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Tales From the 1992 World Sportscar Championship

DSC Retro: 28 Years Ago

Malcolm Cracknell saw the start of the FIA WEC in 2012 as an opportunity to take a look back at the precious time there has been an FIA World Championship for top-class sportscars, 1992 and the monster 3.5 litre, 750-kilo final iteration of Group C.

Who better than Andy Wallace to talk us through that period, which comprised a series of mainly 500 km events (plus Le Mans and a 1000 km race at Suzuka), but with very small grids. Could Andy and I find any parallels between 1992 and what 2012 has on offer?

Bizarrely, a series of coincidences caused us to have a bit of a re-think, just hours after we’d spoken, and just hours too after Paul Truswell had pressed ‘send’ on his recent hindsight piece. Graham Goodwin may have had some inkling that something unpleasant was about to hit the WEC fan, but for most of us, it was a real eye-opener when Peugeot announced its dramatic withdrawal from racing, on January 18. I’d always had some underlying doubts about the whole WEC concept. Would Audi slugging it out with Peugeot, chased by Toyota, HPD and the privateers (plus the other classes of course) really be enough to sustain a World Championship? Was the ACO sufficiently appreciative of the privateers’ likely efforts to ensure their support in years to come? Was the calendar sufficiently well structured to ensure that 2012 would be the start of something big? Would the TV package be good enough?

The ACO’s response to the Peugeot withdrawal managed to provide a hearty ‘dig’ at the French manufacturer with the Jean-Claude Plassart remark that “there’s no doubt that the hundreds of thousands of fans who flock to Le Mans every year and the millions of viewers who follow the race on TV will regret the French make’s absence.”

Undoubtedly the ACO will too – just as they came to regret having the FIA’s 3.5 litre cars foisted upon them in 1992, with no GTs to fill out the grid (just a few single-seater based machines).

Anyway, after that preamble, there’s now a clear parallel between ’92 and ’12. 20 years ago, Peugeot took on just one significant rival, Toyota, and gave the Japanese a thoroughly good hiding. This year, Audi takes on Toyota, and it’s hard to imagine any other outcome than German domination, isn’t it?

But through testing in ’91, and into early ’92, Toyota personnel were very confident of taking on Peugeot.

Andy Wallace: “Jan (Lammers) and I had both signed for Toyota for ‘91/’92/’93, but Jan was racing F3000 in Japan in ’91, so Geoff Lees and I did the bulk of the testing. We started in February or March at the Yamaha test track, and suddenly there was a huge step in performance. Group C in ’88 had an 850 kg minimum weight, then it went up to 900 kg, more or less where LMP1 is now, which is getting on a bit in weight terms. With the 3.5 litre cars, we ran at 750 kg, with full ground effect and huge amounts of downforce. At the Yamaha circuit, there were a couple of medium speed corners, and you’d end up going quicker and quicker and quicker through them, it was staggering how fast it would go.

“And then there was the engine. Toyota had done lots of dyno work, and in testing, we started at 11/12,000, then moved it up to 13 and 14,000 rpm, but at that stage, we didn’t have the right gears, so the instruction was to back off on the straight. The dyno stuff had all been done at full load, but whenever I backed off on the straight, the engine went bang! They’d change it, out I’d go again, and bang it would go again. The conrods were stretching when I lifted, and pistons hit valves. But it was an easy fix.

“We must have tested at least twice at the Yamaha track, I think we went to Suzuka and Fuji, Sugo too I think, and also Paul Ricard.

“At Sugo, there was a mini-golf course, where you used just a putter, and Geoff slaughtered everyone at that. And then he spotted a challenge. Way down below us was a football pitch, and Geoff reckoned he could hit a ball into the goal net, using his putter. It looked miles away to me, but he was sure he could do it, and he did, straight into the goal. He’s playing on the Senior Tour now, I believe.”

The TS010’s debut was at the final round in ’91, at Autopolis, where the Schumacher / Wendlinger C291 Mercedes took that car’s only win.

Wallace / Lees came home a satisfactory sixth, Teo Fabi took the drivers’ title for Jaguar – and both Jaguar and Mercedes then pulled out.

In Time & Two Seats, Janos Wimpffen reminds us that it took a great deal of persuasion by Peugeot, Toyota and Mazda to ensure that Mosley and Ecclestone gave the go-ahead to the ’92 Championship.

With that hurdle overcome, Wallace, Lammers, Lees and Hitoshi Ogawa, plus Kenny Acheson and P-H Raphanel, were on duty for a mammoth, nine day, Toyota test at Eastern Creek. You might have seen the link on DSC recently to a YouTube video. Andy has referred to that test before on DSC, and sums it up now with the comment that “the car was really strong, but we broke two drivers!”

He and Hitoshi Ogawa both broke ribs on the final day taking the bump at the long Turn 1 flat out. “We just arrived flat out at the end of the pit straight and turned the wheel. It was interesting to hear the revs rise (on the YouTube video) at exactly the spot where I remembered that bloody bump.”

Dave Sims – now there’s a link to 2012, was remarkably positive about Toyota’s prospects on that official video, and busted ribs aside, that test went very well.

As did one at Monza, before the opening round of the ’92 Championship on the same circuit.

“Jan had a massive accident (in the race) at the exit of the Ascari Chicane: as he turned left to exit the chicane, the right/front suspension collapsed, and he ploughed head on into the guardrail.”

Lees / Ogawa took the win at Monza – but do you remember the circumstances? Yannick Dalmas was cruising to victory for Peugeot, because the remaining Toyota was overheating – but the Frenchman seemed to forget that he was suffering fading brakes, and when he went for a quick lap with two to go, he didn’t slow enough at the second chicane, and flipped his Peugeot into the gravel.

Back to that test at Monza – which highlighted a major difference between then and now.

Andy again: “McLaren had been testing there with Senna shortly before, and we knew that his best lap was a 1:26.8. In testing at Ricard, we were faster than the likes of Arrows and Tyrrell (if they were running with a fair amount of fuel onboard), and the McLaren time at Monza became a target – for me! I was down into the low 27s, then set a 26.8, and then set off to beat the Senna time.

“But I need to explain the Toyota’s gearbox and how we had to cope with various lock-outs. With an H-pattern box, plus all that downforce, plus excellent brakes and relatively little weight, you simply couldn’t grab each gear fast enough under braking, there just wasn’t time, and it was easy to miss a shift. So we had lock-outs, so that you went from sixth to fourth to second. You also couldn’t go from second to first, you had to go third to first.

“Anyway, there I was hammering into the first chicane, got it down into second, and had a huge spin into the gravel so I never did beat Senna’s time.

“I was testing the Leyton House F1 car that year too, and it was interesting to compare the F1 car with the TS010. The Leyton House, as with all F1 cars, had massive drag, and if you missed a shift into sixth, the drag would slow you down so much, you had to go back to fifth again, and build up speed before trying sixth again. The TS010 was more enjoyable to drive, but Adrian Newey’s design was brilliant on smooth tracks.”

Gearboxes, we’ll come back to them at Le Mans in ’93. Before Le Mans in ’92 it was the Silverstone 500 km, but the Lammers Toyota blew up after just 10 laps, the #2 Peugeot had its engine die too, and a pit stop fire for Derek Warwick suggested that Toyota might win both of the season openers, but Hitoshi Ogawa’s Toyota stopped on his out lap, the Warwick car’s flames didn’t do any significant damage, and Peugeot took the win.

Only five cars finished, and one of those, a Euro Racing T92/10 Lola, was disqualified.

Le Mans was advantage Peugeot, but to a large degree because some of the race was wet, and Peugeot had several different wet Michelins on offer, while Toyota had only one wet Goodyear.

Despite only 28 starters, two significant entries managed to collide on Saturday afternoon, Ferte’s Peugeot hitting Lees’ Toyota after Tertre Rouge, these two effectively out of the running. The remaining Toyotas typically ran fourth and fifth for much of the race, but Andy’s car suffered a longish delay after 16 hours (brakes, clutch, gearbox) and dropped to an eventual eighth, while the Sekiya / Raphanel / Acheson TS010 picked up a solid second, but six laps down on the winning Warwick / Dalmas / Blundell Peugeot.

As Andy neatly puts it, “the TS010 was a wonderful car, with a strong engine and it was run by a great team: the problem was Peugeot. Their car was slightly faster and slightly more reliable. I think it’s fair to say that the Peugeot really was a staggering machine.”

That summing up almost sounds like the 2011 ILMC, doesn’t it, with Peugeot versus Audi? But at least in ’11 we had that magnificent contest at Le Mans.

After Le Mans in ’92 came Donington Park, and “that was an amazing track in the 3.5-litre cars. I felt privileged to have driven them and have very fond memories of that era, but mixed emotions too. 11 cars around Donington Park… and when Jan was in the car, it blew an oil line, so that was that.” Peugeot were 1-2, but at least Lees and David Brabham finished on the same lap in third.

At Suzuka, the trials and tribulations continued: “I began to smell burning, but the team couldn’t see anything wrong as I passed the pits… Then I saw a Spice ahead of me trailing smoke, so perhaps that was the source of the burning smell? But after passing it, I could still smell burning, and it was getting worse. Through the esses behind the pits, the whole car filled with smoke, and flames appeared on the ‘passenger’ side. I was approaching the last of the esses, and there was suddenly so much smoke in the car, I couldn’t see a thing. That’s not somewhere you want to park a car on the track, but in trying to get out of the way, driving blind, I almost beached it on the kerb. I tried to scramble out, but we had the radio to disconnect, the cool suit, the belts obviously, and a pipe to a helmet-cooling system, every time I thought I’d disconnected everything, something else yanked me back. Finally, I pulled everything free, just as the ‘screen melted and fell into the car, which sat there and incinerated itself.”

Poor Hitoshi Ogawa had lost his life at Suzuka in May of that year, in an F3000 race. It seemed that however you looked at that year, Toyota was destined to have things go wrong.

The final race was at Magny-Cours, and things didn’t go any better for the TS010s, although Andy remembers that “the car was blindingly quick in the medium speed corners”.

But the ’93 Championship had been scrapped before that last race of ’92, with the FIA promising to look into the possibility of a series for GT cars at some indeterminate point in the future. That just left the ’93 Le Mans race as the final event for the fantastic 3.5-litre machines, but Toyota somehow contrived to shoot itself in the foot.

Andy: “We had a particular gearbox problem during our Ricard endurance testing. The gearbox guys on the race team managed to figure it out, and we completed a 30-hour test without any problems.”

But back in Japan, the gearbox was ‘reworked’, but unfortunately, the problem returned, causing nothing but problems at Le Mans.

“We’d break a gearbox, but the mechanics were always rebuilding one behind the pits, so we’d stop for a change, go out again, break it aga, until I came out of the Ford Chicane, the ‘box broke, and I knew I’d never make it round a full lap, and I didn’t. I think everyone was just sick of gearboxes by then.”

And that was the last chance for the TS010: massive potential, but it never came together to produce the success expected of it.

That last race highlighted a significant difference between 1992 and 2012: gearbox reliability. Andy Wallace: “Gearboxes used to be a huge issue at Le Mans, but from about 2000 onwards, with sequential ‘boxes and then paddle shift systems, gearboxes rarely became a problem.”

And with the Audi R8 era, and then the diesels, the reliability of modern prototypes has become exceptionally good, on the whole. So good that the 2011 ILMC became almost a Peugeot benefit, even though the Audi R18 was only marginally less capable, on conventional circuits.

With Peugeot’s recent withdrawal, it’s again down to Toyota to take the challenge to the pre-season favourites. Hybrid and petrol/diesel equivalency are modern factors that hadn’t even been dreamt of in 1992. Can Toyota save the day (FIA Championship), in ways that they couldn’t 20 years ago? We’ll know soon enough.