From Georgia with love

It caused quite a degree of puzzlement when the entry list for the 1993 Le Mans 24 Hours was first published. There, rounding off the GT entry list, at number 99, was a MiG M100.

The name will not be wholly unfamiliar to aircraft enthusiasts or lovers of militaria. MiG, a division of Tako Industries, was chief supplier to the Russian Air Force, via a secret factory in what is now, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the state of Georgia. The demand for aerial hardware having subsided since the break-up of the Red Army, MiG has been looking for other projects. Its huge facility already turns out a wide diversity of objects, from telecommunications systems to tram cars. Its next target is to make a name for itself with a competitively priced range of highperformance sports cars.

Which is where the M100 comes in. Naturally, there had been more than a little scepticism about the viability of the entry. Porsche 911's you expect in a GT event; MiGs you don't. When it actually turned up for the pre-Le Mans test day in May, it was inevitable that there would be a few raised eyebrows, but the Georgians had enjoyed something of a headstart when it came to evolving the M100. If the shape looked at all familiar, there was good reason, for the project's origins lay in rather more opulent surroundings than downtrodden Georgia. Before it bore the MiG insignia, the M100 started life as the Monte-Carlo Centenaire, a pipedream of sporadic former F2, F3000 and IndyCar racer (and one-time F1 aspirant, until he was refused a superlicence) FulvioMaria Ballabio. Ballabio (who brought out his own Monte-Carlo F3000 chassis back in 1986, took it for three slow laps around Imola and packed it away, never to be seen again) got as far as building a prototype Centenaire, but it never reached production.

It's a source of considerable pride to Italian Gianfranco Bonomi di Leidi, an industrial trouble-shooter charged with directing MiG to a position of economic stability, that the Georgians have accomplished something the well-heeled Monegasques could not. And it's a source of great irritation to the Russians that a Georgian entry has made it to Le Mans before anything carrying a 'Made in Russia' stamp. So much so, indeed, that a total of 15 Georgians were prevented by the Moscow authorities from leaving to accompany the project to Le Mans, unless 'Russia' was substituted for the word 'Georgia' in all relevant publicity material.

Fierce independent pride prevailed; the Georgians including driver Aleksandre Mirianachvizi, though nobody has satisfactorily explained how he might have been granted the relevant licence stayed at home, and the MiG arrived as the first Le Mans entry from a former Soviet state . . . albeit crewed largely by Italians, and driven by a Frenchman, an Italian and an American.

"We're pleased just to be here," smiled di Leidi on the eve of the race. "Now we've done it once, we aim to come back next year. . . though hopefully we'll be better prepared technically." Well, mechanically speaking, things could hardly have been any worse. In eight hours of timed practice, the MiG managed just one flying lap, and that was a full 1m 09s off the next slowest car. . . and over 2m 30s from the pole-winning Peugeot. Since the test weekend, when the original road car was simply equipped with a set of slicks and sent out into the great unknown, a second chassis had been built up, with a few crucial differences. Most significantly, the trusty, if unspectacular, Lamborghini V12 which had powered the prototype gave way to an old Motori Moderni V12 turbo, conceived by Carlo Chiti. Questions about whose decision this was were met with a muffled clearing of the throat. Nobody was owning up; the truth has been mislaid somewhere between Milan and Tbilisi, and will probably remain so.

On paper, the sudden promise of 600 bhp may have looked appealing; in reality, the marriage to a five-speed Porsche gearbox designed to handle 300 was never going to work. Furthermore, both engine and gearbox were located by rubber mounts. The degree of flex in the drivetrain was alarming. According to Pierre Honegger, the US element in the line-up, you could stick the lever into what the gate told you was first, and find yourself in third, fifth or even neutral. Honegger attempted on several occasions to start a lap, but never got around to doing a full eight-mile circuit. Philippe Renault found the M100 similarly undriveable. Giampiero 'Peo' Consonni was the member of the trio who recorded that solitary timed lap; that, he conceded, owed as much as luck to judgment as he fished, usually in vain, for the appropriate forward gear. Attempts to run the MiG at all were finally thwarted when it became possible to engage any ratio at all, at rest, yet, with clutch pedal released, the car could still be pushed along as though it were in neutral. It transpired that the clutch had disintegrated under the strain. Much of the resultant metallic shrapnel had been ingested, thus also accounting for the engine, which had, in any case, spent most of its brief active life spewing oil and water in roughly equal measure. "It's a real shame," concluded Honegger. "I feel for them, because they really wanted this to work. lithe car had been left as it was for the test weekend, we would at least have been able to start."

Then, in the hands of Consonni and Honegger, it had completed around 35 laps, posting a fastest time which would, as it turned out, have qualified it, albeit last. That wouldn't have mattered to the Georgian workforce.

Nor, if you listened to di Leidi, did the dismal failure which ensued. That may be, but in truth the chance to establish a little marque credibility had been lost. Testing at Monza with the Lamborghini car, the team had found around 10s per lap since the first, exploratory outing in France. And at least it knew a little about the M100 in its original guise. The decision to make wholesale revisions was every bit as calamitous as it was ill-advised.

That notwithstanding, di Leidi's enthusiasm for the venture remains. He hopes to productionise the M100 (Lambo-powered, of course) for around a quarter of the price of a Ferrari 348; there are plans for a two-plustwo, the M200, and a four-door GT, the M400; it is intended to return to Le Mans next year, with a two-car team and a predominantly Georgian crew; MiG plans to have a presence at some of the world's top motor shows within the foreseeable future. . .

In the eyes of a western world well-versed in slickness on a McLaren scale, a solitary lap in eight hours can be viewed as nothing other than complete failure. In Tbilisi, however, it was perceived rather differently. "Being here at all," said di Leidi, "was, to us, a victory in itself." S A