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Bob Wollek – En marge de la gloire

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Ten years or more has passed since Bob Wollek was killed in an accident on Highway 98, near Lorida, Florida. Last summer has seen the publication of a biography of the great French endurance driver, written, appropriately, enough by his close friend, Jean-Marc Teissedre.

Jean-Marc is now unquestioningly the leader of the journalistic pack in the endurance sportscar racing media circles. The proud Frenchman has been covering that aspect of the sport since the 70’s and now, since the retirement of Mike Cotton, is probably the only one, other than Mark Cole, who can remember witnessing the glory days of Group C. Jean-Marc was a confidant of Bob Wollek and there can be no more appropriate author of a book celebrating the life and times of a very successful racing driver.

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However the book is far from a hagiography, it is a warts and all account of a man who spent nearly 30 years at the top of the sport. A indication of the honest tone of the book is found right from the start as Jean-Marc gives an account of his first encounter with Mr. Wollek.
“Can you imagine a worse introduction to a guy who had a reputation for being pretty unsociable than having to ask him for money? This is what happened to me in the paddock of the old Nürburgring on Friday evening before the final round of the 1977 German Circuits Championship. Auto Hebdo sent me to Germany to cover the event, and I got the exchange rate between the  French Franc and the Deutschmark a bit mixed up. The only solution was to find a Frenchman who would get me out of this mess. And they were thin on the ground in that era. So it looked like my only hope was Wollek! I didn’t know him, but the magazine asked me to follow him closely as his reputation was just beginning  to expand beyond the banks of the Rhine. But at this particular point in time I had to introduce myself to him not as a journalist but as a beggar! So after a very careful approach I had to come clean. I told him who I was and asked for what I wanted almost in the same breath in a barely audible voice. 
“Who the hell do you think you are asking me for money? We don’t know each other- do you think I’m the Bank of France, or what?” he shot back. A long silence followed our first contact. By the time I’d got round to thinking up an answer, Bob had already gone to the rear of the car and was talking to the Porsche Kremer Racing mechanics in German.
I walked a little further away and tried to think. I didn’t know anybody, the future was looking grim. But now it was time for practice so I said to myself that I’d see about it later. After things had calmed down I went into the press room, and as luck would have it I found myself face to face with Bob. “Have you got your one hundred marks?”
“Well, er .. . no. I don’t know anybody here……”
“It’s not bloody possible…”
I couldn’t  make out the rest  of the sentence, but  it was probably a sarcastic comment about the level of intelligence of  the journalistic profession. But I didn’t have to be asked twice when Bob told me to follow him. He flipped open his wallet and gave me fifty marks. But now there was another problem- how was I going to repay him? At best we’d meet up again in the same spot in March of the following year for the first round of the 1978 DRM. This is what I said to him. He rubbed his hand across his forehead asking himself what kind of half-wit  he was dealing with. “And a cheque, you don’t know what that is? It’s a little piece of paper you take to your bank and get money in exchange!”
Mumbling vague excuses for not having thought of this solution I promised  to send him a cheque on the Monday following our meeting.”

Not an auspicious start.

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And the book continues in a similar vein, the story of Bob’s career as a skier, then a rally driver and finally to the circuits. Interwoven into the tale are pieces from his contemporaries and also artifacts from his estate. One that caught my eye is the invoice from Motor Racing Developments for a Brabham BT28 the weapon of choice for a Formula Three campaign in 1970, all for the princely sum of £1,860-0-0.

It was in the Brabham that Bob’s career nearly ended before it began. Contact with none other than James Hunt sent Wollek into the trees of Rouen, bouncing from one trunk to another, the car was destroyed and the final destination for Bob was the local hospital for a couple of weeks. Racing at the time was a blood sport, for two others (Jean-Luc Salmon and Denis Dayan) were killed in the race, the drivers adding their impetuosity to the fragile nature of the cars. Bob’s friend of the time and 1980 Le Mans’ winner, Jean-Pierre Jaussaud, recalled the race in the book, “They tried to pass four abreast in a place where there was only room for two.” What can one add to that?

Tribute

Tribute

The story continues on with Bob soon ascending to Formula Two, and ultimately more significant in the long run he found his way into endurance racing with Lola and Matra. It is all here in chronological order, the privateer Porsche years, his successes in IMSA, the titles and the race wins, culminating with factory drives for Lancia and Porsche.

The book is spiced with comments from his contemporaries, not always complimentary, as evidenced by this passage from his 1995 Le Mans co-driver, Eric Helary. “In my life I’ve only had problems with two drivers: Christophe Bouchut and Bob Wollek. I respect everything that Bob did but he made our 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours sheer hell. Right from the start he behaved despicably. He didn’t want Mario or me to get in the car. He wanted to do the start, the finish, practice, qualifying, the lot.”

And then, “At the finish Mario and I were in the motorhome and we asked each other what the hell was going on in Bob’s head? And it didn’t stop there. After the race he wrote me a letter telling me I was an arsehole!”

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Eric concludes, “Maybe I’m not a good example as I drove with him in only one race and I never came across him again. I have the impression that I didn’t see the real Bob Wollek. I never knew the other side to him.”

Mario, in diplomatic mode, was less critical. “I always had good relations with Bob who I’d known for a long time as we’d done tests in the open WSC Porsche at Charlotte which had gone off without a hitch. I respected him as he had an exceptional set of results.” Team Owner, Yves Courage, also found Wollek to something of a Jekyll and Hyde personality but I will let you buy the book to read the full story. For every negative there is also a positive view from those not easily fooled, like Klaus Ludwig and Norbert Singer.

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When I sat down to write this review I was inclined to include some personal experiences and I have to say that my own somewhat limited dealings with Bob were, at best, mixed. At the time I started out in motorsport he was one of the stars of the scene and I was another anonymous face in the mob of photographers, so there was no call for any form of interaction. I witnessed Wollek win races, join teams at the wrong moment and endure all manner of indignities at Le Mans. He grabbed pole position in 1987 and then in the race did not even get to drive as the engine went bang. Bob was driving a werks-Porsche, the ones with Rothmans’ signage, they were not supposed to fail, after all excellence was expected. However a rash of top line Porsches retired early in the race, all victims of a batch of fuel supplied by the ACO that was found to have a lower octane level than it should have, which played havoc with the turbocharged cars. Typically the sister car did not blow a piston and went on to win the race against all odds.

27 May-01 June, 1986, Le Mans 24 Hours. Norbert Singer and Bob Wollek.

The 1987 edition of Le Mans was perhaps the first time I really saw how forceful Wollek could be. The ACO would have a Friday afternoon press conference which in theory was to champion the great race. However the President of FISA, Jean-Marie Balestre, would also manage to be present and would always take the stage. Balestre was prone to giving the assembled hacks a stern lecture on whatever topic was troubling him at that moment, so although we were at Le Mans we would usually receive a rant about Formula One. This was delivered in the theatrical style of a proper tinpot dictator, thumping the desk and getting red in the face all the while bellowing about FOCA or the drivers, or some other iniquity.

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Craven cowards that we in the media were, we would endure these bizarre performances without protest, partly because we wanted a pass the following year and partly because there was usually some form of gift or bribe to encourage our attendance. For instance in 1986 it had been a Magnum of vintage Moët & Chandon Champagne, I can certainly remember that high point of dubious incentives. Well I still have the bottle in my office though it is sadly empty, the bottle that is.

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There was the usual matinée idol performance from J-MB and then as the floor was opened to questions Bob stood up and gave Monsieur le Président a full blast. My French comprehension is poor at the best of times but I was no doubt that this was about safety standards at Le Mans and the irrelevance of the Formula One blather. The drivers were very concerned about the speeds down the Mulsanne Straight, which pushed to the limits of the tyres’ performance, a year earlier Jo Gartner had been killed during the race in an unexplained accident. Klaus Ludwig, a three time winner, had refused to race at La Sarthe unless changes were made. Balestre was shaken by the direct line that Wollek took as he was more accustomed to dealing with a tame bunch of scribblers. Bob made his point quietly but he left the Président in no doubt. The message was clear, force the ACO to do something before someone else is killed. As if to underline this point there were several accidents in that race week culminating in the monumental crash of Win Percy’s Jaguar, after a puncture at around 230 mph. Win survived but it was a lottery, the next victim might not be so fortunate. Within a year or two the Chicanes on the Mulsanne would appear. Bob had made his point.

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I continued to see Bob at the tracks but the next time we had any real interaction was less enjoyable. His final race as a Porsche driver in the prototype class was in 1998 at the Suzuka 1000kms, a round of the 1998 FIA GT Championship. Porsche had endured a horrible season being beaten at almost every turn by AMG Mercedes Benz. The exception, of course, was Le Mans but Bob had only managed yet another second place, once again the glory went to his team mates. Looking through the viewfinder at the podium ceremonies, it would taken a heart of stone not to be moved by Bob’s tears as the realisation set in that the dream was over, there would be no triumph at La Sarthe.

2000 Le Mans 24 Hours

For the race in Japan he was paired with Uwe Alzen and Jörg Müller but the trio could not match the pace of the other factory Porsche, let alone the Mercedes duo. During Bob’s mid-race stint he had contact with a GT2 in the final chicane and recovered to dive into the pits to check for damage, unfortunately to do so meant driving against the traffic and he received a three minute stop/go penalty for his pains. I reported this in a Swiss magazine that I was working for but something in the translated report incurred Bob’s ire and he threatened to sue us all! The Editor assured me that he would sort it out and I got the impression that this was not the first time that he had Angry of Strasbourg on the phone.

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The next encounter with Bob was much more convivial. At the Le Mans Test weekend for the 2000 race I was filling the hire car up at the petrol station near to the Parc des Expositions next to the track. A Porsche pulled in at the next pump and out got Bob, who nodded hello and gave me a smile, it made my day, maybe I had stopped travelling, perhaps I had arrived. Like Porsche AG itself, Wollek was confined to the supporting ranks of the GT class. He continued to go flat out, frequently surprising the Young Guns like Lucas Luhr and Dirk Müller with his turn of speed. He certainly seemed more at peace, reconciled to the fact that he would never take the great prize.

2000 Le Mans 24 Hours

The following March I was at the Sebring 12 Hours. Arriving 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 race-day 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. There would be no more chance encounters.

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Every year that I make the trek to Sebring for the 12 Hours I try and get out to the marker post near Lorida where Bob Wollek was knocked off his bike and killed. Others also make the same pilgrimage, evidence such as fresh flowers and wine bottles attest to that.

Bob Wollek was a complex, contradictory character, much loved by those who he allowed to get close, less so by those who were not. This book is a fascinating account of a man who lived by his own terms, well researched, written and translated. It lacks an index but that is about all, buy it, treat yourself, especially if you are in Sebring this week

John Brooks, March 2013

Boulevard Périphérique

The Parc des Expositions located at Porte de Versailles, Paris is the venue each year for the Retromobile, a top notch celebration of automobiles, old and new. Now just a few hours by Eurostar from the centre of London, the show has attracted much attention from enthusiasts living on this side of the English Channel. With typical Gallic flair there is always something rare and interesting to enjoy. Who else but our Special Correspondent should be our guide to the treasures? Enjoy.

Delahaye Type 145

Delahaye Type 145

The mainstay of Delahaye’s competition activities in the late Thirties was the Type 135 sports car, particularly the Compétition Spéciale versions. Their motor was based on the tough old Type 103 lorry engine and among the Type 135’s many successes was its outright win in the 1938 Le Mans 24 Hour race. For the impending 3-litre supercharged/4.5-litre unsupercharged Grand Prix formula which was finally implemented in 1938, Jean Franςois designed a full V-12 racing engine which was used in the 145 chassis. Its greatest success was in the 1938 Pau Grand Prix when René Dreyfus drove a stripped version to defeat the official Mercédès-Benz Grand Prix team.Two two-seater cars were constructed and entered for the 1938 Le Mans race, the first V-12 –engined cars to take part in this famous event. They failed miserably, one through gearbox trouble after just seven laps, the other succumbing to overheating problems.

1923 Georges Irat 2-litre

1923 Georges Irat 2-litre

Georges Irat made fast touring cars in Chatou from 1921 with 4-cylinder o.h.v. 2-litre engines designed by Maurice Gaultier who had come from Delage. All but the body was made in-house and this example has coachwork by Carrosserie Morlaix of Courbevoie. Georges Irat had considerable racing success, usually thanks to Maurice Rost – he won the demanding Circuit des Routes Pavées, in the suburbs of Lille, in 1923 and 1925. He also won the Spanish Touring Grand Prix at San Sebastian in 1927 and the 2-litre class in the 1926 and 1928 editions of the Spa 24 Hour race. However, the cars ran without success at Le Mans in 1923-24-26.

1923 Georges Irat 2-litre

Georges Irat made a 6-cylinder in 1927, based very much on Gaultier’s engine, and in 1935 a small two-seater Ruby-engined car with front wheel drive; a Citroën 11CV unit became available in 1938, but these cars were not seen in serious competition.

1937 Renault Nerva Grand Sport

1937 Renault Nerva Grand Sport

Renault traditionally had large-engined top-of-the-range cars in their catalogues – the 6-cylinder 9-litre 40CV springs to mind, a car that set many records at Montlhéry in 1925-26, while the 1935 Monte Carlo Rally was won by an 8-cylinder Nerva Sport model.

At the 1934 Paris Salon the Grand Sport series was added to the range, having more aerodynamic lines inspired by the Caudron-Renault Rafale record-breaking aircraft. The Nerva Grand Sport was the first Renault to be fitted with the bigger 5.4-litre 8-cylinder engine. For 1937 the cars were face-lifted with V-shaped radiator grilles, headlights fully merged into the wings, spats on the rear wheels and a proper luggage compartment. Outwardly impressive with their long bonnets, the cars were still based on a vintage-style chassis with rigid axles and semi-elliptic springs all round and all up they weighed some 2.5 tons.

1937 Renault Nerva Grand Sport

Only 22 of these dropheads were made before the model was superceded at the 1938 Paris Salon by the Suprastella which used the same basic chassis.

1937 Renault Nerva Grand Sport

Notice how the lanky gear-lever for the central change is controlled through a slot in the dashboard – very unusual.

Skoda Hispano Suiza 25/100

Skoda Hispano Suiza 25/100

Skoda acquired a licence with the French-based Hispano Suiza company to manufacture the luxury H6B cars. The first car came off the production line at Plzeň in 1925. The first fifteen chassis were built from original parts supplied by the factory at Bois-Colombes in France; from the sixteenth car onwards all were truly Skoda Hispano Suizas built entirely in Bohemia – Skoda made the chassis and the bodies were by various Czech coachbuilders.

The first car was delivered to the country’s President, T.G. Masaryk – a black six-seater limousine with body by Vaclav Brozik & Sons. Production stopped in 1929 owing to the economic climate.

1936 Chenard et Walcker Super Aigle 24

1936 Chenard et Walcker Super Aigle 24

The French marque Chenard et Walcker is chiefly remembered for the fact that one of their 4-cylinder 3-litre cars won the first Le Mans 24-Hour race in 1923. One recalls also the superb little 1100 c.c. “tanks” of 1925 which did so well in sports car racing. By the mid-Thirties the Gennevilliers company was producing a very complex range of cars with too small an output. This Super Aigle 24 is one of a family of cars with an advanced specification: front wheel drive, independent front suspension by torsion bars and the option of a Cotal gearbox even if the 4-cylinder 2.5-litre engine still had side-valves. It did little to help save the company!

Lancia Lambda Spider Mille Miglia

Lancia Lambda Spider Mille Miglia

The Lancia Lambda, introduced at the 1922 Paris Salon, must go down in history as one of the landmark designs with its monocoque chassis, narrow V-4 engine and sliding pillar independent front suspension. Vincenzo Lancia did not see this innovative design as a candidate for competitions but made an exception for the Mille Miglia.

Lancia Lambda Spider Mille Miglia

From 1927 Lancia made a series of “Da Corsa” versions destined for the Italian 1,000 mile race. Crewed by Strazza/Varallo this car finished 4th overall and first in the 3-litre class in the 1929 Mille Miglia. It also helped Lancia to win the Coupe du Roi in that year’s Spa 24 Hour race.

Fiat 1500

Fiat 1500

Entered by Jean Brault at Le Mans in 1950 for himself and Louis Paimpol, this Fiat 1500 with special roadster bodywork was forced to retire in the 11th hour with gearbox problems. Jean Brault then ran the car in the Sports Car race that constituted the main event at the inaugural meeting of the Rouen-les Essarts circuit on 30th July  1950. Out of  twenty starters the car finished 17th.

Fiat 1500

This Fiat has sometimes been credited with having a V- engine but in fact it used the normal Fiat 1500 6-cylinder unit. Here’s the proof, thanks to the helpful folks on the stand.

TAILPIECE

What, pray, is this?

Trippel Type SG6/38

It is a Trippel Type SG6/38 built in 1941 with a 6-cylinder Opel engine, one of Hans Trippel’s amphibious creations. I have only included it because it was made in the German-occupied Bugatti works at Molsheim – triste dictu.

David Blumlein February 2012.

Recalling Michele

Ten Years After…………..

Brands Hatch 1000 Kms.

Looking at the commemorative stickers displayed on the Audis at the Le Mans Test Day prodded me to recall that ten years have flown by since the dreadful news came through of Michele Alboreto’s fatal accident while testing at Lausitzring.

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Lancia Cockpit

Michele had been a familiar name to me during his single seater career, back then I did follow Formula One. Of course his exploits in the Martini Lancia team coincided with my first trackside passes, which is where some of this material comes from. He raced the exotic Italian prototypes from 1980 to 1983, ending up somewhat frustrated by the reliability issues that plagued the elegant Lancia LC2/83.

LC2

So he turned his back on that aspect of the sport and concentrated on F1. His record, 194 Grand Prix starts for seven teams, the last win by an Italian in a Ferrari and just failing to beat Alain Prost to the World Championship in 1985, give an indication of the talent that Michele brought to the job in hand.

Disappointment

After his retirement from Grand Prix circus Michele spent a short time racing in IRL but eventually he came back to sportscars, racing the Joest WRC at Le Mans in 1996 and 1997. The second year saw him take victory with newcomer, Tom Kristensen and former F1 Ferrari Team mate, Stefan Johansson.

97 Le Mans

In 1998 Porsche AG recruited him to spearhead the LMP aspect of their 50th Birthday Le Mans challenge but the “improvements” to the double winner did not work out.

98 Le Mans

In 1999 Alboreto was recruited by Audi as part of their new endurance sportscar programme, which really kicked into gear in 2000 when the Audi R8 appeared at Sebring. Michele got back on the top step of the podium at the 2000 Petit Le Mans, taking the R8 to a win with Dindo Capello and Allan McNish. He enjoyed his final triumph, at the Sebring 12 Hours the following year, once again in an R8, with Dindo and also Laurent Aiello.

R8

A month later came a tyre failure while testing straight line speed, the Audi vaulted the Armco, killing the popular Italian instantly.

2000 Le Mans

I had not known Michele when he raced in the Lancias, low life like me did not speak to Grand Prix drivers. However I did get to meet him in when he drove for Audi and I recall one evening in particular. For some reason back then the ALMS held a number of races at Rovals, road courses fashioned inside the banked oval tracks that were the stomping ground for NASCAR and IRL. It was one of many attempts to take sportscar racing to previously uncharted territory, the results are almost always the same. The last of these ‘events’ was held in the first week of March 2001 at Texas Motor Speedway. The Australian Grand Prix was also running that evening (time zones are a wonderful thing), so we all got in our rental cars and drove 20 miles (all journeys in Dallas are 20 miles or more) to a sports bar where the Grand Prix was being televised.

Dindo and Michele

I had just acquired my first digital camera; it was powerful Juju back then, the ability to see your work instantaneously, no waiting for the film processors to do their work. Instant gratification, how 21st Century?

I was sitting with Dindo and Michele watching another dull Schumacher/Ferrari procession when I piped up.

Final Victory

“Dindo, did you damage the car today, during Qualifying?”

“What do you mean, damage?” said the completely innocent Italian, butter would not melt.

“When you hit the chicane and scattered the poles”

“No, that was not me”

“Well, how do you explain this?”

I flicked the back of the camera to show cart wheeling poles from the chicane that Dindo had driven over. It was a magic show, that Michele had been keenly observing as Dindo squirmed, his mistake now public.

Pole Dancing

Michele seized the moment, grabbed the camera and got all the Audi crew to see the evidence of his friend’s indiscretion. I recall it cost Dindo a round of drinks. From that point on Michele and I got on like a house on fire.

Six weeks later and he was gone.

Rest in Peace, Michele. 1956 to 2001.

Champion