SWC In Jeopardy ... Again

It would be interesting to know what was going on in the mind of M Michel Cosson, president of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, when he sat beside FISA president Max Mosley at the annual Le Mans conference on June 19.

The style of the Friday press meeting had changed dramatically, from the Punch and Judy knockabout conducted by Jean-Marie Balestre (a performance that had the captive audience boiling with rage at one moment, shaking with derisive laughter at another), to a suave, persuasive, logic-laden question-and-answer session conducted by Mosley.

M Cosson is a polite, mild-mannered man who can turn on the steely look, as he did once or twice when Mosley’s assurances failed to convince him. It was ‘up periscopes’ time, and just 48 hours after the race had been run the deadly torpedo was fired towards Paris: FISA had failed to meet its obligations for the second year running, so the 1993 edition of Les Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans would be run outside the Sportscar World Championship.

Of course M Cosson had a very shrewd idea of the decision that would be taken after the weekend. It depended on a special meeting of the ACO’s board of directors, but the evidence was clear.

Bernie Ecclestone, in person, had negotiated the terms and rights, including the stipulation that as part of the World Championship the ACO had the right to expect FISA to deliver 50 cars, “insofar as this is possible.”

In 1990, when the race was outside the World Championship, 49 cars took the start, although the grid lacked the trio of Mercedes-Benzes that we hoped to see. The following year, under the auspices of FISA, 38 cars took the start and this year the number dropped to 24 Group C cars, plus four makeweight ‘national championship’ cars disgracefully deployed by the sport’s ruling body.

The number of spectators dropped from 230,000 to just 176,000 over five days, while TV rights negotiated by Ecclestone produced an absolutely pathetic level of coverage, with extensive footage on the Screensport satellite and cable TV channel but merely 10 minutes on France’s leading TF1 channel.

The ACO was not merely disappointed, they were hopping mad! “If it was my decision I would sue the FISA tomorrow,” said one leading official. “I doubt if we will go that far, but really, this is a catastrophe.”

It was a salutary experience, but it has been clear since the start of the year that the ACO had to go through with it. The massive debts associated with the new pits and grandstands will take another three years to clear, and the ACO couldn’t afford to be offside with FISA again unless with a perfect right, in law, to pull out of the World Championship.

Whatever went wrong? Back in November Ecclestone and Mosley tried to cancel the World Championship, and in retrospect it would have been better if they’d succeeded. Jean Todt, with a massive team to care for, fought back at FISA, assembled a list of 27 ‘promises’, and persuaded the authority to let the championship happen.

A FISA ransom of $3 million had to be stumped up by Peugeot, Toyota and Mazda in March, ensuring that come hell or high water the championship would proceed.

How disillusioned we all became! Alan Randall’s five Jaguars turned out to be phantoms, as did the four Allards, and sponsors blew away like a bag of feathers in the Imperial College wind tunnel.

Just 11 cars, a derisory number including FIA Cup entries, graced the grids of Monza and Silverstone, and fewer still will travel to Suzuka and Mexico. The FIA Sportscar World Championship has become a shameful travesty, an embarrassment to all those involved.

Surely FISA would allow the ACO to open up the entry list? Certainly not! M Todt, now the driving force in the series, vetoed any suggestion that the Porsche or Jaguar V12 teams could have more than 2,140 litres of fuel, some 400 litres (or four hours) less than before, on the grounds that he simply didn’t want these reliable old barges putting his 3.5-litre prototypes under pressure.

One can sympathise, absolutely. What M Todt was doing, though, was defending his team’s chances even though it was against the best interests of the sport, against the best interests of the ACO and against the best interests of the public at large.

Todt’s Napoleonic stand was justified by the result. The 3.5-litre cars were marvellously reliable and provided an excellent competition, but for much of the time they were not under pressure. The Peugeot team got rather uppity, in fact, when Volker Weidler initially forced the pace a little in his Mazda, suggesting that he was going too fast too soon and ought to slow down!

And what was M Jean-Marie Balestre doing at Le Mans on Saturday afternoon? Giving succour to his old mates at the ACO, that’s what! “FISA must decide on a worthy formula that will ensure a successful championship next year,” declared the president of the FIA, of the French Federation and former president-not-quite-for-life of the FISA. “If they do not, the ACO must be prepared to withdraw from the championship.”

Old man Balestre, who bullied the ACO into the Sportscar World Championship in 1991, was taking his revenge on Mosley, and enjoying every moment of it! When the debate on 1993 concluded, in Paris, M Balestre was asked to remind the ACO of the contract and its obligations.

“But I have already told the ACO that they may run their event outside the World Championship, if they wish to,” he retorted. If would appear, therefore, that Balestre has well and truly spiked FISA’s guns, preventing reprisals and giving the ACO a clean sheet for 1993.

Even as the Le Mans torpedo was fired in the direction of the Place de la Concorde on Tuesday afternoon, FISA’s Motorsports World Council was deliberating on the future format.

Technical regulations for 1993 and 1994 concentrate on the current 3.5-litre cars but with a lower rear wing (800mm instead of 1,100mm from the ground), no lower rear wing and the maximum overhang (the distance from the rear axle line to the trailing edge of the wing) is reduced to 700mm. Previously the front and rear overhangs, put together, were not to be more than 80 per cent of the wheelbase, and a typical rear overhang would be about 1,200mm.

The effectiveness of the wings will be much reduced, and will have to be balanced by a reduction in front downforce. More importantly traction and grip will be reduced at the rear wheels, so the pursuit of a few more horsepower may effectively not be justified on financial grounds.

Furthermore the size of the fuel tank is reduced from 100 to 80 litres, forcing the 3.5-litre teams to stop more often, or to run more economically.

Bring on the Jaguars!

Slowed down in this way, the 3.5-litre cars will be able to share the tracks with the new Grand Touring category. As MOTOR SPORT has been insisting since January 1989, and as President Mosley has recently concluded, the GT class will cater for such exotic machines as the Ferrari F40, Bugatti EB110, Jaguar XJ220 and the Lamborghini Diablo.

‘Equality’ of sorts will be achieved on a power-to-weight basis, but Mosley has in mind a technical device which will put the Jaguar XJ220 on a par with the Porsche 911 RS or the Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 , if such a thing were possible or desirable.

In addition (FISA is not finished yet!) there will be a class for open two-seaters based on Formula 3000 running gear, complete with rev-limiters, and there is agreement in principle to introduce a third category for current F3000 cars with enclosed wheels (these are popular in Japan).

It is difficult to imagine such machines being regarded as sports cars, except in the minds of FISA officials. In recent times it has been perfectly clear that no-one in authority has the faintest idea of what sports car racing is all about, and things like the 3.5-litre formula, and now the F3000 category, must be allowed to appear on the stage before they can be booed off.

Reactions from the teams is interesting. “I welcome the Grand Touring category.” says Toni Walkinshaw, managing director of Jaguar-Sport. “If the regulations are drawn up on a sensible technical basis it will be very good for sports car racing.” Walkinshaw contents himself to say that it will be ‘unfortunate’ for sports car racing if Le Mans is not part of the championship.

Glenn Waters, managing director of TOM’S Great Britain, warns that “these supercars are going to cost as much as 3.5-litre cars”, by the time they have been purchased and prepared, and on a personal level he is rather more interested in the F3000 based open two-seater class.

“Toyota’s position is clear,” says Waters. “We will compete in the World Championship if we have worthwhile opposition. FISA has made a big mistake in not reintroducing the 1990 regulations. There are plenty of cars that would appear next year, given the chance. They exist, and that’s the important thing.”

Jean-Claude Lefebvre, spokesman for Peugeot Talbot Sport, expresses doubt that the 1993 Sportscar World Championship will take place unless Le Mans is an integral component.

“Peugeot will make its decision in September about next year,” he says. “There is a lot of speculation, but we make absolutely no comment at the present time about sports car racing.”

At Monza in April, Jean Todt was equally tight-lipped about next year, but he stressed: “Our commitment to the Sportscar World Championship is for 1992, and I cannot say what we will do next year.”

Of the ransom, he said: “Somehow we were forced into this, on March 26, when all the preparations had been made for the season. It is not in keeping with our policy but we had no option. It will not happen again in 1993.”

While MOTOR SPORT has been advocating Grand Touring racing consistently for the past three and a half years, the introduction of an important new category needs far more than half a year’s notice (and detailed technical regulations were not yet available at the beginning of July).

The Jaguar XJ220s now coming off the production line are earmarked for impatient customers, although there are pre-production cars that could be used for racing development.

There will be no McLaren F1 or Yamaha OX-99 supercars until 1994, and realistically the Grand Touring category in ’93 could comprise a couple of XJ220s, if the decision was made, and a dozen or so Porsche 911 RS and Turbo S machines in private hands. Back to the 1970s, in other words!

The 3.5-litre class simply does not look viable in 1993. Peugeot will probably withdraw, Toyota and Mazda might race in Japan and America, preparing only for Le Mans, and Euro Racing Lola will go to IMSA as well, perhaps with Chevrolet engines.

Does anyone seriously believe that Mr Ecclestone, vice-president of the FIA in charge of “promotions” (I have to put that word in inverted commas, because the Sportscar World Championship has never been promoted in any way), will run a World Championship for a dozen GT Porsche 911s? From where would the $3 million levy come in 1993?

Waters was absolutely right in saying that the cars must exist now. If anyone of sound mind was thinking of building cars specially for the 1993 SWC series, Eric Broadley would take him on one side and explain the facts of life in plain terms. Lola’s loss on the current T92/10 is incalculable, and the mistake will never be repeated.

FISA doesn’t have time to respect the stability rule, and introduce GT cars in 1994. The Sportscar World Championship will hardly survive this year, let alone the next 12 months. Put into that corner, though, the rule-makers have now announced a 1993 formula that is too late to stand any chance of survival.

Starting from scratch it takes at least 18 months to form a team, secure a sponsor and develop the cars. It may have been possible to take short-cuts and bluff your way through in 1969 when March prepared for Formula 1, but Mosley should know that the world has changed since then.

A Sportscar World Championship in 1993? Forget it! FISA wasted several hours debating it in Paris, and delegates should have walked out of the room when the ACO’s news arrived.

I have referred before to the new axis between America and Japan, and it is now cemented with an agreement between IMSA and the JAF to work to the same regulations. Already Nissan, Toyota, Mazda, Honda, Jaguar and Chevrolet are heavily involved in the IMSA Camel GT Championship, and either have or could have 3.5-litre cars to race if they so wished.

IMSA’s regulations certainly cater for 3.5-litre cars, in fact Davy Jones may win the Camel GT Championship in the Bud Light XJR-14, but the weight will be upped to 1,800 lbs by the end of the year.

Viewed from Tampa and Tokyo, the Sportscar World Championship is becoming increasingly irrelevant, and the 1993 proposals will simply not be entertained. No doubt the ACO will do a three-way deal with America and Japan, and no doubt the Le Mans 24 Hours will be one leg of an unofficial series with Daytona and Fuji.

Le Mans may even be a round of the IMSA and All-Japan championships, open to GTP, 3.5-litre, Grand Touring and 1990 regulation Group C cars… but not, I suspect, to disguised Formula 3000 cars and definitely not to Peugeot Spyders!

Existing Group C teams would move into another world, one which they can hardly remember. IMSA makes competitors and their sponsors feel welcome. Events are heavily promoted, large crowds turn up, there is good TV coverage, and huge prize funds are shared amongst the teams. Success breeds success, and a little American-style caring would go down very well with the teams after four years of the FISA regime. M L C