When Brocky and LP Went to Le Mans

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At home he was know as King of the Mountan, but Peter Brock was unheard of internationally. In 1984 Brock decided to change that by entering Le Mans 24 Hour in a Porsche 956  with Larry Perkins. In Australia, Brock and Perkins were a formidable endurance pair, but Le Mans was a very different game. 

There were five other Australians at Le Mans in 1984 in what was known as the Australian Assault. It was the largest Australian contingency Le Mans has ever seen. The most formidable team was defending champion Vern Schuppan, sharing a Kenwood sponsored Porsche 956 with F1 world champion Alan Jones and Frenchman Jean-Pierre Jarier. Alan Grice had scored a drive in a 956, as did Australian GT driver Rusty French. French’s drive was a reward from Porsche for winning the Australian GT Championship in a 935. Neil Crang was running in the C2 class in a Tiga-Cosworth GC84.

Brock and Perkins’ Team Australia effort was by far the most ambitious pairing however. The others had all joined existing teams, the entire Team Australia operation was Australian, with little Le Mans experience, and they only had two drivers instead of the usual three.

The Europeans were familiar with Perkins but not Brock. In the 1970s, Larry wentto Europe to compete in F3, and he had done a few F1 races, and Le Mans in 1978. He had a solid, but not spectacular record, winning the European F3 championship in 1975, finishing second in class at Le Mans in a Charles Ivey Racing Porsche 911. Despite his considerable success in Australia, Brock was a total unknown. Prior to 1984, Brock had competed at Le Mans once in 1976. He was driving a BMW 3.0L CSL that he had bought in South Africa and stripped and rebuilt in Melbourne. It lasted 17 hours before blowing a head gasket. The 1984 race was Brock’s first attempt at outright victory in an international motor racing event.

The BMW Brock drove in 1976

The BMW Brock drove in 1976

It was British commentator John Fitzpatrick who suggested it to him in Alan Jones’s kitchen. He'd won everything in Australia so why not go to Le Mans to compete with the best in the world. He even thought he could source them a Porsche 956. Then Bob Jane agreed to pay for it, and Greg “Pee Wee” Siddle would run the program. Peter Brock was going to Le Mans.

In hindsight, the project was probably too ambitious. There wasn't enough time to put together a race-winning effort. Perkins was a brilliant endurance racing engineer, he could build a Group A Commodore good enough to win Bathurst against much faster competition, but he knew the Commodore intimately. He didn't have enough time to learn the 956 properly. He began troubleshooting it six weeks out,  trying to find any weaknesses. It didn't stop a lower suspension wishbone bolt from failing at their shakedown at Silverstone. Perkins and mechanic Larry Burns had to travel to Weissach just two days before they were due to leave for Le Mans to pick up the race engine. The only testing they got was on a public road. Brock lead the way in an Opel Kadett GT/E with Perkins following in the 956. Larry only reached 198km/h, barely half the 956’s top speed.

Before Le Mans, Team Australia contested the 1984 1000km of Silverstone. Treating the event as a test session, they finished 21st. 

Team Australia's first outing was at the Silverstone 1000km

Team Australia's first outing was at the Silverstone 1000km

The race weekend started with French scrutineers judging the Porsche windscreen decal a millimetre or two too wide. Bizarrely, they also claimed that the Brock/Perkins 956’s wheelbase was too long, despite it being identical to all other 956 they’d inspected and passed without issue. To convince them it was legal, Team Australia had to measure the wheelbase themselves.

They only had one engine to last the weekend, so a conservative approach was needed. Boost was lowered from 1.45 bar to 1.2 bar and the rev limit lowered from 7800rpm to 7600rpm. Perkins was certain that with consistent 3:40 laps they would win the race, regardless of where they qualified.

Perkins qualified the car 15th with a time of 3:35:34. Peter Broke, as local newspaper Quest France mistakenly named him, had a chance to try and set a faster time in the afternoon session. He elected not to, to avoid placing any unnecessary stress on the car. The polesitter was the factory Lancia driven by Nannini and Wollek, with a time of 3:17:11. Brock and Perkins believed that was all the fragile Lancia would achieve that weekend.

For the first half of the race they ran competitively. Heat and fuel consumption were their two biggest problems. The team medic had warned them about heat stress. Brock insisted on having Gatorade in the car instead of water in the car. Their other solution was to wear cool hats, which piped cold fluid under their helmets, similar to a modern cool suit. When Larry got out of the car after his first stint he was exhausted, he climbed out of the car covered in sweat. During Brock’s first stint his cool hat failed. They kept persevering and got the car as high as fifth. They never tried to push the car harder than they needed to and carried on hitting their target time.

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Then things started to go wrong. Brock first reported that the brakes didn't feel right. Then the car started vibrating heavily and a wheel fell off. Brock brought the car back to the pits, where it took 28 minutes to repair the hub. That put them back in 35th place. Then at 9:00pm a rear rocker arm failed as Perkins was coming through the Mulsanne Kink at 350km/h. The car survived, and 14 minutes later was going again. They had climbed back up to 20th. Having fallen behind with mechanical drama, they decided to just go for it. Initially the decision paid off. Perkins had got the car back up to 8th place.

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But at 1:57am, after 18 hours and 45 minutes, their race was over. Larry was driving and takes full responsibility for the incident. This is how he described it:

"I came up fast on three slower cars. One went to overtake another and I went for the third lane and misjudged the situation. I didn’t allow enough room and ran out of road. I wasn’t tired, not in the slightest, which is why I don’t even have a good excuse. I was trying to keep up a good pace – around 37s – but perhaps I should have recognised a dangerous situation and backed off. We might still be driving round here. But these things happen. We were behind schedule and I was driving full bore. I suppose I went off at something like 240 kays".

Given how well they were running, it's entirely possible that they could have won, or at least had a top five, if the car was more reliable. Perhaps they should have been more conservative once they had got back into the top 10.

Bob Jane said of the Team Australia Le Mans attempt; "Survival is the name of the game here," he said. "We’ve learned that and a lot more. After all, we didn’t win the America’s Cup on our first try."

It's said that Brock could never forgive Perkins. The Le Mans accident may have been the catalyst for the pair's falling out. They competed at Bathurst once more together, and won, before going their separate ways. Peter had been lapping four seconds faster than Larry, and fully believed that he was good enough to win. Brock had immense self belief, it was his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. So when Perkins crashed their Porsche, he felt that he had cost them a certain victory.

It was around that time that Brock started working with chiropractor Eric Dowker and went a bit8 mad. It culminated in the Energy Polariser. The Polariser was a box of crystals that Brock claimed aligned the molecules around the car to improve performance. It was the Polariser that prompted Holden end their relationship with Brock. Some say it was Le Mans that pushed him over the edge. After he quit smoking there were rumours that he had cancer or fibreglass poisoning from the 956.

Perkins had one more attempt at Le Mans in 1988, driving the Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-9 for Tom Walkinshaw Racing. It's unlikely that he would have got a works drive if he wasn't managing the Holden Racing Team at the time, but his result showed that he deserved it. Sharing the #22 with Derek Daly and Kevin Cogan, he finished fourth. 

Despite never returning to La Sarthe, Brock never stopped believing in himself. He never wanted to stop racing. In one of his final interviews with Brett Ramsay before he died in 2006, Ramsey reminded him that the BMW he raced would be eligible to compete to compete in the 2008 Le Mans Classic. ‘I know where that car is and who’s got it! Boy that’d be fun wouldn’t it?’  Brock said.

Despite not finishing, Brock and Perkins’ effort at Le Mans was still respectable, considering it was their first time. Things could have easily gone very differently. But that's the cruel nature of motorsport. It was the most difficult defeat Brock has ever had to come to terms with.

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