Cotton On

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Age Concern

To hear some drivers talk, it would be natural to assume that handling 750 horse-power sports cars is an acceptable way of drawing on old age pension once the sun has gone down on a Formula 1 career. The Americans must be even more chagrined to hear the CART series referred to as a fall-back, and the IMSA series as a last resort.

It would be better not to name any names, because one man in particular would not now like to be reminded of his remarks as one GP team door closed after another. We can only imagine the frustration of a still ambitious driver as this happens, a man still well on the right side of 40, and wish him well in his second quest to capture the Group C Drivers’ World Championship.

Watching Martin Brundle drive his heart out in Montreal and Mexico, the action didn’t seem at all like a garden party jaunt. “What did it look like?” asked Brundle, with irony in his voice when the subject came up later.

In both races he’d held off the two Mercedes for quite a while, losing second place to Baldi in Mexico with an elegant, well-held 360 degree spin. “It’s bloody hard work, I can tell you. The cars are much heavier than those in Formula 1, they’re hotter because they’re closed, and you give it all you’ve got.”

A driver needs to be young and healthy to be as fast at the end of the race as he was at the start, but it helps to be in one of the best cars, as the more successful older drivers tend to be. It hardly seems likely that Mario Andretti and Emerson Fittipaldi, whose combined ages are 93, would still be at the very top level in Indy-car racing if they weren’t in the best cars, but encouragingly this year’s championship was fought to the very last race by Michael Andretti and Al Unser Junior, both 28 years of age.

Strangely Jean-Louis Schlesser’s admitted age leapt from 38 to 42 after he won the Sports Car World Championship in October, and next year he’ll be partnered by Jochen Mass, a man two years his senior. In the second car will be Karl Wendlinger and Michael Schumacher, whose combined ages will be 44, and it’s not impossible that the youngsters will be quicker on occasions. In fact it would be bad for the image of the World Sportscar Championship if they were not!

Given a competitive car, a man of 45 can win races just as well as a man of 25, and Juan Manuel Fangio still holds a record, easily, for winning his fifth World Championship title at the age of 47. That, however, didn’t mean that Formula 1 was labelled as an old man’s sport; rather, it earned Fangio a special reputation, a ‘handle’ that now goes everywhere with Mario Andretti.

Just because Formula 1 is so intense nowadays, the drivers tend to assume that nothing else on earth can be quite like it. “But some of them are so wrapped up they don’t know what’s happening at the other end of the pit-lane, never mind about the world outside,” observes Brundle, the thinking man’s racing driver.

They may have forgotten, temporarily, that they fought just as keenly in karts, Formula Fords and F3s to reach the upper slopes, perhaps because they enjoyed themselves and believe, therefore, that they can’t have been so committed.

Twenty years ago Pedro Rodriguez, Jo Siffert and Jacky Ickx were at the height of their careers. It was then entirely possible to combine sports cars and Formula 1, and we thought highly of them because they did so. Sports car racing was immensely popular, even more than Formula 1, and there was never a hint that the Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s were in any way inferior to the Grand Prix cars of the period because in fact, they were much more powerful and were quicker on most circuits. Typically there were 10 Grands Prix and seven or eight World Championship sports car races, and with a minimum of testing it wasn’t difficult for the top drivers to do most of them.

It isn’t now possible for a Formula 1 driver to do any but the odd sports car event and the likes of Brundle, Cheever and Warwick who tried to do both simply wore themselves out by September. Therefore sports car racing is now an alternative to Formula 1, and rates about half-way up an F1 grid in terms of appeal to well established, reputable drivers. Of course Warwick would rather be in a decent F1 car, but he’d prefer a Jaguar to a Coloni any day. As the reputation of sports car racing rises, as it surely will, more youngsters like Karl Wendlinger and Michael Schumacher should regard it as a stepping stone to F1. They’ve had silver spoons put into their mouths by Mercedes which is very nice for them, and good of the manufacturer, and in the past season the young men rose to the occasion admirably.

The 900kg Group C turbos must have seemed like buses to any youngster fresh from Formula 3, but they were anything but easy to drive on the limit. The 750kg, 3½-litre cars will be much nicer and more responsive, “more like proper racing cars” as the Spices were described by Eric van der Poele, and ought to be more interesting for youngsters on their way up the ladder.

Shaky start?

While the long-term future of sports car racing allows room for optimism, there is great concern about the inaugural season. FISA can be sure of receiving two entries each from Mercedes, Peugeot and Jaguar, but Nissan have withdrawn for a year, Toyota are deciding whether to stay in or pull out and Mazda are having second thoughts about doing the full series with the 787 rotary.

At worst FISA might receive 14 entries for the 1991 World Sportscar Championship, at best 22, and we could regard only the Mercedes, Peugeots and Jaguars as likely winners with Brun-Judd, Spice-Cosworth and ALD a rung or two below. The reason for the paucity of entries will not only involve the change of formula, because the private teams have been largely driven out of the series. Under the tight grip of FISA the last two seasons have been all take and no give, and now none of the regular teams, except the factories, have two pennies to rub together.

It has been a matter of great sadness to see how the likes of Kremer, Lloyd, Brun, Lee-Davey, Spice, Chamberlain and Prewitt, every one a true enthusiast, have been ground under FISA’s heel. The entry fee of around £12,000 is only the start, because each car registered for the series has to be presented at every round; failure to produce a car will cost a team $250,000, which is no laughing matter.

FISA set out to take a fee of $600,000 off the promoters of the race (but settles for far less in most cases) and pays the teams $3,000 per car appearance money, regardless of whether the race is up the road or around the globe. Unlike Formula 1 there is no prize money, no performance bonus, nothing. If 33 cars appear FISA pays out $99,000, and the balance is never seen again — not by the competitors, anyway.

If there is any FISA promotion it’s not enough to be noticed, but with Formula 1 prices charged, attendances have plummetted. Corporate sponsorship is now so overcharged that not even Mercedes will take advantage of the ‘opportunity’. Slowly but surely we have seen the World Sports-Prototype Championship strangled by the very organisation that’s supposed to be encouraging and helping the participants and nurturing the future.

Almost without exception the private teams have ended the 1990 season across the Atlantic, with hardly enough money to get home. It really is a terrible state of affairs, because realistically only the full-blown works teams, Mercedes and Peugeot, can afford to take part in the 1991 World Sportscar Championship. A really excellent sponsor could make it worth the while of a private team, but there are few such sponsors around; say Gallahers, Repsol and Hydro Aluminium, and you’ve said it all!

The embrace offered by FISA in 1988 has turned into a stranglehold, and the patient has turned blue. It’s probably too late in some cases for resuscitation, but the offer to return to OSCAR’s financial arrangements could start a transformation.

OSCAR, the entrants’ organisation that was firmly quashed and denigrated by FISA, negotiated with promoters and secured travel, and sums of money on behalf of its members. No team would pay for its cars and personnel to travel to Japan, for example, while European races would bring in enough guaranteed money to cover all expenses. It only needed a moderate sponsor and a paying driver to allow the team owner to make a profit, which was right and proper.

Reinhold Joest runs one of the better-off private teams with assistance from the Porsche factory, but he discloses that in April he spent DM540,000, say £180,000, taking three cars and his entire team to Suzuka. “In return I received 9000 dollars from FISA. That is all. It’s a joke, and I’m sick of it.” In the days of OSCAR, he went on, he could count on 80% of his overheads being covered by the promoters, but now, he points out bitterly, FISA requires $10,000 to provide TV monitor screens in the pit garages, this being the equivalent of start money for one car in three races.

Then of course, if a driver should be five minutes late for a personal weigh-in he could be fined $5,000, or 5,000 francs, depending on the mood of FISA’s wonderfully charitable officials, and someone of Tim Lee-Davey’s standing could be told that “your financial status is no concern of the stewards.” It’s situations like that which really discourage the smaller teams and turn them away from the sport they love.

Miracles do happen every now and again, and we can only hope for one that will save sports car racing from a sad demise. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest has insisted on the right to invite ‘all comers’ to the 24 hours in June, unless FISA can produce 50 starters, and that should be the saving of the race, both for the ACO and the Japanese manufacturers.

For guidance, I turned to the records of 1972. That was the year when the CSI (Commission Sportive International) of the FIA banned the 5-litre Porsches and Ferraris, and placed a ceiling of 3-litres on naturally aspirated engines or 2.14 litres on turbos (equivalency of 1.4).

At Buenos Aires in January we had a particularly good race involving three Ferrari 312 PBs (Ronnie Peterson/Tim Schenken, Mario Andretti/Jacky Ickx and Clay Regazzoni/Brian Redman), three Autodelta Alfa Romeo T33-3s (Rolf Stommelen/ Toine Hezemans, Andrea de Adamich/ Nanni Galli and Vic Elford/Nino Vaccarella), two Ecurie Bonnier Cosworth-powered Lola T280s (Jo Bonnier/Reine Wisell and Gerard Larrousse/Chris Craft), plus a squadron of 2-litre Lolas, Abarths and Chevrons. Only one Porsche, though, the ballasted 908/3 of Juan Fernandez/Jorg de Bagration which qualified 15th in a field of 24 cars.

It wasn’t a very big grid, by any means, and the Ferrari team managed by Peter Schetty was a class above all the others; two went the full 1000 kilometre distance without any trouble and beat the third placed Alfa Romeo by six clear laps, a margin they maintained for most of the season!

By the time the teams got to Le Mans in June there were still only 26 Group 6 sports racing cars, lacking the Ferraris but including the four Matras which had a field-weekend, and there were 30 Touring and Grand Touring cars which included six Porsche 911s (quickest in qualifying were John Fitzpatrick and Erwin Kremer), nine Ferrari Daytonas and a number of Chevrolet Corvettes, de Tomaso Panteras, BMWs and Ford Capris (the latter included Hans Stuck and Jochen Mass, at Le Mans for the first time).

Nineteen years ago the regulations allowed such a mixed bag, and the spirit of the competition was wonderful. Not all the cars carried the pedigree that now seems so important to FISA, but the natural laws prevailed; if the entry was good enough lots of spectators would pay to watch. and everyone would be happy. It was, they did, and we were! MLC