The Battle Continues . . .
THE new season of World Sportscar Championship racing which begins at Suzuka on April 8th shows every promise of being the finest in the history of Group C competitions, dating back to 1982, and will be if FISA doesn’t throw its huge spanner in the works. In particular, the 24-Hours of Le Mans would be, and should be one of the most competitive events since 1923, and before the historians get busy refuting that statement let me point out that six manufacturers would stand a chance of winning, or believe they could win. They are Mercedes and Jaguar, Porsche represented by Reinhold Joest’s team, Aston Martin, Nissan and Toyota.
The bitter dispute between FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre and the consortium representing the 24-Hour race reached the world’s news bulletins in December and January and has cast a dark shadow over the entire World Championship. Major teams have difficulty in making their plans for the season, especially in budgeting and signing drivers, and the less wealthy teams simply can’t raise any sponsorship.
“It’s a dire situation,” said a Spice team owner in January.”You can’t talk to any potential sponsor without offering Le Mans, and we can’t do that until the French get their act together.”
The situation should be resolved within the next few days. Balestre declared that he would “protect” theJune 16/17th weekend until the end of January, and it isn’t a coincidence that on Wednesday January 31st every team must commit itself to FISA, and the World Sportscar Championship, with a subscription of FF 110,000 (approximately £11,750) per car. It wouldn’t be a tragedy to forfeit that sum, but no team would want to shell out US $250,000 for each non-appearance, as Aston Martin had to do last year for failing to attend the Suzuka race!
There is, apparently, a big poker game going on at FISA’s headquarters in Place de la Concorde (once named, more appropriately maybe, Place de la Revolution). Every team, including the “doubters” like Aston Martin, Nissan and Mazda, must put money down on January 31st and effectively swear to support FISA through thick and thin. Then, perhaps on February 1st, Mr Balestre will announce whether the 24 Hours of Le Mans is, or is not, part of the World Championship.
Of course just about everyone involved in the sport, at every level from spectator to manufacturer, questions whether this is a sane manner in which to govern sports car racing. What does FISA mean by declaring that the June date is protected? Protected from what (or who)? There’s only one guess, and we have to suppose that if the ACO doesn’t grovel humbly enough to Mr Balestre he’ll send all the teams off to Jerez on June 17th. The preposterous president, who long ago forfeited his claim to credibility, lost his last shreds of dignity on January 10th when he announced that Ayrton Senna would have to apologise for “slander”
against FISA before he would be granted a licence for 1990, and that all negotiations with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest would be suspended until they apologised for what he called “a campaign of defamation against FISA.”
Balestre shows classic dictator symptoms, arrogance being the principal one, and should be reminded that dictators are rapidly going out of fashion. It was particularly interesting to meet Nick Syrett at the Racing Car Show early in January, the former BRSCC general secretary making his annual appearance and claiming, as usual, to have no further interest in racing.
During his strong reign at the BRSCC the Guv’nor, as everyone called this towering figure, always said that motor racing needed a dictator . . . “a benevolent dictator, someone who knows what he’s talking about and whose word is law.” He might have been talking about himself, and many people might now wish that he had been.
Some 20 years ago in the pre-FOCA days Syrett was a member of the London Committee, a consortium of Grand Prix circuit owners, Formula 1 team owners, and clubs united in their desire to overthrow the bumbling authority of the CSI (Confederation du Sport Automobile, predecessor of FISA). The CSI found its teeth just in time and threatened to cancel the permits of circuits staging “pirate” events, and of drivers taking part, and the revolt collapsed. “I sat beside Balestre on that committee,” Syrett recalls. “He represented the FFSA.” So Balestre knows more about the exercise of power than most people remember, and took his cue from Syrett. It’s a pity that the “benevolent” bit got lost in the translation.
Midway through January the ACO had no intention of apologising to anybody for its stance against the rushed decisions of before Christmas, but French sports minister Roger Bambuck had entered the scene as mediator between FISA and the 24 Hours consortium (the ACO, the town of Le Mans and the Department of the Sarthe).
“When the proposals of the Minister become known,” says ACO spokesman Jean-Marc Desnues, “we will be able to say if we want the 24 Hours to remain in the World Championship, or not. As regards the chicanes, we sent a letter to President Balestre on December 20th in which we requested a visit from the FISA safety commission. This step supposes that we are in agreement in principle to build the chicanes in time for the event of 1990.” Chicanes are, and always were, a side
issue introduced by Balestre to bring negotiations between FISA and the ACO to a standstill, until he could wring further concessions out of the 24 Hours. As such the issue has produced a great deal of heat, but no light. Whereas Jean-Louis Schlesser maintains that the circuit won’t meet with his approval until there are two or three chicanes there are others, such as four times winner Henri Pescarolo, three times winner Klaus Ludwig and veteran Claude Ballot-Lena, who maintain that chicanes would increase the level of danger.
On this matter I would regard Tom Walkinshaw as the voice of reason. Once a formidable competitor, he was the first to see the wreckage of Win Percy’s VII when it came back from Mulsanne in 1987, after a 240 mph crash resulting from a tyre failure. “It’s not the speed that’s the problem, but the length of the straight,” says the Scotsman. “The drivers are flat-out for a minute, and if a tyre has lost pressure they may not know until it explodes. This is usually towards the end of the straight, when the temperature has built up to a dangerous level. What we need is a corner — it could be an S-bend — where the drivers need to use the brakes, feel the car and find out if the tyres are okay.”
John Sheldon is extremely fortunate to have lived through a dreadful crash in 1984, and others such as Jonathan Palmer, Jean-Louis Schlesser, Win Percy, Klaus Niedzwiedz and Gordon Spice have experienced tyre explosive incidents in the meantime. Although MOTOR SPORT has always had reservations about chicanes as a means of reducing speeds, we have been consistent in calling for a solution appropriate to the Mulsanne Straight since Sheldon’s accident in the Nimrod. Ironically the introduction of the 31/2-litre formula next year would, for a while, reduce the top speeds anyway.
As this contribution was written there was a general optimism that the 24 Hours of Le Mans would go ahead as planned, although not necessarily as a part of the World Championship. There may well be two artificial corners on the “ligne droit des Hunaudieres”, and the ACO promises to make them as interesting as possible.
If this is the price that has to be paid then so be it, say the organisers, who ask in return of a guarantee of stability for the race. Then, they could go ahead with the building of new pits, a development that will cost E10 million and should be completed by June 1991. As events in Eastern Europe have shown, if enough people want something to happen it eventually will.