Tag Archives: Porsche 911 GT1

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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

 

BPR Blues – how we got what we wanted but lost what we had.

BPR Global Endurance GT Series













I have been at this internet blogging/posting/opinion lark for over 20 years now. I long ago accepted that most of my output will hardly be read, much less commented upon, bloggers write for themselves for the most part. Back in late 1996 I was following the BPR Global GT Series. For a season and a half it had been absolutely fantastic, great cars, great racing but by the last few races in ’96 it was clear that it was doomed. The arrival of the Porsche 911 GT1 run by the factory had changed the landscape irrevocably, those of us who enjoyed the congenial atmosphere of the BPR howled in protest, those who were really in the business made more pragmatic plans for 1997.

The sense of frustration that I felt was articulated in the following piece, posted on, I think, Club Arnage (actually it was the lamented P9.com), but I could be wrong, time does that. It had not long been up when I received a short, sharp, phone call from BPR, explaining that I was no longer welcome at their races and that my invitation to Zhuhai had been withdrawn. Perhaps I deserved that, you can’t take The Man’s shilling and expect not to be considered bought and I was more than a bit direct in my piece. In any case I was just a minnow, easier to make an example of me than Michael Cotton or Jean-Marc Teissedre, a ‘pour encourager les autres’ sort of gesture, not that I would compare myself to those two giants of the sportscar media tribe.

I had severely pissed off Jürgen Barth, the B in BPR and re-reading the piece at the time I saw why, though these days we are reconciled and he later had the good grace to admit that most of what I written was on the money. Well it should be, I had good sources. So I stumbled across this document while looking for something in the archive and felt it was time to give it another airing…………somehow I don’t think that there are any invitations left to cancel these days…………….

John Brooks, February 2015

BPR Global Endurance GT Series

Since the summer recess and the trip to Suzuka we have had three rounds of the Global GT Championship organised by the BPR.

BPR Global Endurance GT Series

Four events have dominated the past six weeks. Ray Bellm and James Weaver have secured the title in their GTC Competition Gulf Racing McLaren by scoring victory at Nogaro, while similar results for Porsche Motorsport at Brands Hatch and Spa have threatened the very future of GT racing in Europe. The Harrods backed McLaren; victors at five races in the past year withdrew from the series amid a welter of speculation of family disagreements and financial problems. At Nogaro, the talented and popular GT2 driver, Soames Langton sustained serious head and neck injuries and still lies in a coma as this article is being written which makes all the political posturing and wrangles witnessed over that weekend pretty dam irrelevant.

BPR Global Endurance GT Series

The general feeling of well being and contentment that was so evident at Silverstone back in May has evaporated in the face of the performance of the GT1 Porsche. Disbelief at Brands Hatch was followed by depression at Spa and last weekend discord and dissent at Nogaro. The series itself is in danger of falling apart with the three organisers at loggerheads with each other and with the teams.

BPR Global Endurance GT Series

How has this state of affairs been allowed to develop and is the situation beyond redemption?

The teams are almost unanimous in their opposition to the decision to allow the works Porsche 911 GT1 to run in the latter part of the season. The objections are based on the fact that the car is not yet for sale in a road going form and is a brilliantly conceived racing car which COULD be adapted for road use – much like the Dauer 962 which won Le Mans in 1994. The guiding principle behind the concept of GT racing as set out by BPR was to take road cars and adapt them to race on the track, like the F40 Ferraris and F1 McLarens . About the only person who can hold this view of the Porsche GT1 with a straight face is Jürgen Barth who, aside from being the B in BPR, is also a manager in Porsche Motorsport and a former Le Mans winner for the brand. While Barth sees nothing wrong with this conflict of interest others are not so generous.

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The main objections to the newcomer are not based wholly on the crushing superiority displayed by the 911 at Brands Hatch and Spa – though this must feature somewhere, no one would care if it were slower. The objections raised by the more articulate existing competitors are firstly the Porsche is outside the letter and spirit of the regulations as currently exist, whatever anyone cares to say about it. Secondly the appearance of this kind of prototype will drive away the gentlemen drivers on grounds of performance and cost. Cars that develop shedloads of downforce and have ABS on their carbon fibre brakes will be outside of the current driving abilities of the amateur drivers, until recently the raison d’être for the series and certainly forming the backbone of the entry. As to cost, it is said that the Porsche engines will only run for a maximum of 30 hours. That means a rebuild every two to four races against, for instance, the V12 BMWs which are unchanged throughout the whole season excepting a quick check prior to Le Mans. The team overheads would rocket with additional “spanners” required for the ABS system, the turbos, the engine itself and also for data logging; this could amount to 3 or 4 extra guys per car which would put maybe £600,000 plus on to the operating costs for a two car team. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

BPR Global Endurance GT Series

Another consideration with finance is that if the running budgets get much above the £1-£2 million bracket that the top teams spend each season, then there is a little man in Prince’s Gate who has the opinion that such wealth should be going into Formula One and should not be wasted in sportscars or anywhere else. As history shows he is not beyond manipulating circumstances to ensure that this becomes the case. Also manufacturers only involve themselves in racing when there is some commercial payback so will not hesitate to up the ante financially till they are winning, driving away the private teams and drivers.

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However it must be acknowledged that, after Formula One, only Touring Cars provide an adequate TV audience and exposure for the investment required. Peugeot went into the Grand Prix arena in 1993/94 and reduced it’s outgoings from the stratospheric levels required to run a pseudo-F1 car at Le Mans for 24 hours. It was reported at the time that over £30 million was spent in 1992/93 which really is commercial lunacy, even for those receiving state subsidies on a French scale.

BPR Global Endurance GT Series

Those of us who witnessed a strong sportscar Championship, Group C, disintegrate in 1991 and 1992 will feel an uncanny parallel with the circumstances that are unfolding around us. Porsche indeed may regret their approach if they succeed in remaining eligible for the 1997 Championship. With the demise of ITC there are a number of teams and manufacturers looking to find an outlet for their sporting ambitions. It would not be beyond the bounds of reason that a Mercedes or an Alfa Romeo could commission Zakspeed or Dave Price Racing to build a two seater Grand Prix car which would blow the doors off the GT1 Porsche much like Jaguar, Sauber and Peugeot did to the 962 in Group C after 1987.

BPR Global Endurance GT Series

The row over the eligibility of the Porsche has given a focus to the general discontent with the BPR Organisation. The teams have had problems with the way that the series is run. The proposal (made in June) to introduce two rounds to be staged in Brazil during mid December angered those who had already finalised their plans and budgets. Even when these events were no longer to be points-scoring, they seemed to be symptomatic of management that acted on day to day reactive basis, without any strategic considerations or appreciation of the obstacles faced by a team in running a race programme.

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During the Nogaro weekend the ire of the teams was further inflamed when Barth brought round representatives from Enna-Pergusa, which has been touted as the location of the first round of next year’s Championship. No one wants to visit Enna (and this has been made pretty clear in the past two months) or indeed any circuit which does not have proper facilities for the teams and media (such as Anderstorp, Nogaro, Paul Ricard, Brands Hatch or Moscow). The teams contend that there are plenty of locations with modern facilities that are crying out for the great package that is GT racing and that there is no need to return to any backwaters, no matter how friendly the locals. Sometimes it is held that this is not the fault of the clubs but of indecision on the part of BPR. At Anderstorp the organising committee put forward a proposal to alter the layout of the pits which would ease the problems faced by the teams but this went largely unheeded by BPR.

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Where all this will go is anyone’s guess but the status quo will not be maintained. The three BPR founders, Jürgen Barth, Patrick Peter and Stéphane Ratel, are having a summit this weekend and the word on the street is that only B and R will be around to meet with Bernie Ecclestone next week. The FIA is expected to take over the TV rights, and possibly the series, which will leave the survivors out in the cold. Even if this does not happen then there are serious threats from the proposed German GT series which is being set-up out of the wreckage of the ITC failure, with big funding and the backing of manufacturers which will dilute support for the European series. There have also been rumbles from other parties who have threatened to do a BPR and arrange an international championship, properly funded and run through the FIA, and these are serious threats.

BPR Global Endurance GT Series

Meanwhile, Andy Evans was at Spa, having allegedly purchased IMSA (I lost track of THAT story while on holiday), and he was courting teams to go to his new GT based championship in the States. He had the fervour of born-again Christian when talking about GTs and sportscars, declaring that we have to get the young people involved (God not them again, can’t we just have a series for old farts like me, somewhere safe for us to dribble on about the good old days, when Oasis was something that Omar Sharif shot people over). Evans has the ear (and pocket) of Bill Gates of Microsoft and has to be taken as a heavy shaker and mover. Some of his pronouncements were a little hard to understand such as the assertion that he had agreed the take-over of TV rights on sportscar racing from Bernie…..as this is the real substance of the “Bolt’s” control over motorsport I found it hard to accept that this asset would be transferred but Bernie is almost always ahead of the pack, so it COULD be true for some arcane reason – perhaps it is the final expression of his contempt for this form of competition.

BPR Global Endurance GT Series

While all this wretched politics has been going on what has the action from the tracks been like?

Well, the three locations of Brands Hatch, Spa Francorchamps and Nogaro gave an interesting contrast. Brands Hatch is a fantastic place to race and spectate but is dated in terms of ’90s motorsport with a lack of run off areas and cramped pits, it has the air of a faded ’60s rock star trying to live off former glories when in fact the show has moved on.

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Spa offers Brands Hatch a vision of what is possible as it is probably the greatest circuit in the world, magisterial in scope and setting. It arose out the ashes of the original Spa public road course, which by the early ’70s was outdated for modern motorsport, though admittedly the Belgian alternatives were pretty grizzly, Zolder or Nivelles. Nevertheless the old Spa was a place of dreams and nightmares, representing the brighter side of the traditional track at the weekend were those sportscar icons backed by Gulf Oil, the Ford GT40 and the Porsche 917. This raised a sparkle in the eyes of those who witnessed Pedro and Seppi door handling their 917s into Eau Rouge in the 1970 edition of the 1000Kms. The revised circuit has distilled the essence of the great original in a way that the new Nürburgring has signally failed to do. The drivers love it as if you achieve something in the Ardennes it gives a sense of intense satisfaction, a job well done. On Friday night at the BPR dinner Lindsay Owen-Jones was bursting to tell someone (in this case me) that he had managed 2:22 on a track that was still drying off and from the look on his face and the emotion in his voice he had conquered his own personal Everest.

BPR Global Endurance GT Series

Nogaro was somewhat less grand than either Spa or Brands Hatch and epitomised the problems of racing at these upmarket club circuits. First it should be recognised that there is great enthusiasm and passion shown by the clubs at places such as Nogaro, indeed most of us would go back just for the food and wine, especially the wine…… but the pits were wholly inadequate for international racing with all the equipment having to be transported under a tunnel from the transporters and then back for each session. The accident which befell Soames Langton was handled in an exemplary fashion from the medical side. However one would have to question the judgement of those who did not bring out the pace car when the full extent of the incident and the length of time that it would take to extract the stricken driver became evident. (I have subsequently learnt over the years how easy it is to be an armchair critic of Race Control and generally how wrong most of such criticism is and how easy it is to be wise after the event.) This is highlights one of the biggest problems facing the BPR series in the difference in attitudes and approach between those who go racing for a living and those who do it for fun and reconciling these two philosophies has not proved easy.

BPR Global Endurance Series

During the track action at both Brands Hatch and Spa it was as if a third class had been introduced above GT1 and GT2 with the appearance of Stuck and Boutsen in the Porsche. At both circuits the car was in a completely different race to all the others. It had more power, had better fuel economy, had better downforce, ABS brakes and in Stuck and Boutsen really experienced, very quick drivers, in short it had everything. The team had a vaguely embarrassed look on their faces when the car crossed the line for victory at Brands Hatch and then Spa.  Thierry Boutsen managed to introduce a Formula One-style bullshit press statement with some lame swill about how hard it had been and that something could have gone wrong at any time, blah, blah, blah. The Belgian got out of the 911 at Brands Hatch looking like he had taken granny for a trip to the shops, not been in a two hour stint behind the wheel of a racing car, he is not demonstrative at the best of times but here he was almost asleep. I don’t mind Porsche building a better car within the rules, but I do feel insulted when they try to convince me with PR gibberish that my eyes and brain are deceiving me as to the real action on the track.

BPR Global Endurance GT Series

Ray Bellm and James Weaver took the title at Nogaro and most in the pit lane would say that they deserved it. Ray is far and away the best of the non-professional drivers and if he can be a little prickly to deal with, he has earned the Championship with five wins in ’95 and five more in ’96 (if you ignore the Porsche at Spa). The partnership with James had the right combination of speed and pragmatism that title victories are made of. GTC Competition took a long hard look at why they were pipped at the post in 1995 and put these minor problems right and the result is there for all to see. Congratulations are due…..

BPR Global Endurance GT Series

Both at Brands Hatch and at Spa first lap indiscretions led to great comeback drives which ultimately did not get their just reward. John Nielsen tripped up at Druids and then he and Thomas Bscher drove the West McLaren on the limit for three hours but ran out of petrol within sight of the line, losing third place to the second Gulf F1 GTR of Lindsay Owen-Jones and Pierre-Henri Raphanel. At Nogaro a Touring Car-style attempt to win the race at the first corner by Peter Kox (substituting for a Japanese-bound John Nielsen) led to Jean-Marc Gounon in the ENNEA Ferrari F40 and Jan Lammers in the Lotus taking a trip into the barriers. Gounon got pushed back onto the track and appeared to wait for the race to be restarted by blocking the racing line, when that did not work he set off in pursuit already a lap and a half down. He drove the doors off the F40 and was visibly quicker than anything else out there. With 20 minutes to go he came in for a splash and dash while just 20 seconds behind the leading McLaren, Jean-Marc gave the clutch death by dropping it on the rev-limiter, braking a driveshaft or so it seemed from my angle. A poor reward for such a epic drive. He kicked the car in frustration………

BPR Global Endurance GT Series

Down in GT2 the decision of the Konrad and Roock teams to dispense with any further attempts to make the EVO 911 GT2 work and concentrate their efforts in GT2 has upped the ante for all the competitors in the class. At Brands Hatch and Nogaro Bob Wollek and Franz Konrad emerged triumphant after a long battle with the Marcos of Cor Euser and Tommy Erdos and the Roock Racing 911 driven by Ralf Kelleners, Gerd Ruch and Bruno Eichmann. The class victory for the season will now go to Ruch and Eichmann which, like their GT1 counterparts Bellm and Weaver, is thoroughly deserved, a solid performance from team and drivers, always on the pace.

Soames Langton, Rest in Peace

Soames Langton, Rest in Peace

Further back on the grid if any illustration was needed of the great highs and terrible lows that involvement in motorsport will inflict on you the Lanzante Team will serve as a good example. Last year as a private team (with some help from the factory) they triumphed at Le Mans. Since Suzuka at the end of August it has all been downhill. Soames Langton wrote off the car in practice at Brands Hatch. Then a struggle with engine maladies at Spa appeared to end with a podium finish, till they were disqualified for Paul Burdell not doing the required time behind the wheel. Then came the accident at Nogaro last week with Soames suffering grievous injuries. Those of you waiting to read on your Ceefax of Damon Hill’s triumph in Japan (hopefully) will also get a message (page 366) that Soames is out of his coma and on the way to full recovery, at least that’s what will happen if there is any justice in this world.

Next it is off to China if there is still a series.

“It’s a funny old world” as someone once declared.

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Well I got the China bit wrong and tragically Soames never did wake up. He finally passed away in 2011, a blessed relief for his family and for him. I paid tribute to him back then HERE

The photos are from the 1996 season and give a small reminder of a time when GT Racing was flourishing. Indeed Stéphane Ratel celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of his SRO outfit in 2017, bulging grids and great racing in his flagship Blancpain-backed GT3 series illustrate perfectly that he learnt the lessons from the problems encountered in 1996 to 1998 seasons. We are lucky that he did not allow the ship to founder.

John Brooks, February 2015 

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 Lühr 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