The Sports Car Scene

The title of this article is not referring to Lotus Elans, Morgan Plus Eights, Triumph Spitfires or MG-Bs, but to the International racing category known as Group 5; cars which bear little or no resemblance to sports cars but which have a close affinity to Formula One Grand Prix cars. For better or for worse their days seem to be numbered, having been pushed around from pillar to post by the well-meaning rule makers of the FIA for many years. If people will insist on making rules it is only natural that other people will either try to break them or dodge round them, and for years there has been a running battle between certain manufacturers and the FIA rule makers, with the manufacturers coming out on top. However, the latest move in this endless battle looks as though officialdom is going to win, albeit by slightly unfair means.

As things stand at present long-distance sports car racing is for Group 5 Sports / Prototype cars with a maximum engine capacity of 3-litres, with a sub-division of 2-litres, and it is optional for organisers to make up their entry with GT cars (Group 4) and if they feel inclined, a number of Group 2 Saloon cars. All this tends to produce a pretty mixed field, but it does ensure that something interesting is happening somewhere in the race during 1,000 kilometres or even 24 hours. The future of this type of racing is once more in a shaky state by reason of some decisions made at a meeting last Spring, which are shortly to become law, though there is just a slim chance that they could be thrown out. The suggestions are that from 1976 there should be two World Championships in longdistance racing, one reserved for seriesproduction cars as specified in Groups 1 to 4, which means Saloon cars and GT cars, and the other for Sports/Prototypes and twoseater racing cars, of Groups 5 and 7, which means the combination of existing 3-litre sports versions of Formula One cars, and Can-Am or Interserie type cars, like the turbocharged 917 Porsche or McLaren-Chevrolet V8 cars. On the face of things it would seem that the FIA are merely proposing to formulate rules to embrace anything and everything that is not an openwheeled single-seater, but it is suggested that organisers can choose which of the two World Championship categories they want to support, as can manufacturers and it does not need a clairvoyant to see what will happen.

The organisers at Le Mans have been trying for years to get the conception of a Le Mans-type car to resemble something akin to a production car, and at times have nearly succeeded, only to get side-tracked by National pride that twisted things so that Matra could win for France, and thus let in the pure two-seater Grand Prix car. Without doubt Le Mans would he run to the Saloon/ GT category, and the race would be sure to get support from Porsche, Ford and BMW, all of whom would love to win the 24-hour race with an outwardly standard-looking production car. The Autodelta team who run the flat-12 Alfa Romeos, which are thinly-disguised Grand Prix cars, would no doubt have pressure brought to bear by the State-subsidised parent firm to get them to run V8 Montreal coupes or some derivative. At the moment they have a lot of internal political problems over the fact that the racing programme, which costs a lot of money, cannot be tied directly to the production programme, which is something that prevents them getting interested in Formula One racing. Ferrari always likes to win Le Mans, and if it was restricted to GT cars he would soon he in with a team of Berlinetta Boxer flat-12 coupes, especially as it is in production with a 4.4-litre engine already. The organisers of the 1,000 kilometres of the Nurburgring are closely tied to the German industry so it goes without saying that their race would follow the Le Mans lead, and the Austrians would probably follow the German lead. Daytona and Sebring (if it ever happens again on an International footing) would almost certainly plump for the Saloon/GT category, having no Prototype manufacturers in the USA, and it would really only leave Spa and Monza with any interest in the Prototypes. though Spa would not stand out alone, and Monza would soon go for Saloons and CT if Ferrari and Alfa Romeo were supporting that category. Of those at present participating in long-distance racing only Matra and Gulf could be expected to continue interest in 3-litre Sports/Prototypes, hut it seems unlikely that they would have any events in which to compete. So the one statement from the FIA seems to have sealed the fate of long-distance racing as regards the scene at present, but this does not mean that the events will die. Far from it, for the future could be quite bright if sufficient manufacturers take an interest. but the FIA have hoped for this before and failed, so they may well do so again.

When they imposed the 3-litre limit on Sports/Prototypes they vainly hoped that “constructors of Grand Prix” would join in long-distance racing, piously saying that Formula One engines could be used for longdistance racing as well and thus keep the costs down. Matra, Ferrari and Gulf Research can tell them where that idea went wrong. There was a lot of talk about a “silhouette Formula” in which a basic production car could undergo unlimited modification as long as it was unaltered externally, and for a time this seemed popular, but long before any decisions were made Porsche, Opel and BMW began to indicate the lines along which it would go. and by the time provision had been made for wider tyres, bigger brakes, aerodynamic stability and control and so on, the cars were not looking much like production cars. Something along these lines seemed to he the right idea, for the aim Of long-distance racing was to pass on knowledge gained to the customer, and undoubtedly 13N1W and Porsche have done this, so if the suggested new arrangement is accepted it could well continue this idea. The Porsche Carrera RSR models that are being sold for racing this year are almost identical to those raced by the fartory last year under the banner of Martini Racing. This year the Porsche factory are racing the turbocharged Carrera, and if all goes well it will no doubt become a saleable production racing car for 1975, by which time the road-going Carrera RS will be virtually like the Martini cars of 1973. This is the sort of logical programme that the FIA want to encourage and is the reason behind long-distance racing. The other aspect is for firms like De Tomaso to build their Panteras in production and then produce racing versions, as Maserati would like to do with the Bora. The Gulf Research team with the Cosworth DFV-powered Formula One car and Matra with their V12 Grand Prix car and Alfa Romeo with their “sports car’: with its flat-12 Grand Prix engine, are leading nowhere as regards production cars are concerned, though Gulf no doubt gain some research knowledge in petrols and oils, Matra arc building up French prestige and self-confidence and Alfa Romeo are keeping their name to the fore in the world of cars other than Formula One, but none of it is very deep.

In long-distance racing this year it is proving rather difficult for the public to get very enthusiastic, even though they are still supporting the events, probably because you get a lot of racing for your money, even though it is not of a high order. It is the complete opposite to Formula One, or Grand Prix racing, where you get an abundance of high-class racing for a few fleeting minutes. If Matra, Gulf or Alfa Romeo opt out of an event, and one of the other teams has trouble early in the race, it is all over for the public. Anyone closely involved, or deeply interested, can in fact derive a lot of enjoyment even so, for the battles in the 2-litre category, the GT class or among the saloons, are terrific for those involved. They are nearly all amateurs, which does not detract from their efforts, but it means that the average spectator does not really know who they arc. If you are attracted to a race to watch Ickx, Jarier, HaiIwood, Bell, Merzario, Reutemann, or Beltoise taking part and within 30 minutes the event has fallen apart and all you see is Ickx touring round unchallenged, and Hailwood or Bell suffering infuriating delays due to mechanical trouble, you are unlikely to get excited about a battle going on between Claude Haldi and Clemen Schickentanz, even though it is as fierce as that that started between Ickx and Bell. If you know Haldi and Schickentanz personally, or you know their teams or their co-drivers, then you can get very interested and excited. Indeed, already this season there have been some splendid races among the Porsche Carrera private owners, as for example at the Spa 1,000 kilometres, where the last hour saw two rival Porsches passing and re-passing three or four times a lap, right up to the last lap. For British enthusiasts there is the pleasure of cheering on John Fitzpatrick as he battles against German, French and Swiss drivers in the Porsche Carrera GT category. Last year “Fitz” was driving for the Erwin Kremer team, and won many races for them, while this year he is driving for the George Loos team and the Kremer cars are his hottest rivals. The closeness of this racing is such that the class can be won or lost on a pit-stop, for during a 1,000 kilometre race they have to make three or four refuelling stops, and also change drivers, so that any team with a weaker driver as number-two has to have a very good number-one to make amends, especially against a pair of equally matched drivers, even though they may not be the best. The racing Porsche Carters RSR is so strong and reliable that it can be driven flat-out for four or five hours, providing it is well prepared, so that a wheel-to-wheel dice between two teams, such as occurred at Spa and the Nurburgring, can continue unabated to the bitter end.

In one of these Porsche battles the Swiss driver Haldi ran out of petrol half-way round the last lap and coasted to a stop as his rival went on to win. The reason was not really known, it could have been a miscalculation, a mistake in filling up at the last stop, increased consumption due to being driven harder than expected or a slight leak somewhere. Stopping near another abandoned racing car, Haldi siphoned some petrol from it to put into his own tank, in order to get back to the pits, arriving long after the last competitor had been flagged off. Naturally, he was somewhat cheesed-off about losing his private battle, but more so when he found he had been omitted from the official results, the reason given being that it contravened the regulations to receive outside assistance in the form of taking on petrol other than at the official refuelling pits. This was absolutely true, but then Haldi pointed out that the race was finished when he did this, for he and the other Porsche driver had been lapped by the leader two or three times so there was no way they could complete the full number of laps, and while they were on their last one, the leader was receiving the chequered flag at the end of the total race distance. After a lot of fairly friendly discussion it was agreed that the race was officially over before Heidi siphoned the petrol out of the other car, so he was re-instated in the results, his position being that in which he was as he started his last lap. This sort of thing never forms part of the story of the race, because in the overall picture it is insignificant, especially if all the works teams are taking part, for the private owners are probably battling for something like 24th position over-all, even though it might be for 2nd place in their class.

Just as there can be a lot of exciting racing and a lot of drama in the GT category, the same goes for the 2-litre Sports/ Prototype category in which privately-owned Lola, March, Abarth, and the odd special take part, although at the moment the Standard of competitor in this category is not very high, and the battle seems to be one of survival rather than wheel-to-wheel racing. A 1.000-kilometre race may appear on the surface to be uninteresting due to lack of top teams and top drivers, but for the enthusiastic follower there is always plenty to see but, of course, for the organiser this is not enough, he wants the big stars and the big names, in order to attract a bigger public. At the moment long-distance racing is sadly lacking in such things, and the likelihood of this season running the full gamut of events is pretty doubtful, so that 1975 looks even less hopeful. As things are there is no great encouragement for a constructor to get interested in long-distance racing, and of those who are in none have any real convictions; Gulf have floundered along since the Ford GT40 onslaught, through the days of the 917 Porsche only to find themselves forced to build a thinly-disguised Grand Prix car with Cosworth V8 power; Matra opted out of Grand Prix racing because they were not really getting anywhere, and the Sports/Prototype racing offered a place in which to make a name; while Alfa Romeo have muddled along, getting deeper and deeper into the complicated involvement technically. Porsche have tried hard to keep faith with the machinations of the FIA, and took the mickey out of the rules with their 917 Porsches, while Ford and BMW want to get involved, but not to Grand Prix standards.

Without doubt long-distance racing has got to change, or rather the machinery used has got to change, for everyone is quite happy with the racesdistance of 1,000 kilometres, accepting the Le Mans 24-hour event as something special, but not really wanting the Daytona 24-hour event, while the detail rules about fuel tanks being limited to 120 litres, and a driver not being allowed to go on for more than three hours without a break, and other such things are all accepted and agreed to. It is the type of car that is being used that is wrong, and the sooner something definite is decided the better for everyone. The way the FIA have done it at present is far from satisfactory, suggesting two World Championships and leaving the choice open to the organisers. Too many people have got to make a decision and there is the possibility of a divided vote, which will foul the whole business up once more. – D.S.J.