Tag Archives: JJ Lehto

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Everyone’s a Winner, Baby

1999 24 Hours of Le Mans

Is Smokin’ Jo on the hot chocolate? This impressive group of winners were attending the 1999 BMW Driver’s Training Camp in the Dolomites. Between them they have racked up sixteen victories at Le Mans, including 1999, so the training must have worked then, even if Jo is still on the gaspers. Some things never change.

John Brooks, January 2015

Going Round and Round – Part Two

2000 ALMS Charlotte

The landscape of the American Le Mans Series had changed significantly for the 2000 season with the arrival of Audi and their second endurance sports car, the R8. This would blossom over the next six seasons to become one of the all time great race cars. The lessons of the shortcomings of the R8R had been absorbed so the R8 handled well, had good downforce and was quick in a straight line.

2000 ALMS Charlotte

However it would not be a push over for the newcomers as both BMW and Panoz had well proven teams and cars. In reality both were at a disadvantage with compromises that they had to make to conform to the new aerodynamic regulations introduced in the wake of the Mercedes-Benz’ flying accidents at Le Mans in 1999. In addition to that BMW stopped development on the V12 LMR before the season commenced and began focusing their attention on their upcoming return to Formula One.

2000 ALMS Charlotte

When the calendar was announced it contained three more visits to Oval Land……. the stadiums at Charlotte and Texas would join Las Vegas on the trail.

2000 ALMS Charlotte

The first of these races was to be Charlotte in the heartland of NASCAR territory. The second round of the ALMS would be a tough event to sell to the Good ‘Ole Boys but the circuit itself was pretty good, a quick infield section with elevation changes, up to Daytona International Speedway standards other than the section taking the infield track back onto the banking at turn one and a silly chicane on the back straight.

2000 ALMS Charlotte

The transition from infield to the banking caught out a few during the weekend, one of the first being Allan McNish in the Audi R8R, in the penultimate appearance of that car. The new R8 had crushed the opposition in the first round at Sebring but it was being kept in reserve for the Le Mans 24 Hours, so McNish had to push to the limit in the old car which he shared with Dindo Capello and Michele Alboreto. Spinning the Audi was bad enough but then seeing a grinning photographer with his 500mm lens lined up to record the indiscretion made things seem even worse.

2000 ALMS Charlotte

Once we were all back in the paddock the Wee Scot forced a rueful smile when he confirmed that the wanker he had spotted with the camera was indeed yours truly, his description, not mine.

2000 ALMS Charlotte

Charlotte marked the low point the Audi campaign in 2000, the R8R was just about able to run with the Rafanelli Lola but not BMW or Panoz. These two teams would battle along in the race with the #42 BMW V12 LMR just shading the #1 Panoz LMP-1 Roadster S.

2000 ALMS Charlotte

Charly Lamm’s boys just about out fumbled the Panoz guys in the pits and in traffic but the result could have gone either way. JJ was pleased though…………….

2000 ALMS Charlotte

Brabham and Magnussen were just eight seconds down on the BMW lead car when the flag dropped with the Rafanelli Lola picking up the final spot on the podium.

2000 ALMS Charlotte

The Audi of Emanuele Pirro and Frank Biela could only manage sixth place, the return of the R8 to the ALMS could not come soon enough.

2000 ALMS Charlotte

GTS was reduced to a Viper parade, as Corvette kept their powder dry in anticipation of their first trip to Le Mans for the Test Day later that month.

2000 ALMS Charlotte

The only opposition was a pair of venerable GT2 Porsches which were a long way off the pace, though troubles for #92 Viper meant that Zak Brown and Vic Rice Roock Racing 911 bagged runner up spot to Olivier Beretta and Karl Wendlinger.

2000 ALMS Charlotte

The GT class had been invaded in 2000 by a horde of the new 911 GT3-Rs , nine examples of which were at Charlotte. Their début earlier in the season at the Rolex 24 had been marred by a series of engine failures, I looked at that race earlier HERE

2000 ALMS Charlotte

They were opposed by two PTG BMWs, the E36 version almost pulling off a shock win after the Dick Barbour Racing ‘werks’ 911’s both hit problems early in the race.

2000 ALMS Charlotte

Eventually the Bob Wollek/Sascha Maassen 911 recovered to take victory for Stuttgart rather than Munich.

2000 ALMS Charlotte

The crowd numbered in the hundreds rather than Nevada’s tens but in the confines of the huge auditorium designed to take the huddled masses of NASCAR fans this looked pathetic, a problem experienced at all of the Ovals visited. Signs warning “NO THROWING, You will be Removed” stencilled onto the wall were not required………apparently it is a local sport to lob fast food and the like at passing cops, photographers etc., during quiet periods on the track……..a sort of Agincourt Experience with half chewed wings ‘n B-B-Q sauce rather than arrows……..no one much cared about the few clueless photographers like myself stumbling around in search of inspiration, we remained largely safe, a danger only to ourselves.

2000 ALMS Texas

If Charlotte had been pleasant enough on April Fools’ Day then the furnace conditions encountered at Texas Motor Speedway in early September were not. Whoever signed up the circus to perform in this part of the world at the beginning of September kept a low profile during the weekend, if discovered he, she or it would have been lynched.

2000 ALMS Texas

Those of us compelled to work outside in temperatures of 110F looked like extras from Lawrence of Arabia and as for the poor sods driving front-engined, closed cockpit crucibles such as the Viper and Corvette, words fail to describe the heroics required of the drivers just to last the race.

2000 ALMS Texas

In recognition of the insanity of trying to run in the noon sunshine the race was timed to start at dusk…….about 2 degrees cooler………naturally not all Texans are mad despite what you may read and they stayed away in droves…….the rest of us were not so fortunate.

2000 ALMS Texas

The grid lined up for what seemed forever, certain drivers getting dehydrated as the various pre-race ceremonies dragged on. One problem for the photographers was actually finding anywhere accessible during the race to shoot the cars, hence taking to the stadium’s roof.

2000 ALMS Texas

The Audi R8 duo had the rest of the pack under control with McNish and Capello in search of a third win on the trot in the second part of the ALMS season.

2000 ALMS Texas

BMW had managed to paper over the cracks in their operation but Texas would see their first failure to grab a podium place since their appearance in North America at the 1999 Sebring 12 Hours.

2000 ALMS Texas

Even Jörg’s new hair style could not improve things.

2000 ALMS Texas

The challenge to the Audis was led by the #1 Panoz crew who were a lap down by the end of the race, a podium was their reward. No one had an answer to the R8.

2000 ALMS Texas

Lehto and Müller’s title aspirations were given a slight boost when the Schnitzer team ordered their sister car to crawl to the finish, letting #42 into a distant fourth.

2000 ALMS Texas

There were celebrations in the Pratt & Miller pit as the Corvette of Ron Fellows and Andy Pilgrim took the first win in the ALMS against the Vipers. One of the ORECA cars ran out of fuel, the other had a malfunctioning cooling system which cooked Wendlinger in the first stint.

2000 ALMS Texas

Similar stories were found in the GT class, I recall Rohan Skea staggering out of his Porsche after a single stint in a very bad way and being taken straight to Medical Centre. Most teams had personnel in and out of the doctors’ care, it was an extremely unpleasant place to be working at.

2000 ALMS Texas

The race went to Pirro/Biela in spite of the superior pace of the McNish/Capello R8. Two yellow flag periods taking over a minute’s lead from the #77 car, then a problem with the radio meant a mix up with the final pit stop, it was that kind of a race. Most of us could not get away from the place quick enough and there were no spectators to impede our exit.

2000 ALMS Las Vegas

Two months and three races later we returned to Las Vegas Motor Speedway to continue the lacklustre pattern of holding ALMS events at this kind of venue………..as usual the on track stuff was OK but there was little or no interest locally and few in the way of spectators to be seen. Even the promise of the Steve Soper Experience could not tempt the punters away from the tables and slots.

2000 ALMS Las Vegas

Actually some off track action WAS exciting as nearby Nellis Air Force Base played host to all kinds of foreign exotic warplanes on some sort of Top Gun event. The pilots, being gearheads, would circle low over the stadium on their final approach to the base, giving us something new to argue about. Those who had been to Vegas before had scant enthusiasm for the place, a little of that town goes a long way.

2000 ALMS Las Vegas

Even Morse getting me the loan of a Lincoln TownCar – Cartier Edition of course, with white-walled tires, gold stripes and blacked out windows could not lift the mood that we were all in the wrong place.

2000 ALMS Las Vegas

It did however piss off David Price, who wondered how a low life like me got to ride around like a Rap Star or Vegas pimp, and he had to put up with some anonymous Camry, he grumbled to anyone who would listen………… P. Diddy Brooks anyone?

2000 ALMS Las Vegas

The event was the penultimate round of the series in 2000, there being a race scheduled in Adelaide on 31st December but Las Vegas still had an end of term feel with a few new entries joining in and some familiar faces about to leave. Tom Coronel impressing in Carsport Holland Viper he shared with Mike Hezemans.

2000 ALMS Las Vegas

The BMW V12 LMR was making its final appearance as there was no desire from Munich to go Down Under. The car, a collaboration with Williams Grand Prix, had a great racing record over two seasons, victory at Le Mans and six ALMS wins, including Sebring. Quality. Regrettably it also brought down the curtain on the sonorous BMW V12 engine which aurally entertained those track-side since 1995. For 2001 BMW would be running M3s in the GT class.

2000 ALMS Las Vegas

Another great combination that was making its final ALMS appearance in North America was ORECA and the Dodge Viper GTS-R. After five seasons the French team was headed into the ranks of prototype racing with a Dallara chassis and MOPAR power. The list of the Viper’s successes is almost to long to contemplate.

2000 ALMS Las Vegas

Reflecting the improvement in the Panoz’ performance as the season progressed Magnussen jumped McNish and Biela at the start of what would be a chaotic and incident packed race.

2000 ALMS Las Vegas

McNish restored the normal order of things but then the bumping and boring began…………..

2000 ALMS Las Vegas

Both Panoz entries were in the wars as was Müller’s BMW and Capello in the #77 R8, there were several incidents.

2000 ALMS Las Vegas

The upshot was a fortunate victory for #78 who had been largely off the pace, especially Biela, but you take the wins as they come.

2000 ALMS Las Vegas

As was the custom that year GTS honours went to the Viper of Beretta and Wendlinger with the GT class win going to the Dick Barbour Racing Porsche 911 GT3-R of Bob Wollek and Sascha Maassen. It was their fifth win of the year and would be Wollek’s final victory of his career, as he would be killed in a pointless road accident the following March while out cycling near Sebring. I have written about the mercurial Frenchman HERE HERE and HERE .

Another Roval, another failure to bring in the spectators, even someone with Don Panoz’ deep pockets would have to consider how long this strategy would be tried.

2001 would provide the answer and that is the topic for Part Three.

John Brooks, December 2014

 

Going Round and Round – Part One

2000 ALMS Las Vegas

I wrote the majority of this post ten years ago this month, some of it came to pass, some did not. Who could have predicted that a decade later the business models of both Formula One and NASCAR would be under threat, both suffering falling audiences and both appearing to lose connection with the younger generations? In F1’s case, the sheer amount of revenue that is leaving the sport is undermining the very existence of half of the grid, that is not sustainable. The lack of an obvious successor to Bernie Ecclestone is another issue that needs to be addressed sooner than later, even BCE cannot turn back the clock, there will be no settling a $100,000,000 deal with Father Time.

2014 Le Mans 24

Endurance Racing has more hopeful signs than it did a decade ago, the rules package for the LM P1 category is a reflection of the technology driven solutions that we will all have to use in this era of reduced energy consumption and emissions. The FIA World Endurance Championship now has four manufacturers in its premier category, with others supposed to be in the wings, all pushing different solutions to the hybrid technology question. The Le Mans 24 Hours remains the pre-eminent event in motor-sport and the alliance between the ACO and FIA is working as well as can be expected. The question of how to fuse GTE and GT3 remains tricky, with a few vested interests keen to maintain the status quo and therefore undermining any progress, but the day will come, driven by budgetary considerations as much as common sense.

2014 Spa 24 Hours

GT3 in Europe, under the leadership of Stéphane Ratel, continues to grow, with the Pirelli World Challenge in North America rivalling the Blancpain Endurance Series in terms of numbers of competitors.

2014 Rolex 24 Hours

The Tudor series endured more than a few hiccups in its inaugural season but in the longer term it was the only possible solution to the ALMS/GrandAm schism, I remain optimistic that the problems will be ironed out.

2000 ALMS Texas

So let’s go back in time, when we were anticipating the Le Mans Series and reflecting on a cul-de-sac that the American Le Mans Series took in their early days. I have updated and corrected the text where necessary.

But before we do, I would like, on behalf of my loyal correspondents and myself, to wish all the readers of this little blog, Compliments of the Season. Roll on 2015.

John Brooks, December 2014

2001 ALMS Texas

Do you remember the time that we sports-car folks were sampling the delights of racing at Super Speedways or Rovals, as they became known? Seems like another era.

2014 Rolex 24 Hours

OK the first flaw in this statement is that we still go down to Florida every January for the Rolex but that somehow feels different, nearly 50 years of 24 hours races on the Tri-Oval will do that. Frankly during the era of Daytona Prototypes the race was largely irrelevant in the eyes of the endurance community. Now, since the take over of the American Le Mans Series by NASCAR, there appears to be a way forward to bring some form of unity in regulations, technical and sporting. There is a way to restore the Rolex to its former glories.

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

The ALMS visited these temples of NASCAR/CART (remember them?) Korporate Racing some five times over the 1999-2001 seasons. This odd direction for a pure road racing series was part pragmatism, part opportunism. Pragmatic in that some of the traditional arenas for endurance racing in North America (Road America, Watkins Glen, Lime Rock and Mid Ohio) were signed up for the successor to the defunct USRRC Championship, Grand-Am. Opportunism came from two rich and powerful barons of motor-sport, Don Panoz and Bruton Smith; Don needed venues to give the ALMS credibility with the manufacturers that had embraced his series, back in 99 they already comprised of BMW, Chrysler, Corvette and Porsche with plans for others such as Audi, Cadillac and Mercedes-Benz to tap into the wallets of the North American sports-car fan base. The ovals with their vast capacities and demographic friendly locations seemed to be a ready made answer. For Smith it was a potential revenue goldmine getting into the wine and cheese crowd at no risk (Don no doubt underwrote the affair).

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

This sequence of races kicked off with the final round of the 1999 ALMS season when we headed for the Nevada desert and the city of Fear and Loathing, Las Vegas. At the time some of us expressed the hope that when aliens finally land on this planet that do not commence their exploration by starting at The Strip……..others felt that the aliens were here already and Area 51 is just down the ‘Extraterrestrial Highway’ and that is how Vegas came into being, but I digress.

I remember making the trip down to Las Vegas via LAX, as there were no direct flights back then from London. Picking a Ford press car courtesy of Morse I headed out into the desert, destination Barstow of HST fame, I would spend the night in some grubby motel. It became clear why Thompson kicked off his masterwerk thus:

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

Well none of that kind of misbehaviour for me, no siree,  I was on my way to the races, this was serious business. There was a title to be won or lost, and that was the main story. Veteran Elliot Forbes-Robinson in the Dyson Riley & Scott versus David Brabham and Eric Bernard in the Panoz. E F-R had ‘retired’ several seasons ago and was driving a car that had completed over 45,000 racing miles, at least that is what the press were told, who knows, Pat Smith might have been pulling our legs.

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

There should have been another contender in the shape of JJ Lehto in the BMW V12 LMR but a failure to complete the necessary paperwork at Sebring back in March meant no points from that victory and no possibility of the title. The Finn was not happy, grumbling to anyone who would listen.

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

There was an end of term feeling with many teams running their cars for the last time, Wayne Taylor would be leaving Doyle-Risi Racing and the Ferrari 333SP behind, bound for the factory Cadillac project.

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

The DAMS Lola would also be having its final outing as the French team would represent the European arm of the Cadillac deal.

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

Champion would run its Porsche 911 GT1 EVO in Las Vegas but was planning for a Porsche-powered Lola in 2000. 

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

Lola was also the chassis that Team Rafanelli would adopt in 2000, though with Judd engine, similar to the power-plant they used in their modified Riley & Scott Mklll. 

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

There were two other titles to be decided at Las Vegas Motor Speedway GTS was almost in the hands of Viper and Olivier Beretta.

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

A late season charge from Cort Wagner in the Alex Job Porsche GT3-R had left him with the GT class title almost in his grasp.

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

The Panoz team looked to be strongest, especially after Steve Soper destroyed a BMW while testing and the two Braselton-based roadsters monopolised the front row.

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

The title looked to be heading the way of the Panoz lead pair but with under 30 minutes to go their engine cooked itself and that was the end of their hopes. E F-R was Champion.

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

David Brabham reacted in a sporting fashion, congratulating his rival despite his own disappointment, typical of the man. The race was won by the BMW of JJ Lehto and Steve Soper from their teammates Bill Auberlen and Jo Winkelhock………..Beretta and Wagner took their crowns as expected, the American Le Mans Series first season had come to a close. Everyone agreed it had been a roaring success.

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

Las Vegas Motor Speedway was better than anticipated, even if from a photographer’s perspective it was crap location to shoot at. That would be a common thread running through the ALMS’s visits to these stadiums. However the tiny crowd lured from the flashing lights of the slots meant that the event was on balance a failure. The lack of interest shown by the punters in the ALMS was illustrated by the findings of noted chassis plate fondler and author of the legendary endurance racing encyclopaedia, Time And Two Seats, Janos Wimpffen. During the race he ended up sitting with the few spectators that did show up to the facility on the day and discovered that most of them were patiently waiting for the sports cars to finish so that they could enjoy a ride in the Richard Petty Experience……..

1999 ALMS Las Vegas

Morse and I agreed they would have done better with the Steve Soper Experience…………

More later in the week.

 

 

Corkscrewed

1998 Petit Le Mans

Bill Auberlen leads JJ Lehto down Laguna Seca’s Corkscrew in their BMW V12 LMRs. It is October 1999 on the Monterey Peninsula, a very agreeable time and place as I recall. Their main opposition came from the Panoz Roadsters, those rumbling beasts who have passed into legend.

1998 Petit Le Mans

The Williams-built V12 LMR prototypes raced during 1999 and 2000, racking up a Le Mans triumph in the first year but they failed in their quest to win the drivers’ or teams’ or manufacturers’ titles in the American Le Mans Series. A paperwork snafu at Sebring and the team’s withdrawal from Mosport on safety grounds let others slip in front the first season. Audi’s arrival with their new R8 accounted for the following one. Then Munich set sights on Formula One, their endurance prototype campaign was dropped and we all know how that cunning plan panned out in the long run.

John Brooks, November 2013

Orange Blossom Special

Cover Shot

For sure we live in strange times, perhaps it is the change of the seasons, perhaps some other wild cosmic shift in the Solar System. Whatever, the Mojo wire has a steady stream of bizarre stuff tumbling out, as might be expected when the first Grand Prix of the year is on, the hype dials are set to eleven. But there is more……

Bruton Smith, is normally a very sharp businessman and CEO/Owner of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. (SMI), an organisation that has a portfolio of Speedways at Charlotte, Atlanta, Bristol, Kentucky, Las Vegas, New Hampshire and Texas, plus Sears Point. So reports that he is going to recreate the Nordschleife in Nevada are to be treated with some respect, though the question is why? Where will he put the Pistenklause and will the beer be cold enough? What about sand in the Schwalbenschwanz?

Even more weird are tales that Pamela Anderson is heading towards sportscar racing.

Pamela Anderson, a renowned petrolhead, has launched her own motor racing team, Downforce1 by Pamela Anderson, with plans to enter this years’ European Le Mans Series (ELMS) with an Aston Martin Vantage GT2, the International GT Open Series and NASCAR for 2013. Austrian Markus Fux is the first driver to be named.

I suppose she will be a visual improvement on some of the Team Principals I have known but………………..according to one social media group that I am linked to she is something of an veteran when it comes to handling drivers…..Paul Gentilozzi • Her interest comes from her dating Eddie Irvine a few years ago. She was our guest at the Long Beach Grand Prix and was immediately drawn to the sport.

Strange Days Indeed, Mama.

Buy This Book

How appropriate then that I have spent the best part of a week in motorsport’s version of Saturnalia, the 12 Hours of Sebring. For those who did not attend or those who did not pick up a copy of the excellent Official Programme, I am allowed to publish some of the pieces that I collected for the publication. Ken Breslauer, PR Director for the place and Track Historian had kindly given me permission and in return I am giving a plug to his latest book the “Sebring 12 Hours Record Book” a comprehensive guide to the results from all the endurance classic held at Hendricks Field.

So starting with my own experiences here are some of the memories that Sebring provokes amongst those who have visited it in the past………….more tomorrow.

Blondes Have More Fun

The Grand Old Dame of American Sportscar races has reached Senior Citizen status. My own involvement with the annual trip round the clock-face is relatively recent, 1999 to be exact. In truth I had visited the Central Highlands a few years earlier, as part of the travelling circus that was the 1997 FIA GT Championship. I was distinctly underwhelmed by the place, remote and scruffy, yet strangely familiar, a race track based on a World War Two bomber base, hello Silverstone, hello Thruxton, hello Snetterton.

Fast forward to March 1999, like many before me, I used the opportunity of a race in Florida in March to have a holiday to try and shake off the European Winter Blues. So as I dropped my wife at Miami International for her flight to New York to visit her brother I wondered what I would encounter up Highway 27. Everyone told me what a great event the 12 Hours was, but my own experience of the place had not been positive,

On The Mean Streets Of Sebring

Most Europeans find on their first visit to the United States of America that the most distinctive feature is the scale and sheer size of the place. So, not for the last time in my travels, what looked on the map like a short hop from Miami turned into a long, and frankly, boring drive. Through the Everglades, past sugar-cane plantations, into and out of Clewiston and Moore Haven, across the Caloosahatchee and alongside Lake Okeechobee. These were places that would become familiar in the following decade but the first encounter increased my sense of apprehension, what was I going to find even further away from the bright lights of Miami? Eventually the cattle fields gave way to citrus groves and then the gates of Sebring International Raceway were in front of me.

Excitable Boys

The place was transformed from the one I had seen in earlier times, it was bursting at the seams and everywhere there were folks having a good time with motor racing as a background. This was now familiar territory, it had the feeling of La Sarthe in June, now I understood what others had tried to tell me about the 12 Hours of Sebring, it really was a special time and place.

Spirit Of Sebring

Over the years it has become clear to me that the track action is just a small part of the attraction that drags some 100,000 plus souls back to the Central Highlands around Saint Patrick’s Day. Where else do folks queue outside for weeks prior to a motor race? Shared experiences forge friendships that survive the passage of a whole year or years, there is a generosity of spirit amongst the Sebring fans that is rarely, if ever, encountered elsewhere in the motorsport world. As I look back over the decade or so since my first 12 Hours a few memories come to mind.

Dining Al Fresco?

For those competing in the Big Race, the Sebring 12 Hours is a largely frenetic affair, pre-race testing in the run up to the gates being opened to the public, then all day track action on Thursday, followed by Friday Qualifying, prior to the race day itself. Friday afternoon is however a time of rest for the drivers, if not the mechanics, so most disappear to their accommodation but one or two of the more adventurous go out to see close up what they have passed at racing speeds. This was how I came to pick up a couple of blondes on the Friday afternoon in 1999.

No my luck had not changed, the blondes in question were JJ Lehto and Tom Kristensen, team mates at BMW.  I caught them hanging around outside team hospitality, I knew JJ pretty well from our GT  seasons together but Tom less so. We were all a bit bored and bit curious to see more of the madness that was happening just over the bridge. So off we went for a few hours that could only be described as “different”.

Reading The Motoring Column

Cutting a long story short, I signed the drivers for the 2000 season with La Bomba Racing, helped them read Playboy and Penthouse (only the motoring sections of course) in the Stumble Inn and watched some goldfish in, rather than on, the television. Finally we ended up at that Floridian motor racing Mecca, Turn Ten. This was my first encounter with the citizens of that particular town and thankfully not the last. As you would expect the Blondes were treated as if they were royalty, everyone was pleased to have the Pole Position winner (JJ) drop in for a beer and a snack. To round off a perfect introduction to the Sebring 12 Hours the Blondes won the race the next day, my weekend was just about complete.

Sign Of The Times

Two years later I was at the track on race morning before the sun rose, there is always a photo briefing to look forward to, a great assembly of grumbling, groaning snappers. I understand that the collective noun for motorsport photographers is a Moan. 2001’s raceday photo meeting  was an unexpectedly solemn occasion though.  First to arrive, and in those pre-digital days, first to leave, the vast majority of us snappers had not heard the news, Bob Wollek was dead. It was unbelievable, Wollek had survived during a truly dangerous period in motorsport and now, as he contemplated retirement, he was killed in a pointless traffic incident.

Memoriam

Just how pointless was soon evident when the circumstances emerged. Bob was a keen cyclist and would use that method of transport to get to and from the circuit. In fact he would ride to Le Mans every year from Strasbourg, and then back after the race, over 400 miles each way. So on Friday afternoon he left the Sebring paddock en route to his lodgings, west along Highway 98 towards the small town of Lorida. An 82 year old local resident driving a pickup truck collided with the Frenchman, killing him instantly.

The Florida Highway Patrol reported “Wollek had been riding close to the edge of the pavement marking and the van, travelling in the same direction behind other traffic, hit the back of the bicycle. Wollek was taken to Highlands Regional Medical Center with fatal injuries.”

Ciao, Michele…….

The whole paddock was in a state of shock, things like this no longer happened to drivers. A minute’s silence was observed before the race as a token of respect and there were not many dry eyes amongst those who had known him. Tributes from the fans appeared on the walls, it was the other side of the soul of motor racing. The race went on and was won by an Audi as expected, it was the R8 driven by Dindo Capello, Laurent Aiëllo and Michele Alboreto.  As if we needed any further evidence of how brief our time here on earth is, former Grand Prix star Michele was killed in a testing accident a few weeks after his victory at Sebring.

B-17

2002 marked the 50th Anniversary of the 12 Hours of Sebring. As might be imagined the boat was pushed out all round with celebrations and commemorations everywhere. For my part top of the list was a ride in Nine-O-Nine, a B-17. During World War Two, the current track location was known as Hendricks Field, a  B-17 Flying Fortress crew training base of the United States Army Air Force. So what more appropriate way of marking 50 years of the Floridian classic than the appearance of this fabulous aeroplane, paying tribute not only to the race itself but also to the men and women who served their country and who passed through the base during its years as a military establishment.

On Parade

The Flying Fortress idea was facilitated by Vintage Porsche Guru, Kevin Jeannette, who persuaded The Collings Foundation to bring their extremely rare war bird along to raise money for various deserving charities. The B-17 arrived to much fanfare on Friday with Kevin’s son, Gunnar, hitching a ride with the crew on their journey South. To support this worthy effort the team painted up their Panoz LMP01 in a USAAF camouflage dull green and raised more funds for Services’ charities.

High Flying Bird

Saturday morning and the call came from Kevin, a real dream come true.

Get over to the airport and you can have a ride in the B-17, if you want.”

“Try and stop me.”

So an hour or so into the race I, and a few other lucky dogs, took to the skies over the temporary city of Sebring International Raceway. The abiding memory of the short flight was of how small the plane was inside and how vulnerable the crew would have been, flying for hour upon hour over enemy territory. As the plane droned along, tracing the outline of Lake Jackson and the shopping malls on Highway 27, a silence descended over the passengers. Each of each us started to gain a small appreciation of the courage of the very young crews who had endured such terrible casualties in the skies during the War. It was a sobering thought and there are not many of those to be found in Highlands County during race week. It was a rare privilege to be a passenger in such an aircraft and a memory that I shall always treasure.

One For The Frog & Toad?

I have seen many strange things during my time at the tracks but a wedding is definitely in my top ten list of oddities. But perhaps I should not be surprised at any of the antics that the real Sebring fans get up to. So in 2005 I gathered with all the other guests in the Florida sunshine to celebrate the institution of marriage. Of course this being organised by the gang at Turn Ten, this was no conventional ceremony. Unusually for weddings in Florida’s Central Highlands it was reported in the London Daily Telegraph, not I grant you in the Court and Social pages, but in the Motoring Section.

Derek Pye

“It was a moving ceremony. The bride wore vaguely white and carried a bouquet in one hand and a large Budweiser in the other. The bridegroom wore an Hawaiian shirt, shorts and sandals. He had one arm in a sling and a 10-pin bowling ball chained to his ankle, convict style. But he looked very relaxed.

Bride or Groom?

The flower-girls looked particularly fetching – male, admittedly, and more heavily stubbled than is usual, but nicely turned out, especially the taller one in the American football shirt, faded jeans, unlaced Caterpillar boots, flowery headband and lime-green tutu. The maid of honour was colourful, too, in a floaty off-white dress with fluorescent green feather boa and shocking-pink wig – like a psychedelic and visibly better- developed Shirley Temple.

Honey Do?

The bride arrived a little late and walked the length of stair-carpeted aisle to warm applause from the large congregation, accompanied by the best man, looking frighteningly like the Elwood half of the Blues Brothers. And in a touching if oddly ethereal moment, the strains of Here Comes the Bride crackled out on loud hailers, led by a choir of Friesian cows with prominent udders, truck-drivers’ caps and very large cocktails.

Emergency Supplies

The candles, in Jack Daniel’s bottles on a flag-draped altar that doubled as a substantial coolbox for emergency beers, were ceremonially lit, as the preacher, in full gorilla suit, pronounced the blessing through another megaphone. The gorilla invited the groom to kiss the bride (which he managed with some enthusiasm) and the Friesians proposed another toast, warmly taken up. Twenty feet away on the other side of the barriers, the racing cars thundered past, apparently oblivious to the solemnity of the moment.”

What more can I add to the late Brian Laban’s purple prose?

Norm meets the Fourth Estate

I witnessed the other side of the human experience on my last visit to the 12 Hours, back in 2010. The news had come at the end of February that one of great characters of Sebring’s annual race was not at all well. A few days later there was an announcement that Norm “It’s a dry rain” Koury had passed away. He was a true eccentric, even by Sebring Fan standards, but much loved by the nomadic community. So to celebrate his life and to assuage some of the grief and sorrow of those left behind, it was decided that there would a Wake For Norm on the Thursday evening. As a guest but not a member of the Turn Ten clan, I felt that I would show up, pay my respects and proudly display my “2002 Year of the Norm” beer cover. So I did, as did many, many others. The ceremony was given a dignified start by Richard Anderson (also now sadly departed), from Motorsport Ministries, who said a few words and prayers for Norm. It seemed a very appropriate way to mark the passing of such a Sebring Citizen.

Hen’s Teeth

When someone mentions Sebring to me these days I think not of the cars and track action but of the fans who make the atmosphere of March in the Central Highlands of Florida unique.

Message In A Bottle

Remember Steve McQueen may have acted at Le Mans but he raced at Sebring, that tells you all you need to know.

John Brooks, March 2012

Ain’t No Brakeman

Tree Fellers

Preparing tax returns and generally clearing the office I stumble across a copy of “Pursuit of Perfection” made by an old mucker of mine for McLaren. Of course any distraction is welcome, but this stuff is pure gold, back in one of my favourite times.

The Bells Toil

That year I shot for Harrods amongst others, and their entry was in the hunt for victory right till the end. But it was the Ueno Clinic backed entry, run by Paul Lanzante that triumphed.

Prelude To A Kiss

On the film the first lap was electric, with Yannick Dalmas in the driver’s seat and some of the slickest camera work and editing ever seen on a motorsports video. Add to this the wailing sound track of V12 BMW overlaid by John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers pounding out “Ain’t No Brakeman” and it is getting into perfection territory……….JuJu of the strongest kind. You can judge for youreselves HERE

NO TYRE CHANGE! NO TYRE CHANGE

Of the many highlights on the film, two have stuck with me on this viewing. The expression of wonder in the voice of Paul Lanzante at the pace of JJ Lehto during the very wet night. “We set a time to maintain throughout the race, 4 minutes 10 seconds. I think JJ thought he had to do that in the wet……………

Better Days

Then the final scene brings a lump to my throat as Soames Langton, who had helped his friend Lanzante at the race, sprayed Champagne all over those standing in the pitbox. It was a time of great happiness.

Rest in Peace Soames

God Speed JJ

John Brooks, December 2011

The Land of Lost Content

Fifteen years ago today I was in Japan, covering the Pokka 1000 kilometers at a baking hot Suzuka circuit.

Jan da Man

1996 was the time of the BPR Global Endurance Series, McLaren F1 GTR against Ferrari F40 against Lotus Esprit with an armada of Porsche 911s to make up the numbers. It was also the end of that era, as the Porsche 911 GT1 would appear at the next round and the game would be over for the cars mentioned………a gun to a knife fight.

JJ

Ray Bellm was chasing the driver’s title with his regular partner, James Weaver, but for the long distance Japanese event they were joined by Finnish ace, JJ Lehto. The 1995 Le Mans winner had raced with the Gulf McLaren outfit earlier at Le Mans and was widely regarded as one of the fastest drivers in the endurance arena.

I See it Shining Plain

Although in the long term it means little in an endurance race, competitive instincts rise to the surface during Qualifying, Suzuka 1996 was no exception.  Jan Lammers, Pierre-Henri Raphanel and especially JJ Lehto had designs on pole position. I was shooting the session out on the inside of the exit of turn seven, behind the pits. The cars would pop into view having climbed up from the lowest point of the track, with little ground effect the GT1 machines were more than a little wayward. Naturally JJ was a bit wilder than most and on his last lap I was convinced that I had caught him mid corner. Back then, no autofocus, no digital, just rolls of Provia. Somehow that shot came out and that moment stayed with me. Strange to say that I was looking through the archives for something this morning, there it was. A bit of research in Time and Two Seats and there is was 24th August 1996, exactly fifteen years ago.

Of course I did not realise it at the time but it truly was The Land of Lost Content. Ask JJ.

John Brooks, August 2011