeared at the 2001 Rolex 24 run by my old mate, Kevin Jeannette. His underrated son, Gunnar was lead driver, supported by Wayne Jackson, Mike Brockman and Paul Newman, yes THE Paul Newman. An oil leak forced the old girl into retirement and somehow she was shipped back to the factory for me to encounter some years later.

The Porsche 911 GT1 has come to symbolise a wild era in endurance racing, when the factories slipped the leash of the regulations to create some of the greatest Gran Turismos ever built. I am grateful to have been a witness to this period of excess.

John Brooks, January 2017

 

Ferrari at the Palace – 2016

Back in 2015 I came up with a theory that you could measure the value of a car event by the quality of the Ferraris on display, a shaky premise to be sure but as good as any other subjective tool. So now at the fag end of the year it is an opportunity to look back at some of Maranello’s finest that I encountered on my travels.

The approach of autumn is heralded by some of the finest car events of the year. Salon Privé continues to delight those of us fortunate enough to attend with an eclectic selection of cars for our delectation and the Ferrari crop in 2016 is no exception to this rule.

Perhaps the place to start is at the top and the 2016 Best in Show which was awarded to this fantastic Ferrari 500 Testa Rossa which has recently been totally restored by DK Engineering, whose painstaking skills have rightly been recognised..

This example, 0614MDTR, has a well documented competition pedigree. Starting life across the Atlantic, the 500 TR became a fixture at the Nassau Speed Weeks in ’56 and ’57 plus appearances at the Cuba Grand Prix, with the original owner, William Helburn scoring a class second with Le Mans Legend, Olivier Gendebien, in February ’57 edition.

A new owner, Boris ‘Bob’ Said, took a class win in the Nassau Trophy. Said competed in the 1959 US Grand Prix at Sebring and was the father of well known endurance and NASCAR driver, Boris Said III. The Ferrari was sold on again to James Place, who campaigned it at Meadowdale and Elkhart Lake, eventually sticking a Chevvy engine to replace the 2-litre, four cylinder Italian unit. A Ferrari engine was eventually put back and now we have this most elegant mid-50’s barchetta to admire and enjoy.

Another piece of 50’s style from Maranello was this Ferrari 250 Europa. One of two prototypes and the sole example of a short chassis with Pininfarina styling.

Powered by a 3-litre V12 version of the classic this model was the ancestor of the Ferrari 250 GT range.

Fast forward some 30 years, to another legendary Ferrari, the 288 GTO. Back in 1982 the FIA introduced Group B regulations to encourage a move to production-based cars for competition as opposed to the prototypes in Group C that raced in the World Championship and Le Mans. A minimum production run of 200 examples was mandated but the laws of unintended consequences intervened. Porsche and Ferrari considered building cars for the tracks, whereas Austin-Rover, Audi, Ford, Lancia and Peugeot introduced Group B cars to rallying. The vastly increased performance of the new cars led to several incidents with spectators being killed or injured. The final straw came with the deaths of Lancia star, Henri Toivonen, and his co-driver, Sergio Cresto, on the Tour de Course, when, inexplicably, their Delta S4 left the road and caught fire. Group B was finished, cancelled by the FIA.

One of the reasons that there was little enthusiasm for racing either the Porsche 961 or the Ferrari 288 GTO is that it was cheaper to buy a Porsche 956/962 and have a shot at outright victory as privateer teams beat the Werks car on several occasions, even at Le Mans. The cancellation of the FIA regulations might have caused Ferrari a problem but the designation GTO (Gran Turismo Omologato) guaranteed demand and in the end 272 cars were built. They sold out immediately, the 288 GTO achieved iconic status.

Looking at the auction houses gives a clue as to why this matter, the spiritual ancestor of this car, the 250 GTO, achieves prices way, way in excess of any other car. The 250 GTO is the Holy Grail of Ferraris, the ultimate object of desire for those with ‘Il Cavallino Rampante’ in their hearts. A look through the list of owners of the 288 GTO turns up some well known names, four FIA World Champions, Niki Lauda, Keke Rosberg, Michael Schumacher and Bobby Garretson. F1 notables such as Adrian Newey, Eddie Irvine, Walter Wolf, Jean-Pierre Van Rossem and Michele Alboreto have had a 288 GTO as have endurance racing stalwarts Fredy Lienhard, John Bosch, Giuseppe Lucchini, Hans Hugenholtz, Martino Finotto, Rik Bryan and Jean Blaton aka ‘Beurlys’. Arguably the most famous owner was front-man from the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, proving that

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you just might find
You just might find
You get what you need

However it was not just sentiment or the collection of stars that purchased the car that makes it special, the 288 GTO was a very important car in the Ferrari story. It was the first Ferrari to utilise the modern technology developed from motor sport to enhance performance and the driving experience. Powered by a 2.8 litre V8 with twin turbochargers installed longitudinally in a tubular chassis derived from the 308 GTB and clothed by a body made of a glass-fibre or mixes with Nomex and/or Kevlar.

To quote Joe Sackey, author of the book that is the last word on the 288 GTO. ‘This car epitomised a new beginning for Ferrari, and served to popularize its road-going cars in a way that previous models had not. The 288 GTO was truly the last car that Enzo Ferrari had any direct influence on, personally naming the car and setting a mandate for his men which left little doubt about his goals by stating: “What we have to do is build a new version of the Berlinetta. We shall call it the GTO.” ‘ No pressure then, but the result of this encouragement speaks for itself, it is a truly special car, even by the standards of Maranello.

If the 288 GTO had restored Ferrari’s reputation for producing the ultimate supercar, then its successor, the F40, propelled this status to the heavens. The F40 was intended to celebrate Ferrari’s 40th anniversary and it took the performance of the 288 GTO to another level and was claimed to be the fastest car in the world at the time of introduction in 1987 and the first road-legal production car to exceed 200mph.

It was not just the performance but also the dramatic style of the F40 that caused shock waves when publicly unveiled to the world at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Enzo Ferrari was well aware that his time was short, as he was approaching 90, and he encouraged his workers to create the ‘ultimate Ferrari’, he would have felt satisfaction at the results of his encouragement.

 

Available only in ‘Rosso Corsa’ and despite the eye-watering price tag, the F40 was a best seller, 1,311 examples were produced in the production run stretching from 1987 to 1992. The Ferrari F40 is right up there in the pantheon of Maranello’s heroes.

 

Any serious consideration of the roll call of Maranello’s Heroes would have to include the 365 GTB/4 or perhaps the even more precious 365 GTS/4. This handsome beast catapulted Ferrari back to the top of the supercar tree in the face of the challenge of the Lamborghini Miura, much as the 288 GTO and F40 would do in the following decades. Moreover the car was nicknamed as the ‘Daytona’ in a salute to the 1-2-3 victory in the 1967 edition of the Daytona 24 Hours, despite heavyweight opposition from the normally rampant Ford factory effort that suffered with catastrophic transmission failures in all their entries. To beat Ford so comprehensively in their own backyard must have been particularly sweet for Enzo Ferrari, especially in view of the drubbings that Ferrari endured in 1966 at the hands of the Detroit giant,  the Daytona designation was allowed to stick.

The Daytona was first presented at the 1968 Paris Salon and although production was slow to begin with, by the time the model was replaced in 1973 1,284 examples were built. The numbers on the convertible were were much smaller, all but 18 of the 122 production run were destined for the US market and this is one of the few.

The premium attracted by the desirability of the open top has led to some conversions from the original coupé. Author and Ferrari expert, Anthony Pritchard, in his excellent book The Road Ferraris, gets quite cross about this vandalism as he sees it: “Prices of the open cars are ludicrously high, even by classic car standards, and rather foolishly some Berlinettas were rebuilt as convertibles by Autokraft and other concerns, with sellers often anticipating similar prices. Original Daytona Spiders are worth a very great deal of money, but converted coupés simply debase the coinage, and no genuine and serious enthusiast, as opposed to misguided investors, would buy one.” Well that told us.

Another strikingly elegant convertible on display was this 250 GT Series ll Cabriolet that was introduced at the 1959 Paris Salon. 202 examples of this car were made up to 1962.

No assembly of Ferraris would be complete without a Dino and this 246 GT is particularly attractive. The Dino is a truly landmark car in Ferrari’s history. Glen Smale in his great book, Ferrari Design – The Definitive Study  had this to say: “Pininfarina readily admit that the stylistic approach of the Dino concept served as the foundation for all successive mid-engined Ferraris. Perhaps this fact serves to highlight the importance of this model.”

So there I rest my case, a high bar has been set and with the 70th birthday of Ferrari in prospect the Salon Privé will have its work cut out to go one better in 2017, I look forward to seeing the results.

John Brooks, December 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Legend…………Prologue Part Two

The Audi R8C was far too new to stand a chance at Le Mans even if the field had not been as packed with contenders for victory as it proved to be in 1999. There is one certainty when running in the 24 Hours at La Sarthe, if there is a weakness it will be found out. The intense test programme post Pre-Qualifying did not reap much in the way of lap time improvements and the transmission still gave much cause for concern. The project needed months not weeks of development to realise its obvious potential, the speed was good on the Mulsanne at 217mph but handling issues elsewhere meant that time was lost.

One area that Audi had employed lateral thinking to get an advantage over their competitors was the ability to change the entire transmission in next to no time on the R8R. Dry-break couplings were fitted to engine, clutch and gearbox oil cooler fluid pipes. Special tools were made to facilitate removal of the bellhousing, all of which was possible because the R8R’s rear wing was part of the tail section rather than being attached to the gearbox. During the run up to the race a practice run was undertaken and the whole rear end of transmission and rear suspension was replaced ready to get back on track in around five minutes!

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of this arrangement was that the press almost completely missed it. Even the doyens of the Le Mans’ Media Tribe, Paul Frère and Jean-Marc Teissedre, only noted the speed of the R8R transmission changes during the race but did not enquire as to how this was achieved. Perhaps they did and were fobbed off with bullshit. To be fair there was plenty of excitement going on with flying Mercs and crashing Toyotas and the BMWs. My source for this and other technical information is the excellent autobiography from Tony Southgate and he would know.

Another improvement to the transmission came with the adoption of the Mega Line pneumatic gearshift for the R8R. This system allowed the drivers to keep both hands on the steering wheel at all times, helping with cornering, and there was a dramatic reduction on the wear on the dog-rings in the gearbox, greatly improving reliability over a long distance race.

 

The 1999 edition of the Le Mans 24 Hours was something of a high water mark for the participation of manufacturer backed teams in pursuit of outright glory. No fewer than four other factories joined Audi in the hunt for victory, 15 cars in total. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan and Toyota were all serious contenders for victory, only Porsche was missing and they would not be back for a generation.

 

Pole position was grabbed by Martin Brundle in the Toyota GT-ONE, scorching round in 3:29.930, meanwhile the R8Cs were struggling, the best that #10 could manage was 20th and 3:42.155, #9 was timed at 3:45.202 which meant a further three places back on grid.

No matter what problems the Audi Sport UK were enduring they were not as bad as some others were experiencing. Eric van de Poele destroyed his Nissan early on Wednesday injuring his back seriously. The following evening Mark Webber became airborne in his Mercedes-Benz CLR, a feat he repeated during Saturday’s Warm Up, scratch two contenders from the race.

The situation on the other side of the Audi pit boxes was far more promising. The R8R pair got on quietly during Practice and Qualifying with Capello’s 3:34.891 being good enough for 9th place, Biela just half a second behind. A good result seemed within the team’s grasp, though the message came down from the Board, a podium was the minimum that would be accepted or else…………………….

I have worked for teams at Le Mans that have had problems with the car right from the start, it is a nightmare situation that can only end in pain, with no prospect of redemption or salvation, so I can sympathise with the hard working crew of Audi Sport UK. #9 was in after half an hour to have the suspension checked, then, just before 20.00, the car stopped at the entry to Les Hunaudièrs, the differential had broken, the car was the third retirement.

#10 lasted but 20 minutes before stopping to change the gearbox, a process repeated around midnight. The agony continued till 8.20 on Sunday morning when the gearbox failed again stranding Perry McCarthy out on track, ending the Le Mans’ career of the Audi R8C.

The Audi R8C was never seen again in competition, all resources were focused on developing the new 2000-spec car, the R8. However, the R8C did contribute substantially to the next Volkswagen Group endurance coupé, the Bentley Speed 8. Also designed by Peter Elleray and built at RTN, the Bentley beat the rest, including the legendary Audi R8s, to win Le Mans outright in 2003.

The other side of the Audi operation ran much more smoothly with only minor niggles afflicting #8 R8R. All the misfortune seemed to flow towards #7 which had no less than four transmission replacements but with the quick change system paid off, with each new gearbox being fitted in around five to ten minutes rather than the 50 minutes taken each time by the R8C. #8 ran strongly in the top five for most of the race, things were going to plan.

Both Audis benefited from the retirements of other contenders, the two top Toyotas each had a big accident during the night and  engine failure accounted for the Nissan. As to Mercedes-Benz, the catastrophe forecast by many happened just before 21.00 when, watched by the world on television and endlessly replayed, Peter Dumbreck’s CLR somersaulted into the trees at almost the same point where Webber had crashed on the Thursday. Mercedes-Benz has not been seen near Le Mans since nor are they expected back anytime soon.

The race had one final twist in the tale. The BMW of Lehto, Müller and Kristensen had led from almost the first hour and the trio had a cushion of three laps over their sister car. Then the roll bar broke and jammed open the throttle pitching JJ into the barriers at the Porsche Curves and out of the race. This misfortune elevated the #8 Audi to 3rd and the #7 to 4th, which, considering the situation Mercedes were enduring, was a good performance. Could they hang on?

 

The answer was yes, to the relief of the Boss Dr. Ullrich. Third place went to #8 driven by Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Didier Theys, they were five laps down on the winning BMW. Fourth, some 14 laps adrift of their sister car, was #7 with Michele Alboreto, Dindo Capello and Laurent Aïello on driving duties. The result was enough to get the green light for a new car in 2000, the Audi era was about to commence.

Third and fourth places at Le Mans was not quite the end of the story for the R8R. While a completely new car would be unveiled for the 2000 season, the R8R would act as a test bed during the rest of 1999 for proving the components such as engines and transmission plus work on aerodynamics. The engine had performed faultlessly during the race, as we have come to expect from the work of Ulrich Baretzky’s department. Detailed improvements in power and weight reduction would lead to a major development in 2001 with the introduction of FSI direct injection technology.

There would be two more races for the R8R in 2000 in the American Le Mans Series rounds at Charlotte and Silverstone, while the new R8 was kept in reserve for the Le Mans 24 Hours. A podium place in the UK for Allan McNish and Dindo Capello was an appropriate way to mark the end of the road for the R8R.

Audi’s course was set for the next 17 seasons, racking up titles and victories no matter who was the opposition. The pit lanes and paddocks of the endurance world will feel strange in 2017 with the Four Rings.

John Brooks, December 2016 

The Legend…………Prologue Part One

“Audi to quit Le Mans and Sportscar Racing at the end of the 2016 season” was the headline that shocked the racing community when the news broken last month by Sport Auto’s Chief Editor, Marcus Schurig, in Germany. The impact will be felt far and wide as many in the business have depended on the huge budgets committed by the German giant, either directly or indirectly. The story of the 18 seasons at the top of the endurance racing tree will fill the history books but perhaps now it is time to have a brief look at the racer that created the Le Mans legend, the Audi R8. But first we should examine at how this journey started.

Like all great legends there was a prologue. Audi arrived at Le Mans in 1999 with not one, but two different race cars, one open, one closed, the rules of the time allowed for radically different solutions. The Audi R8R’s chassis was designed by Dallara and built by ATR, while Fondmetal assisted the German factory with the aerodynamics.

The R8R made its debut in March 1999 at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Two of the open prototypes were entered with the operation run by Joest Racing, four time winners at Le Mans, 84-85 with a Porsche 956 and 96-97 with the Joest Porsche.

#77 had former Ferrari Grand Prix stars , Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson on driving duties. This pair of former winners at Le Mans were joined in Florida by Dindo Capello, a multiple Italian Touring Car Champion with both VW and Audi.

#78 had Frank Biela, Emanuele Pirro and Perry McCarthy in the driver’s seat. Pirro and McCarthy were both ex-Formula One men and Biela, another long time champion driver for Audi in DTM and BTCC.

The 12 Hours of Sebring is widely regarded as the toughest of all endurance sportscar events and Audi found out the hard way, making all manner of adjustments to the car that had not been necessary in pre-season testing.

Sebring International Raceway is notoriously rough on cars, this caused the R8R problems. Dr. Wolfgang Ullrich, head of Audi Sport, explained the issues. “It’s so bumpy here that we’ve had to raise the ride height of the car by 15mm. Otherwise we destroy the front splitters every 12-15 laps. We’ve never tried the car this high before.”

Audi struggled in Qualifying managing only 11th and 12th places, over 4 seconds down on the pole setting BMW. The ride height caused handling issues that could not be fixed at the track, it was going to be a long race.

Race day was kinder to Audi who got both cars to the finish, in third and fifth places, as others failed. A podium for Alboreto, Johansson and Capello, albeit 3 laps down on the winning BMW, would be the first of many for Audi in North America, it was a solid start to the project.

The next appearance for Audi was in early May in Pre-Qualifying for the Le Mans 24 Hours. 53 cars chased the 46 spots on the grid, those who could not beat the clock would be eliminated, unthinkable for a factory-backed team. The sleek Audi R8C pair made their first competitive appearance. Designed by Tony Southgate, engineered by Peter Elleray and sharing the same engine (3.6 litre V8 with twin turbos) and rear drive train as the R8R. The handsome coupé was seriously underdeveloped having been commissioned too late (the project only started in the previous September) with the second car only just completed before Pre-Qualifying. The driver line up was certainly experienced with #9 crewed by former winners, Stefan Johansson and Stéphane Ortelli who were supported by Christian Abt, a late call up after Yvan Muller withdrew from the Audi squad. #10 was an all English affair with James Weaver and 1988 winner Andy Wallace sharing the wheel with Perry McCarthy, the original Top Gear ‘Stig’.

The R8R pair qualified for the race with relative ease, not far off the outright pace of the leading Toyotas and BMWs with the Panoz Roadster S also showing a good turn of speed. Both R8Cs struggled to get into the race, Wallace having his door sealed up with tank tape to prevent it flying off into the French countryside. When the Chequered Flag was finally waved both were in but it had been a nervous time in the Audi Sport UK pit.

Five weeks later the circus reconvened at Le Mans, this time it would be for real………come back later for the balance of the tale.

John Brooks, December 2016

The Legend………………Chapter One

The 2000 24 Hours of Le Mans was the first chapter in the best seller that became Audi’s story at La Sarthe, the book is now finished, at least the first volume is. Who knows what might happen in the future?

And yet the Le Mans universe is a very different place these days from that of sixteen years ago. Then, as now, there were four classes, with factory entries but there the similarities end.


1998 and 1999 had seen high profile and high budget manufacturer projects at Le Mans from Toyota, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Porsche, with Audi joining in with their twin pronged approach featuring both open and closed prototypes for the latter year.

All of the above manufacturers left the House for 2000 except Audi who took on board the lessons from their comparative failure in 1999. Their answer was to create a new car which would turn into the benchmark for endurance racing in the first years of the 21st Century, the Audi R8.

First appearing at Sebring in the 2000 edition of the 12 Hour classic, it romped away to an easy victory, leaving rivals in no doubt as to the scale of the task they would face, come June, at La Sarthe.
Rivals? Ah yes, it was as if the ACO had issued a distress call across the Atlantic to replace the departing  Japanese and German outfits. In 1999 the American Le Mans Series was born and created a marketing opportunity for Detroit to match their products against the best. The opportunity was seized with both hands, not since George Patton’s Third Army had swung through Le Mans back in August 1944 had the Département de la Sarthe seen such a range of American firepower, although Bill Ford’s Armada in ’66 and ’67 ran Patton pretty close. Cadillac, Corvette, Dodge, Chrysler and Panoz represented Motor City and like Patton they were chasing the Germans. That however was where the analogy ends. George S. caught and beat his opponents………………

The rich history of Les Vingt-Quatre Heures du Mans allows it to have all manner of anniversaries each year, saluting some past heroes and their heroic deeds. In 1950 Briggs Cunningham stunned the French crowds by bringing two Cadillacs to La Sarthe, one an almost bog standard Coupé de Ville and the other a re-bodied streamliner, dubbed “Le Monstre.”

For 2000 Cadillac produced a conventional, in reality too conventional, open prototype running in the LM P 900 class. It was powered by a twin-turbo 4 litre V8, with Xtrac transmission and a chassis built by Riley & Scott. The aim of the project was to take an overall win in 2002 to coincide with Cadillac’s centenary. The whole project fitted in with GM’s attempt to change the brand’s perception of providing luxury barges to retired folk, the customer base was eroding with the passing of the years. That bit of the plan has, at least, happened, the 2002 LM-win did not.


A total of four Cadillac Northstar LMPs were entered, two for Team Cadillac which was created by Wayne Taylor out of Doyle-Risi Racing. Two cars were entrusted to the French DAMS outfit. However it was clear from the outset that these cars would not be competitive against the Audi squad, so expectations were managed down with “development year” talk. Marketing created a smokescreen with an infra red based camera system that was mounted in the car’s lights but no one was fooled, the whole project was seriously under-cooked and might have been competitive a few years earlier but the likes of Toyota, BMW and now Audi had moved the game on, massively.


Also with ambitions to win the 2002 Le Mans 24 Hours outright was Chrysler. As part of the journey to that destination they had enlisted their French racing partners, ORECA, who had run the successful Viper programme for them. They had purchased two new Reynard 2KQ chassis and shoehorned the 6 litre V8 into the rear. In reality no matter what they or anyone else did they stood little chance of success in the face of the Audi steamroller. The investment in new technology from Ingolstadt would dwarf the efforts from Detroit.


Ford were represented by proxy in the shape of Panoz LMP-1 Roadster S with the rumbling 6 litre V8s and their unusual configuration, the driver sitting behind the engine. There were two factory cars for Panoz Motorsport managed by the old lag, David Price.

There were two Roadsters from TV Asahi Team Dragon with Kazumichi Goh heading up the effort.


The final Panoz was that of the Danish outfit Den Blå Avis, which was a regular runner in the Sports Racing World Cup.


Another American legend to come back to Le Mans, was Mario Andretti. At the age of 60 he was rolling the dice one last time to see if he could win the one major race that had eluded him in his long and distinguished career.

 

Also crossing the Atlantic from the ALMS was the Team Rafanelli Lola B2K/10 with Judd power. This was a factory supported effort and was expected to fast but possibly fragile.


Another fancied Lola was the Konrad Motorsport example for the Dutch trio, Jan Lammers, Peter Kox and Tom Coronel. From this entry has grown the huge Dutch support for Le Mans. The Racing for Holland team followed on with the Drinking for Holland close behind or maybe that came first, oaks from acorns. Next year will see Lammers and the Dutch back at the 24 Hours, will he have a similar impact?


Peugeot were also represented at Le Mans 16 years ago. Henri Pescarolo, a four time winner and all round legend, had finally retired, so was now on the pit wall leading his Pescarolo Sport outfit running a Courage C52 powered by V6 turbo from the French manufacturer. A bit of a dark horse.

 

A second Courage was Judd powered and also French run but was not expected to shine in the face of the big budget outfits.

Keeping up the tradition of the privateer at the top table was Thomas Bscher’s BMW V12 LM. The team and car had finished a fantastic 4th overall in 1999, so they were quietly confident of being around at 4.00pm on Sunday.

Matching the Panoz contingent numerically was Reynard as there was also five examples of its prototype 2KQ on the Le Mans grid.

Arguably the best of these was the Judd powered Johansson Matthews Racing example.

Two of the Reynards were entered in the fledgling LM P675 class with werks turbo engines from Volkswagen, based on a rally unit that had run into homologation problems. They had limited opposition in what was easily the weakest class in the race.

The main challenge to the VWs in LM P675 was expected to be from the Multimatic Motorsport Lola powered by a V6 Nissan engine.

Which brings us neatly to the second part of the American Invasion. The LM GTS class would feature a titanic struggle between Le Mans returnees, (first time was 40 years previously, once again with Briggs Cunningham) Corvette Racing and the reigning champs, Viper Team ORECA.

 

The two camps had already gone toe to toe at the Daytona 24 Hours earlier in the year. Viper came out on top that time but their winning margin was just 30 seconds and they knew that it could have easily gone either way.

The three Vipers would be opposed by two Corvettes, real Detroit heavy metal, as 8 litre V10 battled 7 litre V8, Ali-Frasier-style, a classic Le Mans encounter.

Doug Fehan’s Corvette team have graced the 24 Hours of Le Mans ever since 2000, but it could have gone horribly wrong that first year. This lot look like they have just escaped from the set of ‘Allo ‘Allo………………………

The supporting cast to the factories in LM GTS were three Vipers, one entered under the Team Goh banner but in reality a Chamberlain Engineering effort.

2000 also saw the final hurrah for the Porsche 911 GT2 at Le Mans, Freisinger and Konrad trying to match the Vipers and Vettes.

 

The LM GT category was a Porsche monopoly, all 12 entries being the 996 GT3 R models. There were two examples that were head and shoulders above the rest, Larbre Compétition was, as ever, proudly flying the Tricolour and had former winner Christophe Bouchut leading the challenge.

America’s best hopes in LM GT rested on the Dick Barbour Racing factory supported entry. Young German stars, Lucas Luhr and Dirk Müller were guided by Bob Wollek who would make his 30th and final Le Mans start that year, losing his life in a pointless road accident the following March.

Race Engineering was the first Spanish team to enter Le Mans and was under the leadership Alfonso de Orléans-Bourbon, Duke of Galliera, who raced at Le Mans  previously. The team has gone on to great success in single seater racing with many stars such as Sebastian Vettel, Justin Wilson and Lucas Di Grassi coming through the ranks in their cars.

The forecast was for a scorching hot weekend, conditions that come to that part of France sometimes in June. Would the favourites win or as they often do, would they stumble along the road? Find out in part two later this month.

John Brooks, December 2016

The First Steps

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

Most of you will know that Petit Le Mans runs this weekend, bringing down the curtain on the 2016 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. It is also the final performance in the career of the Daytona Prototype class.  Who could have imagined back in 2003 that we would still have evolutions of this class of car racing for victories and titles?

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

The DPs, as the more polite members of the racing community referred to them, made their début at Daytona International Speedway running in the 2003 Rolex 24 Hours.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

There were just six cars entered in the class with four chassis types and five different engine suppliers. Three of these were Fabcar FDSC/03s and two of these were entered by Brumos Racing and were, naturally, Porsche powered. #59 in the famous red, white and blue livery had Daytona 24 Hours legend, Hurley Haywood, leading the driving squad, with J. C. France and Indy Car hired guns, Scott Goodyear and Scott Sharp in support.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

#58 had David Donohue, Mike Borkowski, Randy Pobst and Chris Bye behind the wheel. Brumos had an air of quiet confidence having had an extensive test program and a recent 27 hour test that all went as well could be expected.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

Cegwa Sport entered a Toyota powered Fabcar for Darius Grala, Oswaldo Negri, Josh Rehm and Guy Cosmo.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

Lined up against this trio were the Italian built Picchio BMW DP2 for Boris Said, Darren Law, Dieter Quester and Luca Riccitelli, entered by G & W Motorsports.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

A familiar face at the Rolex was Kevin Doran and, although his team was not there to defend their 2002 crown, he had built the Doran Chevrolet JE4 for Bell Motorsport. It would be driven by Terry Borcheller, Forrest Barber, Didier Theys and Christian Fittipaldi. The team was on the back foot from the start as the project was late in completion and had virtually no testing, not the way to approach the Rolex 24.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

The final DP entered was the Multimatic Ford Focus MDP1 from Larry Holt’s Canadian outfit. He had regular  team drivers Scott Maxwell and David Empringham with David Brabham completing the line up.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

Just six cars in the “top class” and they were not even the fastest round the track at Daytona, that honour fell to Justin Bell and the Denhaag Motorsports Corvette running in the GTS class who posted  a 1:49.394, over a second faster than the class leading Multimatic.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

Let’s consider the situation, short of numbers, slower than the previous top prototype class, visually challenged and despised by legions of internet forum heroes, why did Grand-Am persist with this exercise in motor sport time travel? Tube frames in an era of carbon fibre, mocked as Proto-Turtles, what was the point? Indeed why did the mighty NASCAR empire devote time and resources to endurance racing when the core business was so successful and all consuming?

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

The final question is easiest to answer. Bill France Snr. had launched the Daytona sports car events back in 1962 and by 1966 that had morphed into a 24 hour that attracted a top international entry, Ferrari even had one their most famous Gran Turismos nicknamed after Daytona. So it has become part of the Daytona tradition to kick off the Speed Weeks with an endurance sports car race and by continuing the tradition it is honouring Bill Snr.’s legacy and memory. There is also the practical point that the Rolex 24 acts as a rehearsal for the Daytona 500 in getting the Speedway staff and other interested parties up to speed before the huge crowd arrives on race day for the opening event in the NASCAR calendar.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

OK, why did the folks on West International Speedway Boulevard take the route of Daytona Prototypes? The answer is simple; cost, control and safety. Grand-Am was born out of the vacuum created by the demise of IMSA as run by Andy Evans and the subsequent rise of Don Panoz’ American Le Mans Series. This was perceived as a threat to hegemony of Daytona Beach in North American motor sport circles. Don owned Road Atlanta and Mosport and had manufacturers such as Audi, Porsche, Corvette and Viper beating a path to his door. He was serious and had the resources to match his ambition. The link with the ACO and Le Mans 24 Hours gave him and the ALMS instant credibility.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

Something had to be done. In 2000 Grand-Am kicked off in the best possible manner with a great edition of the Rolex 24. Anyone interested in reading about that race might enjoy THIS

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

For the 2000 season Roger Edmondson, President of Grand-Am, attempted to forge links with John Mangoletsi’s Sports Racing World Cup from Europe to increase the number of prototypes available to populate the grid. This initiative failed, “Mango” could not deliver his side of the bargain, only a few cars made the trip across the Atlantic to the mid-season races at Daytona and Road America.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

The Audi R8 prototype was rampant in the ALMS and at La Sarthe and would run at astronomical speeds if let loose on the banking at Daytona International Speedway and the consequences of something going wrong were only too easy to imagine. The open cars also had a potential safety issue, highlighted by the fatal accident of Jeff Clinton at Homestead early in the 2002 Grand-Am season. The flurry of legal action that followed that accident focused minds in Volusia County.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

 

Cost was also a problem, even manufacturers of the size of Cadillac realised that they could not outspend Audi in the spiralling arms race that motor sport has always been. Detroit would not sanction such expenditure that had little return on investment and in the face of a declining financial situation that would eventually require a US Government bail out. There was very definitely a finite limit of what competitors could be expected to spend.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

The only realistic solution to the issues of cost for Grand-Am was to write the rule book themselves giving them total control over all aspects of their series and not being dependant on outside parties building cars to others’ regulations and also not having manufacturers dominate proceedings.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

The high tech and costly solutions involving carbon fibre, Kevlar and electronic wizardry were out except on bodywork and ancillaries. The traditional tube-frame construction would the basis for all the cars. Seven different chassis were approved, along with engines that were also tightly regulated. Another benefit to Grand-Am was to lock in those teams that invested in Daytona Prototypes, there was nowhere else to race these odd machines.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

Well that is how members of the media like myself and the fans that flock to DIS in late January first encountered the Daytona Prototypes in the flesh. They looked awful, especially compared with the Audis and Bentleys that would run at Sebring a few weeks later but they were affordable and a business could be made running them. In any case no one at Grand-Am was going to pay any attention to a bunch of whiny Europeans that only showed up once a year to enjoy some Floridian sunshine.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

 

Mind you it was not just us Aliens that did not care for the first iteration of the DP. I have been in recent correspondence with one of the drivers who lined up at the sharp end of the grid on February 1st. His verdict was “Damn, that’s an ugly car!”

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

The half dozen Daytona Prototypes were stationed at the head of the 44 cars that started the Rolex 24 in 2003. Flags were at half-mast around the track as news came in that morning of the loss of the space shuttle Columbia over Texas as it headed for for its base at Cape Canaveral, it was a sobering moment.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

The early laps were led by Maxwell in the Multimatic with the Brumos pair keeping a watchful eye.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

Then the problems began as the Doran headed for the pits suffering with all manner of issues, it was too new to be racing at a place as tough as DIS. Retirement was the fate after 67 laps.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

The Picchio ended up behind the wall with overheating issues that plagued it for the rest of the race.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

Then the Multimatic suffered a broken throttle cable which was repaired but cost the team many laps that they struggled to make up, the days of a big speed differential of the prototypes over the GTs were over.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

The Fabcars were leading as the sun set with the Toyota powered car following the Brumos entry.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

Disaster struck the #58 as the normally bullet proof Porsche engine suffered a failure, perhaps the bit that was most expected to last. Two DPs out as the long dark night arrived.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

More throttle problems for the Multimatic during the night ended their challenge for overall honors.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

The best of the DPs was the #59 but a trip off track to avoid contact with a stationary, stranded GT caused all manner of issues that dogged the car for the rest of the race.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

All of this misfortune handed the Rolex 24 to the Racer’s Group Porsche 911 GT3 RS, the hounds had outlasted the hare.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

The best result for the Daytona Prototypes was a fine fourth overall for Multimatic, always playing catch up after their unplanned pit visits. The drivers had the consolation prize of new Rolex watches.

2003 Rolex 24 Hours

The Daytona Prototype era had got off to a shaky start but they would assert their authority over the GT classes in the future and by the Gen3 they looked like proper racing cars. They have provided the foundation for Grand-Am and now the IMSA championships. Few would have bet on that back in 2003 but they have earned their place in the history books.

John Brooks, September 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Battle of Evermore

I have only a few rules in this house, not reposting stuff is one, but here I am breaking it. This piece deserves a second airing……..40 odd years gone and still burning brightly………….

All things considered I have been a lucky man, perhaps not in a financial sense, I have been too slow to really make more than a buck or two, but I have met many fine folks along the highway of life and I have been enriched by them in other ways. My old friend David Soares has brightened up my (and hopefully yours) day with this peek into that lost continent, the past. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. Wealth is not only measured in monetary terms………….

Can Am 1972 Start

The title of Thomas Wolfe’s novel You Can’t Go Home Again has launched a thousand journalistic ruminations about the futility of searches for times lost but perhaps, like other ruminants, they’re simply contributing to climate change.  In opposition to this popular view, the Romans saw history as man’s long downfall from a past Golden Age and they aspired to restore the past, not to dismiss it.  This month I saw two tributes to our own past, which served to remind me that maybe we ought to stop re-inventing the wheel and just maybe aspire to revive our own Golden Age.

Paddock Pair Morning

The first was the recent Kennedy Center Honors for the boys who recorded at Bron-Y-Aur cottage forty years back.  After a pathetically American introduction by Jack Black, the now gray-haired Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones nodded politely at a few lame attempts at impossible covers.  It seemed as if the ghost of Keith Moon was in the room and that things were going over like the lead gas-bag he famously predicted.  Then Ann and Nancy Wilson (who long ago performed as a Led Zeppelin cover band before calling themselves Heart) took the stage accompanied by an orchestra and full chorus, along with the only man who can truly lay down a Bonzo percussion line, his son Jason Bonham.  From Ann Wilson’s first notes, their rendition of “Stairway to Heaven” was better than perfect.  By the climax of Shayne Fontaine’s note-perfect tribute to Stairway’s soaring solo, Jimmy Page was mouthing the cord changes and smiling beatifically while Robert Plant openly wept.  You can go home.  (See their performance here: http://youtu.be/JK_DOJa99oo)

Can-Am Rev 4

Ten days after, I went home to 1972 once again.  The proprietor of this website, Mr. Brooks, has been after me for years to purchase a decent scanner to digitize my trays of Kodachromes from the amazing early-‘70’s Laguna Seca Can-Am races that I’ve been carrying around since my boyhood.  There is no sight or sound like a field of thundering Group 7 cars taking the green on the front straight at Laguna, driven by the likes of Revson, Hulme, Donohue, Follmer, Siffert, Stewart, Andretti, Oliver, Cevert, Scheckter, Elford, and Redman.  I freely admit to having been warped for life by the experience by a monkey that I will never get off my back.

Can-Am Rev 5

My neighbor down the road, Bruce Canepa, recently began fettling George Follmer’s 1972 Can-Am championship-winning Porsche 917/10, chassis -003, for the new owner after handling the $5.5M sale this past August at Mecum’s Monterey auction.  The crew of his state-of-the art facility in Scotts Valley, California is handling several cars for the same enthusiast owner, including Peter Revson’s 1970 L&M Lola, Denny Hulme’s 1970 Can-Am championship McLaren M8D, and the ex-Jackie Oliver 1974 champion Shadow DN4 recently purchased from Don Nichols.  Bruce is no stranger to the mighty 1000-horsepower 917/10, having owned and raced the ex-Georg Loos chassis -017 for the past decade.  The car was to be rolled-out shortly after New Year’s at a private track day at Laguna Seca, where I had seen the car raced over 40 years ago.

Mark in 9 1972

Much has changed at what is now known as Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in the four decades since the original Can-Am, but in many ways the start-finish straight is like it was when I was a teenager with hair hanging down below my shoulders and a borrowed range-finder camera.  The day began wet, just as the weekend did back in ’72, but in the afternoon the clouds parted and the track dried.  Mr. Canepa took -003 out for a few laps to warm the fluids and conduct a final systems check before turning the car over to its new owner.  Bruce came around for his final lap and I stood at the pit wall as he properly opened-up the throttles the way George Follmer did back in the day.  Suddenly, I was transported back in time by the whoosh of 12 air-cooled and turbocharged cylinders making a big chunk of their Metzger-designed 1000 horses.  The sight and sound of a 917/10 returned to its stunning white, red, and black L&M tobacco livery literally made me weak in the knees.

Follmer 72

What was special about those Canadian-American Challenge Cup races?  The races were, after all, just races.  The reason that we turned up every year was to see what was going to come off the trailers.  The fields of Group 7 were incredibly diverse.  Jim Hall introduced wings and sucker-cars for Hill and Elford; Gordon Coppuck’s papaya-orange Big Macs driven by Bruce, Denny, and Revvie were different every season and always better than the Trojan customer cars; Don Nichols’ AVS Shadows were truly innovative; Eric Broadly’s Lolas gave drivers like Surtees, Stewart, and Donohue something new and different; and Hans Metzger and Helmut Flegl changed the game with their 917 variants for Siffert, Donohue, and Follmer.  The amazing cars were reason enough to turn up, and in those days before Led Zeppelin performed at Bill Graham’s first stadium show, thousands did.

Mark D 1972

Most pundits have wanted to place blame for the demise of the Can-Am at the feet of Roger Penske and Mark Donohue, who with Metzger and Flegl developed 1972’s 917/10 into the amazing 1200-horsepower 917/30, but I will have none of it.  The year 1973 was the beginning of a long global economic crisis linked to oil.  Nobody had the budget to go racing in the unlimited class, and gas-hog 8-liter Chevy’s and 5.4 turbo Panzer’s were far from politically correct when most Americans were lining-up for hours to simply pump gas into their Pintos.  The result has been decades of spec and consumption-based sportscar formulae which lack the pizzaz and diversity of the Golden Age of the Can-Am.

Papaya Orange

Today, with the takeover of the ALMS by NASCAR’s Grand-Am subsidiary, we are again being fed more spec-formula pablum.  Close racing is promised, between the same cars and teams year after year.  No diversity.  No anticipation of seeing something new, different, and better.  The racing will be good, but if I want to see good racing I can watch the shit-boxes of the WTCC.  This is why Rich Guys lined-up transporters at Laguna to run a bunch of old cars rather than invest in spec-racers.

Can-Am Rev 2

As Robert Plant crooned 40 years ago in Stairway to Heaven, “Ooooh, it makes me wonder.”  Why can’t we go back?

Paddock Pair Left 1972

Kremer

LMB

Howmet

 

Follmer in 9

David Soares, January, 2013

 

History Lesson at Donington

Donington_Historic_Festival_2015-0137

Since it was rescued from oblivion at the hands of wannabe F1 promoters Donington Park has been restored to its former glory. It is the venue for some the finest historic racing meetings in the UK. DDC’s man with a lens or two, Simon Hildrew, was in attendance at the recent Historic Festival…………we are fortunate to share his work from that weekend.

John Brooks July 2015