The current Group C World Sports Prototype Championship goes into its final two years on the crest of a wave, with Jaguar defending its clutch of titles from Mercedes. Both teams have new cars to be introduced when the time is right, even though they'll be obsolete at the end of 1990, and the German manufacturer made it perfectly clear at a recent international motor sports conference that it wants nothing but the best for the Sauber team in the next few years.
Feelings are exceedingly mixed where the present and future of the championship are concerned. Even without the intervention of FISA this year's contest would have involved Jaguar, Mercedes and Aston Martin, and with the intervention we also have Nissan, Toyota and Mazda represented, for most of the season, by British based one-car teams (run, respectively, by Howard Marsden at Milton Keynes, Dave Sims at Hingham in Norfolk and Alan Docking at Silverstone).
Rather than 25-30 cars we would normally expect at a World Championship Group C race we are guaranteed 36 or 37, because FISA has laid down the law and made registration a compulsory matter with the threat of a swingeing fine should a team not manage to reach the venue. In its way that is admirable, but it has had a negative effect on some of the less well-heeled teams and, regrettably, the exciting Ferrari F40 project ordered by Charles Pozzi has been diverted into the German Supercup series because it won't be ready for Suzuka on April 9.
A nine-race calendar was produced, belatedly, on February 27 and it is not so very different from the original which was seen last September. Suzuka opens the championship on April 9, followed by Dijon (May 21), Le Mans (June 10-11), Jarama (June 25), Brands Hatch (July 23), the Nurburgring (August 20), Donington (September 3), Spa (September 17) and an American race on October 1.
Tom Wheatcroft has negotiated his first-ever pukka World Championship meeting at Donington, a fixture which will highlight the contest between works cars of Mercedes, Jaguar and Aston Martin. The whole legend of Donington is built upon the visit of Alfred Neubauer's Silver Arrows in October 1938, and on this occasion the "home teams" will be well prepared to meet the invaders.
Although Silverstone does not have a World Sports-Prototype Championship race this year, the traditional date of May 14 has been reserved for a round of the German Supercup series. It is not likely that a Sauber Mercedes will appear but it's just possible that a TWR Jaguar might race, and more likely that the Ferrari F40 GTC will make its first run in Britain. The weekend should be well worth reserving in diaries.
Controversy rumbles away over FISA's "entry fee" for organisers, rumoured to be US$600,000 per event. It is by no means clear that all will pay it, and one or two circuits are said to be embarrassed by the prospect of having to stump up that sort of money, although it could be reduced, by negotiation, if certain rights are assigned to FISA. The Automobile Club de l'Ouest's position is very difficult indeed, since Le Mans has television contracts which extend through to 1992, and FISA insists on holding all such rights itself. Traditionally, too, thc ACO invites entries and publishes a list in February, but early in March there was no sign of this simply because FISA now handles all the entries, and will announce the ACO's list at a time of its choosing.
"What can we do?" A leading light in the ACO threw up his hands as soon as I raised the subject. "We cannot stay in the World Championship, but FISA will not allow us to leave it, either. We are in dispute with FISA about television rights, we have no entries because FISA takes care of all that, and we are not allowed to take an entry fee, even though a proportion pays for fuel, and other sums are returned to the teams. Maybe it would be best for the ACO to cancel this year's race completely, and then to see what we can save."
Clearly the World Championship is experiencing growing pains on its way to becoming a spectacle that will be more professional in every way. In time it will be better for the manufacturers, the private teams and all their sponsors, but I doubt it will be any more enjoyable (there, I've used that word again, when everyone has told me not to!).
What about the spectators? Well, FISA took away the "big" Fords, Ferraris and Chaparrals in 1968, the "big" Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s in 1972, the Porsche 935s and 936s in 1982, and will abolish the "big" Jaguar XJRs and Sauber Mercedes in 1991, so I suppose that we should be getting used to the treatment by now.
In their place (to the theme "Here We Go Again"), we'll have uniform 31/2-litre, Formula One-powered two-seaters running at uniform speeds, more or less, and we'll all be trained to say that it's jolly exciting, isn't it? The races will be over in two hours and will be contested by one driver per car, unless FISA cares to listen to Mercedes, Jaguar, Aston Martin, and all the manufacturers who actually spend millions to provide the entertainment.
We will return to Motor Sport's proposed Grand Touring Car series next month, but can already report that reaction from manufacturers, as well as readers, has been exceedingly favourable. We have positive replies from Porsche, Ferrari and Aston Martin, and expect one from Jaguar. The first three welcome the suggestion, any rate, and significantly all mention preference for unmodified sports-car racing, an equivalent of the Group N (showroom) saloon car class.
Jurgen Hubbert, Mercedes director in charge of racing, stated at the conference: "We want a championship that is orientated towards long-distance reliability, and in conjunction with other manufacturers we will do all in our power to achieve our objectives. We want a mixture of races, perhaps 350km and 500km as well as 24 hours, that will be more interesting for the public, for the media and for our marketing goals."
Whether or not FISA is open to persuasion of this sort by the major manufacturers, at some stage the rulers will have to answer one simple question: if, in 1991, each race is contested by 36 cars and 36 drivers, from where will the ACO find 50 cars and 150 drivers for its annual 24-hour race? It may not be too difficult to build 14 extra cars, but inevitably there will be 114 drivers who've not handled the cars before, not ever — and conditions may be horribly wet and foggy for all we know. Monsieur Balestre, who talks a lot about safety, really will have to address that problem whilst he negotiates with the ACO over this year's race.
It is not constructive to harp on the many and varied difficulties attached to building up the championship, but neither do we intend to plunge onwards towards the better future without studying the course and charting its pitfalls.
OSCAR, the Organisation of Sports-Car teams, was formed in 1985 with Chris Parsons as its chief executive, and generally the small organisation did an excellent job in building up the FISA championship and, sometimes, making it viable at a time when FISA itself either ignored the series, or was an actual hindrance to its smooth functioning. About a year ago FISA decided that there wasn't any mileage in ProCar after all, because the big manufacturers simply wouldn't play, and that it would instead turn its full attention to the World Sports Prototype Championship, a ready-made series already supported by the cream of the world's sports-car manufacturers.
First, the teams and entrants had to be divided, and that was achieved by calling for the dissolution of OSCAR, whose members were already in a state of rebellion over the step-by-step transition towards the 3.5-litre formula. OSCAR was duly disbanded, last May, and is now all but forgotten. Parsons has closed his office and awaits news of any task that Mr Ecclestone may have in mind, while John Macdonald performs a minor part of the co-ordinating job once carried out by OSCAR.
That is where we've been, and where we are now, and readers can make of it what they will. As DSJ always says, once the engines are started the moaning can't be heard any more, and I am sure that will be true of the sports-car formula on April 9.
The Silk Cut Jaguar team directed by Tom Walkinshaw runs XJR models for Jan Lammers, Patrick Tambay, John Nielsen and Andy Wallace, while in the States Price Cobb and Davy Jones form the backbone of the IMSA programme.
The team will certainly rely on the familiar 7-litre V12 engine at Le Mans, but the TWR people at Kidlington are stoutly denying the existence of a completely new V6 twin-turbo powering the new XJR-10 model, despite the belief of many people that it is almost race-ready. It will be equally welcomed by the World Championship team, which faces a mighty challenge from the Sauber Mercedes C9/89, and by the IMSA team,which was rather surprised at Daytona to see the Nissan GTP pulling away despite further restriction on its turbocharger inlet diameter.
The Sauber Mercedes team looks much as it did last year, but more effective in several ways — notably in organisation and in engine efficiency, with the new Mercedes M119, a 32-valve, 5-litre V8. The team's drivers are Jean-Louis Schlesser, Jochen Mass, Mauro Baldi and Kenny Acheson, the Irishman having impressed Peter Sauber very much last year at Le Mans (despite non-starting) and at Fuji.
Aston Martin's hopes of a gentle learning curve were dashed when the prototype AMR-1 was written-off at Donington in February, apparently due to a driveshaft breakage. Now the team is working flat-out to prepare a replacement chassis for David Leslie and Brian Redman, and it will be powered by a Callaway Engineering-tuned 32-valve Aston Martin V8 engine developing close on 700 horsepower. Great things are expected of this car, but not until the latter part of the season.
Nissan will run a 3.5-litre, twin-turbo V8-powered car regularly for Julian Bailey and Mark Blundell, but will use last year's cars at Suzuka for its "home team" of Kazuyoshi Hoshino/Toshio Suzuki and Masahiro Hasemi/Anders Olofsson. Tom's Toyota, from its English base near Snetterton, will run one car regularly for Johnny Dumfries and Geoff Lees, while Mazda-speed's representative Alan Docking will run a quad-rotor model for (it is expected) David Kennedy and Pierre Dieudonne.
Privately-run Porsche teams will again form the backbone of the championship, with three cars from Walter Brun's stable, two from Reinhold Joest's, and seven single-car entries; one of these is Richard Lloyd's highly-developed 962 for Derek Bell and Tiff Needell, fully backed by Porsche Cars Great Britain Ltd.
Spice Engineering has moved up into the new 3.5-litre class with SE890 models, driven by Ray Bellm, Wayne Taylor and Thorkild Thyrring. Four times World C2 Champion Gordon Spice has not yet committed himself to driving for the team, which will rely on Cosworth V8 engines specially built by John Nicholson. They are based on the DFZ, but deserve a new identity. MLC