Thirty-four years after quitting top-level motorsport in tragic circumstances, Mercedes returned for a historic victory at a defining moment in Le Mans history
Mercedes returns and conquers the 1989 Le Mans 24 Hours
IT WAS ARGUABLY THE FINEST ENTRY LIST EVER ASSEMBLED
IF YOU’D BEEN STANDING NEXT TO A PARTICULAR SECTION OF THE N138 heading south from Le Mans at just past 4pm on 10 June 1989, it would have been your last chance to see one of the defining dramas of international motor racing. It would also have blown your mind – both figuratively, and with the air pressure from and volume of the cars passing by just feet away at 388kmph, almost literally, too. For that was the last time the Mulsanne Straight – or Les Hunaudières to give it its proper name – would be used without two chicanes breaking the flow, thereby preventing speeds from nudging 400kmph. Raw, terrifying speed dangerous enough to curdle the stomach of even a seasoned driving pro.
It was also an event with other great points of significance, all of which qualifies it as a more than worthy evo Motorsport Moment. Firstly, it had been almost exactly 34 years since the tragedy during the 1955 Le Mans 24 Hours when over 80 spectators died, prompting Mercedes-Benz to quit top-level motorsport at the end of that season. While there had been touring car and rallying efforts in the intervening decades, it wasn’t until Peter Sauber enticed the Mercedes senior management to turn their hitherto covert support of his Mercedes V8-powered Group C racers into the return of the ‘Silver Arrows’ for the 1989 season that the marque was once again represented at the highest level.
Moreover, it was a critical race from a political perspective as well. The 57th running of the Le Mans 24 Hours saw an estimated 235,000 spectators watch a field of 55 Group C1 and C2 cars that was arguably the finest entry list ever assembled. Yet behind the scenes the atmosphere was toxic, to the point that the ACO, the governing body of the 24 Hours to this day, and the FIA, under the autocratic rule of Jean-Marie Balestre, had fallen out big time. Therefore, the 24 Hours was removed from the World Sportscar Championship; not that it deterred the factory teams from entering the sport’s most important race. This was the era when Group C was at its height, starting to challenge Formula 1 in popularity, and the controversial, ill-fated and already unpopular 3.5-litre atmospheric engine formula was on the horizon to replace the fuel efficiency Group C rules that had proved so successful. Conspiracy theorists had plenty to work with.
As for Sauber-Mercedes, they’d steadily been gaining competitiveness until, in 1989, with new four-valve cylinder heads for the 5-litre V8 and an unstressed and frugal 720bhp in race trim, they were the class of the field. For Le Mans they would enter three cars, while ranged against them were four Jaguar XJR-9s from Tom Walkinshaw Racing to defend Jag’s 1988 victory, and a huge gaggle of Porsche 962Cs. Weissach may have disbanded its works team, but it had built four new cars for its favoured privateers. The most potent was part of the threecar Joest Racing squad, driven by Hans Stuck and Bob Wollek. Joest had been
THE CONTEST WAS OVER. THE SILVER ARROWS HAD THEIR VICTORY
the only team to break Sauber’s domination that year, and there were no finer drivers behind the wheel of a Porsche.
It was also the year Japan got serious, with new V8-powered Nissans and Toyotas. Their questionable reliability made them doubtful victors, but that didn’t stop them from winding up the boost to over 1000bhp to try to steal pole. Mazda, with its thirsty and underpowered rotary engine, was still plugging away, and Aston Martin was finding Group C life tough in its first year, its naturally aspirated 6-litre V8 prototype the slowest C1 car on the Mulsanne at 349kmph.
In the end it became a thrilling three-way manufacturer battle. From the start the no. 3 Jaguar of Davy Jones soon overhauled the front-row Mercs. Meanwhile, Nissan’s glory was short-lived when F1 refugee Julian Bailey collided with the no. 2 Jaguar while trying to snatch 2nd place, damaging the Nissan’s carbonfibre monocoque irreparably after just 30 minutes. By early evening it was Porsche’s turn, and the no. 9 of Stuck and Wollek soon had a two-lap lead, with its no. 7 sister car holding 2nd place. Surely there couldn’t be a seventh victory in the old Porsche? As for the Jags, mechanical issues were already taking their toll, the start of a run of exhaust, gearbox and engine problems that would decimate the squad.
Everything went brilliantly for Joest until around midnight when the 2nd place no. 7 car suddenly retired after a water leak caused terminal engine damage. In the early hours no. 9 began losing coolant, too, and while the team caught it in time, a three-lap lead became a two-lap deficit. Now, at half distance, Jaguar led once more (the no. 1 car of ’88 winner Jan Lammers, with Patrick Tambay and Andrew Gilbert-Scott), with Mercedes in 2nd (no. 61) and 3rd (no. 63), and the no. 2 Jaguar (of John Nielsen, Lammers’ fellow ’88 winner Andy Wallace, and Price Cobb) in 4th.
The picture had changed dramatically by breakfast time, though, with no. 2 retiring with a blown V12 and no. 1 in the pits with more gearbox woes. This left the Sauber-Mercedes of Mauro Baldi, Kenny Acheson and Gianfranco Brancatelli (no. 61) leading the no. 63 car of Jochen Mass, Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens, until a spin from Baldi reversed the order. When no. 61 hit gearbox problems of its own and had to be kept in fifth gear, settling for 2nd place, the contest was over. The Silver Arrows had their Le Mans victory, with 1st, 2nd and 5th places, all three cars crossing the line together, with the no. 9 Porsche suffering from clutch slip in 3rd, and the surviving no. 1 Jaguar in a lonely 4th place.
A classic contest then, and a pivotal moment in sportscar racing history. So I urge you to watch ‘Le Mans 1989 | A Film By Zephan R-P’ on YouTube and turn the sound up, for it’s a tantalising glimpse at the power, speed and fury of a gladiatorial age.
Top: Stanley Dickens, Jochen Mass and Manuel Reuter are all smiles after bringing the no. 63 Sauber-Mercedes home in 1st place ahead of the no. 61 car, above