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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.

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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

Gone With The Wind…………………….

Last month the news came down the Mojo wire that Doctor Don had sold the whole American Le Mans Series shebang, lock, stock and barrel, to the Good ‘Ole Boys on West International Speedway Boulevard. Predictably this transaction was spun as a merger with NASCAR, but the money went in one direction, the control in the opposite. Well all things must pass and this unification has been a long time coming and certainly makes commercial sense. That is one area that you can be sure that the France family will have done their homework on, the deal will make money.


There have been the predictable howls from the ALMS/IMSA crowd, the true believers, the Jedi Warriors of sportscar racing in North America, that the Force has deserted them and the Empire aka NASCAR/GrandAm has triumphed and maybe that is so. From my distant perch, and no longer chasing the circus as I had done ten years or more ago, I am perhaps less concerned with the future. Considering the present situation my thoughts drifted back to the beginning of the adventure, when the possibilities seemed boundless.

George Canning, a Britsh Statesman back in the time when we had such Ministers in power, famously said “I called the New World into existence, to redress the balance of the Old.” And so it seemed with the birth of the ALMS in 1999. We had somehow stood by and allowed the odious FIA politicians and money men to destroy the World Endurance Championship and Group C at the turn of the 90’s.

The great GT revival that was the BPR Global GT Series ’94 to ’96 morphed into FIA GT Championship and burned briefly and brightly in 1997. History repeated itself and the usual suspects were rounded up for another hatchet job. The whole edifice crashed back to Earth in 1998, why and how is a story is for another time and place. We were in the final stages of that fall, on the US trail leading us to Homestead and Laguna Seca, that was a contrast.

The week before we were presented with a vision of the future when we rocked up to a charming, if somewhat rustic, Road Atlanta. The event was billed as Petit Le Mans and was run on October 11th 1998, over a distance of 1000 miles or 10 hours, whichever came first. For those of us who loved this aspect of the sport it was to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Those of us arriving from Europe were in for a real culture shock, veterans of Le Mans we may have been but the rules, though apparently the same, were interpreted in a completely different way. A bit like the difference between English as spoken in the Mother Country and how it is mangled on the other side of the Atlantic. Then throw in the antics of the ACO trying to infuse their singularly Gallic approach to motorsport into this already spicy mix and a rare old carambolage was in prospect, And yet, right from day one, when the first engine coughed into life, the whole thing just gelled, this mix of New World and Old World turned out to be something special.


Today, sitting on a flight bound for Maynard Hartsfield International, I look back and give thanks that I had a small walk on part as an extra at the birth of this great adventure. Sure, like most folks in the business who are realists, I think that this weekend coming will see the penultimate Petit Le Mans and that this instant classic will disappear in the 2014 DP-fest, when we will engage in a form of automotive time travel back to the latter part of the last century, still we are all dead in the long run.


Road Atlanta in the fall of 1998 was a very special time and place to be in, I doubt that I recognised it at the time, but a week later the contrast when down at Miami-Homestead Speedway, was all too evident. I knew which one I preferred. There was a prospect of hope, the promise of of titanic battles in the years to follow of the automotive greats. Brands such as Audi, BMW, Corvette, Ferrari, Mercedes Benz, Nissan, Porsche, Toyota and Viper were all whispered as being just round the corner, some actually were and did eventually show up.


Dynamite was in the air as Panoz’ men blasted away a huge area to create the new pit lane on driver’s right, opposite the traditional spot. Of course like all major infrastructure projects this one ran a bit late, so things were not quite finished. The major effect of this was for us all to be tinged reddish brown from the Georgia clay, it never did come out of my boots or firesuit. The media centre was a huge tent, probably dating from the Civil War, it was hot and noisy during the day and cold and damp first thing in the morning, the condensation fell on to our heads like the first heavy drops of the Monsoon in Bombay. The phone lines that we connected our modems to worked intermittently, if at all, but that was par for the course back then. On the other hand the track was perhaps at its annual best, with the fall colours complimenting the ubiquitous mud and the whole place having a healthy glow about it.


Down off the junction with I-85, Chateau Elan had recently been unveiled and certainly looked impressive, though a lunch there one day revealed that the local vintage was not Grand Cru. It might have been better applied to remove rust from old trenching tools but that meant there would be no glugging the stuff, and at the price on the menu that was a good thing. One bright star on the estate was the Irish Bar, Paddy’s, but more of that later. I was booked in with David Price Racing at a local Braselton hotel, next to the Interstate it was noisy, and on the first night a continously faulty fire alarm scared the bejaysus out of me. I was convinced that the locals were taking random shots at the hotel, and only the absence of banjo music prevented me from fleeing into the night. Of course in the cold light of dawn I merely looked foolish……plus ça change.


The entry for the first Petit Le Mans should have been mega, the winners in each class would receive automatic invites to the 1999 Le Mans 24 Hours, always the pinnacle of endurance racing. Add that to the fact that the FIA GT circus was in Florida, a hop over the State line and the grid should have been bursting. Of course this being sportscar racing things are never as simple as they seem, politics are always just around the corner. The story was that the planned FIA International Prototype Championship would not appreciate the competition in 1999 that a strong North American endurance series, the ALMS, would bring. All those dollars chasing the biggest market on the planet, particularly for the luxury brands involved, would certainly made the ALMS an inviting choice. So the word came down from the FIA GT to avoid the opening event, or so the conspiracy theorists amongst us believed. To be fair, a contract had been drawn up between the FIA GT and the promoters at the two final events, so a demolition derby in the backwoods North of Atlanta would have been a major headache, especially financially. Maybe it was more a case of Deep Pockets rather than Deep Throat.

Porsche AG ignored these entreaties, sending one of their 1998 Le Mans-winning type 911 GT1 98 rockets, with Allan McNish, Yannick Dalmas and Uwe Alzen on duty in the cockpit.

Another Le Mans winner (’96 and’97), the Porsche LMP1 98 was on hand as back up to the GT1 racer, Michele Alboreto, Stefan Johansson and Jörg Müller were the crew.

Down in GT2 Larbre and Freisinger also broke ranks with their Porsche 911 GT2s plus Cor Euser’s Marcos LM600, but that was it from the FIA GT Championship.


There had been anticipation that some of prototypes from the International Sports Racing Series might make the trip, but at the last minute the factory backed BMW Riley & Scott pair withdrew, following a string of catastrophic engine failures. The project would be quietly throttled following a surprise win at Laguna Seca later in the month, not BMW’s finest hour. In the end Solution 24 sent their Riley & Scott but engine failure in the warm up ended their race before it began. Mangoletsi’s Barmy Army had a date in Kyalami the following month so most of the rest of his grid opted for that course.


The native prototype entry was led by a trio of Ferrari 333 SPs entered by Doyle/Risi, Fredy Lienhard and Bill Dollahite.

Absent as a result of a squabble with the organisers were the pair of Dyson Riley & Scotts, one surfaced later at the ISRS Kyalami event. Four other Riley & Scott entries took the start (Henry Camferdam, Jim Matthews and Intersport (x2)).

A brand new four rotor Kudzu was finished in the paddock for Jim Downing to swell the numbers.

Then there were the pair of factory Panoz GTR-1s, reduced to one, after Jamie Davies clouted the wall in practice, damaging the tub beyond immediate repair.

Perhaps the most interesting, and ultimately significant entry, was the Panoz Q9, this being the racing debut of “Sparky”, the electric hybrid car. An attempt to run at Le Mans foundered on the Pre-Qualifying Weekend, the car was too new to be competitive, six months development would make all the difference.

Also in the GT1 contingent was the Champion Racing Porsche 911 GT1 Evo, with Porsche stalwarts, Bob Wollek and Thierry Boutsen joined by Ralf Kelleners on driving duties.

The local GT battle was largely a Porsche v BMW affair. So the final score card showed 33 entries, 31 Qualified and 29 to actually take the Green Flag, the quantity and quality would be enough to ensure the future of the American Le Mans Series.

There were a few oddities in GT, at least to this European eye, the Nissan 240SX being a typical member of “run what you brung” genre. Whatever floats your boat………..


The race had an unsteady start after Kelly Collins’ Porsche dumped all its engine oil on to the first corner during the pace lap, so eventually after much spreading of cement dust or whatever they use in Atlanta, the mad rush for the first corner commenced. The McNish GT1 Porsche ran away from the field, being way faster than the Ferraris plus having the Wee Scot at the wheel.

The first significant casualty was the Lienhard Ferrari 333 SP after running out of fuel, the race settled down to being a battle for second between Doyle/Risi’s Ferrari and the sole surviving Panoz, with the delayed Porsche LMP1 98 a lap or so down.


McNish completed his stint with a commanding lead, Dalmas jumped in and continued the strong pace and just before the conclusion of his spell at the wheel came the moment that crashed You Tube’s servers, metaphorically speaking. Following the other werks Porsche closely over the notorious back straight hump, the GT1 98 suffered a total loss of downforce in the turbulence and the Frenchman joined the ranks of the Road Atlanta Aviators’ Club.

I was in Porsche’s pit awaiting the impending stop, next to a suited and booted Uwe Alzen. Pandemonium descended as the ancient television set that acted as a monitor showed endless slow motion re-runs of the Porsche’s flight. Norbert Singer and the other Porsche crew and management struggled to make contact with the stricken car but soon word filtered through the driver was OK. Amazingly so was the car, the gearbox and engine were swapped out and it was back on duty six days later at Homestead.

That was quite enough excitement for one race but this event still had a few twists and turns both on and off the track. During a stop to change brake pads on the surviving factory Porsche I was over the wall snapping away furiously when I became aware of a voice yelling at me to get clear of the car as it was going to leave, Given that the mechanics were still struggling with the red hot smoking pads and the car was on the jacks I shouted back that this machine was going nowhere fast. The yelling had come from Dick Martin, who ran the pit lane for IMSA, a man unaccustomed to having to debate his calls, particularly with a gobby Brit. Next thing I know he is having me chucked out of the pit lane, much to my amazement. A swift intervention from the then hirsute Regis Lefebure, the famous small, but perfectly formed, photographer and world class pffafer calmed us both down. Peace was restored and apologies, mainly from me, were proffered. Later I came to appreciate the efforts that Mr Martin and his officials would make on our behalf, despite the overwhelming evidence that most, if not all, photographers were a bit slow when it came to self preservation. Now retired, he will be missed this weekend coming, not least by me. I have to say that IMSA Officials set the bar high when it comes to assisting the media, especially the PITA snappers, others might watch and learn with profit.

One of the features of the first PLM was getting to know a bit better the band of American photographers. These guys would become my companions in the next four seasons as I tramped around from track to track in the USA and Canada, a camp follower of the ALMS circus. Some are still friends, some have left the scene and some I still don’t want to think about, so Regis, Rick, Pete, Hal, Bob, Rich, Tim, Martin, Andy, Richard and Dennis take a bow. I am sure there were plenty of others but these guys were around that fall of ‘98 and my memory is getting a little hazy.


Back on track it looked as if Doctor Don would celebrate a famous victory for the car and team bearing his name in the race that he created, however the engine went bang with the Chequered Flag almost in sight. Motorsport is often a cruel past time and this was almost too much to bear for Tony Dowe’s crew.


After 9 hours 48 minutes of track action the Doyle/Risi Ferrari 333 SP, driven by Wayne Taylor, Eric van de Poele and Emmanuel Collard crossed the finish line just over a minute in front of the factory Porsche LMP1 98. Third was the Champion Racing 911 GT1 EVO.

GT2 honours fell to Michel Ligonnet and Lance Stewart in the Freisinger Porsche 911 GT2, while the local GT title went to the Porsche of Pete Argetsinger, Richard Polidori and Angelo Cilli. It had been a race to remember and an event to celebrate.


Celebrations……….yes celebrations, There was an touch of madness in the air that Saturday, the first example I observed was Luigi Dindo, the main man at Michelotto, who had built the winning car, singing, if you could call it that, after enjoying a good quantity of the victor’s Champagne. “Daaytonaa, Seeebring, Petit Le Mansss” he chanted, as pleased as punch with the 1998 record of the glorious sounding but frankly outdated Ferrari, we still laugh about his operatic skills. Certainly the V12 had a better song.

More celebrations were to be found in Paddy’s a little later. Remember this was the time before digital cameras, so no endless nights pumping out dross on to the World Wide Web as happens these days. No, we packed up our gear, threw the film canisters into a bag and headed out to the bar, oh happy days.


I spent a considerable amount of time while in Atlanta in the company of Porsche guru, writer and historian, Kerry Morse, so much so that we developed something of a reputation for……..well I’ll leave that to your imagination but we usually inspired a reaction from the other denizens of the Paddock. Somehow, as if by magic, we ended up after the race at Paddy’s with the DPR crew led by Dave Price himself. I recall much tall tales and laughter and the bloody bar running out of beer, they had little experience of the British and German motorsport community and had grossly underestimated our capacity for getting refreshed. After a few hours of merriment Morse and I repaired to a local establishment called The Waffle House. It was my first encounter with this chain and certainly it was an eye opener, queuing at around 2.30 am for a breakfast with what seemed half the population of Braselton. If I recall Morse was decidedly uncool and asked the waitress for separate checks.


For the next day a vague plan had been hatched to roll over with McNish and a few others to Talledega to see the NASCAR race, till the locals laughed at us for thinking that we could just rock up without tickets and get in. The lateness of the hour that we got back to the hotel also contributed to our decision to change plans and take things easy. So Morse instead headed for the airport to return to SoCal, I had Homestead on the radar, to be followed a week later by the Monterey Peninsula.


The premier Petit Le Mans had been a great event, we had witnessed a star being born. The shockwaves generated by this new kid on the block resulted in a tsunami of top quality racing down the years cresting with the 2008 ALMS season, arguably the finest motorsport on the planet that year, of any shape or size.

Perhaps this ramble should conclude here with a touch of class, God knows it needs it, so I leave you with this.

In a passage in his master work “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, one of my literary heroes, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, caught that sense of ache and regret in looking back and knowing that the land of lost content was gone forever. He was referring specifically to the scene surrounding San Francisco in the middle 60’s but this condition is universal amongst mankind as they follow their course from beginning to end.

“Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave.…So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

John Brooks, October 2012

Ps Apologies for all the tilt and shift attempts at “creativity”, I put it down to prolonged exposure to Morse, that and Moonshine.

Full of Eastern Promise

The attention of the endurance sportscar world  has been rightly focused out East this weekend, to the majestic Fuji Speedway, nestling in the shadow of Mount Fuji. My mind drifts back to the last century and the previous FIA sportscar race in Japan, the enticingly titled Pokka Sweat 1000 Kilometres.

Sweat was indeed much in evidence during that event, run in baking hot conditions with nasty August in Japan humidity, a photographer’s lot was not a happy one. Another whose lot was less than joyous during that era was Porsche AG, as the AMG Mercedes steamroller beat them like a gong for the whole of the 1998 FIA GT Championship. Suzuka was no exception and the lead CLK LM, with favoured son Bernd Schneider and his side kick Mark Webber in the cockpit, won easily by two laps.

The AMG pair were aided in this convincing victory by the blunder in the early part of the race by one of their team mates, Ricardo Zonta. Zonta was duelling for second spot with the Porsche 911 GT1 98 of Allan McNish (who else?) and used one of the GT2 Porsches driven by Claudia Hürtgen to assist with late braking, the result when the dust cleared was that all three cars were beached in the gravel trap. To add insult to injury the marshals got Zonta on his way first, leaving an incandescent McNish to wait his turn. The race was over as a contest, barring misfortunes for #1 AMG.

The incident cost the Porsches a couple of laps and Zonta later received a drive through penalty for his misjudgement, though this did nothing to restore the time lost by McNish.

While the Wee Scot was matching Schneider’s lap times before the incident it required something of a leap of faith to imagine that this could be maintained by Yannick Dalmas and Stéphane Ortelli over the 1000 kilometres. In the end the lead Porsche finished a lap down on the #2 Merc to grab the final step on the podium.

The second entry from Weissach suffered a number of misfortunes that first blunted, then eventually ended their challenge for the podium. Mid-race Bob Wollek had contact with a slower car in the chicane and drove the short distance into the pits against the flow of traffic to check the damage. As I wrote at the time, this eccentric piece of driving incurred the ire of the Stewards who awarded him a three minute Stop and Go penalty. That observation incurred the ire of “Brilliant Bob” when he later read it and he threatened the magazine with legal action, even by his standards he was especially touchy that summer.
Jörg Müller finished the day for #8, when once again there was contact with another car in the final chicane. This time it was Geoff Lees in Thomas Bscher’s McLaren F1 GTR who was hit by the Porsche, both crews enjoyed an early bath, Nul Points Reykjavik.

The rest of the GT1 field had a pretty nondescript afternoon, the Persson Mercedes CLK GTR pair showing their 1997 pedigree, finished 4th and 7th, while the singleton DAMS Panoz thundered round to 5th. The Zakspeed Porsche 911 GT1 98 duo could only manage 6th and 8th.

The GT1 category had a fin de siècle feel in the heat and humidity of Japan that year, exaggerated by the rumours that the FIA GT Championship, 1999 style, would be for GT2 cars only. Having invested heavily in this form of competition, Mercedes Benz were keen to go racing somewhere other than Le Mans in the following season. A month or two later we were all dragooned into a press conference in beautiful downtown Miami-Homestead Speedway. Stéphane Ratel was at his charismatic and visionary best, revealing the proposed FIA International Prototype Championship that would pit Mercedes against Porsche and possibly Toyota, Nissan and Audi. The factory contingent would be padded out by a motley crew of GT1/GT2 survivors and prototype inductees who would be press ganged in from the newly formed International Sports Racing Series. The problem was that there were not enough of the true believers, heretics and cynics were found at every turn.

Mango’s Barmy Army in the ISRS may have earned their title many times over, but even daft as they were, they would not fancy a regular drubbing from the Silver Arrows, no matter how good or guaranteed the start money was. Look at how AMG annhilated the Porsche Werks effort in ’98, the score ended up at 10-0 in Stuttgart’s favour. Porsche’s Le Mans prototype project was about to be  killed off by Dr. Wendelin Wiedeking, the CEO, who preferred to invest the cash in Porsche’s new light truck range, the Cayenne. Those of us with true grit gave him the raspberry at the time but he had the last laugh when the multitudes with questionable taste queued round the block to pay full price for this odd vision of a Porsche. PT Barnum really knew what he was talking about. Toyota had another cunning plan in mind in their quest to spend riches of Croesus on mediocre motorsport, go to Formula One. Nissan fired TWR after Le Mans 1998 and then realised that they were bust in all but name, so motorsport went out the window. Audi were in no hurry to tangle with their German rivals, reasoning that they had much to learn about the sport of driving long distances fast. So the IPC was a dead duck almost from the start and then the newly formed ALMS became the potential target for AMG and Mercedes. The aviation disasters at La Sarthe the following June extinguished that dream.

All of which meant that the GT2 battle was under increased scrutiny, as this was our probable future. The contest, such as it was, had three elements Chrysler Vipers versus the factory blessed Roock Porsche 911 GT2 and Cor Euser in his fierce Marcos LM 600.

The reality was that the 911 GT2 was beyond any further significant development, the Marcos was quick with the fearless Euser at the wheel, less so when the money men were in the hot seat and the Oreca run Chryslers were an absolutely better package than anything else.

At the start Cor did his usual thing jumped into the lead, irritating the Viper pair, but it was just a matter of time and so it proved with #51 just edging out #52 to give Chrysler a 1-2. Zonta’s indiscretion stuffed the lead Roock 911’s race and behind that it was just a gaggle of GT2 Porsches making up the numbers.

A few locals had rocked up to excite those who enjoy diversity on the entry list. The Kunimitsu Takahashi Honda NSX-S was actually faster than the Vipers in Qualifying, a result, no doubt, of a collaboration with Dome, but the engine blew early in the race.

The other respectable performance, speed-wise, from the Japanese contingent was the Toyota Supra LM that was also quicker over one lap than the Oreca entries, but it struggled to make an impact during the race.

In the end home grown honours were taken by a rather plodding Nissan Sylvia.

From the adrenaline climb that GT Racing had enjoyed from 1995 to 1997, the 1998 season was flat and rather expensive. It could not continue, especially as no one was keen to take on AMG Mercedes, and the North American market was about to offer exciting opportunities, the first Petit Le Mans was just round the corner. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

John Brooks, October 2012