The Plight Of The Phoenix

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In Part Two of his investigation into GT cars, Michael Cotton asks if sportscars have risen from the ashes only to fall back into the flames

Remember what you thought when you saw the likes of the Ferrari F40, Jaguar XJ220 and McLaren F1 GTR take to the track? It looked like the final hurrah for a breed of cars so fast, expensive and removed from the realities of the open road that we flocked to the track to see them lest their like never appeared again.

We should not have worried. Since the FIA has allowed one-off GTs to race this seemingly dieing breed has been reborn in its own image, only rarer, faster and, unbelievably, even more expensive. Pray silence for the Porsche GT1, the Nissan R390, the Elise-based Lotus GT1 , the incredible TVR 12/7 and the Roush Ford-powered Panoz Esperante. And these, you understand, are merely those that have been announced.

The FIA, in fact, was merely following the principle established at Le Mans in 1994 when the ACO’s Alain Bertaut opened up the 24-hour race to one-off ‘prototype’ GTs. The race was won by the hastily homologated Dauer 962LM Porsche, a car which neither tried nor needed to pretend to be anything other than a pure race 962 which, technically, could be converted to road use. Significantly, the car was certified in Lichtenstein where the transport minister is one Manfred Schurti, a man only marginally less famous for his exploits behind the wheel of Porsches.

Look at the Dauer now and you can say what you like about its credibility as a road-going GT car, the fact is that Jochen Dauer has sold ten and its heritage, that of the most successful sports-racing car of all time, is not an issue. Look now at the Porsche GT1, the allegedly 911-based racer that has not only won every race is has contested but also created more bad blood among its rivals than many thought possible in just half a short season. Although loosely based on the 911’s cockpit, it follows 962 principle from its bulkhead backwards and while its engine still has six horizontally opposed cylinders, it is mid, not rear mounted.

Problem is, once out, you can never put these cars back in the box. With two of the world’s largest manufacturers, Nissan and Toyota, in the process of preparing highly specialised GT cars that conform with the current rules, the FIA would be tempting fate to abandon the one-off rule.

The rule came simply from the assumption that there was not enough money on the planet to absorb the road-going products of all the marques who wished to take part if they must build 25 or 50 cars and hope to sell them. McLaren has worked hard yet sold less than a quarter of the 350 F1s it originally envisaged and though Porsche will sell the 50 GT1s it has decided to build as both road and race cars, it certainly had no obligation to do so. Then add the combined numbers of Lotus, Ferrari, Nissan, Toyota, Lister and TVR and it seems clear that the task of selling the requisite quantity of each would be beyond the capabilities of the smaller marques. Hence the one-off rule.

Not everyone is a fan. ‘Is there someone at the FIA who will sit down and decide what is a GT car developed for racing, and what is a racing car adapted for GT?’ That is the question posed by Alex Hawkridge, the former Toleman F1 team director now with the Panoz Esperante project.

Until 1994 a GT car had to be derived from a homolgated car such as a Porsche Turbo, Ferrari F40 or a Jaguar XJ220. That ruling involved both volume and recognition. These cars were familiar to anyone who knew anything about sportscars.

Lindsay Owen-Jones, who has completed two seasons in his McLaren F1 , made an apposite summary of the situation when commenting on the Porsche GT1’s controversial debut in the BPR series, a year before it went on sale to the public.

The Porsche, he felt, was a racing car prototype that would encourage others still further removed from road cars. “Jorgen Barth (Porsche’s customer manager) tries to make out that it is McLaren owners versus Porsche owners, but it is not. It is an argument between the GT and the racing car. Jurgen Barth is the ‘B’ in BPR.

Many will applaud Owen-Jones’ sentiments, but history may well see it a little differently. Bruce McLaren, after all, wanted to build GT cars as a lucrative sideline and the M6GT, developed from a CanAm car, was built as a prototype while today’s F1 GTR is a car of which the New Zealander would have been truly proud.

Lola’s T70 was built to the GT regulations that existed in the 1960s, as was the Ford GT40, and nowadays we regard these as classics even if they were powered by American stock-block engines of only average pedigree.

Power-to-weight restrictions prevent any car from going too far ahead and the requirement for road legality should take care of the rest. On the other hand, McLaren Cars’ Gordon Murray reckons the Porsche GT1’s low-pivot suspension would be completely unsuitable for road use.

Power itself is controlled by air restrictors, the size of which depends on engine size, whether it has forced or natural induction, and by the weight of the car. The restrictors’ sizes have been been altered for 1997 due to concerns arising from the Porsche GT1’s superiority in late-season BPR rounds. It was said that the current regulations favoured forced induction too much; even so, it has to be acknowledged that it wasn’t just the flat-six turbo that gave the German car its advantage.

The bodywork was designed to produce high downforce, perhaps ‘half as much again as the McLaren’s, and ABS braking also made an undoubted contribution. With the new restrictors it may transpire that the Porsche GT1 is not a clear winner and if this is bad for Porsche and the teams that will run the cars, spare a thought for the others, like those running nine-year-old Ferrari F40s who will be similarly hit by the new rules.

British specialist marques always thrive on a challenge and they excelled themselved in 1996. Marcos’ Chevrolet-powered LM600, raced by Cor Euser and Thomas Erdos, was quicker almost everywhere than the Porsche GT2s and won the category on three occasions, even when confronted with a score of Porsches.

Laurence Pearce’s Jaguar V12-powered Lister Storm raced with the best last year and it would have claimed thee podium finishes if it had been more reliable, while the ground-shaking Chrysler Viper GTS-R is another front-engined car that was starting to show a remarkable turn of speed towards the end of the season.

We should see a lot more of Marcos and Lister in 1997, both Euser and Pearce preparing two-car teams for what would have been the BPR Global Endurance GT Cup. I say “should” because neither marque has the type approval required and while the BPR partners were prepared to confer discretion on such specialists, the FIA, which has taken control of the GT championship, may not.

It takes anything up to a year, and a minimum of £100,000 invested, to gain EC Type Approval and even then the FIA will want proof that at least one car has been sold before it gives approval. Lotus too, will have their work cut out getting the Elise based GT1 type approved in time.

Lister, it seems, will be unable to homologate their car in time and Marcos might never do so because the LM600 is not available to the public with a Chevrolet engine fitted. This is no oversight. Chevrolet will not release the engine for general sale because of liability problems so the Wiltshire concern has taken the precaution of announcing for sale a different version of the car, called Mantis, powered by Ford’s four-cam 4.6-litre V8, boasting 350bhp in standard trim, road-going trim.

Peter Wheeler, maverick boss of TVR is even more ambitious, commissioning a new V12 from Al Melling and building a specialised GT1 racing car from scratch. Although Wheeler plans to run a two-car team, and intends to drive one himself, he too will be paying careful attention to any requirement to have the 12/7 (12 cylinder, seven litres) type-approved before the season begins.

However many cars race in 1997, few would have existed without the GT regulations from the FIA and the ACO. GT racing, dormant from 1977 to 1994, is once again in vogue and enjoying popularity unimagined while Group C was in its prime.