Cotton On

Hark these words

Sports car racing enthusiasts in Japan, Italy and Britain have now had the chance to see for themselves how very fast and fragile the new 3.5-litre Group C cars are. Many drivers at Le Mans, notably five times winner Derek Bell, have seen at first hand how braking distances are dramatically reduced, and how, in a couple or three seconds, dots in the mirrors become purple, silver or white threats to the 1000 kg dinosaurs.

"Those turbos are chicanes, aren't they?" commented Kenny Acheson in Silverstone's Stowe grandstand during the Saturday morning session. Superficially he was right, of course, yet we weren't comparing like with like. The unlimited capacity cars were ballasted to 1000 kg, or 250 kg more than the prototypes, and ran to a strict fuel regime in all but the vital minutes of qualifying.

It would be interesting to see how the Mercedes C11 and Porsche 962s would fare at 900 kg, and with no heed for fuel consumption. The two Jaguars would be faster than the C11, of that there's no doubt, but the smallest tear in purple fabric on race day would be a gift for the German team. Peugeot would be embarrassed, and it shouldn't be surprising that Jean Todt is so against the presence of the old Group C cars.

I tried to remember, at Silverstone, how we felt the last time Formula One-engined prototypes were unleashed, at Buenos Aires in January 1972. The FIA's CSI bureau (FISA's predecessor) hadn't considered it necessary to allow the Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512Ms an extended lease of life so the speed differentials weren't very great (and on a good day, on the right track, the Ferrari 312PB and Alfa Romeo T33 had been able to nip the heels of the 5-litre Porsches, just as the Spices did to the Mercedes and Porsche turbos last year).

Three scarlet Ferrari Spyders were lined up in echelon in the Buenos Aires paddock, glinting in the sunshine and radiating in 100-degree temperatures. There were no Italian drivers in the first line-up though Mario Andretti saved Italian pride, partnering Jacky Ickx; eventual winners Tim Schenken and Ronnie Peterson while Brian Redman drove with Clay Regazzoni. Even the team manager was Swiss, former hillclimb champion Peter Schetty having been called in to give the sometimes shambolic team a bit of discipline.

Facing them, in ragged order, were the dull maroon Alfas of Rolf Stommelen and Toine Hezemans, Vic Elford and Helmuth Marko and.. . . ah yes, the Italians, Andrea de Adamich with Nanni Galli and Nino Vaccarella with local man Carlos Pairetti.

With the avuncular Carlo Chiti in charge of design and execution it was hard to believe that the Alfas were in the same league, although the talented Stommelen did share the front row with the irrepressible Ronnie.

The Anglo-Swiss threat was real enough in the shape of Jo Bonnier's Lola team, representing Eric Broadley's company in fact, with two T280s for Bonnier and Reine Wisell, and Chris Craft with Gerard Larrousse. The latest 12-series Cosworth DFV engines were reckoned to be worth 445 bhp at 10,800 rpm, and unlike their principal rivals the Lolas were underweight, ballasted to 653 kg, a safe 3 kg above the minimum. The flat-12 Ferrari engines were said to develop 460 bhp at 10,800 rpm and the lightest of the three cars weighed 663 kg.

Carlo Chiti was heavily into safety in that era, not without reason, and made the tubolares of steel rather than aluminium materials. Following Ignazio Giunti's fatal accident at the Parc Admiral Brown the previous year (in a Ferrari, incidentally) Chiti had developed a safety fuel tank which, he demonstrated, simply could not explode.

The twin tanks were, however, 52 pounds (23.6 kg) heavier apiece and the least heavy Alfa weighed 709 kg, leading Elford to beg Chiti to have conventional tanks in his car. Chili declined with a sad smile, pointing out that this would be unfair to the other drivers! Since the Milanese V8 engines were quoted at 445 bhp at 10,500 rpm, Stommelen was a real hero to split the Ferraris.

There were, neatly, twelve decent 3-litre cars in the field and twelve 2-litre cars, Chevrons and Lolas mainly with Cosworth FVC engines, though Arturo Merzario and Spartaco Dini were quickest, and eighth overall, in an Abarth 2000.

Non-starting after blowing up in practice was the V8-engined Berta, built by Argentinian Oreste Berta, and almost unbelievably 50,000 spectators turned up for the first practice session on Thursday (a public holiday). I don't know if there were really that many spectators, but photographs show packed grandstands and there was a Grand Prix atmosphere about the place, so long as the wind blew the smell of the smouldering municipal rubbish dump away from the pits.

Did the sun always shine? Were the grandstands always packed? Did the Ferraris always win?

Well no, there were some wet and sombre days, and Sunday morning at Le Mans was never more bleak when news came of Jo Bonnier's fatal accident. He had driven his Lola into the back of a Ferrari Daytona and flown into the trees, a momentary misjudgement caused, perhaps, by fatigue, and that was the beginning of the end for the Swiss team.

Reine Wisell, who set fastest lap in the Argentinian race and so closely compared with Ronnie Peterson at that time, could surely have become one of the world's great sportscar drivers, yet he rarely drove two-seaters again until he became interested in historic racing.

The grandstands remained full in 1972 and 1973, but emptied in 1974 when Enzo Ferrari turned away from endurance racing to devote the full energy of his team to Grands Prix. With the advent of turbocharged cars in 1976 public interest continued to wane, but it was noticeable how the crowd turned to a nice-sounding, wailing V12. . . we hear these noises again in 1991.

Ferrari wouldn't go to Le Mans in 1972, saying that his Formula 1-engined cars weren't suitable for 24-hour racing while Matra only did Le Mans and had an easy time. Graham Hill established a unique record envied by Derek Warwick, for one. . . . twice World Champion, Indianapolis winner, vainqeur du Mans.

1973 was the watershed year in which Matra edged Ferrari off the throne. Ferrari sent a full team to Le Mans and we enjoyed one of the most exciting events in 24-hour history with Ickx and Redman, and Carlos Pace with Merzario, keeping tremendous pressure on the French V12s. The Ferraris eventually fell back with vibration-induced problems, cracked fuel collector pots, header tanks and exhaust systems, the sort of ailments that will cause many a delay next year when all the important teams have to run Formula 1-type engines.

It was the energy crisis of 1974, more than anything, that put the lid on the 3-litre formula. Ferrari had pulled out in any case and Matra decided to make '74 their last year. We were left with the excellent Gulf-Mirage team, winner at Le Mans in 1975, the Alfa Romeo team which never managed to get an act together, and a bunch of hopefuls waiting for the new "silhouette formula" to come along in 1976.

If we can have two cars each from Jaguar, Mercedes and Peugeot next year, and two each from Nissan, Toyota and Mazda, surely the grandstands will fill again? No, I am not going to harp on again about Le Mans because that is a separate issue which is clearly incompatible with the 430 kilometre sprint races, and will need a separate solution.

Hark these words: "Why would they want our engines? There isn't one engine in this Grand Prix that could go 500 miles. Their engines are reliable, ours are not. They're fairly certain of a good competition at every event. Why change?" Nigel Mansell isn't normally at the forefront of philosophical exchanges, but the Automobile Club de l'Ouest will be indebted to him for this exposition. He wasn't talking about Le Mans, nor even about the Sportscar World Championship, but about the Indianapolis 500. Same difference. -- MLC