Months of uncertainty about the future of the Sportscar World Championship have been cleared up by a very positive meeting of FISA’s World Council in the days that followed the 24-Hours of Le Mans.
The success of the 24-Hour race was at the centre of every debate. If the Automobile Club de l’Ouest had withdrawn from the World Championship series then there wouldn’t have been a championship, but it turns out that the ACO has no wish for further disputes with FISA.
Two years of wrangling, uncertainty and bitterness have not prevented the investment of £20 million into the circuit and its facilities. The ACO, the city of Le Mans and the region of the Sarthe, together called Le Syndicat d’Initiative had a very natural desire to protect this huge investment, and adherence to the five year contract with FISA seemed to be the only way forward.
This is not to say that the ACO is happy about every aspect of this year’s race. Far from it. The townspeople were disconcerted to be physically barred from approaching the cars and the teams, but there were enough spectators coming along just to see the Peugeots in action to increase the attendance figure by 10 per cent, to a quarter of a million over five days.
There were clashes of culture between the ACO, which has traditions going back to 1923, and FISA which virtually took over the running of the event. Monsieur Balestre gave one of his command performances on Friday, saying that the circuit was once a goat track and inferring that it would have remained one, but for FISA.
Monsieur Jean-Pierre Moreau, President of the ACO, managed to smile through clenched teeth, and continued to be placatory even into the next week despite the absolute failure of the 3.5-litre cars to demonstrate any staying power. In a nutshell, eleven 3.5-litre cars started the race and only three remained in the race at quarter-distance, one of which was classified at the finish.
It is supposed that when the works teams of Jaguar, Mercedes, Peugeot, Nissan, Toyota and Mazda apply themselves to the business of going the distance next year, some of them will succeed. Spurring them on will be 3.5-litre teams representing BRM, Spice, Brun, Konrad, Kremer, ALD, Lola and March, and current thinking is that there could be 24-26 cars contesting the World Championship series, rising to around 36 for the 24-Hours on June 20/21. Keeping track of the race on Sunday isn’t likely to be difficult, at any rate.
Next year’s Sportscar World Championship will comprise up to nine 500 kilometre races, plus Le Mans. The extended race duration will be welcomed by devotees, and it seems to signal an end to Bernie Ecclestone’s ambitions to turn the SWC series into a “made for TV” package.
He has, we hope instead, turned his attentions to a new FIA European Touring Car series which will consist of five or six races (not a championship) supporting some European Grands Prix, The British and Germans hope that FISA will adopt their regulations, but it seems more likely that something more like “supersaloons” will be specified, an idea once mooted as Procar.
That does take the heat off the Group C championship. It was noted that Mr Ecclestone went to the Constructors Commission in a placatory mood and proposed a series of 1000 kilometre races, or four 24-hour races.
It was the constructors and manufacturers themselves who rejected these proposals, the 1000 kms races because they thought the public had already spurned them and the 24-hour races because the intervals between would be so great that exposure would be reduced.
A limit of six has been placed on any make of car involved in the 1992 Sportscar World Championship, with the exception of Le Mans. This is a realistic target for March and Lola, pressing ahead with their Judd V10-engined Group C cars, though it remains unclear why there has to be any arbitrary upper limit on the number of cars representing one make.
Porsche dominated the grids between 1983 and 1990 because they made a good, competitive car that anyone could buy, and no doubt March and Lola would like to be in that position next year.
FISA’s communique states that competitors who have entered a team of two cars, and are accredited by the manufacturer of the chassis, may take part in the championship and score points. A maximum of four additional cars of the same make (of chassis) may be entered by other competitors, and score points on condition that they take part in all the events.
“At the next meeting in October regulations will be finalised to define the conditions in which competitors may enter additional cars in individual events,” says the communique. “These cars must have the same make of chassis as the cars entered in the championship and will not score points, except in the Le Mans 24-Hours event.”
The ACO President Jean-Pierre Moreau showed a very positive attitude in the days that followed, and quelled any speculation that Le Mans could be withdrawn from the championship (for instance, on the legitimate grounds that FISA cannot offer enough cars to guarantee the success of next year’s race). “I think that people recognise the interest of endurance racing,” he told our sister paper Motoring News. Already the length is increased to 500 kilometres, a step in the right direction, and I think that in the next couple of years we will have another 24-hour event in the USA or Japan. . . . and why not some 1000 kilometre races?
“What we want is to have the final decisions taken in October so that the race planning and publicising can be carried out properly. I think that there has been an evolution in the mentality of the constructors and that they have realised the importance of the 24-hour race. Next year could be interesting as virtually everybody will be on the same footing with 3.5-litre engines. Predicting the winner will be a very hazardous occupation!
“Also, certain people who were very much against the 24-hour event are now changing their minds, and I feel that everybody is now beginning to pull together to ensure the success of the event. We are generally happy with the way in which things are evolving.”
This statement by M Moreau establishes the level of stability that is desperately needed at the present time, and appears to guarantee the future of the Sportscar World Championship.
Without that stability, and without an upturn in the world’s economy, Eric Broadley and Dave Reeves might find that designing and producing their new Group C cars is the easy bit. . . . finding customers could be much more difficult.
It remains to be seen how successful next year’s 24-Hours of Le Mans will be without any back-up division. In 1972, the first year of the 3-litre formula, more than half the Le Mans grid comprised Grand Touring cars, many of them Porsche 911s and Ferrari Daytonas.
Certainly there was a terrific speed differential, perhaps greater than today’s drivers would tolerate, but those GT care were an essential part of Le Mans, the bass drums of an orchestra otherwise filled with lightweight wind instruments.
In all likelihood the Syndicat has decided to call a truce, and to work hard with FISA to arrange the best 24-hours that the 3.5-litre formula can support. Should that not be a success, the ACO could (and surely should) demand a free rein to devise a back-up formula more appropriate to the occasion. — MLC