The Le Mans 24 Hours is built on solid traditions, most of them established over decades. There have been many changes over the years, some of which have altered the character of the race, but none has had quite such an impact as the modification discovered by early arrivals at the Sarthe; the Mulsanne Straight has a Chinese restaurant.
Peter Sauber was among the first to find out, wandering innocently into the legendary establishment owned for many years by the family Brault, and always the place for both teams and punters to relax over a beer. As Peter discovered, it had changed drastically.
There were clues; piped oriental music, pictures of dragons and funny little lanterns. Not to mention the politest staff the place has ever had. Further investigation revealed the new 'Shanghai des 24 Heures' sign over the door. Herr Sauber could only smile and shrug his shoulders. Is nothing sacred these days?
Over in the paddock area, there were alterations which some considered even more significant. The new pit complex is simply stunning in its scale, towering over the area like the giant stands at Daytona or Indianapolis. There were teething problems, but generally teams had nothing but praise for the marvellous facility. But as most people agreed, the atmosphere was, let's say, different.
In the run up to qualifying, everything seemed low key, less urgent than in times gone by. Perhaps it was caused by the new buildings, or the smaller field, or maybe it was just the knowledge that this year's grid would be artificially topsy-turvy thanks to the ruling requiring the top 10 3.5-litre atmos to start at the front. And things definitely weren't helped by the dismal weather; showers came and went as practice approached.
Certainly the rain did its best to ruin things on Wednesday evening, normally the session which features the most excitement. Instead it was a pretty dreary affair.
The rain had actually stopped before the cars went out at 7pm. Indeed, the track was dry enough to cause most runners to come straight back in for an urgent change from wets to slicks at the end of their first exploratory lap, only a few cars carrying on to do two before stopping.
But almost before everyone had completed the change and set off, the rain started again. The pits filled up with traffic, and we all looked at the heavens. Only a handful of cars had slipped in representative, quick-ish laps, and one of them was the entry we were looking out for: the Jaguar XJR14.
Cathy Muller, Lyn St James, Shunji Kauysa, and Desire Wilson at scrutineering © LAT
TWR had scrutineered two of the new cars to satisfy FISA rules, but only one was due to go for an all-out pole attack to frustrate Peugeot. Derek Warwick was the intended driver, but Tom Walkinshaw correctly out-guessed FISA. He found an ambiguous rule which suggested that as pole man Delboy might be forced to start the atmo machine (and thus not get points when he switched to the V12 car), and brought it to the attention of the stewards, who agreed he was right. Normally it's the other way round.
Thus at the last minute Andy Wallace was unexpectedly given full qualifying responsibility, having expected just to drive the car for the first stint of the race after Derek had (hopefully) stuck it on pole. Andy's experience in the XJR14 amounted to a dozen damp laps of Silverstone a fortnight earlier, and it was no easy task to go out and chase a time having had so few miles in the tricky left-hand gearchange car.
After two laps on wets, he made the switch to slick race rubber, and posted a strong 3m37.111s, 10 seconds down on Mark Blundell's 1990 Nissan pole but just a second shy of the Jag V12 record. After pitting, Andy went out again only to be thwarted by the rain. There was no point in trying any more, and the car was pushed away, on pole by five seconds over an impressive early flier by the Peugeot of Yannick Dalmas.
"I went out and felt where you could go quickly and where you couldn't, and my first flying lap on slicks was that 3m37s," said Andy. "I took it so gently, because you build up to things in this car. The lap after that a Merc got badly in the way, and I pitted. I went out again, and I was much, much faster through the Porsche Curves, but a Peugeot hampered me, and I never did a whole lap. Then it started to rain and we called it a day."
In those frantic dry minutes just five cars broke 3m50s, with Dalmas on 3m42.0s, Hans Stuck's Joest 962 on an excellent 3m43.2s, Jean-Louis Schlesser's Mercedes C11 on 3m46.1s and Warwick's XJR12 on 3m48.9s. Those times would stand for the rest of the evening, for it continued to rain in to the darkness. The public parts of the course, coated with the muck of 12 months of cars and lorries, were particularly slippery, the cars fishtailing their way out of Mulsanne Corner and Arnage. Those who missed the dry window were well down, and nobody enjoyed the conditions.
"I have to say that in the wet I was frightened", said Warwick, back for the first time in five years. "I went out at the wettest time, the bleakest time, and to be quite honest, I just couldn't believe it. My eyes were out on stalks. In the wet you've got to know the circuit so well because you see so little."
There were no major dramas, but thanks to deteriorating conditions, only 50 drivers in the whole field qualified within the necessary 120 per cent of pole man Wallace, and everyone was hoping for better on Thursday.
The second day followed a similar pattern, with rain coming just before qualifying. Once again it stopped before the session commenced, but the track took 40 minutes to dry enough for someone to try slicks. And this time, it remained dry for the rest of the evening.
Oscar Larrauri took the slick gamble first in the Brun 962, and when his times tumbled the opposition took note and followed suit, the Mercedes, Jaguar and Peugeot pits soon busy with the sound of clattering air hammers. The XJR14 had sat out the wet period, but Wallace was slotted aboard to defend his pole in the dry.
After the tedium of the Wednesday, we were now treated to an enthralling display as all the top cars put in their first proper quick laps of the week, and the Olivetti/Longines screen flickered like Christmas tree lights as it registered improvements every few seconds. The skies were heavy and threatening, and no one knew if the break in the weather would last, which added to the sense of urgency.
The first really mega lap came in from Schlesser. Poleman here in 1989, he wanted to make a point to Jaguar and everybody else, and at 8:15pm he hustled the C11 turbo round in 3m35.8s, quickest overall. As we've come to expect, Mercedes was virtually spot on with its calculations on the team's first encounter with the chicanes, and the C11s were working superbly.
Philippe Alliot then produced 3m37.6s, uncomfortably close to Andy's existing mark, and showing that Peugeot was more of a threat than we'd thought. Seconds later came the response of 3m.35.4s from Andy, followed by 3m34.9s on the next lap. Pole was back with TWR, but only just.
Andy's next lap was slower, and for good reason. He was right on the tail of team mate Bob Wollek at the final right hand kink before Indianapolis - the fastest part of the track - when Bob's right rear tyre let go. Andy backed off, and was stunned to see the Frenchman keep the fishtailing car on the road.
"When I back off for the right-hander the car just started to oversteer in a straight line," said Bob. "I was lucky to be able to catch it. It was real luck that it didn't go on the grass, because for a fraction of a second I thought I'd hit the barrier and damage the car badly."
Wollek got back to the pits with just the shattered sidewalls of the tyre remaining, and only tail and underbody damage to show for it. The number 34 Jag was temporarily out of the equation while repairs were made.
Meanwhile, on his next run Wallace brought the pole time down further with 3m32.9s, and with Alliot's repeated attempts not bettering 3m35s, pole looked safe. Moments later, out of the blue, came a second flier from Schlesser. This really was a stunner; 3m31.270s, achieved with consummate ease and putting the car firmly on top. As we took this in, Wallace was still pounding round, improving with 3m32.2s and finally 3m31.9s before the flag signaled the 9pm break between the two sessions. The Jag was still comfortably on the atmo pole, but it was not fast enough to pip the overall best of the Mercedes. Back in the pits, the delighted Jean-Louis was grinning contentedly.
"We had a gentleman's agreement in the team that everybody should have one set of 160s (soft race tyres)," said Jean-Louis. "Everybody had to take a chance, but I took the chance too early, when it was too wet. Then I took the race rubber and did this quick time. There was a crash at the Esses, and there was a marshal in the middle of the track and I had to go round the outside, so I was very surprised I made a 3m31s, as it was also still wet in the Ford Chicane. It was on the medium boost, because this is the race engine, and they didn't want to put on qualifying boost.
And would he respond if someone beat his time in the final period?
"Even if somebody goes faster I don't care," he shrugged.
Schlesser had no reason to worry about his time being bettered. During the break, Walkinshaw decided that the disappointed Wallace would not be allowed a crack when practice recommenced at 10pm for the final session, which passed without major incident.
Tom was not impressed with Andy's time, but perhaps there had been a touch of over-confidence in the straightline ability of the high downforce car. A trick high-speed wing configuration was available - without the upper plane- but it was never tried. Andy reckoned he'd wrung as much out of it round the corners as he could manage, given his lack of experience with it.
"Basically, I just needed to get a clear lap of any description to do a time," he said. "It's so damn quick in the corners you can't find any track to run in. The last two laps I did were 32.3s and 31.9s, and on the first one I had to follow a Mazda through the Ford Chicane. The next one was my last chance. It was absolutely clear all the way round, which was the first time it had happened to me. Then I saw a Jag in the distance."
Unfortunately for Andy, Davy Jones was unable to get out of the way as the XJR14 burst out of the Porsche Curves, and Andy lost those vital seconds.
Warwick/Nielsen/Wallace TWR Jaguar XJR-12 © LAT
On Friday, after much thought, Tom announced that the XJR14 would not, after all, start the race. Mercedes could thus be happy with fastest time overall, and Peugeot could claim the front row of the grid with the two fastest remaining atmos.
In reality the twin 905s were third and eighth overall, which was not a bad performance. In contrast to TWR, Peugeot had spent enormous effort on a Le Mans straightline package, and it paid off. The team had the advantage of a pair of qualifying cars with which to chase times, and despite the frantic activity in the pits - protected from all outsiders by unhelpful security guards - the team had its most painless qualifying session of the year.
Alliot was charged with qualifying chores in number five, and set the best time in the T-car, which was in full sprint spec apart from its aerodynamics.
"But it was not quick enough," said Philippe. "I found every lap big traffic, and it was really difficult for me to do a good lap. The car was happy to do a 31 seconds, sure the pole position. The handling was very, very good. I'm really surprised. The car is really not too bad at all, and we've had no problems."
The sister car was less lucky. Shortly before the all-important Thursday session the team discovered a faulty oil tank in the race car, forcing Keke Rosberg to use the spare number five, which was heavier and less effective than Alliot's T-car. Keke then blotted his copybook by spinning into the gravel at the second chicane, without major damage. Dalmas then took over qualifying chores, and set a 3m38s on soft rubber.
"The balance wasn't very good, big understeer," said Yannick. "I had one lap on race tyres and one on qualifiers, but the car was very difficult."
After the break Keke had another go, but on his hot lap second gear failed. By then the much better race car was ready, but there was no attempt to improve the time with it.
On the grid the Peugeots would be followed by eight somewhat slower atmo cars, mainly Spices, with only the Euro Racing entry of Cor Euser setting a decent time for 18th overall.
Schlesser would start back in 11th, as top C2 car. In formation alongside and behind him were the two sister C11s, in an impressive demonstration of Mercedes teamwork. Karl Wendlinger placed the number 31 entry 12th in the fourth and final session, both the Austrian and his young team-mates quickly settling in to the groove on their Le Mans debuts. Jonathan Palmer's earlier effort with the number 32 was just a fraction slower.
For the second year running Larrauri took top Porsche honours with a splendid effort in the Repsol Brun car. This was a brand new and unsorted 962, and lost a lot of time with an electronic problem. It was going better by the final session, and Oscar set his best of 3m36s on his very last lap, just before midnight. Fantastic.
That took the Porsche prize from Manuel Reuter, who had run strongly early on for Kremer. Harri Toivonen crashed the race car on his first lap on Thursday, and Manuel took out the spare. With the T-Car, Reuter had the chance to run mega boost, and it worked to good effect.
Brun and Kremer were delighted to beat the twin Joest entries, which lined up next. Hans-Joachim Stuck was very pleased with the car in its new short-tail/Goodyear configuration, but his chance to go quickly on Thursday was spoiled when Derek Bell ran wide exiting the Dunlop chicane, and dropped the nose into a hole he hadn't expected to find. Repairs took a while, and there was no time for an all-out effort by Hans after that. Bernd Schneider was a mite slower than Stuck in the second car, which struggled with electronic problems on the first day.
And what of the Jaguar XJR12s? They lined up 11th, 18th, 21st and 22nd overall on times, equivalent to 18th, 24th, 17th and 28th on the final grid. The rain spoiled any chance of the cars attempting to get near the front of C2, and the team concentrated on race tests, perfecting set-ups, and giving drivers mileage/ the superb preparation paid off, and apart from Wollek's puncture, there were no worries. Raul Boesel set the quickest time, with 3m43s.
Mazda had a strong practice with its three cars, benefiting from the 170kg advantage over the other fuel-restricted C2 cars. Volker Weidler placed the star 787B shared with Bertrand Gachot and Johnny Herbert 12th - good for 19th on the final grid. The rotary-engined cars looked set for their best Le Mans to date.
Saturday morning's warm-up was held in damp conditions, and wets were compulsory for the whole session. By 4pm, however, the track was dry, and the sun was even poking through in places. The atmosphere prior to the start was as jolly as in previous years, with the traditional drivers' parade receiving massive cheers. As usual, the Jaguar boys got the biggest ovation from the packed terraces.
Many drivers were worried about the wisdom of starting the 10 top atmos at the front, several of them extremely slow machines. Sure enough, the first couple of laps provided some entertaining action as the quick cars fought their way through the traffic.
Alliot headed Rosberg away from the Spices of Charles Zwolsman and Naoki Nagasaka, but it didn't take long for the two to be overhauled. Schlesser, Wendlinger and Larrauri caught up and made their way by on the run to the second chicane, leaving only the Peugeots ahead. The 905s swapped places on lap two when Alliot missed a gear, and Keke nipped through.
We had expected the Peugeots to disappear into the distance on outright race speed, but once past the traffic Schlesser went quick enough to catch second man Alliot by lap three. For a while it looked like JLS would sneak past the French car, but after shadowing it for three laps he fell away, accepting that there was no point in chasing it. Meanwhile Alliot lost out to Rosberg through the first stint, dropping at a second a lap.
The Mercs looked quick, but after an early charge Wendlinger followed team orders to take it easy and cut his pace a little, allowing the Porsches of Larrauri, Schneider and Stuck through. On lap seven Bernd dropped out of fifth when the Joest team made and early fuel stop, deliberately putting the car out of sync for the duration.
Larrauri was the man on the move, and the Repsol car was soon looking as strong as it had last year. On the ninth lap he caught Schlesser, taking third place as the pair flashed past the pits. Could the 962 run this pace?
The Jaguars certainly couldn't. We knew that the XJR12s did not want to get involved in any argy-bargy, but their early pace was unexpectedly slow, at best some five-six seconds off that of the Mercs. Even after nine laps Warwick and Jones were only 10th and 11th, with David Leslie down in 17th and Teo Fabi 18th. It was clear that this was more than just a conservation of machinery. At 1000kg, and with the expanded 7.4-litre engine aboard, the XJR12 simply wasn't able to do the times on the fuel.
The first round of stops was signaled by leader Rosberg, who handed to Dalmas after 10 laps. After a lap in third place Larrauri also opted for an early stop, staying in the car, while Schlesser followed Oscar in, and handed the number one car to Jochen Mass.
Weidler/Herbert/Gachot Mazdaspeed 787B © LAT
Next lap came near disaster for the Peugeot team. When temporary leader Dalmas came in to hand to Jean-Pierre Jabouille, fuel was spilled over the car as the mechanic with the hose beat the vent man, causing a blow-back.
In an instant the whole pit was alight. Crewmen dashed every which way, and it was several frantic seconds before flames on the ground and the car were doused. Amazingly no-one was hurt in the horrific-looking incident, but Jabouille had a lucky escape. The car was pushed to the fuel gantry of the sister 905, and after a quick clean-up Jean-Pierre dashed out in 22nd place.
Meanwhile Stuck plus all the Jaguar drivers stayed aboard for double stints, apart from Fabi, who handed to Wollek. Palmer had taken it easy in the number 32 Merc, keeping out of trouble, and during the stop sequence he leap-frogged from ninth place to the lead on lap 12 before he too stopped and handed to Stanley Dickens.
The quicker non-regulated Peugeot stop gave Dalmas a cushion of more than 30s on Larrauri, who was under pressure from Schneider's 962 (after his short early stop) and Michael Schumacher's Merc. The young German had got in front of the number one car of Mass during the changeover, and was looking strong.
Through his first stint, Rosberg had been troubled by an engine which cut out intermittently. With Dalmas aboard, the problem was getting worse, and on lap 15 the leader pitted for investigation. Some three minutes were lost, and he resumed in 15th, two places behind the recovering Jabouille. Peugeot's early promise was fizzling out, and within two laps more ground was lost with another stop for Dalmas.
Shortly after that, Jean Todt's men suffered a double blow. Dalmas came in for a third stop to trace the problem, and this took 45 minutes, the team replacing the black box and assorted wiring. When the car resumed, a total of 11 laps down, it was running fine.
In the meantime, Peugeot had lost its other car, Jabouille parking at Indianapolis with the engine blown after 1h26m when 10th. It was about as bad as Jean Todt had feared.
With the Peugeots out of the way, attention switched to the Mercs. Schumacher had passed Schneider and Larrauri- and survived a heavy collision with the slow Obermaier 962 - and now sought to head off his more senior team mate. Michael led Mass by some 30s prior to the next round of stops on lap 23-24. With third youngster Fritz Kreutzpointner being saved until later, Wendlinger took over again, and ran a similar distance ahead of Alain Ferte (in number one) in the next stint.
All the while the two C11s pulled ominously ahead of the opposition. Kurt Thiim was also kept back by Mercedes; Palmer had taken the third stint in number 32, and was running very smoothly in fourth. With third man Pareja losing time in the Repsol car after taking it from Larrauri, it would not be long before the third Merc made it in to the top three.
At the two-hour mark 11 cars were still on the lead lap, Wendlinger leading from Alain Ferte, Pareja, Palmer, Henri Pescarolo, John Nielsen (in the quickest number 33 Jag) and Bell. The Joest cars ran strongly, while the XJR12s were starting to work their way up. Boesel had number 35 up to ninth, although the number 34 car of Fabi, Wollek and Kenny Acheson had an early spin and was a bit off the pace of the other cars, down in 16th.
Dieudonne/Yorina/Terada Mazdaspeed 787 © LAT
The first major blow to Jaguar's plans came at 6pm, when Mauro Martini stopped the green number 36 Suntec car at the first chicane after the failure of a fuel pump switch, when running 14th. He tried a little electrical work, but it took him fully 45 minutes to get going again, effectively reducing the Jag challenge to three.
Through the third hour Mercedes consolidated the one-two-three, the juniors keeping their lead at 30-40s. The Repsol car continued to make the others look silly by going strongly in fourth, until losing time with a long scheduled stop, and dropping out of the top six. That left the Joest cars running in fourth and fifth, shadowed by the best-place number 33 Jag.
At 7pm, not long after he resumed in the Suntec car, Martini dropped a wheel over the kerb at the chicane with sufficient impact to pull a wishbone mount out of the chassis. The team conducted an unprecedented repair job, rebuilding the front of the tub. The car would not be seen again until 9:23pm, by which time it was 52 laps down on the lead.
Meanwhile, at 7:15pm, leader Schumacher came in to hand to Kreutzpointner for the first time. Making his first sportscar start, Fritz was naturally cautious in his opening laps, which undid the good work of the others. At the same time Schlesser took the number one car from Alain Ferte and started to make inroads into Fritz's lead. Ten laps after the stops, Jean-Louis had reeled in Kreutzpointner, passing him for the lead at 7:50pm, on lap 60. Dickens and Palmer were some 90s down in third, having never quite matched the early pace of the other cars.
Schlesser handed back to Mass on lap 61, while Kreutzpointner stopped for Schumacher a lap later. Wendlinger took the wheel again and came storming out just as Mass passed the pits. Karl slotted in behind, but then made an uncharacteristic error at the Dunlop Chicane, spinning on the exit on his cold tyres. He struck the tyre wall on the right, side on, the car then bouncing round. It looked a heavy impact, but Karl got going again and headed to the pits where nose and rear wing were replaced. Just six minutes were lost in the whole episode, dropping him to ninth. He soon set about making amends.
Karl's shunt took the pressure off the leader, and Mass was left with a comfortable 90 seconds lead on Dickens. This gap had remained stable for some time, and would stay in place for most of the fourth hour. And on lap 67 we had a Jaguar in third place for the first time, Wallace benefiting when the number 57 Joest car of Pescarolo made its out-of-synch stop. The sister Joest car of Bell/Stuck/Frank Jelinski lost time with an investigation of a water leak at 8:37pm. For the rest of the race, the car would be blighted by the problem.
That left Larrauri (back in the Brun car) with a chance to chase the Jag for third, a task he relished. Oscar reeled in Wallace and passed him on lap 74, not without some spectacular, if brief, resistance from Andy.
By the fifth hour the best of the Mazdas had started to look like a serious contender for a strong placing, Weidler, Herbert and Gachot running with no major dramas and some fast and economical lappery. Significantly, they could keep up the pace and run on the fuel, and were looking quicker than even the best of the Jags, if not the Mercs. Always around the top six, the car even figured briefly in third at 9pm, prior to a scheduled stop.
There were no such problems for the Mercs, nor indeed the Jaguars, until Warwick spun into the Indianapolis gravel at 9:25pm. The number 33 car had been in a strong third place, but suffered a four-minute delay while it was dragged out, dropping it to ninth.
Warwick/Nielsen/Wallace TWR Jaguar XJR-12 © LAT
"The engine is cutting out under braking," said Derek. "Coming in to Indianapolis I changed down and had no engine; I jammed it into gear and the thing swapped ends."
Meanwhile the Brun/Repsol challenge went kaput with a rear suspension failure at 9:40pm, which cost eight laps. The Kremer car of Reuter/Toivonen/JJ Lehto had suffered a breakage earlier on, having been a top 10 contender.
"It's the 100kg," said Walter Brun. "It's too much. We were not the first and I don't think we'll be the last."
The surviving Peugeot had been running very quickly, albeit miles behind, until it struck gearbox problems. There was a major rebuild, but shortly after Keke took over the car stopped on the Mulsanne at 9:45pm with an unrelated gear linkage failure, when in 29th place. The team could pack up early.
As the six-hour mark approached, the lead of the number one Merc over number 32 had been extended further by Mass, from 1m30s to 2m35s; Thiim finally had his first stint in number 32 at 9pm, and simply could not match Jochen. The gap was such that Mass could hand to Alain Ferte without the car losing the lead.
A charging double stint by Wendlinger recovered third place after his early shunt, and he handed to Schumacher at 10pm. Warwick's spin had left Davy Jones/Boesel/Michel Ferte as the best Jaguar in fourth. The screaming Mazda was in fifth, while both Joest cars were also in the top seven; number 57 flitting between fifth and seventh between its out-of-sync stops. Jags numbers 33 and 34 traded eighth and ninth while number 36 was back in 34th.
As the race moved into darkness the Mercs continued their clean run up front. All the while, the juniors regained the time lost in Wendlinger's shunt, Schumacher in particular setting some impressive times but still hitting the fuel target. At 10:45pm, on his 102nd lap, he set a stunning best of 3m35.5s, which would not be beaten. The car was being driven very hard, but would it stand the pace?
Over the next three hours virtually all the top cars ran like clockwork, and there was very little change at the head of the pack, although the Bell/Stuck/Jelinski 962 started a slow slide down the field with water problems.
With the field thinning out quite dramatically - most of the 3.5-litre cars having packed up in the opening stages - the night-time atmosphere in the new pits seemed more subdued than usual, lacking the traditional urgency. But over in the beer tents and the fun fair it was business as usual.
Excellent driving by Schlesser, Mass and Alain Ferte stretched the number one car's lead over Palmer, Dickens and Thiim to nearly six minutes. Shortly after 1am, the junior team overcame the Palmer crew to secure second place. Then, at 1:50am, came the first chink in the Mercedes armour, when third-placed JP came in complaining of a dire handling problem. The nose and tail were removed, and a panic set in as team members checked under the car and rushed around. The underbody had been damaged by debris in an earlier stint by Dickens, and it was necessary to effect urgent repairs.
Weidler/Herbert/Gachot Mazdaspeed 787B © LAT
"The car started to get very light at the front end, and over about 180mph it started wandering," explained Palmer. "So I did another lap just to make sure, because there's nothing worse than coming in to the pits with some fairly vague-sounding symptom. And then at 200mph on the entry to Indianapolis it just wandered 10ft across the road, and I figured enough was enough."
The stop stretched out to some 36 minutes, dropping JP to 11th, nine laps down. The panic was increased by simultaneous elongated stops for both the other cars, amid much waving of inspection torches over the rear ends, although both cars resumed without major delay. JP's rear lights were not connected properly when he resumed, and he had to come straight back in to sort that out, losing more time.
Palmer's problem may have been outside the team's control, but suddenly Mercedes looked vulnerable, and finally TWR could sense a reward.
But at 2:30am the fates dealt Jaguar another blow. Again Warwick was the victim, coasting to a halt with a dead engine at Arnage. Delboy took advice over the radio and discovered a loose fuel pump plug, which enabled him to get back to the pits. Some 13 minutes were lost, dropping the car from sixth to ninth place.
Meanwhile, after a consistent, trouble free run, the number 35 Jones/Boesel/Michel Ferte XJR12 rose to third place, carrying with it the hopes of the massed Jaguar fans, many still loyally on night duty opposite the pits.
"The car's run really nice," said Jones after completing a stint. "Raul and myself are working well together, and we're nursing the car. But fuel's tight at the moment, and it's definitely the most difficult year we've had to set a pace to the fuel."
And in the tow of the Jag was a car which had been within sight for virtually the whole race; the Herbert/Gachot/Wiedler Mazda. Through the night the orange and green 787B emerged as a truly serious contender, being driven flat out by the three youngsters.
The number 57 Joest car ran fifth, ahead of the Fabi/Acheson/Wollek Jag, which had also run without dramas, and was gradually moving in to the picture after its slow start. Also well up was the Dave Kennedy/Stefan Johansson/Maurizio Sandro Sala Mazda, not as quick as its sister thanks to a different top gear and the Stuck Porsche, despite its top-ups.
At half distance, 4am on a chilly Sunday morning, that number one Merc still seemed to be running to plan. The margin over the recovering youngsters was 3m30s, the best part of a lap. The second Merc was under no threat; its advantage on third was over nine minutes.
That third place was held by the Mazda, which went by the top Jag on lap 172, the position then swapping with fuel stops. "I keep seeing that bumblebee," said Jones. "It appears behind like a Mercedes."
Kennedy/Sandro Sala/Johansson Mazdaspeed 787B © LAT
The other Jags were both running quickly, Warwick keen to make up time after the disappointment of his two delays. Also charging along was the number 32 Merc, going well after its underside repairs, Palmer and Dickens doing all the running while Thiim was on-hold.
The second quarter of the race had been relatively uneventful. But after halfway the action would pick up dramatically.
The first big drama came at 4:50am. Wendlinger was exactly a lap behind Schlesser when he brought the second-placed car into the pits, just nine minutes after a scheduled stop. It was a gearbox problem, perhaps one induced by the hard charging recovery by the young guys. The back came off the gearbox, and 13 minutes were lost.
"I took the car from Fritz, and I went out for a half a lap and fourth gear stuck in, so I had to stop. The first time they thought it was a little adjustment, but it wasn't."
After one lap Karl came in again, this time losing 20 minutes with further repairs. The carnage in the mid-field was such that the car slipped only to ninth place eight laps down. Wendlinger gained a spot when the number 57 Joest 962 retired with its own gearbox problems.
The recovery of Jaguar number 33 was set back when Wallace slid into the first chicane gravel at 5:22am, losing three laps while he was dragged out, while there was more drama when Martini crashed at Tertre Rouge at 5:50am, and required lengthy repairs. At the same time Acheson pitted for a new nose for the number 34 Jag; the remains of a rabbit were splattered on the old one.
By now dawn had broken, and gradually the grandstands and pits got busier as people returned from their slumbers, to find the position very different from when they left. The number one Mercedes still led, although it was overheating. Second was a battle between the Mazda and Jones/Boesel/Michel Ferte, the position swapping between stops.
However, it looked more and more likely that the number 35 would not be in contention, as the Mazda was quite simply quicker; indeed, past 6am it was going five seconds faster than the lead Mercedes, which was now backing off, having built a three-lap, 15 minute advantage.
Despite some quick lappery, the number 32 Mercedes was still back in 10th when Dickens brought it in with an engine problem at 7:15am. There was much scratching of heads, but 15 minutes later, it was pushed back into retirement.
"The original incident with the debris had knocked something through the underbody and affected an engine damper of some sort," explained Palmer. "That caused the engine to vibrate and lose power, which broke an engine mount, and took some suspension as well. So it was all fairly catastrophic!"
Meanwhile the fourth-placed number 34 Jag started to sound rough, suffering a broken exhaust, while at 7:25am there was more action for the beleaguered Suntec Jag, Jeff Krosnoff clattering in to the Tertre Rouge barrier.
"They'd put another rear wing on, and it was trimmed less, and when I went out it was oversteering all over the place," Jeff explained. "But I was comfortable with it so I kept going, but that corner was getting slick, and I just got caught out."
This required a 54-minute repair job. And then not long after resuming, Krosnoff stopped exiting Arnage, having coasted from Mulsanne, where he had lost drive. By some bizarre chance, Jelinski stopped the number 58 Porsche right next to him minutes later. Both men worked frantically to get the cars going. Frank sorted his electrical problems after a few minutes, but Krosnoff had to call it a day after a fabulous efforts by the TWR/Suntec mechanics.
"I guess that's the end of that," joked engineer David Benbow. "It finally curled up its tootsies and died!"
Warwick/Nielsen/Wallace TWR Jaguar XJR-12 © LAT
By around 9am, the flying Mazda was firmly established in second, the threat from the Jones/Boesel/Michel Ferte Jag having faded with its fuel performance. The number 18 Mazda had risen to a fine fifth, but it was to drop several laps to seventh when a suspect driveshaft was replaced. At 9:15am, the recovering Repsol/Brun 962 lost its 11th spot with another suspensions failure, this time at the front.
Through the morning the Mazda kept chasing the lead Merc, but number one retained its three-lap advantage. The number 35 and 34 Jags ran untroubled in third and fourth, but the mood was pretty reigned at TWR. The team could only wait for the others to break.
At 11:35am, their hopes were raised by more activity in the Mercedes pits. Having got back to fifth, within striking distance of the number 34 Jag, Schumacher was suffering with overheating. A water pump drive belt was replaced, and Kreutzpointner resumed with another 12 minutes lost. The car was now in sixth position, having rescinded a place to the number 33 Jaguar, itself climbing back after a hard race.
Thus far, nothing major had gone wrong with the leading car, although the team kept a close eye on the telemetry for signs of rising water temperature. At most stops attempts were made to clear the radiators and purge the system, and quick examinations were made at the back. Would there be a repeat of number 31's problem?
Occasionally puffs of smoke could be spotted around the rear of the car. Tension in the pits mounted, and all at Jaguar - not least to mention Mazda - kept their eyes on the pit television monitors.
Finally, at 12:50am, came a sign of weakness. Still in front of the Mazda by three laps or 13 minutes, Alain Ferte got an urgent message to slow and pit. The pit telemetry told of disaster, resulting from another thrown water pump belt.
"At the beginning of the straight I had 'Alain, please come in to the pits immediately.' I say, 'Why? I need information.' And I checked the water temp, and she was really, really high. And after Arnage, it went right up."
Alain crawled carefully back to the pits. This stop was the turning point in the race, and a desperate affair it was. Immediately one sensed that this was a very, very serious problem, and when the engine was started and stopped very smokily several times, serious panic set in. Crewmen ran around, engineers talked in little huddles, and mechanics dived in to the sidepod. New batteries and starter motors were handed round, hot fluid ran all over the new pits, and visitors such as Stuck came down to take a look.
The entire attention of the pitlane and grandstands focused on Mercedes, and the three-lap advantage slipped away. At 1:05pm, Weidler blasted past the pits into the lead. And he received as big a cheer as any Jaguar would have attracted.
At 1:28pm, Ferte finally left the pits, but he returned next time round. This time the car was pushed away.
Weidler/Herbert/Gachot Mazdaspeed 787B © LAT
"The whole engine was overheated," said race engineer, Walter Naher. "There was not enough water in it, so it was very hard to start it. The starter motor then overheated too, so they had to change it, and after that the engine was totally overheated, and maybe the water pump as well."
The magnificent one-two-three of the previous evening was long forgotten, with just the Wendlinger car left, five laps down on the leading Mazda in fifth place.
Positions second to fourth were held by the trio of Jaguars, number 33 once again making up time after Wallace's early morning off. The three Silk Cut cars continued to run beautifully, but the Mazda's lead grew all the time.
The Mercedes retirement had somehow made the race come alive, and most people in the place were lifted, suddenly filled with enthusiasm. Even at TWR - where the link with the Japanese company goes back many years - people could raise a smile at Mazda's fortunes.
At 2pm Weidler ducked in to the pits at the end of another good double stint, allowing Herbert to climb aboard.
"It's unbelievable," said Volker, sweating and barely able to comprehend that the 787B had run so strongly. "There's nothing wrong with the car, no problem at all, just tyre changes, petrol and go. We were driving very hard during the night and yesterday, but now we're backing off a little bit. We can go quicker if we have to, but the drivers are a little bit tired, so we take a bit more care. But we have no problems, the gearbox is perfect. I've done my job now."
As the stands and terraces filled to capacity with drunken, cheering Brits, the Mazda pounded round, still not missing a beat. Herbert pitted for the last time at 3:41pm, and stayed aboard for the run to the flag. As the final minutes ticked away, Mazdaspeed boss Takayoshi Ohashi and his team director Jacky Ickx strolled down the pitlane towards the rostrum, accompanied by Mazda flag bearers. They received a huge ovation, Walkinshaw encouraging applause from the fans. It was a nice touch.
As usual the spectators ruined their own enjoyment of the closing seconds, invading the track and preventing the cars from crossing the line properly. Somehow most competitors made it in to the new parc ferme behind the control tower, and the drivers of the top three cars were ushered to the new podium.
All but one. Poor Herbert was exhausted after his last and very stressful two-hour stint, made harder by the arrival of hot and sunny weather after lunchtime, and he keeled over in his father's arms on climbing out of the car. He was carted off for medical attention, and missed the loud and very emotional rostrum celebration. The Japanese girls in the Mazda entourage could not control their tears, and looking at his name on top of the results sheet for this great race, Gachot could only shake his head and repeat: "I just don't believe it."
The Jags continued on their merry way to second, third and fourth, Jones, Fabi (the new World Sportscar Championship leader) and Nielsen having the honour of crossing the line. The irony of it was that this was TWR's best ever showing, with none of the traditional Sunday morning disappointment and no sign of sorry-looking steaming V12s in the pits. Two cars didn't miss a beat and Warwick's suffered only a loose wire. And the retirement of number 36 had only come after it had been battered in three separate accidents. Tom could be proud of that, but a win was all he wanted.
Kreutzpointner secured fifth in the sole-surviving Mercedes, which ran very hot in the last two hours. Later Wendlinger admitted that the youngsters had simply run too hard, and panicked too much about the need to recover from their early delay when Karl shunted it.
The Weidler/Herbert/Gachot Mazdaspeed 787B leads the field to the finish © LAT
"I don't know why we did that. But we know now for next year," he said.
"It was a really fantastic race," said Jochen Neerpasch. "Of course for us it as disappointing. We prepared ourselves, I think, to a very high level. The team was good, the car, everything was good. But that's Le Mans. It's like 10 races at one time."
The Kennedy/Johansson/Sala Mazda took sixth, its only delay coming with the driveshaft change. Without that, it would have been up with the Jags. Bell, Stuck and Jelinski emerged from their problems with seventh; a sad final fling for the Porsche 962.
The third-string Mazda pounded round to eighth, while the Kremer and Brun cars staggered home ninth and 10th. There was a good showing from the new Fedco Spice team to take 12th; it was the only classified atmo finisher, 36 laps down on the winner.
Next year, we're told, the Le Mans 24 Hours will be purely for atmo cars, which will make lap charting easier on Sunday morning. However, I suspect that the Porsche teams have re-booked their hotels, just in case.
Attention Jean-Marie Balestre: how about a formula for 830kg rotary-engined cars? That would be something.