GT racing has developed to the point of controversy. Michael Cotton explains why the Porsche v McLaren battle goes deeper than the racetrack
On the eve of its third anniversary, contemporary Grand Touring racing stands at a crossroads. Will it follow the usual path of progress and become more professional, ever more expensive and, ultimately, like Group C? Or will it remain a sport for wealthy amateurs?
FIA president Max Mosley touched on this point at a meeting of constructors and teams in Paris recently: when he made it clear that his vision of GT racing is of a series in which costs are very strictly controlled, and that no scope is given to the big money teams to enter a series and blow lesser budgets out of the water.
In a way he is already too late. Porsche's bi-turbo was the big fish in the pond in 1994, and you could have bought that, or a decent replica, for £200,000. It was surpassed in 1995 by the £680,000 McLaren F1 GTR, and this year you'd have needed a budget of £2.5 million to run a two-car team with a bit of style.
Anyone who wants to win GT endurance races in 1997 will need to be up before dawn with a '97 model McLaren F1 or Porsche GT1, brilliant drivers and a gross budget (including the purchase of two cars and spares) exceeding £4 million.
Even Ray BeIlm, who has won 10 of the 22 BPR GT races held in the past two seasons, doubts that he'll be able to beat Steve Soper and JJ Lehto in their Schnitzer McLaren BMW, unless by a big stroke of luck.
But still, before we get carried away let us remember that Alfa Romeo entered the British Touring Car Championship in 1994 with a reputed £5 million budget just for a score of 30-minute sprints. They were all in Britain and involved no more public track time than any two BPR Global Endurance GT Cup events.
Despite being limited to 8500 rpm the two-litre Super Touring engines last no more than one race weekend and cost £60,000 to rebuild, so Team Schnitzer will be pleasantly surprised to be told that a six-litre BMW V12 could last a whole season, including Le Mans!
Privateer Jean-Luc Maury-Laribiere took BMW at its word last year, and indeed only removed the engine from his McLaren at Zhuhai when the ignition sensors wore out.
A team such as Schnitzer will install fresh engines for each of the dozen BPR rounds, simply because operating at the top level you can't afford to take any chances. Even so, its engine budget will almost certainly be lower in GT racing than it was in any one national Super Touring championship (assuming, of course, that it receives any bills from BMW!).
Porsche rates its GT1's 3.2-litre flat-six at 30 hours, the duration of Le Mans plus six hours of qualifying on Thursday evening, or the equivalent of three BPR rounds including free practice and qualifying.
Costs have not yet gone stratospheric in GT racing partly because the Porsches and McLarens are designed to be rugged and durable, round-the-clock machines, and partly because the level of competition between two manufacturers is not as intense as it tends to be between 10.
If it is true that Renault UK owns a stock of 60 race prepared two-litre race engines for the BTCC programme, Schnitzer will manage very well with a stock of six BMW V12s for its two McLarens.
Even so, competitors in the BPR series are very concerned about the costs, and will say that comparisons with the BTCC are spurious. Those 10 manufacturers and importers can spend what they like: private teams (and how many are there in Super Touring?) are limited absolutely by their ability to raise sponsorship.
Thomas Bscher, the 1995 BPR champion, was a partner in the Sal Opperman bank in Cologne. It handles BMW's corporate account and Dr Bscher is reputed to be the fourth richest man in Germany.
"But Thomas tells me that he can't afford to do the BPR next year without sponsorship," says entrant David Price with a grim laugh. "Blimey, if he can't what hope is there for the rest of them?"
Ray BeIlm tells the same story. "I said two years ago that the BPR series would get more professional and more expensive, and that the wealthy amateurs would be squeezed out. Well, fortunately I have won the championship, but I couldn't afford it any more without substantial sponsorship."
No surprise, then, that Bscher and BeIlm may get together in a two-car GTC Motorsport team in 1997. Maybe! The two rivals, who hold each other in healthy disrespect, may perforce become mutually dependent team-mates, the last of the wealthy amateurs in a global level sport. Major sponsors are surprisingly few. Gulf, lgol, Elf, Fine, Mobil, Shell, Castrol and Liqui Moly are traditional oil company supporters of endurance racing. Michelin, Goodyear, Pirelli and Dunlop, thank goodness, support the teams very open handedly.
West and Marlboro represent the tobacco companies and the remainder of the major sponsorships comprised companies such as Harrods, Pilot (Japanese pens), Computacentre, Lease Plan (Dutch car hire), and component suppliers such as Magnetti MareIli, Bosch, AP, Brembo, Carbon Industrie and so on.
Few of these would contribute to sponsorship of a Formula One team unless by a separate, performance-related decision such as that made recently by the Reemtsma tobacco company, owner of the West brand.
GT racing is expensive, certainly, and the costs are rising fast. But so long as the smaller professional teams such as those of Cor Euser (Marcos International), Fabian and Michael Roock, Jacques Leconte (Larbre) and Manfred Freisinger can continue, we have a series.
The BPR organisation is diligent in arranging advantageous terms for travel outside Europe, for instance to Suzuka, Zhuhai and Brazil.
It costs the teams little more to go to China than to Monza, providing the sponsorship stretches that far, and pound for pound it's likely that Ray BeIlm would rather race his McLaren at Suzuka, and win, than his BMW 318i at Knockhill and finish last.
BPR founders Jorgen Barth, Philip Peter and Stephane Ratel have tried to address the matter of cost by imposing a limit of $1 million on a car (£625,000) or $1.5 million on the total package including spare parts (this, apparently, was more than Mr Mosley had in mind, but Mr Ecclestone conceded that they were working in the right direction).
At this point we arrive at a great imponderable, the intentions of the FIA top brass concerning television rights. BPR has completed two years of a three-year contract with Eurosport to screen all the rounds, and this is regarded by the teams as a vital component in sponsorship talks. "No television, not much sponsorship," would sum up this argument.
Mosley and Ecclestone made it clear to the BPR partners in October that they would not continue to concede the FIA's statutory rights to own, or dispose the television rights. Only now will this issue be resolved, and it is crucial to the future and well-being of the BPR's Global Endurance GT Cup series.
The crux of Mr Ecclestone's thesis is that you don't give television away. Networks must come and negotiate, and expect to pay the FIA for the privilege of screening international events. Stephane Ratel, who negotiates the BPR's television outlets, insists that there is no money to be made. "This is not a fight about money," he says. "It is an equation between the cost of production and what you get. In fact it is a sure way to lose money, but we call it an investment."
BPR pays independent companies between £30,000 and £100,000 per event to produce the edited film which is then given to Eurosport, and any other channel that's interested. The partners are adamant that the Global Endurance series is not viable without television and, while they are prepared to negotiate, they won't give away what they regard as their rights. With huge involvement from BMW and Porsche, the GT series will surely not sink below the waves. If BPR can't agree with the FIA, the rights to organise the championship might be delegated elsewhere. I would not be optimistic, in that case, that the Global Endurance GT series has a good future, because Messrs Barth, Peter and Ratel created the championship, built it up and sought new circuits, new promoters, new sponsors, new teams, new everything.
No one can stand still in motor racing. Not the organisers, not the circuit owners, not the manufacturers, and that is why the GT Cup series will necessarily get faster, more professional and more expensive ... "until it goes the same way as Group C" as David Price is wont to say.
That started out in 1982 as a motley collection of private chassis from March, Lola, Porsche, Aston Martin Nimrod; even Kremer and Joest made their own.
It became a "Porsche Supercup" with lots of teams running near identical 956 and 962 chassis, then attracted Jaguar and Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan and Mazda, and finally it fell into the clutches of Ecclestone and Mosley who turned Group C into a high-tech, unaffordable form of two-seater Grand Prix racing which died in 1992.
Without the latter development, the 3.5-litre formula, Group C racing could have continued to evolve, though I suspect that the engines would by now be controlled by air, as the GT cars are today, and not by fuel consumption.
The second greatest danger facing GT racing is the "racing special." The Porsche GT1, a latterday 962 though based on a 911's steel monocoque centre-section, created an uproar.
It is undeniably a racing car homologated for road use, as the 1994 Le Mans-winning Dauer 962 LM Porsche was before, and those who care about the heritage of GT racing are very concerned about this. But what am I saying? Would Porsche AG not care more than any about the heritage, and would not Jorgen Barth be the first to say so?
Porsche's management firmly believes that the company belongs at the forefront in GT racing, with cars derived from the production line. If they are not, if a company like McLaren comes along and borrows the crown, it is an aberration which must be put right. Unfortunately Porsche AG may have cut a couple of corners along the way, but it reckons that history will put them in a good light.
The GT1 needed to be homologated for the highways (as it was) and, for the BPR, it also needed to be on sale to the public. "We are taking orders," said Barth at Brands Hatch in September, a full 12 months before the first road-going GT1 was due to be delivered. "If I order a Morgan it will take six years for them to make it. The Porsche will take only one year."
There is a flaw in that argument, in that Barth could have bought a pre-owned Morgan any day of his choosing, but in his situation he had to clutch at any straw going by.
The BPR had already refused to admit the Harrier, the Ascari, the SARD MC8R and the Toyota Supra 2.1 turbo on the grounds that they are not (in their opinion) proper production road cars. So what will they make of the Panoz, the front-engined, Ford V8 powered American car built by Reynard?
The mention of Reynard sends shivers down BPR's collective spines, and there will be resistance even to such respected teams as David Price Racing and DAMS. Ironically, though, Price suspects that the 16-valve Ford V8 will not be a match for the 48-valve BMW engine and is preparing for a learning curve.
Lindsay Owen-Jones, the exemplary Englishman who rose to head the L'Oreal cosmetics group in Paris, has many supporters when he refers to the Porsche GT1 controversy.
"If this series collapses it will be the fault of one car, the Porsche GT1." he says trenchantly. "Jurgen (Barth) tries to make out that it is McLaren owners versus Porsche owners, but it is not.
"It is an argument between one type of car, the GT, and another concept, a racing car. All the kids in the world recognise a Porsche, or a Ferrari or a McLaren.
"But if, next year, you have a Reynard that is built to win races and nobody knows what it is, you've got prototype racing and you've destroyed the concept of GT. You'll have Group C again, and everything that BPR stood for is gone."
There was a void when Group C died in 1992, and within 18 months Barth, Peter and Ratel showed the world, and proved, that production-based Grand Touring cars from the world's great manufacturers were viable, attractive competitors (as, if I may modestly remind MOTOR SPORT readers, I predicted in January 1989 in reaction to the FIA's proposed 3.5 litre formula).
With goodwill from the FIA, and with strict control by the BPR, the Global Endurance GT Cup series should continue to mature and flourish. It is true that the wealthy amateur may no longer be able to win endurance races, but some decades have gone by since a less than totally professional team ever won a Grand Prix.
The Ray Bellms and Thomas Bschers of this world will continue to compete at a very high level and may scoop the odd victory, but as the world moves on there is no denying that Bellm's prediction was prescient.