Porsche's Indy Car Fails to Impress : Unser Is Faster Than Only Three Drivers at Laguna Seca

Times Staff Writer

The long-anticipated arrival of the all-new Porsche Indy car proved a disappointment Friday to anyone expecting a strong showing from the West German manufacturer.

"We expected Porsche to come over with a bullet-proof car, ready to move right up with the front-runners," said one prominent driver who begged anonymity because he might someday be in line to drive the car. "I can't believe they arrived so unprepared."

Al Unser, the four-time Indianapolis 500 winner given the chore of introducing the Porsche, could get it up to only 117.546 m.p.h. on Laguna Seca's 1.9-mile hillside course.

That was barely respectable, considering that Mario Andretti went 129.237 m.p.h. in his Chevy-powered Lola. Andretti's speed was a track record, bettering his 128.969 of last year.

Only three drivers--Randy Lewis, Jeff Wood and Dale Coyne--ran slower than Unser among the 24 entries.

"It's kind of embarrassing, but considering how little practice we've had, I don't know what else you can expect," Unser said. "We only had 20 laps on the car before it arrived here and that was barely enough to find out if the gears shifted and the wheels went around."

The Porsche looks like the sleek Lolas and Marches that come from England to make up the Indy car grids, but it is different in every respect.

For starters, it has a monocoque chassis built of laminated layers of aluminum by engineers at Porsche's research and development facility in Weissach, West Germany.

Power comes from a 2.6 liter V-8 Porsche engine designed to produce 750 horsepower.

What the project has lacked is time.

The decision to take the knowledge from Porsche's winning sports cars--which have dominated long-distance racing since the 917 was introduced in the early '70s--and enter the Indy car field was made Nov. 5, 1985. The first engine was tested on the dynamometer in December, 1986. The first chassis was unveiled less than a month ago, Sept. 16, at a lavish ceremony in New York City.

The car was to be delivered to Al Holbert, director of Porsche Motorsports North America, in time to race at Nazareth, Pa., three weeks ago. It didn't make it.

Then the target became Laguna Seca, where the Champion Spark Plug 300-kilometer race will be run Sunday. The plan was to test the car extensively at Portland International Raceway during the interim.

"Twenty laps is all we made before we had a little fuel pickup problem," Unser said. "It wasn't serious but it took time to fix. That's been the problem all along.

"Every time the project lost a day because of some unexpected problem, it ended up costing a week. It's almost like a formula. You lose a day and you really lose a week."

Unser took 41 laps Friday morning during practice, as much to familiarize himself with the new package as anything else.

"It looks frustrating right now, but I'm looking forward to working things out," he said. "There's something about helping develop a new concept that keeps me going."

Unser, 48, has a history of involvement with innovations. He qualified the first Cosworth-powered car at Indianapolis in 1976, drove the first ground-effects chassis at Indy and was the first driver to use the Ilmor Chevrolet in a race.

Unser's credentials made him Holbert's choice to introduce the Porsche.

Master mechanic George Bignotti, who has seven Indy 500 wins behind him, called Unser "the finest test driver in racing" when both were members of the Vel's Parnelli Jones team in 1970 to 1975. Mario Andretti, who was a rookie at Indy with Unser in 1965, calls him "the most race savvy driver I've ever known."

In 1985, Unser was a part-time driver for Roger Penske when Rick Mears was injured. Unser sat in for him and when Mears was slow recovering, Unser continued to drive and won the CART/PPG Cup championship by a single point over his son, Al Jr.

This year Unser was sitting on the sidelines again, without a ride, when Danny Ongais crashed one of Penske's cars during practice at Indy and knocked both himself and the car out of the 500. Once again, Penske offered his third car--this time a year-old March that had been used as a showroom car at mall openings in Reading, Pa.--and Unser came through again.

With a minimum of practice and starting 20th, the wily veteran from Albuquerque, N.M., worked his way up to third. When ill racing luck struck down Mario Andretti and Roberto Guerrero, there was Unser, ready to take his fourth checkered flag.

The green and white circus tent that housed the two No. 6 Porsche cars was the center of attention early Friday morning as Championship Auto Racing Teams began preparing for Sunday's race, No. 14 in a 15-race series that will end Nov. 1 in Miami.

The way the day started was typical of the new car's debut.

As defending champion Bobby Rahal led the parade of Indy cars out of the pits for practice at 11 a.m., the Porsche sat in place as German mechanics hurriedly bolted, screwed and wired pieces together. Unser patiently stood to one side, waiting for Holbert and Norbert Singer, the project manager from Germany, to say the car was ready.

"None of the mechanics, except Singer, speak English, so I never know what they're talking about," Unser said. "But I can tell by the tone of their voice that they're a determined bunch of guys."

Singer directed the highly successful Porsche 956 and 962 racing projects.

"Today was sure better than when I was in Germany," Unser added wryly. "I went over there to test the car and it didn't even have any wheels. There were some other things missing, too, but the missing wheels were pretty darn critical."

Holbert, a five-time International Motor Sports Assn. champion and Porsche's No. 1 man in this country, was surprisingly upbeat at the end of the disappointing day.

"We're very pleased the new Porsche ran throughout the session without a problem," Holbert said. "Obviously, we would like to be quicker, but that will come with time. Tonight we're planning several changes, including the installation of different gear ratios.

"If all goes according to plan, we should be at least two seconds quicker (in the second qualifying session today)."

That would still be only 122 m.p.h., however.

Whatever happens, the Porsche is virtually assured of starting Sunday's race because there are only 24 cars here and the contract calls for as many as 26 starters.

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