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Until the penny drops

Is the 24 Hours of Le Mans doomed to become “a social meeting for old boys with their Jaguar D-types”, as Max Mosley predicts with a shudder, or will a new agreement be forged with FISA to guarantee the future of the classic race? No answer can be supplied to this question until long after the dust of this year’s race has settled, but high-up people in the Automobile Club de l’Oest certainly show a willingness to go to Paris, “meet God” and talk about the future.

Most people (but not all) hope that the big event will be retained as the star feature of the “FIA Worlds Sports-Car Championship” (1991 title designate), and that certainly includes the Japanese manufacturers Nissan, Toyota and Mazda, who now feel they’ve been conned into participating in the full series when really they only wanted to be at Le Mans.

There are those who believe that this year’s split between the ACO and FISA, which took Le Mans out of the World Championship series, is a good thing. The ACO has its own way of doing things, the modern FISA has quite another. Le Mans invites entries and makes the teams pay; FISA wanted to handle the entries itself. Timing of the event was a big issue, but larger still was the question of television coverage, claimed by FISA for evermore. These were the issues for 1989 but, deep down, there was a huge clash of ideology.

How, people wonder, can the 24-hour race continue to form part of a championship which is otherwise comprised of 360km made-for-TV sprint events? Television is the key to all of Mr Ecclestone’s thinking, knowing as he does that the rise of Formula One has gone hand-in-hand with world coverage. Unless the ACO yields on these vital matters the event is a dead duck so far as FISA is concerned, consigned to the dustbin along with the Mille Miglia and the Targa Florio. Mosley, in fact, believes that the ACO should repeat: “Mille Miglia, Targa Florio, Le Mans”, every day until the penny drops.

FISA, probably, would love to do without Le Mans. The ACO, certainly, would love to do without FISA. They have never been good bedfellows and will never become so. Having stated that bare and incontrovertible fact, though, we have to face realities. FISA does need Le Mans because the World Championship teams demand it. The ACO does need FISA, though perhaps rather less, because it needs the guaranteed supply of top-class sports-cars, entered by prestigious manufacturers. After all no-one can go out and buy a Jaguar XJR, nor a Sauber Mercedes, nor a Nissan or a Toyota, and, as one sage asked, “Who wants to see a race for nine-year-old Porsches?”

The ACO could bet its boots that, failing an agreement by the end of November, there will be a World Championship race in another part of the world on June 9-10, 1990, and all the teams will be required to attend. But in that case the three Japanese marques might withdraw from World Championship racing, and even Jaguar and Porsche might decide not to support the 31/2-litre formula in 1991.

The blow to FISA would be enormous, shattering, and I don’t think the high-ups had really taken this aboard at Dijon last month (a weekend where rumours abounded that Peugeot is so concerned at the cost of entering the World Sports-Car championship that it might just as well go straight into Formula One. If Le Mans is not part of the championship, that decision from Peugeot is a certainty). In the coming weeks there will need to be a willingness in the Place de la Concorde for constructive dialogue. The ACO certainly need not go there on its knees.

Supposing the Automobile Club de l’Ouest does not come to heel? Jean-Marie Balestre’s preposterous press conference twelve months ago destroyed his credibility and, perhaps, determined some people never to trust him or want to work with him again. Many are sickened by the “loadsamoney” attitude of the modern FISA, meaning that manufacturers, organisers and teams are required to hand over staggering sums of money, with very little in return as regards firm commitment from the authorities.

Then, and only when all possible avenues have been explored with existing entrants and authorities, the ACO would be forced to consider a quite different formula.

We believe that Motor Sport’s proposed Supercar Grand Touring category, described in February, is the most attractive way forward, and it was certainly well received by leading manufacturers. We detailed a formula for Grand Touring cars such as the Ferrari Testarossa, the Lamborghini Countach, Aston Martin Virage, Jaguar XJ-S, Chevrolet Corvette and Porsche 911 Carrera, in two classes of 6-litres and 3.5-litres (inspection of current specifications shows that all these models fit quite neatly).

We also proposed Group A-type modifications on Group B cars (200 manufactured in a year) excluding space-frame chassis and other wildly expensive developments, but allowing a certain amount of tuning so that the quickest car out of the showroom, the Lamborghini Countach perhaps, wouldn’t necessarily be the regular winner.

One more proviso which would have to be respected is a top limit of 2-litres on turbocharged cars, at the 6-litre minimum weight limit of 1500kg, in order to prevent such machines as the Ferrari F40 and the Porsche 959 making a mockery of the Grand Touring category.

Our proposal did not come out of thin air. As soon as FISA confirmed the regulations for the 1991 World Sports-Car Championship, last December, it was perfectly clear that trouble lay ahead for Le Mans. A Supercar Grand Touring category would (we know) be exceedingly attractive to Nissan, Toyota and Mazda, all of whom have advanced sports-car designs on the brink of production.

The Japanese would like to beat Mercedes and Jaguar, at Dijon and Donington, with 31/2-litre sports-cars. They would far sooner, though, take on Ferrari, Lamborghini and Chevrolet at Le Mans, Daytona, Silverstone, Spa, the Nurburgring and Fuji, with exciting production models.

Maybe there’s a rote that Max Mosley should recite to himself each morning when he brushes his teeth. “Le Mans, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Chevrolet, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Porsche, Nissan, Toyota, Mazda, Mercedes, Fuji …” MLC

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