In Part 1, Stories from Le Mans – with a Porsche flavour, our intrepid scribbler who hails from that beautiful part of South Africa, the Western Cape, shares with us some hilarious and revealing stories from his many trips to Le Mans. Richard Wiley, a lifelong motoring journalist, has always loved Le Mans, Group C and especially the Porsches of that era. A sting in the tale, covers his early trips to Le Mans in the late ‘80s.
For most of my three score years and ten, I lived – or should I say, survived – in Zimbabwe, an observation which may well invite the retort: “So what?”
There are a number of appropriate responses I could provide, but three carry the most relevance. Firstly, as the son of a car-mad dental surgeon, I used to attend many motor races in the 1950s and 60s in the then Rhodesia. A regular entrant was our family doctor who competed in open-wheel racing in what was a precursor to Formula Vee. That meant a VW engine and gearbox combo in the tail and a trailing-arm suspension up front, just like the Porsche 356A and later 356B Super 90 that formed part of the afore-mentioned racing doctor’s fleet.
To say that I was enamoured with the Super 90 in particular was an understatement, and while the older folk were tweaking the racing VW in the home garage, yours truly used to spend hours in the cabin of the powder-blue Porsche hoping like crazy that my Dad would switch allegiances to the other side of Stuttgart. The fact that I became the owner of a new 911 Carrera Sport in 1989 is another story, but sad to report, my Dad didn’t live long enough to see my pride and joy which I doted on and maintained myself over a 19-year period.
Sadly, my Dad never did make the switch from star to stallion, but there was some compensation at hand when our doctor acquired the franchise to import Porsches into Rhodesia. My obsession with the brand took root in no uncertain terms and names such as Jean Behra, Herbert Linge, Jürgen Barth, Joachim Bonnier, Wolfgang von Trips and many more became entrenched in my psyche as I devoured every snippet of hard-to-access news about Porsche’s feats on the race tracks of the world.
The arrival each month of Motorsport magazine, and later, Autosport, could not happen soon enough, especially as DSJ himself became a disciple of the Porsche brand, but when it came to June and the running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, I glued myself to the transistor radio and the BBC World Service 15-minute sport programmes, hoping against hope for an update on race positions.
Of course, in those days the diminutive Stuttgart entrants were seeking Class wins and Index of Performance glory, but this mattered not as the giant-killing acts of the racing Porsches provided just as much smug satisfaction as an outright win.
Over the years, magazines and books all piled up, most of them with a Zuffenhausen bent, and with the switch to front-running racing machinery from Weissach, my interest in attending endurance races reached fever pitch.
To say I worshipped the 956/962 era is an understatement and come 1986/87, the leash snapped and I found myself on long-haul flights from southern Africa heading for Brands Hatch, Spa and Silverstone 1000 mile events. Sadly, I missed the Stuck/Bell/Holbert Le Mans win in 1987 but I followed much of it from my home in Harare on a 6.2 metre satellite dish which was used to intercept a live TV feed to Japan.
By 1988 it had become apparent that Norbert Singer’s machines were showing signs of age such that any 962 wins would be achieved courtesy of reliability rather than pure pace. Nonetheless, the Le Mans entry list that year still included three factory-supported 962s complete with the latest Bosch Motronic engine management system and the spectacular Shell/Dunlop livery. On board number 18, and sharing the wheel with Brilliant Bob Wollek, was South African hero Sarel van der Merwe who had piloted a March-Porsche to a Daytona 24 Hour win four years earlier. Number 17 was home to the superstar trio of Dinger Bell, Strietzel Stuck and King Klaus Ludwig while the Andretti dynasty occupied number 19 with its white windscreen sun strip.
Weissach clearly meant business in the face of a Tom Walkinshaw armada of Silk Cut Jaguars and any thoughts that the 962 was getting arthritic were soon banished as the flat-sixes locked out the front row.
Quite why I hadn’t made plans to attend in person I still can’t work out, but rest assured, the aforementioned satellite dish was pressed into service such that I recall spending more than 18 hours glued to my chair watching an epic while listening to a frenzied Japanese presenter describing the exploits of the “Varks Porschays.”
Early on, I was basking in a sense of great contentment as 962 number 17, backed-up by number 18, showed every sign of having the race under control until Klaus Ludwig slowed alarmingly in the vicinity of the Porsche Curves.
Factory Porsches at Le Mans rarely fail, especially at that part of the track, and so it proved. Ludwig had decided to risk another lap and drained the fuel tank while commanding the race! Subsequent conversations with Hans Stuck suggest that the German driver was wholly to blame for the misjudgement and subsequent loss of around four laps as recovery was made to the pits on the starter motor.
Some compensation was delivered in the shape of the Wollek/van der Merwe 962 that was romping away into the night with a decisive lead until disaster struck when total engine failure side-lined the leader around the bewitching hour. “Bob’s Curse” had struck again and continued to do so as he never won at Le Mans. Of interest is that Sarel van der Merwe told me that he believed the engine failure was caused by a foreign object, perhaps something as simple as cleaning material left on assembly, that stopped a valve from closing completely with the result that the overheating part literally parted company and fell into the works.
Whatever, the lead factory 962 embarked on an epic recovery mission that saw Strietzel gaining on the leading Jaguar hand over fist as he used all the road and more in a masterly demonstration of rain driving. That he and his team mates failed to mount the top step of the podium by a mere one third of a lap made Ludwig’s fuel misdemeanour all the more galling. But there was more…
It was subsequently established that the winning Jaguar was on the brink of suffering the same terminal gearbox failure that had become an epidemic in the Silk Cut ranks. Then, five months later at a sports car event at the then new Kyalami circuit attended by two Sasol-liveried Joest Racing 962s, I learned something else that made my ears prick up.
Both Joest drivers, namely Bob Wollek and Klaus Ludwig in response to my probing questions about the happenings at Le Mans in 1988, independently suggested that the winning Jaguar exhibited, shall we say, exceptionally low levels of fuel thirst. Each driver proffered reasons for what might have triggered this parsimonious behaviour, and interestingly, exactly 29 years later in the paddock of the WEC event at Bahrain’s Sakhir Circuit, Hans-Joachim Stuck nodded in agreement when I put these thoughts to him.
The only difference of opinion on a related fuel matter was that Ludwig suggested his 962 at Le Mans ran dry because of a faulty fuel reserve tap whereas Stuck said the car had no fuel anyway!
Prior to attending this race meeting, in which both heats were dominated at record-breaking pace by the two Joest Racing entries, I had been to see the local Porsche importers at their offices in downtown Johannesburg, and placed an order for a Grand Prix White 911 Carrera Sport with seats in Marine Blue featuring leather bolsters and pin-stripe velours centre sections.
At the end of April 1989, I collected my pride and joy at the same premises and so began a 19-year love affair, details of which I will disclose in due course. But in the meantime, in my capacity as a first-time owner of Stuttgart’s finest, I could no longer find any reason not to head for Le Mans for the 1989 running of the great race.
My decision, made from memory around October ’88, was further justified on 21 May 1989, when Bob Wollek and Frank Jelinski took the Joest Blaupunkt 962 to its last world endurance victory at Dijon-Prenois. There was still life left in the old dog and despite the factory’s decision to abandon Le Mans in 1989, the lead Joest entry would be guaranteed of works support not to mention the driving duties assigned to two stalwarts, Stuck and Wollek.
Hope sprang eternal despite Brilliant Bob’s curse, but little did I know that this would mark the first of no fewer than 25 visits to the Le Mans 24 Hour race up to 2018. Needless to say, that 2019 is of course already booked! Look out for more stories in the coming months about the brand that has never missed a race since 1951. The racing tales will be spiced with stories of getting there, surviving there, celebrating there, misbehaving there, recovering there and occasionally shedding a tear there.
Written by: Richard Wiley
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto