Does life end at 40?

"We can see the way the cars changed from what we now call vintage-style machinery to space-age technological speed devices. We can see the changing scene of the drivers from the shirt-sleeved sportsman to the anonymous being in regulation gear, from characterful faces beneath primitive crash-hats to faceless automatons in all-enveloping safety clothing. We can trace the way racing changed from competing on normal public roads to the clinical and scientific autodromes or speedways."

These words might well have been written by a modern observer, mourning the passing of world championship level sports car racing. They were written, in fact, by Denis Jenkinson in his introduction to 1972's splendid Automobile Year Book of Sports Car Racing, effectively ending the interest of Motor Sport’s then continental correspondent in this particular branch of motor racing.

Jenkinson was ruminating, effectively, at half-time in the history of the championship which opened at Sebring in March 1953 and closed 40 seasons later, at Magny-Cours in October 1992.

There are some striking parallels between 1972, the first year of the three-litre sportscar era, and 1992 which was the first (and only) year in which 3.5-litre cars competed exclusively.

Then, as now, we bemoaned the fact that the cars were nothing but Formula 1 machines in disguise, powered by Grand Prix engines... flat 12s from Ferrari, V12s from Matra, V8s from Alfa Romeo and from Ford Cosworth, the latter powering Lola T280 and Gulf-Mirage prototypes.

We didn't have to look far for support in our contention that these were two-seat Formula 1 cars. Enzo Ferrari said so, forcefully, when declining an invitation to run his pace-making 312PBs at Le Mans. So we had the curious situation where Ferrari won all the races in 1972 except for Le Mans, and Matra won the classic 24-hour race on a single outing!

Domination was hardly the word for it, actually. These gorgeous scarlet Ferraris finished first and second at Buenos Aires, making the Autodelta Alfa Romeo team look very shoddy in comparison; first and second in the six hours of Daytona, the 12-hours of Sebring (surely, Commendatore, they would have lasted around the clock again at Le Mans?), and so on... at the Österreichring, in fact, Ferrari was persuaded to run four 312s and they finished first to fourth, trouncing a pair of Chevrons.

We forgave Ferrari, of course. Peter Schetty, bringing Swiss discipline to a sometimes shambolic team, was doing his job. And who could speak against a team that employed Jacky lckx, Mario Andretti, Ronnie Peterson, Brian Redman, Helmuth Marko, Carlos Pace, Clay Regazzoni and Arturo Merzario?

Sometimes the crowds were pathetically small. I walked around the Österreichring while the race was in progress and counted fewer than 200 people out there in the green fields. The organisers may not have sold more than 1,000 tickets altogether, so let's not kid ourselves that the decline in endurance racing is anything new or unforeseen.

If Bernie Ecclestone had been in power in 1972 he might have closed the World Championship down on the spot. Most organisers could not have afforded his terms for continuing in 1973, yet that was a year of splendid competition between Ferrari, Matra-Simca with the full programme we hoped for. Gulf-Mirages in which Derek Bell, John Watson, Mike Hailwood, Howden Ganley and Vern Schuppan did their formidable best, and improved Alfa Romeos with flat-12 engines.

After all, 1973 was a memorable season of see-saw fortunes, and to our surprise the Matra V12s asserted themselves over the Ferrari team, narrowly winning the main title. The Le Mans contest was especially bloody and the gallant Ferraris gave as good as they got, though in the end Matra wore them down.

lckx and Redman duelled with Pescarolo and Larrousse for 22 hours until their 12-cylinder boxer engine failed, but still Carlos Pace and Arturo Merzario split the two surviving Matras despite having a leaking fuel tank and a broken clutch!

But then came the first Middle East war, and the original oil crisis that nobody expected. Ferrari withdrew from sports car racing, never to return, and in 1974 Matra-Simca dominated a seedy season. Bernie would certainly have shut it down on that evidence... and 1975 was even worse, a year of marking time before the so-called silhouette formula was introduced.

"I don't see any interest for the public in prototype racing. I mean, they have the same three-litre engines as Formula 1, but they have doors and things like that. It does not make sense. This sort of racing should be for cars like Porsche Carreras, de Tomaso Panteras, Ferrari Daytonas, Mercedes and BMWs."

You can't accuse Jacky lckx of being inconsistent. Those words, relayed to me at Vallelunga in April 1973 was almost carboncopied in a conversation at Suzuka in August 1992. If FISA officials had the same recollections, and a better sense of history, they wouldn't have embarked on the suicidal 3.5-litre formula.

In particular, they would not have embarked on a course which strongly discouraged private teams and specifically barred every other type of car. In every year I can think of between 1953 and 1991 the Porsche company based in Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen has been the central pillar of endurance racing, often providing half the grids and the majority of finishers.

To exclude Porsche was to make it more certain that FISA would fall on its own sword, though it has to be said that Porsche's own management was entering the swing-door era and no longer believed in its own commitment to sports car racing.

If not Porsche, then some other turn-key make. What is essential to endurance racing is not a particular car made in Stuttgart, but the easy availability of a type which is stylish, reliable, competitive and almost affordable. It just happens that over a period of 40 years Porsche fitted the bill exactly, and will do so again in 1993.

Endurance racing was at its absolute best in the 1950s, and only reached those heights again in certain short periods of time. Between 1966 and 1971, for instance, when Ford took the baton from Ferrari but lost it to Porsche; in 1976, briefly, when Ronnie Peterson and Gunnar Nilsson gave their all in the BMW's awesome turbocharged coupe in competition with the Porsche 935s; and between 1986 and 1989, when Jaguar took the baton from Porsche then lost it to Mercedes.

Sports car racing didn't begin when the first world championship was held in 1953, of course. Even at the turn of the century it was two-seat production cars that appeared in competitions, and single-seaters came later.

The first Le Mans 24 Hours was held in 1923, and the race came to be regarded with particular esteem by the British when the Bentleys notched up the first win, of five, in 1924. That, and the Monte Carlo Rally, were peculiarly French events arranged, as we sometimes believed, for the benefit (or humiliation) of Brits abroad!

Despite a run of four consecutive Alfa Romeo successes between 1931 and 1934 the Italians didn't warm to Le Mans as we did (they had the Mille Miglia, and the Targa Florio), and nor did the Germans who were more intent on building national prestige in Grand Prix racing.

Le Mans took on new importance in postwar years, becoming the focus of international reconciliation; in that respect, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest probably achieved far more than the League of Nations, or the European Market, will ever do. John Wyer always reckoned that he'd rather win Le Mans than all the other races put together, and few people would argue with that opinion even now.

Ferrari's first victory, of nine, came in 1949, and was warmly applauded. Porsche participated for the first time in 1950, with some trepidation it must be said because the Germans were still disliked intensely by many French.

In 1951 Jaguar's C-type achieved its first victory thanks to Peter Walker and Peter Whitehead, and the following year Mercedes-Benz achieved a notable 1-2 success.

Sports car racing was extremely popular, supported not only by the Jaguar and Mercedes factories but by Ferrari, Aston Martin, Maserati, Lancia, Alfa Romeo, Bristol, Frazer Nash, Porsche, Allard, Cunningham and Gordini. Why, the need for a championship was compelling, and the FIA duly established the Championnat du Monde de Sport in 1953.

It has had a number of titles in the meantime, but has always been referred to generically as the endurance championship because until recently the races rarely covered less than 1,000 kilometres and the major event, throughout that time, has been the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Endurance racing was epitomised in the 1950s by the big, brutal 12-cylinder Ferraris, superbly evocative front-engined monsters. These were always the machines that others had to beat. Jaguar concentrated on Le Mans, winning the classic on five occasions with C-and D-types which, with live rear axles, didn't perform nearly as well anywhere else.

While those victories are written into the folklore of British motor racing successes, Ferrari's win at Le Mans in 1954 was one of the closest in history. Jaguar's D-type was making its debut, but all three cars were delayed by blocked fuel filters and two retired with mechanical problems.

On Sunday afternoon one D-type remained, that of Duncan Hamilton and Tony Rolt, on the same lap as Froilan Gonzales and Maurice Trintignant in the Ferrari 375. When the track was dry the five-litre Ferrari was clearly quicker than the 3.4-litre Jaguar, but intermittent rain brought Rolt and Hamilton, the previous year's winners, back into the reckoning.

With less than two hours to go the rain set in again, the Ferrari holding a lead of two laps. A refuelling stop cost the Italian team dear as the V12 was reluctant to start up, and seven minutes went by before Gonzalez set off with Tony Rolt almost in sight, and lapping faster.

But Rolt’s goggles had steamed up, and he couldn't see! He rushed into the pits but was waved out again. At the end of the next lap he stopped again, to be replaced by Hamilton. Still the Jaguar had a chance of winning, but the track gradually dried and allowed Gonzalez to pull away. At the finish his lead was 2.5 kilometres, less than half the length of the Mulsanne Straight.

Ferrari lost the World Championship only twice in a dozen years, to Mercedes-Benz in 1955 and to Aston Martin in 1959. We remember 1955, though, for the dreadful accident at Le Mans, a catastrophe that claimed the lives of over 80 spectators. In the aftermath the Swiss government banned motor racing altogether, and safety became a topic that occupied minds around the western world.

Moss and Jenkinson won the Mille Miglia famously in 1955 in a Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR and it's quite likely that Moss and Fangio would have won the 24-hour race as well, had the Mercedes team not been withdrawn some hours after Pierre Levegh's terrible accident.

Mike Hawthorn and Ivor Bueb won the Le Mans race, though deriving no pleasure from the achievement, and Moss made sure that the Stuttgart firm would claim the championship by winning the fifth and final event of the year, the Tourist Trophy, in an SLR shared with John Fitch.

Aston Martin always seemed to be the bridesmaids until 1959, the Feltham team's glory year, when under John Wyer's management Stirling Moss and Jack Fairman won the ADAC 1,000 km at the Nurburgring in their DBR1 ; Roy Salvadori and Carroll Shelby won the Le Mans, and Shelby/Fairman/Moss won the RAC Tourist Trophy at Goodwood.

Moss was lucky to win that race, after seeing his own car catch fire during a refuelling stop, a conflagration that singed Wyer, mechanics and bystanders. But there we were again, a championship of merely five races of which three were won by Aston Martin, one by Ferrari and the Targa Florio by Porsche.

We speak now of reviving the old classics, but is that really possible? We enjoy to this day 24-hour races at Daytona and Le Mans and the Sebring 12 hours: the 1,000 km races at the Nürburgring, Spa and Buenos Aires, and the Tourist Trophy, are recent memories.

We cannot bring back the Mille Miglia, the Targa Florio or the Carrera Panamericana... and would we really want to revive the Swedish Grand Prix or the Grand Prix of Venezuela? Perhaps not.

In 1962 the World Championship was down to a meagre four races (Sebring, Targa Florio. the Nürburgring and Le Mans) all won routinely by Ferrari, and one can suppose that Bernie wouldn't have taken kindly to that situation either.

There was a reawakening, though, in 1965 when Ford and Chaparral entered the fray with serious intentions. A GT40 won the Daytona Continental race and Chaparral won the Sebring 12 Hours. Neither of these races was contested by Ferrari, admittedly, and the Prancing Horse carried off the remaining four races of the season.

The Americans were flexing their muscles, getting ready for the big push of 1966. And what a push it was! Ken Miles and Lloyd Ruby won the Daytona 24 Hours in their seven-litre Ford MkII, blowing the little 4.4-litre Ferrari into the weeds, and followed-up with another crushing victory at Sebring.

Ford was keeping its big guns trained on Le Mans, where they scored a convincing 1-2-3 victory, but in the meantime Phil Hill and Jo Bonnier snuck in with the high-winged Chaparral 2D to record one of the most unlikely victories of all time, at the Nurburgring.

So Ford took the title from Ferrari in 1966, released it in '67 despite winning Sebring and Le Mans, and regained it in 1968 when John Wyer's Gulf-sponsored GT4Os narrowly beat Porsche's new 908 model.

A year on, Porsche's 908s were almost unbeatable save at Le Mans, where Jacky lckx and Jack Oliver achieved a sensational victory in their Gulf Ford GT40, beating the Hans Herrmann/Gerard Larrousse 908 by a mere 75 metres.

The six year-old GT40 design, heavy but quicker than the Porsche down the straights. was so evenly matched with the three-litre Porsche on lap times that the result was down to driver skills — and lckx, as we knew, was a bit special.

Time and again he passed the 908 on the long straight, thanks to the 130 bhp advantage from his five-litre engine, only to lose the advantage at Arnage or the White House. Herrmann's brake pad warning light was shining, forcing the German to be go easy on his brakes, but Ickx was scheduled to refuel just a lap before the finish.

The fuel stop was out of the question, of course, and the last lap featured a breathtaking duel with lckx ahead, and determined not to give Herrmann an opening. The result was the closest ever between rival makes, and was a prelude to John Wyer's Gulf team taking on the operation of the fabulous Porsche 917s.

Duels between Porsche's 917 and Ferrari's 512S lit the horizon in 1970, and the pinnacle of this era was reached when seven 4.5-litre Porsches duelled with 11 five-litre Ferraris at Le Mans.

Never mind the difference of 500 cc, though, Porsche always had the upper hand and only two of each make reached the finish after a spectacular series of multi-Ferrari crashes and breakdowns. In the end it wasn't Wyer's works-backed Gulf team that won the race, but the Porsche Salzburg 917 driven by Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood. This was the first of Porsche's 12 victories at Le Mans, a record that would take Jaguar another five years of success to equal.

The FIA (or its sporting arm, the CSI, or FISA) was never content to allow large-capacity machines to reign in sports car racing even though these are the ones that have the largest following, and revive the fondest memories.

At the end of 1957, for instance, a top limit of 3,000 cc was imposed on sports cars, spawning the classic Ferrari Testarossas with V12 engines, and Aston Martin's six-cylinder DBR1s.

Shocked, perhaps, by the seven-litre Fords and 5.4-litre Chevrolet-engined Chaparrals, the CSI slapped on a new limit for 1968, 3,000 cc for racing engines (hence the Porsche 908) and 5,000 cc for stock-block, homologated cars built in series (hence the eminence of the GT40).

What the rulers didn't expect, though, was a homologated series of 25 Porsche 917s, answered almost immediately by a matching series of Ferraris! These, too, had to be quelled. In 1972, this glamorous age — captured by Steve McQueen in his film Le Mans — was replaced by the three-litre 'prototype' formula, backed inevitably by hordes of Porsche 911s in the GT category. Without those Porsches the new series would have been in big trouble straight away!

Turbocharger technology changed the face of sports car racing in 1976, introduced by Porsche on the 934 (GT), 935 (silhouette) and 936 (sports) competition cars. BMW replied with the CSL turbo already referred to, but only as a token, and even in 1977 the series looked likely to die of boredom, although it staggered on until 1981.

There was much more interest in the Group 6 category where Renault-Alpine challenged Porsche with a conspicuous lack of success. Silhouette was supposed to be the main category, though, so in 1977 both Porsche and Renault decided to concentrate their Group 6 efforts at Le Mans. Finally, in 1978, Renault did manage to oust Porsche's drivers from the ACO balcony then withdrew altogether, so as to concentrate on Formula 1 development.

No make could challenge Porsche in Group 5 between 1976 and 1981, although the factory team was withdrawn in 1978 and it was left to customers to carry the banner. Lancia won the World Championship titles in 1980 and I 981 by virtue of locking-up the two-litre division, but of course Porsche bounced right back when Group C, the fuel economy formula, was introduced in 1982.

Porsche's 956 was a success from the time it first appeared at Silverstone in May 1982. Rothmans-Porsche won the makes' championship each year between 1982 and 1985 (latterly with the long wheelbase 962C derivative), and Walter Brun won the first teams' championship with his Porsche 962C team in 1986.

Thanks to Tom Walkinshaw and Jaguar, and Peter Sauber and Mercedes, the World Sportscar Championship peaked again between 1986 and 1989. Jaguar's two Le Mans victories in 1988 and 1990 were cheered rousingly in Britain, and the Mercedes victory in 1989 was equally well received in Germany.

It was in 1989 that FISA made it compulsory for all registered competitors to take part in every race, failure to turn up incurring a $250,000 fine. The grids were full of European and Japanese cars, but the private teams were treated shabbily and some were forced into bankruptcy. The rot was setting in, but the rule-makers paid no heed to the warnings.

We saw the arrival of the Japanese makes in the 1980s as Nissan, Toyota and Mazda made their bids at Le Mans, then in the World Championship. In stark contrast to the European method the Japanese proceeded very slowly, testing the depth of ice with every step and sending volumes of data back to their homeland.

Europeans involved in this tedious process almost cried with frustration, noting that Honda proceeded at an altogether brisker pace in F1. At last, Mazda was rewarded by a major success at Le Mans in 1991, hugely deserved and popular everywhere, but in 1992 Peugeot thwarted Toyota's efforts to win the 3.5-litre championship.

Now is the era of Bernie Ecclestone, for whom commercial success is the yardstick by which any formula must be judged. With an eye to the future, the FIA's vice-president in charge of promotional affairs has given cautious approval to FISA President Max Mosley's plan for Grand Touring racing, egged on by Tom Walkinshaw who'd rather like to sell some Jaguar XJ220s.

I am not sure that this is the recipe for success, but there will be popular acclaim for a series of GT races at venues such as Daytona, Sebring, Mugello, the Nürburgring, Silverstone, Fuji and Kyalami.

Sadly the dispute between the ACO and FISA seems to preclude Le Mans from the series calendar, but this can only be a temporary hiccup and all the teams will be there anyway!

As well as Jaguar, we can expect to see a number of Porsche 911 Turbo 3.6 models on the grids — a special version is being prepared at a retail price of DM 400,000 (£160,000) which compares rather well with the £390,000 asking price for the XJ220 — Venturis, a couple of Bugattis perhaps, a few privately owned Ferrari F40s, and some twin-turbo Mazda RX-7s.

The grids will not, in fact, lack variety or colour, and thankfully Mosley's ill-conceived 'magic box' won't be ready in time to nobble anyone's performance. So let us look forward to 1993 with enthusiasm, knowing that it must be better than the charade called the 1992 Sportscar World Championship.

Endurance racing isn't dead, merely resting. The new Grand Touring car series in 1993 should be the beginning of the march back, and is a course commended by Motor Sport consistently throughout the past four years. Let's give it a go!