Le Mans 1990 was a whole new ballgame. The circuit had changed drastically. The famous Mulsanne straight was now going to have two chicanes in the middle of it. This was part of the new FIA mandated changes to circuits to improve safety. Four-mile-long straights such as the Mulsanne were no longer to be approved by the FIA. The near 250mph speed in a 962 in 1989 on the Mulsanne would be reduced to a mere 210 or so. The circuit had changed, but the rest of the place had not. The pits still seemed like they were back in 1923 at the inception of the race and track. But we are getting ahead of the story.
I had started 1990 working with Jochen Dauer in IMSA. He had brought a 962 over to run IMSA races at the Daytona 24 Hour, Sebring 12 Hour, West Palm Beach and Miami events. Things had not gone well. The engine had failed at Daytona. At Sebring, there had been water in the brake lines, and a crash at the end with one of the Nissans resulted in 12th place. West Palm Beach and Miami were also DNFs. After West Palm, the team was returning to Europe to race there, and my schedule did not allow that much time off for travel, so I was looking for some other racing activities to keep me busy.
My long-time friend and past racing colleague, Gary Cummings, had left the Brun team in mid-1989 to take a new position as team manager for the Alpha Racing team in Japan for the 1990 season. They would run a 962 in the Japanese Group C championship and at Le Mans. He contacted me around February 1990 to join the Alpha Le Mans effort that year. He would put together a mixed team of some of his Japanese regular crew and four additional Americans who had some Le Mans experience. I would join Jerry Woods, Mark Krause and Al Roberts as part of the American contingent (along with Gary of course, who was the team manager). We also had a French Contingent as part of the team who were to manage and run our signalling pits at Mulsanne corner. They were managed by Vincent Beaumesnil, who today is the Technical Director of the ACO!
Gary had done an amazing job of preparation on the car and organization of the team. This was 962-154, a water- cooled Group C version that he had run in the Japanese races early in the year. The drivers had been Tiff Needell, Costas Los and Derek Bell. For Le Mans 1990 the drivers would be Tiff, Anthony Reid and David Sears. The big dilemma for the teams in 1990 was how to deal with the chicanes. With the old Mulsanne straight, the setup was fairly straight forward, just set up for maximum speed. The 962 was run with the long tail, a different nose and modified underbody and tunnels. The goal was minimum drag and maximum speed. The Porsche factory had told everyone that the computer simulations indicated that even with the chicanes, the long tail, low downforce setup was the way to go. Gary, however, had brought two sets of bodywork, both short and long tail, and we were going to test both during practice before choosing. The Japanese owner, Mr. Nanikawa, wanted to do a proper job. Gary and Tiff Needell had done some testing in Japan at Fuji Speedway. Gary had also modified the undertray to make it easier to switch bodywork from low to high downforce setups, so that the whole swap only took 45 minutes (instead of the normal hours). The ‘high downforce’ setup also used a non- Porsche rear wing from Gordon Horn that they had tested at Fuji. Gary had also built some new brackets to support the Turbo exhaust pipes. Over long distances these would tend to crack and cause some loss of power.
First, however, we had to complete tech inspection and setup our paddock area. That was all done early in the week. We had a very nice setup, and the whole area under the truck and tent was on a raised wooden platform and had a nice outdoor carpet. So we were ready for the rains – should they come. One end of the paddock space under the truck had an eating space, and the truck had a mobile kitchen. Gary had hired a Paris chef, who closed down his restaurant for the week to come be our chef for the team. The food was superb, with fine dining every day. Sure enough, when the inevitable rains came on Tuesday and Wednesday, we worked high and dry, while teams around us slogged around in 2-3 inches of water.
Tuesday night we had a team dinner for everyone to meet and get acquainted. At the dinner, we determined that between the five Americans (Gary, Jerry Woods, Mark Krause, Al Roberts and myself) we had done 127 24-hour races in total between us! Way more than the three drivers and 127 more than any of the Japanese part of the team. If nothing else it gave us some confidence, that we had probably seen it all before.
After some back and forth with the bodywork in practice, we decided on the short tail and a modified longer nose. Our drivers found the car much easier to drive with this setup, especially under braking. The tyres seemed to hold up better also with the extra downforce. All of the other 962s, with the exception of one of the Brun cars, ran the long tail setup, including the two quasi-works cars at Joest. Porsche, of course came and told us we were making a big mistake and that we should run the long tail.
The race would basically be a battle between Jaguar and Porsche. Tom Walkinshaw ran factory Jaguars, and there were numerous 962s running, all in private hands. However, the factory was there in support with engineering, parts and even doctors. Our race started smoothly and after a few hours Hans Stuck came by our garage. I knew Hans quite well, as I had worked with him at both the Akin and Bayside teams in the states. He told us that we had for sure made the correct choice on the bodywork. He said his car (Joest 962) was fine for about four laps but by then the tyres were totally worn out, and he just went slower and slower until the end of the fuel stint due to tyre degradation. Our drivers were reasonably happy with the tyres over the whole course of one fuel stint. So, we felt good about that, all things being equal we would do the race under a lot less strain and stress than the long tail cars.
Our team owner, Mr. Nanikawa, was a Japanese business man from Tokyo. He owned an Architectural design firm, and was an ardent Porsche supporter. He was a class guy who did everything first cabin. As 1990 was the last year of the old Le Mans pits, we figured he would be there for a few hours and then depart for the hotel. The old pits was just a horrible place, dark, dirty, small, noisy, smelly. Mechanics would just urinate on the walls outside behind the actual pit box in the alley way, as there were no bathrooms nearby. Mr. Nanikawa, insisted that he would stay in the box while the car was running. He had us bring in the rear seat from one of the rental vans, and he camped out in the back alley behind our box, actually falling asleep there once it got dark.
Our race proceeded without issues into the night. The Porsche doctors came by with some gruel they wanted all the mechanics to eat. It looked like some kind of oatmeal, a vitamin, high energy mix, so we all ate it. Mr. Nanikawa had insisted on staying all night, and fell asleep on the van bench in the back alley among the tyres and other equipment. Just before dawn, we were alerted as a car came down the pit lane in a huge ball of fire. It was one of the Richard Lloyd cars in the next pits to us, driven by James Weaver another good friend of ours from the US racing. It was a huge fire; some oil line had broken. Luckily, he got out without mishap, but our pits were unusable for a few minutes, until the fire retardant dissipated and the car was pushed away. Jerry Woods and I asked James if he was trying to brighten our day, but he was not amused.
By late morning Sunday we were up to 5th place. At one point, the door to our pit was flung open, and in walked Jean-Marc Teissedre. He was the long- time reporter for Auto Hebdo in France, and one of the two authors of the yearly Le Mans books. He started laughing and then explained: “I had to come see how this small obscure team from Japan could possibly be running in the top five, now I see who is working on the team, it is all clear to me.” He knew Gary, myself, Jerry Woods, and Al Roberts from the many times we had been at Le Mans before. He took some notes, reminisced and then went off to take some photos. The only real issue we had was a cracked windshield due to a stone or some debris. It was just a small crack, so we epoxied it. Soon, one of the Jags was leading, the Brun car was second, the second Jag was third and we were fourth. However, both Jaguars were having some issues, as one was overheating, and the other had a gearbox issue. So, it looked as though the Brun car might win, but then cruelly, with about 20 minutes to go, their engine blew up and the car stopped out on the circuit. That put us third behind the two Jaguars, which is where we finished. Another 20 minutes in the race, and we might have won. Mr. Nanikawa was ecstatic, crying with joy. His was the first Japanese entered car to ever reach the podium at Le Mans, a great achievement for him and his small team from Gotemba.
So, in the end the Porsche computers were proved wrong, at least for the Le Mans 1990 race.
The four Americans said goodbye to our new Japanese friends and headed for Charles de Gaulle airport. Gary headed back to Japan to continue the Group C championship there. I would see him again at the Suzuka 1000km race in August.
It definitely ranks as one of my most enjoyable races ever, even though we were only third.
Written by: Martin Raffauf
Images by: Alpha Racing Team and Porsche Werkfoto