Rankled by a Wankel

July 01, 1991
July 01, 1991

Table of Contents
July 1, 1991

Bora Milutinovic
Chuck Finley
Leroy Burrell
Grand Canyon
Point After

Rankled by a Wankel

The sports-car world was sent spinning when a Mazda, powered by a howling rotary engine, won the 24 Hours of Le Mans

The 24 hours of Le Mans constitutes such a perfect tear in the fabric of time that if it didn't already exist, no one in his right mind would think to invent it. While the rest of the world seems to compress time as it hurtles into the future, Le Mans lumbers ahead with its dimensions and its old-fashioned values intact, preserving what Jochen Mass, the lead driver of the Sauber Mercedes-Benz C11 favored to win this year, described before last weekend's race as a "lovely anachronism."

This is an article from the July 1, 1991 issue Original Layout

Less a race than a test of the peculiarly French quality of èlan, Les Vingt-Quatre Heures remains decidedly retro. "It's not really racing," said Davy Jones of the U.S., who was the lead driver for the Jaguar team, whose XJR-12s would finish second, third and fourth. "In any normal race car you're wide open on the throttle, then hard on the brake. At Le Mans you're always conserving, conserving."

Or as Mass said, "It's no good being the prettiest, the fastest—it's all for nothing. The only thing is to finish." Time stood still for another 24 hours at Le Mans last Saturday and Sunday, and, unfortunately for Mass, by early Sunday afternoon, so had his Mercedes.

The powerful Mercedes team sent three of its sleek Silver Arrows to Le Mans, and for 20 of the 24 hours one or another of them was in the lead. By the third hour of the race, Mercedeses were first, second and third, and for the next six hours—or until the sun set over Irta the Fat Lady, who was revealing a very great deal of her considerable avoirdupois at the carnival going on in the village adjacent to the track—the three Mercedeses marched on relentlessly, one-two-three. When someone asked Jaguar driver Derek Warwick, if any of the Jags had an answer for the Mercedeses, he replied, "The only answer we've got at the moment is to hope they break down. We can go no faster or we'll use up all our fuel allotment. Our only hope is that Mercedes is kidding themselves."

As it turned out, Mercedes was. After the Mercedes co-driven by Mass, Jean-Louis Schlesser and Alain Ferte led through the night and into early Sunday afternoon, building a lead of more than four laps with three hours to go in the race, a water pump belt let go, and the overheated car had to spend nearly 35 minutes in the pits. While mechanics made the repair, a bright orange and green Mazda 787B driven by Germany's Volker Weidler began melting away Mass & Co.'s lead.

Weidler, red-eyed, and his right hand a mass of blisters from constant shifting, had no idea he was closing in on the lead until the crowd informed him. "I didn't realize exactly what was happening," said Weidler later, "but I saw the crowd going crazy, and then I knew we were on top."

No Japanese manufacturer had ever achieved an overall victory at Le Mans—the Mazdas had been coming for 12 years—and it may not have been a coincidence that Weidler pulled his four-chamber, rotary-engine car into the lead under the watchful eye of Jacky Ickx, the Belgian who won Le Mans six times as a driver before retiring in 1985. Ickx became a racing consultant to Mazda last year.

For Mazda even to challenge Mercedes so late in the race was shocking, considering that Mercedes approaches this event as if it were a moon shot. It had an entire truck loaded with advanced telemetry equipment that pulled in signals from its three cars as they moved around the track. The equipment absorbed 3.5 million bits of information every second from each car as it made its way around the 8.45-mile circuit. The information was then instantly converted into repeating wave patterns on a wall of monitors in the truck. "This way we don't have to wait until the car comes into the pits to know what we must fix," said Mercedes director of propulsion, Gert Withalm. "It's similar to the Voyager technology. A little better, actually."

Back on the planet France, even when the sun came out just before the start of the race, at 4 p.m. on Saturday, the weather remained mostly murky in the brains of the Fèdèration Internationale du Sport Automobile officials who govern the world of auto racing. As the cars went screaming away from the starting grid—the high keening of the Mazda engines in distinct counterpoint to the throaty rumble of the Mercedes—the fastest qualifier in the 38-car field started 11th. In one of those logic-defying rule changes that seem destined to render auto racing forever incomprehensible to all but the abnormally aspirated aficionados, who want to keep the sport that way, race officials decided to give the first 10 spots on the grid to a new generation of endurance cars with untested, high-revving, 3.5-liter engines, which will be the maximum size allowed at next year's Le Mans race (Jaguar's current V-12 engines, by contrast, are 7.4 liters). That meant that the handful of cars in the race with virtually no chance of lasting the full 24 hours would start at the front. Only one of the 3.5-liter cars, a Spice-Ford, completed the race, and it finished last.

This odd arrangement on the starting grid had the effect of putting the top qualifying Mercedes, the one driven by Mass, Schlesser and Ferte, directly behind a car with a qualifying lap time that was 35 seconds slower. "When I say pole position, it's not pole position," said a baffled Jochen Neerpasch, head of the Mercedes effort. "Do you understand zis?"

Well, no. But that may explain why the fastest of the new breed cars, the only Jaguar equipped with a 3.5-liter engine, was such a paper tiger that it wasn't even equipped with headlights, not a terribly inspiring sight on the front row of a race that for at least six hours was to be run in total darkness. Fortunately, that car, which Jaguar had at Le Mans merely for a photo op, was withdrawn shortly before the start. The Peugeot that started on the alleged pole flambèed any chances it might have had during its first pit stop, when it caught fire, momentarily engulfing driver Jean-Pierre Jabouille in flames. Jabouille drove off, apparently unsinged, but the Peugeot expired after 22 laps.

The first all-woman team at Le Mans, led by American driver Lynn St. James, turned up in a hot-pink Spice-Ford. The team was assembled by a Japanese woman who insisted not only on the pink car but also on a Japanese chief mechanic, who couldn't communicate with any of the three drivers or most of the crew. "Two things I swore I'd never do in my career were to drive on an all-woman team and to drive a pink car," said St. James before the race. "But here I am." And after 47 laps, there she went, her car a victim of myriad mechanical ailments.

St. James didn't last long enough to see the rising sun at Le Mans on Sunday morning, but she saw it during her first appearance there two years ago. "It was the first time I'd ever been on a racetrack when I wanted to stop and take a picture," she recalled. "The sun was coming up over the Dunlop Bridge, and it was breathtaking. I turned my fastest lap of the race just trying to get back to the same spot to recapture that moment. That kind of thing digs very deep into your gut."

By Sunday afternoon, it was the rising sun of Japan that had risen over Le Mans, with a howling contingent of Mazdas finishing first, sixth and eighth. The lead car, driven by Weidler and fellow Formula One drivers Johnny Herbert and Bertrand Gachot, covered 362 laps (3,058.9 miles), two more than Jones's Jaguar. "I think we surprised everybody," said Ickx. "We even surprised ourselves."

PHOTOBERTRAND TAVERNIER/SIPAPowerful Jags were among the cars Weidler's Mazda overtook en route to a two-lap victory.