Cotton on....

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Peace in our time?

In twelve months from now, Group C1 Sports car racing will have ended. Turbocharged Jaguars, Mercedes, Nissans and Toyotas will become museum pieces and most of the Porsches will go into honourable retirement, save for those that are found new homes in the IMSA or Japanese series. No more will engineers engage in an endless pursuit of the balance between power and economy, no longer will the drivers have to nurse their cars through the last sector of the race, counting down the precious litres in the final laps.

We should look forward to the 1990 season as something to treasure, as a culmination of all the efforts mounted over the years by Jaguar, Porsche, Mercedes, Nissan, Mazda and Toyota. The finest showcase of all is, or should be, the ACO’s 24 Hours of Le Mans, an event that was withdrawn from this year’s World Championship, but stands a good chance of being restored in 1990. The importance of the event was suggested, once again, by Howard Marsden, the erudite director of Nissan’s World Championship programme, who said very aptly in Mexico: “Le Mans as you know is the big objective for all the Japanese teams and we are going to make a simply enormous effort … I think that the 1990 Le Mans will go down as a classic of all time.”

The name of `Le Mans’ crops up in every conversation. It is, to the Japanese, the most important race in the annual calendar, the reason why they support the World Championship in full. It is a major event in the British sporting calendar too, next only to the RAC Rally and the British Grand Prix, as it must be, since it entices more than 50,000 sports car fans across the English Channel each year in June.

The future of the 24 Hours of Le Mans should be settled by the end of November, one hopes with a lasting position within the World Championship. In October the ACO expressed pleasure that the race had been given a weekend, June 16/17 in the 1990 calendar but noted that many problems remained to be resolved. Talks would take place and the result would be announced, at the latest, on November 14. On the appointed day an interim release was issued, stating that talks were still proceeding on the basis of a draft proposal being prepared by the ACO, and that must be a very hopeful sign indeed. It is safe to assume that the draft won’t include anything that is abhorrent to the organisers, loss of ‘sovereignty’ being the worst evil of all,

Prior to the deadline the official book of the 1989 event was published, and warning shots were fired in the preface by Raymond Gouloum., president of the ACO, and in the introduction by Henry de Lilmaine, president of the club’s sporting commission, making it seem unlikely that a reasonable compromise could be reached.

Wrote Gouloumes: “With the passage of time Le Mans has turned into a social, cultural and economic event. It is absolutely essential to protect this heritage as the `Le Mans 24 Hour race’ belongs to everybody who has forged it … it is part of French heritage. We will bring all the necessary firmness and determination to bear to ensure that private interests do not predominate over those of the majority.., a myth can neither be killed nor bought.”

Similar thoughts were expresssed by M. de Kilmaine, who wrote that “the event is unique in itself, and has a completely different character to other motor car meetings to which it can neither be compared nor assimilated … all those who are passionate follwers of Le Mans hope that the people who hold the destinies of motor sports in their hands will listen to this message, and put the defence of motor sport above their financial interests.”

Strong and eloquent words, leaving little doubt about the resolve of the Automobile Club de l’Quest. Unless it changed its stance, there seemed to be no chance of FISA coming to terms with the organisers of the great event. The crux of the matter was not only financial, not only to do with television rights, but concerned basically the question of whose event it is to organise.

When an irresistable force meets an unyielding object, the result in this age of pragmatism is more likely to be a compromise than a disaster. This year’s race was withdrawn from the World Championship at a month’s notice, and we all felt very disappointed; the Japanese felt particularly at odds with the warring French because they’d been persuaded to form teams for the entire championship, and although this was good for the series, it had come about as a result of a calendar built on quicksand. .

It seemed to make no difference at all to this year’s 24 Hours that it was outside the championship. The entry list was full of quality teams and 230,000 spectaotrs attended over five days. Next year the event could be great again, even outside the championship, unless FISA choose to send all the works teams to Madrid, or Montreal, on the same weekend. But in 1991, the inescapable figures of the calendar 13 months hence, the ACO would be very sorely troubled indeed and the 24 Hours could go into a sharp decline unless a new formula is devised, perhaps a Grand Touring category as we have discussed before in Motor Sport.

Both the ACO and FISA got themselves onto a hook, FISA because it really could lose the support of the Japanese manufacturers, and it must be a delicate business to wriggle off it. The sporting authority in Paris may well be justified in puffing its chest and ordering some race organisers to heel, if that’s the manner in which it wants to conduct its relationships, but it can’t do so with the ACO, and in the end the financial demands of today’s FISA were the straw that broke the ACO’s back.

Heaven knows, over the years, how British teams have suffered at the hands of the ACO … big entry fees in days gone by, pitifully inadequate prize funds, a rule book that could keep a lawyer in work for a month, disgracefully inadequate pits with the village’s main sewers providing the ‘air conditioning’, larded with a sometimes unhelpful, even hostile attitude from the organisers. Twenty years ago the British supporters of the race would have welcomed a bit of new-brooming, but now we’re not so sure. Gradually, through the last two decades, the ACO’s attitude has thawed out and is nowadays quite welcoming, even though odd irritations still mar the occasion. June 1990 should be positively the last time the inconvenient pit-bunkers are used, and on Monday the 18th the workmen will move in to tear the fabric away (and with it, one of FISA’s strongest arguments against the event).

Without knowing the final outcome of the negotiations, we feel encouraged by the ACO’s release to give a cautious welcome to the new spirit of co-operation. Our doubts about the suitability of 31/2-litre racing cars for racing the 24-hour distance remain as strong as ever. We wish we could see an evolution of today’s cars, though with inlet restrictors instead of fuel consumption limits, but we know now that that cannot be. It was imperative for FISA to recognise and accommodate the special needs of the ACO’s famous race, an event which could never be treated in the same way as the nomadic ‘sprints’ which have had their history stripped away by the rulers in Paris and Chessington.

Silverstone, which once prided itself on being “the home of British motor racing”, is a living example of what happens when commercial interests tear at the entrails. Up go the stalag compounds, up go the ticket prices to mortgage levels, and away go the true followers of the sport, replaced by corporate glad-handers for whom the expense is no object (so long as someone else is footing the bill).

Funnily enough, the applause rippled all the way from London to Derby when Silverstone’s Group C race was awarded to Donington, but nobody would be laughing if the ACO’s weekend in June was awarded in perpuity to Dijon, perhaps the most hideous revenge that M Balestre could wreak on the 24-Hours. MLC