If we think about Le Mans and a South African connection from the 1980s, it is usually the iconic Sarel van der Merwe that springs to mind in most instances. But there was another fast Saffa...
By: Wilhelm Lutjeharms
Pictures: Supplied by Art & Revs
George Fouché was another South African who successfully raced in this field and this era. In fact, at the (very) young age of 17 he was already racing a Kremer Porsche CK5 at the Castrol 1000 at Kyalami!
George participated in a number Le Mans races later on, as well as several other endurance races during two decades of professional racing. When the Toyota 92C-V he had competed in came up for sale at Luxembourg dealer Arts & Revs, we gave George a ring to chat.
“1994 was the third year we drove this car and we came 4th. By that year we had done three years of development on the car. It was a wonderful car, a full carbon-fibre machine. In qualifying trim it developed almost 1400 bhp (1 000 kW) – that got your attention! You could only use that for one lap though, otherwise you were going to cook the engine.
“How it usually went is that we would go out with around 1200 bhp (890 kW) to get used to it all, then come back in, turned the boost up and then have a single qualifying lap. We usually had two qualifying sessions, and they would change engines between those two sessions. We basically had two qualifying engines and a race engine per weekend – they were crazy with the budgets back then! It was simply too risky putting so much stress through an engine during qualifying and then race with it as well.
“That said, by that time these cars were really developed to be able to run a 24-hour race at the limit. Earlier, in the '80s, we had to look after the cars, keep off the kerbs, brake a little earlier. In the '90s it became even more competitive to the extent that Le Mans basically became a sprint race.”
I wondered whether it was a huge challenge for George to get accustomed to having access to so much downforce?
“By then I had spent eight seasons in Porsche 962s, so after a day of testing in the Toyota we were on the pace. It didn't take long to get used to the additional horsepower. But it did have impressive acceleration.
“I never drove the entire Mulsanne straight in the Toyota, only in the Porsche, as they had already put the chicane in by the the time I got into the Japanese car. The most challenging corner of the track for me was Indianapolis. When you reach that corner, it is from one of the fastest places on the track.
“The most enjoyable part of endurance racing at this level is getting it right, carrying speed through the corners - braking that little bit later and carrying a few more kilometres per hour through into the next bend. It certainly gives you a thrill.
“There were also no air-conditioning systems in the endurance racers from that era, so the cabin temperatures were extremely high. The result was that you could lose four or five kilograms over the course of a 24-hour race. Even for a few days after the race you just couldn't stop drinking water.”
Having experienced one of the best-known tracks in the world in some of the most advanced racing cars of the day, I wondered who George admired in terms of the other racing drivers?
“I was a Senna fan in the '80s and a Schumacher fan in the 2000s and you can’t take it away from Hamilton these days, he is just so bloody good. He might have some ridiculous things to say, but he is up there with the best. In terms of people I have met, probably Nigel Mansell – he is pretty decent chap. But I’ve met a lot of great racing drivers over the years.
“In terms of race car highlights, the Toyota was definitely one of them. I also drove a Formula One Jordan in 1993 at Silverstone. If I must compare these two, the Toyota actually had stronger acceleration than the F1 car, but the stopping power of the F1 car was just incredible. Interestingly, the F1 car felt more controllable. The reason for that was that a many of the F1 cars were computerised with traction control for example. The endurance racers were heavier cars and bulkier to drive though. I’ll put both these cars in the top category of race cars I’ve driven.
“I was aiming to get into Formula One the following year. Eddie Irvine beat me to that one however.
“Suzuka is without a doubt my favourite track. The old Kyalami is a very close second. Suzuka is a very flowing circuit, going left-right-left-right with almost no straights. If you can get that flow right it is quite pleasing. I spent numerous seasons in Japan, so I probably raced at Suzuka around 30 times.”
After ending our interview, George joked and asked me whether I knew how much the Toyota was selling for… surely indicating that racers do have a strong bond with the cars that brought them success.
Model: Toyota 94C-V (final year of development)
Engine: 3.6-litre, V8, turbocharged
Top speed: 313 kph
Kerb weight: 917 kg
Le Mans lap time in 1994: 3:53.01
Total laps complete in 1994: 344