Increasingly F1's poor relation, sports car racing should be remember the halcyon days argues Gordon Cruickshank

Nostalgia is an easy trap to fall into - particularly if you are part of a magazine team whose stock in trade is history. MOTOR SPORT centres on the past glories of motor racing, but that doesn't mean we are not aware of great racing today or dull racing past: the long-distance races of attrition in the 1920s with 20-minute intervals between cars, the handicap events when no-one has a clue who's leading, even Grands Prix with no overtaking. It just doesn't make good reading, that's all.

Our rose-tinted goggles are removeable: it's not long since we argued that Grand Prix racing is better than ever. But that doesn't mean that everything modern has improved, and for a prime example, look at the muddle sportscar racing is in - again.

Forty years ago, Aston Martin beat Ferrari to the World Sportscar Championship. Who won isn't, in this case, the point: what matters is that there was a single race series including the great long-distance races where car lovers could cheer on famous drivers in emotive machines. No, a DBR1 or Testa Rossa weren't for going shopping, but they were driveable road cars.

That glorious tradition has been dispelled by today's reality: no overall title for 1999, a plethora of different race series, multi-million dollar projects made redundant in a season, and one single event overshadowing all others to the extent that cars are built solely for that and enter no other races. The result is a fog, obscuring what should be the playground of the most exciting cars you can buy. Has there ever been a more glorious range of sportscars on sale? After the extraordinary '80s outburst of 200mph supercars from Jaguar, Ferrari, McLaren and the new Bugatti, sportscars are multiplying like bacteria, from the outrageous TVR Speed 12 and W12 VW through Audi TT, BMW Z3 and Toyota MR-Spyder to the affordable Lotus Elise and Caterhams. Single-seater formulae, one-marque racing and the popular BTCC offer great racing, but if it's the machinery which excites you, it's still somewhat unsatisfying. The passion is still there, in both industry and public, but where is the common arena for some scintillating competition?

The answer ought to be: at Le Mans, as the centre-piece of a variety of races around Europe and the USA. But this year the Sarthe will be carved up by a new breed of prototype from Audi and BMW which have in one winter shoved even last year's villains, the GT1 racers, off the stage. Yes, these are mainstream manufacturers, but fielding machines with neither visual nor mechanical relevance to the cars they want us to buy.

After the sterility of the Group C years when fleets of Porsche 962s circulated in 1000km economy trials, the 3.5-litre 'two-seater F1 car' arrived, in the shape of Jaguar's XJ-R14 and the Peugeot 905 - both, ironically enough, carrying the badges of famous road-car makers. Some observers saw this as some sort of breakthrough - sportscars finally catching up on GP cars - but, barring the sheer achievement of building a sprint car to last 24 hours at the Sarthe, it left spectators cold. There was nothing to identify with, and as the costs escalated, the grandstands at many tracks stayed empty. Jaguar and Mercedes did their sums, and baled out in 1992, leading to the end of the world championship.

The re-introduction of GT cars in 1993 was a success for a while. We saw Ferrari back with the F40, a mad-going Jaguar, the return of Bugatti, V8 Lotus Esprit and front-engined monsters like the Lister and Chevrolet-powered Marcos. And in 1995 a McLaren based on a road-car won at Le Mans - the biggest prize of all. Grids grew, and for sportscar lovers it looked like a new golden age.

But the following year the escalator started up again, because the requirement to offer cars for sale failed to specify a minimum number, and manufacturers, led by Porsche, saw a short-cut to glory. There's no doubting that the Porsche GT1, Mercedes CLK-GTR and Nissan R390 are fantastic machines, but they make a mockery of the spirit of the rules. Toyota's GT-ONE is virtually a Gp C car with number-plates, and the fact that one wealthy individual can be persuaded to write a £1,000,000 cheque for one does not make it a production car. You can't blame the manufacturers: if the PR benefits look like outweighing the investment, they would be daft not to join the A-stream. But in the midst of the bickering and instability, fields have begun to shrink again.

Last year at Le Mans the open-topped prototypes were handicapped by smaller fuel tanks, but the new generation will be challenging for overall victory. Suddenly the GT1s are also-rans, scrabbling for a class win, and Porsche, humiliated by the latest Mercedes CLK-LM, has withdrawn its GT1 from Le Mans altogether while it prepares its own prototype. An attempt to offer an International Prototype Cup, replacing the successful FIA Global GT series, crashed on take-off in February, leaving only British and French GT cups. These will field hearty privateer grids of McLarens, Dodge Vipers and Marcos - the sort of car we all love to watch, but with little international significance or manufacturer involvement.

Heavyweight machinery to older LM rules has been reprieved by the International Sports Racing Series and its American equivalent, the USRRC, where you can run your Riley & Scott (the V8 roadster from the small US race team), your 333SP Ferrari, or the new dual-purpose Lola. But if you have a serious LM contender, the only other bracket you can run in is the American Le Mans series, instituted by Don Panoz. He is the man behind the Panoz sports-racer, a near-private undertaking of the sort we thought had vanished - a triumph of passion over logic, and exactly the type of exciting craziness sportscar racing can offer if we let it. It is in the ALM that BMW will hone its Williams-designed car ready for June, which means top-name drivers appearing and healthy media coverage.

That won't be the case in the other series, where the complex segregation and lack of an overall title mean that even the best drivers won't be racing heroes. Skilled professionals, but not legends. In past years you went to see Fangio, Moss, Hill, Andretti exercising their endurance skills away from GPs. We know that won't happen again. But sportscar racing brought its own stars: Clemente Biondetti caning a 2.9 Alfa over the Futa pass, Pedro Rodriguez with a Porsche 917 balanced between his fingertips, Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx piling on the laurels for Weissach. Will that happen in ISRS? Even Le Mans?

This fragmentation, with interesting cars in low-profile series and high-tech bolides at Le Mans, works against one of the unique elements of sportscar racing - a fantasy element if you like, to do with owning one of these cars ourselves. From the pre-driving schoolboy who dreams himself behind the wheel of a McLaren F1 roadcar to the successful businessman eating up the motorway in the silence of his S-class Mercedes, there is a link between the dream and the reality. Before WWII you fancied yourself in a Bentley or Alfa Romeo; after it in a Jaguar, Aston Martin or Ferrari. But no-one has ever lusted after a Dauer or a Joest, even if it has the word Porsche tagged on to it. The power of a recognisable name has been shown to pull in new followers - witness the extra crowds who travelled to Le Mans when Jaguar began to look like winning.

Of course, those people had to actually travel to France to cheer on their team because in this country there is no mainstream television coverage of the world's most famous motor race. And while spectating must be a Good Thing, the numbers are barely significant compared to the viewing figures for F1. But is this because modem Grand Prix racing is intrinsically more exciting to watch? Surely not - there is a constant grumble about the lack of overtaking and the fact that it is a business of strategy, not passion. But if these huge numbers of people enjoy watching, are they also going to Silverstone and Thruxton, Ricard and Vallelunga to see other types of racing? In general no; this a market which says "I love sport" but actually means "I like watching television". Today it's a Grand Prix; tomorrow Italian football, next week the Olympics.

Regulations say a sportscar must have covered wheels and room for two seats, at least nominally. Thus even a Williams-designed BMW is always going to be heavier than a GP car and can never equal its performance. Since the niche of ultimate technical endeavour is already occupied by F1, it seems redundant to apply that level of engineering to another field, when the machines which result are, in effect, handicapped versions of F1 cars. Agreed, nudging the boundaries of the FIA's rulebook requires immense creativity in its own way, but we need a forum where small outfits like Marcos, TVR, Callaway and the briefly revived Allard can have their moment in the sun alongside Porsche, Mercedes and Toyota.

There is no other field where, however briefly, the proud small firms can play with the big guys, and the cycle of escalation which the prototypes have repeatedly brought always sends the small outfits home again. Prototypes are racing's H-bomb, feeding an arms race at immense cost. Once the other guy has them, you need them. And like nuclear weapons, we can't uninvent them, and it's almost impossible to regulate their development. Even the new ban on carbon-fibre monocoques comes too late to prevent Ferrari homologating its carbon F50 as a GT racer, which could thus upstage its road-based rivals. The best we can do is agree to a moritorium, and return to conventional weapons - production sportscats.

But how do you define 'production sportscar'? Stipulating a minimum number has often backfired. No-one thought Lancia would build 400 Stratoses to go rallying, or Porsche 25 917s. Nor does fitting one car with silencers and a handbrake and selling it to a collector make it a production car. We need a lateral answer to defining the sportscar, one which doesn't rely on dozens of rules which can be cleverly punctured.

The Editor's theory is that scrutineering for Le Mans should be in the Champs Elysees, with all cars then being driven to the Sarthe obeying all relevant laws. If anything would get TV cover age, that would. But designers would find a temporary way to get even a prototype rolling down the N10; we still need a design factor which is an inherent brake on progress.

The world of rallying has already invented a neat solution to the homologation question - the 'kit car'. Group A rallycars must be based on a production vehicle, but manufacturers are allowed to make 20 parts kits to convert these into serious machinery. Why can't we have a sportscar formula which requires cars to be based on at least the centre section of a machine with Type Approval, but with a 'kit' option allowing makers to revise, even re-engine, as long as they use a production block? We might have a V8 Audi TT neck-and-neck with a TVR Speed 12, Volkswagen's W12 swapping paint with an F50 Ferrari, Chevrolet Corvettes battling with a new breed of Lotus-inspired Toyota and Honda road cars. That wouldn't be so bad, surely?

It would, sadly, mean no modern equivalent of the 512M Ferrari or Porsche 917 - the greats of the genre. But if the big boys can't play nicely with their toys, then they must risk losing them altogether. And after all, we have one big advantage over history - we can still go to watch great machines of the 1950s, '60s and '70s in historic racing. In one way the golden years will never be over.