The 1989 24Hr of Le Mans and Beyond

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The 24 Hours of Le Mans was a particularly notable race for Sauber Mercedes.  In claiming pole position, the C9 also achieved a top speed of 247 mph down the Mulsanne straight, one of the highest top speeds ever recorded at the race.  Drivers were becoming concerned that their cars might take flight running over the bumps and undulations that littered the long stretch of pavement.  As a result, the 1989 24 Hours of Le Mans was the last time the race ran on the track configuration without the chicanes that now break up the 6km straight.  But despite this performance and a 1-2 qualifying effort, it was Jaguar that led the early going laps of the race.  Oil leaks gave way to the charging Porsche 962 of Stuck and Wollek who held the lead for several hours after that.  Jaguars outlasted some additional mechanical gremlins plaguing other driving high in the order to regain a lead in the middle of the night, but gearbox problems would be the end of their contention.  All the while, the Sauber Mercedes C9s drove competitively, and issue free as the M119 was proving itself to be a bulletproof powerplant.  Sauber Mercedes’ cars moved into first and second position and would not relinquish as they took the checkered flag of the 1989 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

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On another note, one of the less heralded teams in Mazdaspeed Co. fielded a pair of 767B race cars which although were classified in the GTP category, finished 7th overall outlasting many C1 prototype cars.  The 4 rotor Wankel powered racer was clearly an up and coming force, and the Japanese team was doing something right.  Perhaps a topic of later discussion? 

After the champagne went flat, it was back to business as usual for the Sauber Mercedes team who went on to claim 7 of 8 races in the 1989 season of the World Sportscar Championship.  Clearly 1989 was the defining year for the C9 platform, for the obvious achievement of their World Championship, but also for how it got there.  All of the previous race cars in the Sauber C lineage had culminated their incremental advancements in chassis and aero design to create the basis for this championship winning car.  It resurrected Mercedes as a leading force in premier motorsports competition which continues to be the case in present day (please see driver classifications for the 2014 and 2015 Formula 1 seasons…).  As is with the case of every dominant championship winning car, in Group C competition, or any other form of racing for that matter, the build up to a winning season is usually paved with several failed attempts, but a continued drive to go back to the drawing board and cook up a new and hopefully winning formula.

Spurred on by the incredible success, Sauber was keen on developing an all new car, despite the rumours of major technical rule changes coming for the 1991 season.  The team turned once again to Leo Ress who did away with the aluminum monocoque and opted for a carbon fiber one instead, because this is the space age, and aluminum is dug up from the ground.  Formula 1 was always leading the way with new technology in the design of race cars, so sports prototypes were quickly following, and carbon fiber was the was moving forward.  It boasted superior rigidity achieved in a lighter weight package.  The existing M119 engine was bolted to the chassis, and had minimal tweaks from 1989 form. The silver arrow style livery remained unadultered as well.  The aerodynamics of the car progressed in the same way the other 1990 vehicles we’ve discussed thus far, with more aggressive ground effects, sleeker bodies, and larger, lower rear wings with massive end plates. 

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In the highly creative world of race car names, Sauber shocked the world by naming their new racer the C11.  Apparently C10 has an awkward pronunciation in German (sounds like ts tsayn).  Regardless of naming convention, the C11 debuted in 1990 for the World Sportscar Championship, but not the first race.  Sauber Mercedes elected to field the C9 for the 1000km of Suzuka as they weren’t confident the C11 was fully ready yet.  It turned out to be a smart move as they won the race with last years car.  But as the lingering reliability issues were cleared up in the C11, it was prepared to make its actual debut at the following race at Monza.  With Jaguar’s XJR-11 proving to be an inconsistent performer, Sauber Mercedes had little competition once again, winning all but the Shell BDRC Empire Trophy at Silverstone, which in an answer to the home crowds prayers went to the struggling Jag.