Silverstone race report Report by Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite Race: It was a miracle that anyone actually won this race if you could believe what most of them were saying before hand. "The car is completely shit!" was one of the more...
Silverstone race report
Report by Stella-Maria Thomas and Lynne Waite
It was a miracle that anyone actually won this race if you could believe what most of them were saying before hand.
"The car is completely shit!" was one of the more succinct opinions being bandied about. "And we don't know why." So why did JJ Lehto seem so cheerful about it? Certainly, to watch the BMW through the Luffield section of the circuit, it looked like a seriously evil-handling object, and it probably only got as far up the grid as it did because Jörg was willing to put in a do-or-die effort in qualifying. Still, if any combination of drivers was going to be able to drive around the problem, it would be Müller and Lehto. And Guy Smith: "We've got a half-decent car..." And that wasn't the half they were using, as far as he could judge.
And Marc Goossens wasn't exactly convinced that the Cadillac he was sharing with Christophe Tinseau was going to take him to a podium placing, although he was more than happy to be on the receiving end of a long-term deal for once in his career.
And then there was Norman Simon. He has a four-race deal in which to prove himself and try and get into a works drive. It was all rather alarming really. Still, at least with most people convinced they didn't have a chance, it was obviously going to be an open race! Anyway, in bright, warm conditions, at precisely 18.00 the 98-lap race (a little under three hours if all went to plan) got under way. And almost immediately the action started. While the front runners got away cleanly, the No 41 GT car with Christophe Bouchut at the wheel was suffering with a deflating tyre and would limp round to the pits for some much needed attention. Meanwhile, at the front Mimmo Schiattarella in the Lola was forced to fend off David Brabham, who really wanted that leading spot. Of course, there was no way the Italian was going to let him have it, and the two of them settled into their qualifying formation for the time being. Just behind, Allan McNish was trying to squeeze his Audi past the second Panoz with Hiroki Katoh at the wheel. The Scot's superior knowledge of the track made him a good match for the sheer speed of the Panoz, and by lap 6 he was through and thinking about challenging for 3rd.
By lap 5 the leaders had begun to catch the backmarkers and Brabham was harrying Schiatarella, hoping for a mistake so that he could get through. Suddenly it happened, but not the way he was expecting. On the following lap, the seemingly unstoppable Lola of Schiattarella stopped itself when the throttle cable snapped and it had to lurch to the pits for some serious repair work. It would rejoin at around the 20-lap mark, which in effect ended any challenge from them. And so David Brabham inherited the lead. The big question was could he keep it? His teammate Katoh was now close behind him, which was reassuring, but this meant so was McNish in the Audi, which wasn't at all. McNish squeezed his way past Katoh in traffic to menace Brabham further. If he had thought leading would be easy from here, he was very wrong. With the second Audi now threatening Katoh in the second Panoz, things were looking good for the impressive German team, However, all the while Lehto, in the BMW, was sitting quietly in 5th, just biding his time.
Almost unnoticed inside the first ten laps of the race, although things were proceeding relatively peaceably in the GT class, the vastly experienced Bob Wollek was able to wrest the lead from young star Dirk Müller. Also on lap 10, for the car just behind Lehto on the grid, the Johansson/Smith Cadillac, the problems were only just beginning. The first indication that all was not well was when Johansson spun into the gravel and had to be rescued. Later analysis by the team suggested a brake problem. More was to come. The traffic they were encountering would shortly prove to be the undoing of David Brabham too. The McNish Audi had got ever closer, and after a tense battle, on lap 15 Brabham made a mistake and McNish was through. This was British F3 all over again, when the two of them were the closest of rivals and neither seemed to have forgotten it. After that McNish set a series of fastest race laps and began to pull out a gap, although it would never become an especially large one. Even so, it looked as if it might all be over for the Panoz, especially as it was now developing a power-steering problem, the last thing you really want with cars of this size. Back in GTs, the second placed car of Müller and Lühr was also in trouble, with a puncture that needed attention. At least it was their sister car that was in the lead, and it too would have its fair share of problems. Just for good measure, another GT car suddenly came haring into the pits, anxious for a little attention. The Burgess/Neugarten Porsche seemed to have made contact with a BMW and the driver was keen to get it checked out.
At the front the excitements continued when Katoh, in the second Panoz, decided to spin at Copse and out of 3rd place. It took him a while to figure out which way he really should be pointing and by then he had lost two places. Lehto wasn't about to complain. It moved him up to 4th just behind Pirro in the other Audi. And then it all got a bit pear-shaped. The second BMW, with Bill Auberlen at the wheel, developed a puncture and speared off into the gravel at Bridge. Unfortunately this had the effect of leaving Marc Goossens, in the Cadillac, with no place to go but even deeper into the gravel. Suddenly, there were yellow flags all over the place, followed very rapidly by the Pace Car and a very long period of slow processional driving. At least it made deciding when to stop for fuel easy; at least it did for everyone except Brabham and Magnussen in the Panoz. They had opted for a two-stop strategy so the Australian stayed out and took back his lead. It might not have been one of their better plans, as it turned out, although as with a lot of things, it looked like a good idea at the time!
Just for good measure, the first retirement of the race hit the Norman Simon Riley & Scott as it straggled into the pits needing a new gearbox. I suspect it simply couldn't take the strain of being driven at the sort of speed Norman was asking of it. Goossens meanwhile, dragged the Cadillac back to create a small Zen garden in the pits when the gravel was emptied out although they didn't quite get all of it. He was still shedding it later on his out lap. Not that it really mattered as the engine failed after a mere handful of laps, leaving Goossens on the sidelines. Philippe Gache was also a visitor to the pits, needing to have the Courage's starter sorted, and just to swell the crowd the Kremer Lola of Christians Vann and Gläsel was trying to spontaneously combust, having lost its fuel cap somewhere, thus leading to an attack of fire marshals too. It was getting mightily crowded in there... They would round off the evening by being called in with the black and orange flag, then hit with a stop/go penalty of 20 seconds for ignoring the black and orange flag, before they would solve the problem completely. They were really not having a good day. Anyway, it wasn't a moment too soon when the Safety Car finally pulled off the track and racing was on again. McNish certainly wasn't going to wait any longer. He snuck back past the Katoh Panoz and grabbed second place, ready to challenge for the lead again. At the front, the battle for places was now hotting up again. While McNish inherited the lead when Brabham pitted to hand over to Magnussen, Pirro and Lehto, former teammates in F1 you may recall, were slugging it out for 4th place. After some contact, Lehto was through going round the outside at Stowe in a typically audacious move. Pirro's mood would not have been helped when he had to pit for a stop/go penalty for spinning the Audi's wheels before the car had been let down off its jacks during his pit stop. At least he wasn't in as much trouble as Guy Smith. "The electrics seemed to be going so I switched off everything that I could, and when that didn't help I just parked it as best I could. That was just the start... The marshal wanted me to use the kill switch to turn everything off, but I couldn't find it. Then the marshal said he'd found it but it was actually the fire extinguisher button!" He went on to add that just in case things were to go as badly at Le Mans, he already had a table booked in the bar for Saturday night! And that was the end of the Reynard.
Meanwhile, Lehto was hunting down Katoh. It wouldn't take him long either. Just before the half-distance mark, he was through and into 2nd to the surprise of both his team and himself probably. The thing was still horrible to drive, but as is often the case, it didn't seem to be slowing him down any. Which is more than you could say for the Courage of Philippe Gache. He came back in with a wheel hanging off this time and repairs had to be effected before he could hand over to Gary Formato.
And so, at the half way mark, McNish was leading, with Lehto in pursuit. The second half promised to be even more action-packed and no one was wandering away from the grandstands, no matter what was happening anywhere else around the circuit. And so it would prove. A second round of pit stops saw the Magnussen Panoz back into the lead, while its sister car came in for Katoh to hand over to O'Connell. Meanwhile, Lehto, having been told by team boss Charley Lamm that it was time to go for it, was giving his all to catch up as much ground as possible, before handing over to Jörg Müller for the final stint. This was nearly all undone after Müller managed to lock himself in the toilet in the garage and nearly missed the driver change! Meanwhile the Formato/Gache car was in trouble again after the team had some difficulty persuading it to restart after a stop to get the earlier damage looked at again. The second BMW also pitted for a driver change but would not get very much further. As Jean-Marc Gounon put it, "Oh, I had a very exciting race! I get one lap and then - pfft!" A Gallic shrug and a rueful smile showed his feelings at the frustration this engine failure caused him. At least he had the consolation of seeing the other BMW, with Müller now at the wheel, first take second place from Capello, and then wrest the lead from Magnussen, who had got it back when McNish came in to hand over to Rinaldo Capello. Magnussen then had to stop and the BMW was through and into the lead. The other Audi had also made its stop for Frank Biela to take over from Emanuele Pirro and things then settled down to a relatively steady pace for a few laps. The GTS category had been pretty quiet and about the only excitement at the front came when the Viper of Olivier Beretta and Karl Wendlinger stopped for a driver change and temporarily lost the lead to its sister car with Tommy Archer at the wheel. It was about the only time the lead did change in this category! Up at the front, Müller was now streaking away from the others, having got sight of victory he wasn't going to let go of it easily and he driving was close to inspired at times. Certainly neither he nor Lehto appeared to make any mistakes, and did all they could to make up for the aerodynamic deficiencies of the car. Even so, he would have to pit again for fuel, only to see Capello back into the lead. He couldn't afford to make a mistake now. With the two Panoz cars of O'Connell and Magnussen behind just waiting for a chance, he had to be careful, but he also needed to push. There were 10 laps left. It was the classic dilemma, and Müller solved it by pushing as hard as he could. Now it was all down to strategy; would the Audis make it to the finish without another pit stop. They would not. First the Biela car came in, then Capello. By the time he re-emerged, with 7 laps left of the race, he had dropped to 3rd and the BMW was back ahead. Even worse would befall Capello, however, as the left-hand side rear wheel fell off the Audi, and he drove into the pits with just over a lap to go. There was nothing the team could do except send him back out! He drove the listing Audi round as best he could, shedding bits of suspension and tyre as he went, but being rewarded by getting 3rd place back when the Panoz of O'Connell pulled off the track on the last lap, leaving the Magnussen car to carry on alone. Allan McNish, who was halfway through getting changed, had to hastily drag his suit back on and nip to the podium rather smartish. Afterwards, the winners were somewhat bemused as to how they had got there, though they were obviously utterly delighted. Magnussen, on the other hand, seemed less than happy that the team strategy had cost him and Brabham victory by just over half a minute. Capello and McNish just seemed relieved to be there in the final step of the podium. In the GTS category, perhaps inevitably, the Viper of Beretta and Wendlinger coasted round to victory, a lap ahead of the sister car of David Donohue and Tommy Archer. The Wolfgang Kaufmann/Stephane Ortelli Porsche came home in third, after seeing off the Hubert Haupt car in the first part of the race. If either of his teammates, Zak Brown or Vic Rice, had been quicker they might have carried on the fight; as it was they lost ground to end the day 7th, behind both Franz Konrad and Jürgen von Gartzen in another Porsche, Maxwell Beaverbrook and Geoff Lister (Porsche), and Walter Brun and Toni Seiler in a Viper. In 8th, and the final placed car, were Michael Culver and Horst Felbermayr Jr. All 8 cars started the race and all 8 of them finished. You couldn't say the same for the GTs. This time Sascha Maassen and Bob Wollek took the victory, even though they had been in the pits rather a lot. This included a stop/go penalty for having too many mechanics working on the car during an earlier stop, and also some time spent having damage repairs carried out! If its sister car, in the hands of Lucas Lühr and Dirk Müller, had not had similar problems with exploding tyres and stop/go penalties, the result could have been rather different... As it was, this car would finish 4th instead of in the expected 2nd place, allowing Bruno Lambert and Randy Pobst into 2nd and Shane Lewis and Cort Wagner into 3rd. Ironically, with so few non-Porsche entries, one of the two BMWs ran into trouble at about three-quarters distance, when Niclas Jonsson ended his evening in the gravel traps at Woodcote, but the other BMW of Hans Stuck, Boris Said, and Johannes van Overbeek was 6th, just stopping the whole thing from becoming a complete Porsche benefit. The second European race takes place at the Nürbürgring in early July. Be there! You'll be sorry if you don't...