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


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 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

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