Carry on racing

The very existence of the Sportscar World Championship, the modern incarnation of endurance racing, was called into question at the end of the 1991 season. It survived, though by the skin of its teeth, and teams now have exactly one season to pull the series round and make it worthy of the title. Should they not be able to do so, there will be no second chances for 1993.

Two-car teams will be run by Jaguar, Peugeot, Toyota and Mazda, representing the major manufacturers: the Dutch team, Euro Racing, will run two “works” Lolas and we should see two cars each from BRM (where Harri Toivonen has been named as a driver), Walter Brun, the Allard company in Basingstoke, and the yet-to-be announced RM Motorsport team.

Kremer, Konrad, ALD and ROC expect to run one car apiece, and there could be three Spices in the FIA European Cup section, which is designed to contain the high costs and equates to the former Group C2 division.

The first year of a new formula is bound to be filled with difficulties, and the birth of the 3.5-litre sportscar championship was particularly fraught. It was supported by just three manufacturers Jaguar, who won the championship, Peugeot who finished as runner-up, and Mercedes who finished third but at the beginning of the season there were no more than seven new-generation cars on the grids. The numbers scraped up to double figures by the end of the season, but even as Toyota joined in, Mercedes announced their withdrawal.

Most of the manufacturers, it seemed, had been wrong-footed as confusing statements came from FISA. Le Mans, the prime event of the series, was run outside the World Championship in 1989 and again in 1990. The Japanese were more interested in the prestigious 24-hour race than in the full series, and delayed the development of their 3.5-litre cars.

At Suzuka in April 1990 Max Mosley, then chairman of the FISA Manufacturers Commission, conceded that the existing “unlimited” cars would be allowed one year of grace. The Porsche turbos, Jaguar and Mercedes stock-blocks and Mazda rotaries would be allowed to compete in 1991 “but only to make up the grids” and with handicaps to make sure they could not win.

These handicaps, it turned out, were so severe that they deterred Nissan and Toyota from competing: several Porsche teams thought the better of it too, but the most deeply rooted problem was a catastrophic financial drought in sports car racing. It needs to be understood, and recalled clearly, that in 1988 the World Sports-Prototype Championship was flourishing. Porsche was on the way out, admittedly, but Jaguar and Mercedes were battling hard for victories with Toyota, Nissan and Mazda appearing at the key races. There was a successful C2 class in which Spice Engineering was the predominant manufacturer, and some of the races were very well supported.

Not all were, though. When FISA took full control in 1989 to pave the way for the 3.5-litre formula, one very sound decision was made: all the participating teams had to contest all the races! It was simple, it was effective, and we had 36 cars at every race.

Was it utopia? Not at all, in fact. Each team was paid $3,000 per car per start, no matter whether it was Monza or Mexico, Silverstone or Suzuka. There was no travel money and no prize money, but it was no secret that Ecclestone demanded $600,000 from race organisers, circuit owners or promoters for the privilege of staging the race (Mosley contends that Ecclestone rarely received the full sum).

So FISA got very rich and the teams became very, very poor. It was a classic fairy story but with a miserable ending, because when the glorious new era was heralded in April 1991 there were just 16 entries registered for the Sportscar World Championship.

Spectators were asked to pay Formula 1 ticket prices to see half a grid of disparate cars, so they stayed away in their thousands. The championship’s nadir was seen at Magny-Cours, a track that had turned away perhaps 20,000 people in July because they couldn’t get access to the Grand Prix.

Yannick Dalmas was on pole position, and the Peugeots had dominated all four practice and qualifying sessions. There were fewer than 10,000 spectators at the Nevers track, though, and half of them had free tickets from Peugeot. Le Mans is, in Mosley’s words, “the engine” of the Sportscar World Championship. It is this race, more than any other aspect of the series, which has kept the championship in being in 1992. Le Mans is Britain’s second largest motor race, after the British Grand Prix, in the sense that between 50,000 and 60,000 people cross the Channel each year in mid-June to attend.

More people, that is, than attend the Group C race at Silverstone, Donington or Brands Hatch – in fact, more people than attend all three British rounds combined! Clearly Le Mans is much more than a sports car race. It attracts thousands of people who lack commitment, like those perhaps who attend Wimbledon though they have no interest in tennis, or the Henley Regatta with no interest in rowing.

Le Mans cannot exist without competitors, and competitors cannot exist without a formula, without a series of races in which to participate. It is this realisation that keeps the championship alive even though John Wyer, and doubtless others before him, asserted that “winning Le Mans is worth success in all the other races put together.”

Good competition, good value. These are the precious commodities in motor racing, as in any other sport. The heyday of sports car racing was in the 1950s when Jaguar, Aston Martin, Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes and Cunningham joined battle at Le Mans.

Is it any accident that public interest peaks when big, powerful cars are combatting the lead? Attendances were never higher than in the 1950s, from 1965 to 1971 when Ford, then Porsche, challenged Ferrari’s might, in 1976 to 1978 when Renault pitched at Porsche, and in recent years as Jaguar and Mercedes finally vanquished Porsche.

The recent crop of 430-kilometre sports car sprints are to endurance racing what airlines’ tourist class plastic food trays are to the Savoy Hotel’s restaurant.

The long climb back to a respectable level of entertainment begins in 1992 as races are restored to 500 kilometres, or more, and the private teams are allowed the chance to compete more fairly, and less expensively, against the manufacturers.

Inevitably the goal must be a return to 1000 kilometre race lengths. The experiment with ‘sprints’ (the first was the Monza 360 km in 1986) has been a ghastly failure, an emasculation of the sport, and seems not to have attracted one more paying spectator.

In reply to Jean Todt, one can only say that a car that cannot race for 1000 kilometres stands no chance of lasting for 24 hours . . . and if he offers to build different cars for Le Mans that is all the more reason to reject sprints, because private teams must needs keep their cars for the entire season.

The revival of sports car racing is at the mercy of FISA. There is an urgent need to distribute money more generously to the private teams, to make the events more attractive to spectators by improving the competition, by reducing the ticket costs and making the “show” more accessible. Can FISA (read Bernie Ecclestone) be relied upon to take these steps? We will have to see! MLC