When you were last with Richard Wiley, we were hurtling around a damp La Sarthe in 1988 with Stuck in the Shell Dunlop 962, trimming the grass and setting up great plumes of spray as the Porsche barked its flat tones in a relentless but ultimately fruitless pursuit of a howling Jaguar V12 which was on the brink of grinding to a halt with no gears but which somehow survived to the flag. A Sting in the Tale Part 2 continues Richard Wiley’s Le Mans expose with a few deviations in between, and how a Porsche survived at Le Mans on Coca-Cola.
The first deviation involved visits in 1988 to Spa, Brands and Silverstone where I stood in wonderment at the sheer spectacle of Group C in full flight, albeit with eyes only for the veritable fleets of 962s on display. Notwithstanding this bias, I have to admit that the Sauber-Mercedes entries sounded utterly glorious.
Before we head off back to Le Mans though, what follows is a major deviation. Please allow me a little slack for my forgetfulness which I guess I can partly blame on advancing years. My first association with the Porsche Group C armada was not in Europe but much closer to home at the original and much more compelling Kyalami track with its long straight and sweeping bends, most of which eventually got buried under bricks and mortar.
The year was 1983. I had flown down to Jo’burg from Harare and borrowed a friend’s Golf 1 to head for the track and the running of the Kyalami 1000 km World Championship event. Homework suggested that a prime viewing spot would be on the downhill short straight linking Crowthorne Corner, which marked the end of the main straight, with another right-hander named Barbeque.
My ultra-early arrival saw me parked right next to the fence, no more than 10 metres from the track but right alongside a bay window VW camper complete with a ladder and roof rack on which were perched at least eight young Afrikaans fellows who had clearly spent the night there, consuming copious quantities of amber nectar.
They soon spotted that I was on my own and summonsed me to join them on the creaking roof of the afore-mentioned camper. The fact that I only spoke English was mildly problematical and led to my nick name of Rooi Nek (Red Neck), but all the jibes were fully worthwhile as the view from the elevated Wolfsburger was unsurpassed.
No fewer than 16 Porsches made their way to the grid but I was fixated on the factory Rothmans pair of 956s with Jacky Ickx/Jochen Mass piloting #1 and the dependable Brit, Derek Bell, alongside German hotshot, Stefan Bellof in #2. As expected, it was Bellof who annexed pole in an F1-rivalling 1m 10s at nearly 209 km/h, but nothing prepared me for the simply breathtaking speed of the 956s down the long straight.
Our lofty perch gave us a superb view of the lower reaches of that straight and as darkness fell, the sight of the roof identity lights on the factory 956s hurtling between shallow embankments at around 320 km/h was mind-blowing. So too was the fact that Porsches had enough grunt on tap to squirm the rear tyres and wag their tails on the downhill run to Barbeque.
I guess this digression has lasted long enough, suffice to say that Bell/Bellof took the chequered flag and survived a heavy downpour that memory tells me saw off the Ickx/Mass challenge.
Never had I experienced such an adrenalin rush watching what was, and probably still remains, the most effective endurance racer ever produced, and to say that the adrenalin rush returned in June of 1989 as I prepared to head for Le Mans is an understatement, albeit that the 962 was in its twilight years.
I should mention that this precursor of what has blossomed into 25 visits, was carried out in the company of Patrick, a former colleague at the Harare-based advertising agency where I spent more than a third of a century aligning other people’s minds in a given direction. Patrick, by the way had just moved to the UK and was struggling to earn a living, but the lure of Le Mans and the anticipated sound of the flat-sixes, overruled all else. The fact that up to 2018, every one of those Le Mans forays has been alongside Patrick is something special and suggests that my indoctrination – I am 17 years his senior – in favour of the Weissach streamliners has worked well!
Being rookies, we had little idea of how best to go about getting from the UK to La Sarthe and in the end, settled on using the services of a specialist UK tour operator who arranged to fly us out of Stansted to Tours in what turned out to be a propeller-driven craft that should have been condemned decades earlier.
All this was happening early on the Saturday morning of the race and needless to say, an elusive technical problem delayed our departure and caused much gnashing of teeth as the probability of missing the massed, rolling Le Mans start at 15h00 CET loomed.
We eventually got to Tours and boarded a coach which our host proudly proclaimed was fitted with sleeper seats to assist with our slumbers during the wee hours of the night in a large grass car park alongside what we eventually came to know as Camping Bleu.
By the time we got to the revered territory, we had endured agonising hold-ups in traffic of mind-blowing density. My blood pressure too had escalated to somewhere around the boost pressure of the 962s we were about to ogle over but let me tell you that getting to the periphery of the track was one thing; gaining access to our prime pews in the ACO stand was quite another.
Those familiar with the Le Mans finishing straight will know that the adjacent spectator viewing area is tiered but does not run parallel to the track or the grandstands which entails stepping up a level every so often in order to maintain a straight line, something I might add we found increasingly difficult during the early hours of the morning, but that was for other reasons!
The other factor that made progress on foot extremely slow was the fact that the closely-packed crowd, made up of a majority of shall we say “local residents,” was totally unwilling to “cedez le passage,” apparently believing that any concession of movement on their behalf would result in our occupying the miniscule space they had just vacated!
Whatever, we eventually made our prime seats moments before the fleet of 55 racers moved off on its reconnaissance lap. It didn’t take long to spot the Joest Racing Langheck #9, replete in its distinctive but mildly effeminate Italya pink livery, and #7 and #8 in the now traditional Blaupunkt blue and white colours. We also observed to our delight, that Walter Brun had mustered no less than five Porsches, one of which in From-A colours was piloted by South Africa’s Sarel van der Merwe.
Those in Repsol and Hydro Aluminium colours looked especially fetching but the mere fact that there were no fewer than 17 Porsches in the field made the great trek more than worthwhile, at least at this stage of proceedings!
This was to be the last race ever run without chicanes on the never-ending Mulsanne Straight, so it stood to reason that all the 962s sported long rear decks in true Porsche low downforce tradition. I always thought the Langheck looked a tad ungainly alongside the Kurzheck but somehow, those long and lithe flanks just fitted so well at La Sarthe, especially given the run of victories from 1982 to 1987.
From the off, an army of Jaguars jostled for the lead with two of the Sauber-Mercs. Merc #63, the ultimate victor, played a waiting game along with the Italya 962 piloted by the duo of Hans Stuck and Bob Wollek, but come sunset and Joest came to the fore with #9 and #7 leading and spitting flames on upward shifts and on the overrun as if to say to the opposition “we’re breathing fire – don’t even come near!”
Such was the level of our adrenalin at around 22h00 hours that no thought whatever had been given to taking up those sleeper seats in the coach despite the reputed brain-dulling effects of copious quantities of 1664. In between sitting for hours in those hideously uncomfortable plastic seats in the ACO stand, we patrolled the area from the exit of the Porsche Curves to the Dunlop Bridge in order to promote a modicum of circulation. But whenever a Joest Italya pit stop was expected, it was back to the stands.
With the Jaguars falling by the wayside and the Joest Porsches holding down a comfortable 1-2, the approach of midnight in the French countryside was proving to be a most pleasurable time and any thoughts of shut-eye were easily dismissed but the sense of euphoria was suddenly shattered. The second-placed Porsche pitted and was retired with a water leak from a cylinder head. Did I hear you say “a Porsche with a water leak?”
Then sometime around the bewitching hour, the pink 962 cruised in for what looked like a routine stop but as it was about to depart with every intention of stretching it’s not inconsiderable lead, huge flames suddenly engulfed the left side. Had the Wollek curse returned?
Dousing the conflagration seemed to take an eternity but I can assure readers that my tears of despair would have worked much more quickly than the plethora of extinguishers sullying the once-pristine Italya 962. The pink machine was now more black than pink along its left flank but the flat-six seemed utterly unperturbed as it sped through the night in pursuit of yet another Porsche victory.
The Jaguars in the meantime fell victim one-by-one to various maladies but it was now two of the silver Sauber Mercs in their subtle AEG liveries that posed the biggest threat to Weissach’s hopes. Indeed, the #63’s early caution seemed to be paying dividends especially as the Italya Porsche made an unexpected pit stop amid some signs of steam which became more apparent when the huge rear deck was lifted.
My total faith in the everlasting qualities of the flat-six was under some scrutiny as news leaked out (excuse the deliberate pun) that the Stuck/Wollek machine was the victim of a pin-hole that had developed in an inaccessible part of the cooling plumbing. It would take too long to gain access and effect a full repair, so the only solution was to pit more often and slake the thirst of those pesky water pipes.
Despair enveloped the two of us as #9 had to cut its pace a tad to keep those water temperature gauges in the appropriate area, but worse was to follow when we detected the sounds of a slipping clutch. Sadly, I recall that a crankshaft oil seal had begun to weep – could this have been a consequence, we wondered, of the higher engine operating temperatures? – and deposit a slippery film on the clutch facing.
Obviously, there could be no fix for this in the confines of the antiquated pit complex still in use in 1989, but a genius in the Joest team worked out that a diet of Coca-Cola poured over the bellhousing of the 962 every time it stopped to slake its thirst, would at least minimise the slippage.
In the meantime, Merc C9-88s occupied the first two positions with Joest #9 battling on in third. Even in its wounded state, the old warhorse still had enough in hand to secure yet another 962 podium position, but it could have been better given that both Mercs were on the brink of faltering with gearbox maladies.
A combination of tension and disappointment had kept us up and awake for the entire race and the first we saw of our coach complete with its unused sleeperette seats, was in the huge grassed parking lot prior to our departure for Tours airport. Ironically, Patrick had designed a large banner before our departure from Zimbabwe that proclaimed the collective virtues of the Mercedes C9-88 and the Porsche 962. Given the result, we waved this banner with gusto before alighting to applause from the British contingent already on board. Clearly, they thought we were clairvoyant!
Never in all our years had we felt such fatigue as we rested our very weary frames and did our best to stop our heads from lolling downwards every few seconds, but there was another sting in the tale that generated a brief adrenalin rush. To facilitate traffic flow, the road that doubles as the Hunaudieres straight had been opened and it just happens that Le Mans and Tours are linked by this very road. Here we were on our very first visit to the hallowed environs of Le Mans heading down the exact same stretch of tar that had seen no fewer than 17 of Porsche’s finest hurtling along at 370 km/h just minutes before!
Happily, there were no flight delays to sully our return to the UK but by the time we staggered into our hotel room somewhere in West London, no fewer than 42 hours had elapsed, without any shut-eye, since our departure on the first of what has blossomed into 25 visits to a place we regard as our second home.
Written by: Richard Wiley
Images by: Porsche Werkfoto