Those in Grand Prix racing are accustomed to the manners of FISA president Jean-Marie Balestre, but when he invited himself to the Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s traditional conference at Le Mans we knew it was an occasion not to be missed.
The ACO had responded to suggestions of having an interpreting service arranged (the majority who are crammed into the conference hall are British, German or Japanese, with French in the minority) and had also invited leading team managers.
It’s probably a blessing, in a way, that only the French understand JMB perfectly when he gets into full flood about the state of motor racing, and what he’s going to do about it. He is a big man, with a powerful presence, a strong voice, and two pairs of spectacles which are alternated with his mood, though he stares people down better without them.
A couple of hundred international journalists were straightaway offered a scoop, the proposals which M Balestre would make to FISA on June 27-28. In particular, they would concern and interest those involved in prototype sports-car racing and in rallying, the president confirming that, for as long as he had anything to do with it (and six years was the term he had in mind), Group A would have an absolutely assured future.
We heard a lot about “my proposals”, “my leadership”, “my opinions”, and an assurance that motor sports would not be as sound as they were today had we not had such a strong referee, so firm and fair. As a result of FISA’s valid and credible structure of regulations there was an unprecedented level of support forthcoming from manufacturers, and for that we should thank. . . well, guess who.
“These manufacturers are not philanthropists,” thundered JMB, who could make an undertakers’ convention sound like the whoopee of the year, “and I commit myself that in the next three years at least, if there is no recession, there will be unprecedented growth in motor racing, a great revolution” — the realisation of a personal ambition that would produce a strength not equalled in the past 35 years. We will have the same motor for three contemporary world championships!
Stripping out the hyperbole, JMB was not telling us anything new. The 3.5-litre Grand Prix engines we know all about. Of the 3.5-litre ProCar series we know as much as we want to know, which is not a lot. The 3.5-litre class of the World Sports-Prototype Championship is already accepted by all the leading manufacturers now involved. What is more to the point is an aspect only touched upon by Balestre, the equivalencies of turbocharged, stock-block and rotary engines which would enable Mercedes, Jaguar, Porsche, Mazda, Nissan and Toyota to stay in business.
In the short term, at any rate, these equivalencies are vital to the future of Group C sports-car racing.
Turbocharged engines will be phased out by the end of 1990, as we have known for many months, and as the fuel-consumption formula is to be abandoned engine power will, instead, be controlled by means of inlet-tract orifices not greater than 55mm in diameter. Balestre, though, said 57mm in diameter. Max Mosley said he was quoting from an old agreement now changed in committee, but others were not so sure. Stock-block engines would be limited by restrictors too, said Balestre, saying that without penalty a Mercedes 5.6-litre stock-block would beat the 3.5-litre racing engine every time.
He also said rotary engines would be banned eventually — a statement that appalled Mazda’s Takayoshi Ohashi, who was sitting directly behind JMB and, like everyone else, looked totally bemused by the half-hour haranguing session.
The general drift was perfectly clear, that not only would 3.5-litre racing engines be part of the new prototype World Championship series, but they would be the vital component. Alternatives from Jaguar and Porsche would only be permitted, from next season onwards, providing their performance was inferior to that of Formula One engines.
The fact is that 3.5-litre Grand Prix power units are likely to be extremely unreliable over a 1000km distance, until they have been developed thoroughly and expensively, as Matra’s glorious V12 was in the 1970s . . . We must not detract from these power-units, except to observe that they hold no interest for Jaguar and little for Porsche, both of which prefer production-based components.
Americans present in the room, and there were a number, were further astonished when Balestre proclaimed his lifelong friendship with Bill France Snr, though admitting to some lively arguments, and noted that the IMSA organisation seemed to be aligning its regulations closer to FISA’s Group C.
Since precisely the opposite is the case, the observation might have been merely a device to introduce the proposal to include next year’s Daytona 24 Hours as the first round of the World Championship. “Our regulations are not the same, but we can work out the details later.”
The format of the 1989 World Championship might be changed substantially if present negotiations with organisers in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil are successful. There will be three regional championships in America, Europe and Pacific Asia, with a title for each one, but the regulations must be identical, and a World Championship might comprise Daytona, races in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Brazil, plus participation in five out of six European races at Le Mans, Silverstone, Jarama, Monza, the Nürburgring and Brno.
If the negotiations failed, the 1989 World Championship would comprise simply the 24-Hour races at Daytona and Le Mans, plus one race in Australia and one in Japan. If the first, and major, proposal gets off the ground, though, participation in all but one race would be compulsory for manufacturers and drivers wishing to participate in the championship, and drivers would be required to have super-licences.
As a corollary, Chris Parsons has been reinstated as the World Championship co-ordinator, though with no connection with the entrant’s organisation, OSCAR, which will cease to exist under the new format.
Megolomania and paranoia are two conditions which come to mind when listening to Balestre in full flood, and one inevitably wonders how he commands an important position whilst in such an unstable condition. He has, of course, been attended by men in white coats for his heart ailment, which one recalls brought about his final and irrevocable resignation from duties! The trouble was, motor racing just couldn’t exist without him, so he returned by popular request.
His real power is intimidation, as becomes clear when Jean-Louis Schlesser, Bernard Cahier and others ask questions. Schlesser is put down smartly for defending stock-block engines. (“You are a driver, and have no business to ask questions at a press conference”), but Cahier is dealt with more savagely when he asks if the team-managers on the platform, silent so far, might be invited to state their opinions on Balestre’s pronouncement. “Non,” explodes Balestre. “Cahier, you are well-known as a trouble-maker. This is my press conference. You have the next two days to ask their opinions, so do it then”.
At this point, there is some mild barracking. A couple of Americans jeer, though not very loudly. Balestre’s face is a mask of anger, his eyes penetrate every corner of the room. There is silence, then he gathers his papers and rises from his seat. There is no ovation, no thanks, just a low murmur as he sweeps from the room pursued by anxious officials.
And we’ve got him until 1994! MLC
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