During 1986 and 1987 the combination of Bob Wollek and Rothmans Porsche 962C were irresistible at Le Mans, at least during Qualifying. The races proved more problematical.
Teammate Jochen Mass was involved in someone else’s accident, which accounted for the 86 race and the following year Bob did not even get to drive a lap as his 962C was the highest profile victim of the engine problems that afflicted the Porsche competitors during the opening stint of the race. It was not Bosch’s finest hour but the real villain of the story was poor quality fuel supplied by the ACO.
I had started to get media accreditation at Le Mans back then and I recall attending the annual press conferences at that time. Actually there serious incentives to go along and sit through an hour of French, in 1986 Moet et Chandon provided all attendees with a magnum of their vintage Bubbly. I still have the bottle, if not the contents. The usual routine was to have the FIA President Jean Marie Balestre, bellow at the assembled hacks about whatever issue was troubling him at the time. It was usually to do with Formula One, which would confuse us all mightly.
I do remember the President being stopped in his tracks after an intervention from the taciturn Bob Wollek. He had listened to the rant, took issue with some particularly egregious assertion, then quietly and firmly contradicted Ballestre, for once silencing the garrolous Frenchman. Those in the crowd such as me, who did not really know Bob were impressed. He could talk the talk, as well walk the walk.
1988 saw the end of the association between Rothmans and Porsche, so Wollek joined Joest to partner Klaus Ludwig. However the 962 was not really up to the level of either the TWR Jaguars or the Sauber Mercedes. Le Mans once again saw disappointment with his factory Porsche lose the lead with engine failure.
Whatever the frustrations La Sarthe brought, on the other side of the Atlantic things were very different. Four outright wins in the Daytona 24 Hours told a completely different tale of Bob Wollek from the results at Le Mans.
The end of Group C, driven down by the madness of the the F1 based engines and technology and the spending war in IMSA almost killed sportscar racing for good. Wollek’s career like so many of his contemporaries was on hold till matters improved.
A gradual revival in the mid 90’s brought Bob Wollek back to the top table. Once again a Le Mans win went begging in 1995. In truly awful conditions, co-driver Mario Andretti was forced to avoid a spinning car and clouted a wall. The repairs cost the car six laps, when the Chequered Flag was waved the next day the Courage was just over a lap down on the winning McLaren.
Porsche returned to racing and Le Mans in 1996 with the 911 GT1. Somehow Porsche decided to shoot themselves in the foot by allowing Joest to run the ex-TWR Porsche WSC prototype. It outran the fancy GTs winning by a lap from Wollek.
In 1997 there was more cruelty for the Frenchman at Le Mans. The relative performance of the Joest prototype and the 911 GT1 had been reversed. So as dawn broke on the Sunday morning, Wollek’s wait for victory, in the race he cherished above all, looked to be finally over. Then a half shaft failed pitching the Porsche off the track. A few hours later the sister car caught fire, handing another win to the Joest team.
1998 would be Bob Wollek’s last chance to take outright victory at Le Mans. He was originally down to drive one of the prototypes that were entered in support of the new 98 GT1 cars. Yannick Dalmas had a training accident and as a result swapped cars with Wollek. Good luck coming his way?
The 1998 race was a fantastic contest. After the demise early in the race of Mercedes Benz and BMW and the lack of pace from the Nissans, the battle was going to be between Toyota and Porsche. The Japanese had a speed advantage but suffered with gearbox problems. Both teams had accident damage to contend with after localised showers during the night. Brundle’s Toyota was eliminated whereas the undertray on Wollek’s car was replaced in 30 minutes after Müller had taken a trip across a gravel trap. The other Porsche had a leak in the cooling system but got back on track slightly quicker than #25. Come 3.00pm on Sunday that would prove the difference between first and second.
There was no fairy-tale ending for Wollek, tears on the podium from him and his team mates, generous applause from the huge crowd.
Porsche cancelled their prototype racing project at the end of 1998 and decided to focus on a 911 customer programme. Wollek was retained by the factory and parachuted into cars as necessary. So the Champion 911 GT1 EVO for Sebring.
Other destinations were the Konrad and Freisinger teams.
For 2000 Wollek joined Dick Barbour Racing at Le Mans and in the ALMS. Le Mans produced another class win and then it didn’t, as there was a squabble about fuel tank capacity. As ever the ACO had the final word.
The team dominated the ALMS GT class. Bob surprised his younger colleagues such as Lucas Luhr and Dirk Müller with his speed, it drove them up the wall trying work out where the pace came from.
2001 saw Wollek join Petersen/White Lightning, another Porsche customer. Then came Sebring.
Take a trip down Highway 98 towards Okeechobee, you will find the above marker, a simple tribute to a great champion.
Rest in Peace, Bob.
John Brooks, March 2011