For weeks on end the success of the 1992 Sportscar World Championship depended on the whim of the Sultan of Dubai, and on March 2 he extinguished Alan Randall’s dream with a telex pulling out of a sponsorship deal that would have bought nine Jaguar XJR Group C cars from Tom Walkinshaw, and propped up the ailing series.
It was ridiculous, of course, that the World Championship should have hung by such a tenuous thread. Who, after all, is Alan Randall? Should we have believed the man when he declared his intention to buy all these cars and run a fleet of six Jaguars at Le Mans?
“We viewed his claims with a great deal of scepticism,” said Walkinshaw on the fateful day in March. “But when someone says he’s got a deal like that you don’t just ignore what he’s saying.” Randall had, after all, lodged a genuine £52,000 of his own money with FISA to register five cars for the SWC series, and he had to be believed when he said: “This is not a charade.”
At a stroke the potential entry was slashed to 15 or 16 cars, including the FIA European Cup entries, and serious doubts arose concerning the viability of the Sportscar World Championship. Would any organisers want such a paltry championship round . . . and would they pay FISA good money to have such a race? The downfall of sports car racing is catastrophic for Peugeot, for TOM’S Toyota, for Euro Racing and Lola, for BRM and for Mazda, who had pledged a total of nine cars for the full World Championship series, for hundreds of engineers, mechanics, managers, suppliers and, not least, the drivers.
Pity Jean Todt, the man Monsieur Balestre, ex-FISA president, dubbed ‘Napoleon of the Desert’. In his absence last November the infamous Heathrow meeting apparently voted the championship out of existence, but since then Todt has called three meetings at Peugeot’s headquarters in Paris.
The second of those, on December 19, seemed to do the trick. FISA’s current president Max Mosley turned through a full 180 degrees, from being utterly dismissive on December 20 to fully supportive of the championship on January 2. Nobody doubted that Todt had exerted great pressure on FISA in order to keep the Peugeot team in existence, backed by Toyota of course, but we see now that Todt won the battle and lost the war. After all, Bernie Ecclestone and Mosley were right. The championship should have been despatched on November 11, allowing time for a viable non-championship series to be arranged in support of Le Mans.
It was because of their foolish pursuit of the 3.5-litre formula that sports car racing was so humbled, and it was because of their greed that the private teams were forced to the point of bankruptcy, but that was no longer the point. Simply, the Sportscar World Championship was a defunct series, doomed by the withdrawal of Jaguar and Mercedes.
There may be sports car races this year, and the Le Mans 24 Hours will take place as usual. With luck it will be an ‘open’ event to 1990 regulations, attracting not only the intending World Championship teams but ‘works’ Jaguars and Nissans. In an ideal world, Aston Martin might be there as well.
The crisis will deepen on Monday June 22. When the dust settles on Le Mans everyone will have to take stock of the future. What sort of cars will take part in the 24 Hours in 1993? Will they be IMSA machines, ageing Group C relics or Grand Touring models? Perhaps we will have an amalgam of the three, because none of those categories would be strong enough on its own.
Group C is finished, both in original ‘unlimited’ forms (now obsolete) and in 3.5-litre guise. As for IMSA, I discussed last month a new axis between America and Japan. It will be a strong one, but somehow I doubt that it will take root in Europe.
It will be dominated by the Japanese manufacturers Nissan, Toyota, Mazda and Honda with opposition, in the States but nowhere else, from Chevrolet. No European manufacturer comes to mind with the will, or the budget, to set up in opposition to the Japanese . . . not Mercedes, not Jaguar, not Peugeot and not Porsche.
“To start a Group C programme today would cost as much as Formula 1. More! Believe me.” Those are the words of Max Welti, formerly the manager of the Sauber Mercedes World Championship team, who was appointed Porsche’s competitions director on January 1, and has spent two months making an in-depth study of the options available to the Stuttgart manufacturer.
Welti knows that another Group C/IMSA programme similar to the 956/962 model line is simply not within Porsche’s resources. Why, he asks, would any manufacturer spend a Formula 1 budget on a series that’s on life support? Given the money, and given the motivation, Formula 1 is the only sensible route to take.
If 3.5 litres was appropriate for sports car racing (and we can now be sure that it isn’t), how can these high-revving, hi-tech, high-cost units be prepared for Le Mans? And how could enough private entries be assembled to make a decent race in June?
Inescapably we come back to Grand Touring racing, the only way forward. In January and February 1989, when the 3.5-litre formula was a very recent decision from the rulers in Paris, I argued strongly for second thoughts and proposed a ‘Supercar Grand Touring’ category in two classes: up to 3500 cc or 2000 cc with forced induction (minimum weight 1250 kg), and up to 6000 cc or 2500 cc with forced induction, with a minimum of 1500 kg.
Typically, I wrote, a tuned Group B engine should yield 100-110 bhp per litre, to a ceiling of 660 bhp, and this would be quite enough to push an XJ-S or a Testarossa down the Mulsanne Straight at 200 mph.
Insignificant as they may be in terms of world production, ‘supercars’ generate an inordinate amount of interest. They are, literally, the cars of people’s dreams, featuring prominently in motoring magazines around the world. Why, though, do we so rarely see these machines in action?
Technically dead, the 3.5-litre formula must be replaced by another, more viable category for which the machinery already exists. It cannot be a World Championship, the title which became a millstone round the neck of Group C, but above all FISA must not simply consign sports car racing to the dustbin.
FISA owes the world, and certainly owes Le Mans, technical regulations for a sports car category, and the framework for a European championship which will support the 24 Hours. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest has a further four years to run on its contract with the FIA, and if the old spark still exists it must decide, soon, just what it wants to replace the faltering Group C formula.
The FIA has not been forgiven for despatching the European and World Touring Car Championships on a flimsy pretext. The FIA will not be forgiven for wilfully wrecking the World Endurance Championship. But above all, the FIA will never be forgiven if it plunges the Le Mans 24 Hours into oblivion.