Begining of the End?

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Cotton on… The future of Group C

Any motor racing formula needs good management and stability of regulations in order to flourish, and at the present time the World Sports-Prototype Championship ‘regulars’ are alarmed at the way matters are developing for 1989 and beyond.

Definitive regulations have still not been published for next season, FISA has abolished the vital post of co-ordinator which was held until recently by Chris Parsons, and negotiations with actual and potential race organisers now have to be channelled through the controlling body in Paris – despite its hitherto supreme lack of interest in Group C.

It has to be admitted that Group C was in the doldrums between 1983 and 1986, when the only topic of interest was to speculate which of the two (or three) works Porsches would win.

Recognising that hollow victories are pretty worthless, both the Porsche factory and its partners, Rothmans, took care to cultivate any prospective opposition, and played an important part in setting up the Organisation for Sportscar Racing (OSCAR) which represented manufacturers, teams and sponsors.

This careful cultivation has had the desired effect of building up the World Championship. Tom Walkinshaw was able to persuade Jaguar to support a major tea, and Daimler-Benz was so impressed by Peter Sauber’s operation that it has given him all the technical and financial support he needs. Television coverage, albeit via the Sky Channel cable network, has been remarkably successful and there is a feeling within Group C that the series is widening its appeal and providing a better spectacle.

OSCAR has had its successes, though it has never been recognised officially by FISA. Sprint races were introduced in 1986, the championship now is for teams, and not manufacturers, and every avenue has been explored in an attempt to increase the number of ‘international’ races, at least four of which will be needed to retain World Championship status: Fuji is a well-established fixture, the Light Car Club of Australia will run its Sandown Park fixture again in November after a bad experience in 1984, and the World Challenge (Group C versus IMSA) race is also going ahead in Florida.

At times though, the attitude of M Jean-Marie Balestre has been almost obstructive, and the precise role of Bernie Ecclestone is not clear insofar as Group C is concerned.

Ecclestone, in charge of FISA’s marketing affairs, has proposed (and President Balestre enthusiastically endorses) the establishment of ‘ProCar’ – basically two-seater Formula One cars with Group A saloon-lookalike bodywork – as the second World Championship Formula behind F1. Since Alfa Romeo is the only company so far to have declared substantial interest, the inauguration of ProCar has been delayed from 1989 to 1990, and every major manufacturer has been invited to declare an interest.

We believe that it has been suggested to Jaguar that it ought to build a 3.5-litre racing engine and fall into line with FISA’s objectives, but the notion has been firmly resisted. For one thing, Jaguar wants to publicise its production components, in this case the V12 engine, and for another it would not want to get involved in a battle with Nissan (or Skoda, to stretch a point!).

“Can you imagine how we’d feel if Nissan came out with a world-beating ProCar?” asks Jaguar PR director David Boole with a shudder. Indeed, not … a competitive Nissan Sunny V12 would deter a lot of potential rivals, Mercedes and BMW to name but two! Clearly, ProCar needs constructive consideration.

Whether it is intended or not, FISA’s mucking about with Group C raises speculation that the World Sports Prototype Championship is intended for a dustbin behind the Place de la Concorde. To rid Group C of its fuel-consumption limitations would be a fine thing, providing that the alternative forms of restriction on unbridled power can be determined fairly.

Racing engines of 3.5 litres will be admitted, and they could be expected to deliver more than 600 horsepower for an hour at a time. Even 580 bhp would be pushing it for a 1000km race though, perhaps 550 bhp for Le Mans. Six-litre ‘stock block’ engines, such as Jaguar’s V12 can deliver a conservative 620 bhp for 24 hours and, with a 57mm restrictor, the Porsche twin-turbo 962 engine would give closer to 700 bhp.

This year, however, the American IMSA series is running to virtually the same rules as are proposed for the World Championship in 1989, and by far the most potent car to emerge is the Electramotive Nissan ZX-T, which has electronically-controlled wastegates and develops so much power that it eats Jaguars and Porsches for dinner. Until now it has not been particularly reliable, but Don Devendorf and John Knepp have sorted out the bugs in the V6 and have demonstrated how competitive it is, even with the restrictor.

It’s up to the Porsche to develop its own advanced wastegate system, that’s the name of the game: but it is now very evident that Jaguar needs its 7-litre engine to stay in business. A clear lead is needed from FISA within a few weeks. If inequitable regulations are confirmed, immense damage will be done to the championship.

If, on the other hand, FISA seriously wishes to promote a 3.5-litre Group C, it will not only limit the Jaguars to 6 litres next year, but reduce the restrictors on turbocharged engines to 50mm. Porsche is waiting for a clear set of regulations before it develops the 962C successor, with the twin-turbo Indy-based V8, and if everything is done properly we have a marvellous series in prospect.

Supposing, though, that sinister deeds are contemplated by FISA, and that Group C is to be put to death – what would that do for the heritage of sportscar racing?

We may no longer have the Targa Florio, nor the magnificent Nurburgring, but we do have a wealth of tradition in sportscar racing at Silverstone, Brands Hatch, Monza, the neue Nurburgring, Spa, and most particularly at Le Mans. The Automobile Club de L’Ouest could not contemplate ProCar, not for a minute, let alone 24 hours, and would be faced with the choice of running the prestigious event for Groups A and B cars (which is not without merit) or going outside the World Championship, as it did in 1976, to lead a revival of Group C.

Such speculation is inevitable in the present climate. The World Sports-Prototype Championship is a FISA Series, and the controlling body owes Jaguar, Mercedes, Porsche, Nissan, Toyota and Mazda a clear and unambiguous statement of intent. Unless such a statement is made, detailing precisely how Group C will fit into the grand plan, those with huge investments in sports-prototype racing cars will feel nothing but anxiety. MLC