FISA waves stick at Le Mans
ON Thursday, December 7, FISA dropped its bombshell on the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, in refusing to renew the track licence for Le Mans for 1990. The historic 24 Hour race cannot now take place on June 16/17 unless two chicanes are installed on the main straight, to comply with a ruling passed in secret by the World Motor Sport Council. The devil’s powers are absolute and limitless! This ruling, under the heading of circuit safety, decrees that no circuit licenced by FISA may have a straight section longer than two kilometres (1.24 miles).
The six kilometre straight on which the leading cars reach nearly 250 mph is a prime feature of the Le Mans circuit, and one of its main attractions. If the necessary modifications could be done to the circuit, chicanes would be needed at the Hippodrome and just before the famous “Mulsanne Kink” which is taken at full speed. This would, however, involve the acquisition of private land to widen the road at two points.
Having made the demand that might be impossible to comply with, FISA puts the ball back into the ACO’s court. “The World Council also stated that absolute priority would be given to the 24 Hours to resume its place on the calendar, on condition that the work requested by FISA was carried out,” the official statement continued. “It agreed to grant a one-year waiver concerning the construction of new pits in 1991, on condition that the ACO produces financial guarantees or bank guarantees.”
Throughout 1989 the debate has centred on whether the 24 Hours will remain in the World Championship this year it was withdrawn, at a month’s notice, without coming to any apparent harm and whether it will return to FISA’s control in 1990. What nobody, not even the ACO, envisaged was the possibility that FISA would prevent the Club from running a race on the full 14.2 kilometre circuit, most of which and notably the “Mulsanne Straight” is on public roads.
The uncertainty over the future of the race continues. Manufacturers, team owners, drivers, sponsors, plus the quarter-million spectators who attend each year, will look to the ACO for assurances that the work will be carried out. Teams which base their plans for the year on the requirements of the 24 Hours will be left in doubt for days or weeks, although FISA promised to produce a World Sportscar Championship calendar on December 20. It is expected to contain a new 24-Hour race at SpaFrancorchamps, effectively replacing the touring car race. The ACO, naturally, has reacted furiously. “We are stupified,” said the organisation’s spokesman, Jean-Marc Desnues, on December 8. “Without notice and on a false pretext, FISA have wiped the world’s most prestigious race off the map of automobile sport.” His statement continued that agreement had been reached with
FISA on all the leading issues, but that safety had been introduced as a contentious point by FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre as recently as November 28, only one week before the fateful decision was taken by the World Motor Sport Council.
Team owners and managers reacted with disbelief on hearing the news. “We are absolutely devastated,” commented Richard Williams, managing director of Proteus Technology Limited, and manager of the Aston Martin team. “The whole reason for the team’s existence is to compete at Le Mans and now the goal, to win the event, has been taken away.”
Alan Docking, director of Mazdaspeed’s World Championship team based at Silverstone, said the news was not good for his team. “We need Le Mans in the World Championship. Take that away and you haven’t got a proper championship. I don’t know how Mazda will react. I’m going there next week.”
Jaguar and Tom Walkinshaw issued a joint statement: “Circuit safety is an important matter which must always remain a key factor with FISA. We hope, though, that the circuit authorities at Le Mans will be able to hold the race next June.”
Keith Greene, manager of Nissan’s World Championship team, was knocked down by a car in the pits lane in 1985 and is highly aware of the dangers at Le Mans. “I had 20 stitches in my face, so I speak with experience. I have to say that Le Mans is an essential part of the Group C calendar. There’s nothing like it, and we don’t want to be without the race.”
Toyota’s Glenn Waters, a noted FISA supporter, had a slightly different viewpoint. “Le Mans is highly dangerous because of the high speeds, and we have to build cars specially for that race. If they install chicanes the race might be more like the others, so that we wouldn’t have to change the specifications so much. And yes, the pits are antiquated and dangerous, we all know that. Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad thing for the race to be out of the championship for one year.”
Although FISA’s statement carefully mentioned that the decision was made by the World Council, on which Max Mosley is Britain’s delegate (“unanimously, after each member had explained his vote”), there need be no doubt that President Balestre exerted his powerful influence. In the first week of November, when the ACO believed that agreement was all but reached, he called the new World Sportscar Champion Jean-Louis Schlesser to his office for congratulations. In the course of the meeting Schlesser repeated his opinion that the Le Mans circuit would not be acceptable to him, and some other drivers, unless two or three chicanes were installed on the main straight. In response, Balestre told Schlesser that he needn’t worry about the
race. “If it isn’t in the World Championship it won’t take place at all, so you won’t have to decide anythng,” is the gist of the conversation repeated by Schlesser later. The ACO insists that it had conceded a great deal to reach agreement, in principle, with FISA on a number of points, and has released a document signed by Balestre with the outline agreement. The ACO would retain the television rights for France, and for Japan as well in 1990 only; the ACO would enter a contract for three or five years, would introduce the 31/2-litre formula exclusively in 1991,
would build modern pits for 1991, and would assign to FISA the right to issue pit passes. In return FISA would offer 60 “top quality” cars for the event in 1990, would
allow the ACO to exploit the event commercially except for the competition itself, and would strengthen the world media coverage of the race and the level of sponsorship. This document was signed by Balestre on October 12, and on November 8 the
FISA president confirmed all the details. “Why was it that, on November 28, the President Balestre raised for the first time the problem of the straightline speed?” asks the ACO. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is one of motor racing’s big three events, ranking with the Indianapolis 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix. Last year it attracted 238,000 spectators in the five days which began
with qualifying on Wednesday and of these a quarter, at least 60,000 are Britons, who cross the English Channel. To them, FISA’s treatment of Le Mans is akin to a world council telling the English lawn tennis association that the cham pionships must be held at Eastbourne in future, because some leading players
complain that the Wimbledon grass is too slippery. In America, it would be like ACCUS telling the Indianapolis Speedway authority that it must install chicanes at Turns Two and Four, in the interests of safety. It would be difficult to deny that fatalities might be reduced, but the number of accidents would be increased. More to the point though, the spectacle of the Indy race would be destroyed, a mortal blow for the Speedway. Even if the ACO, the town of Le Mans, and the Department de la Sarthe (nowa days, equal owners of the title of the race) can manage to install the chicanes as required by FISA, the race could not fail to lose popularity. Once again the influence of Balestre has prevailed, but not for the good of the motor sports he is entrusted to promote and protect. FISA and its World Motor Sport Council have disgracefully failed the manufacturers, teams, sponsors and the public who rely on them to manage the sport in a responsible fashion. MLC