Cotton on....

These are the days!

It hardly seemed likely in 1983 (or 1984, or 1985) that anyone would ever call Group C “a great era” for sports-car racing, yet that is what it seems to have become, thanks to the arrival of the Silver Arrows to challenge Jaguar and what remains of the Porsche dynasty. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, but certain periods stay fresh in the memory and they always coincide with the biggest and most powerful cars of their time … the Ferrari P4s, the Chaparrals, 7-litre Fords, Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s, for example.

Group C started out as a hated fuel economy formula, and consumption is still the aspect which is least liked by drivers and spectators, but it has succeeded brilliantly in the two key areas of its conception.

Firstly, power outputs are so managed by the formula, requiring an average of 5.53mpg, that almost any engine configuration can be made competitive and so a large number of manufacturers are tempted to try. The mark they have to aim for, I believe, is 720 bhp whilst the car is using no more than 51 litres of fuel per 100km, and a wide variety of turbocharged and normally-aspirated cars are operating in that region. Secondly, in case anyone could be impressed by a 5.53 mpg consumption figure, the manufacturers really have made their engines ever more efficient, both through mechanical development and through electronic management, and I do believe that they have plenty more economy to offer their customers when the next fuel crisis comes along. Mercedes-Benz has got so good at Group C racing that it can race from flag to flag, apparently without any need for the drivers to lift off the throttle for economy; the 5-litre twin-turbo V8 engine package which sounds, to the untrained ear, like a definition of “thirsty” is in fact notably run economically.

So, in 1991, we’ll begin to look back on Group C through rose-tinted spectacles. Those thundering Mercedes, the 7-litre V12 Jaguars, the once omnipotent Porsche 956 and 962 models, the unlucky Ferrari-powered Lancias, the noisy Aston Martin … remember them? Weren’t those the days? We should make the most of this era while we’ve got it. The forthcoming Le Mans 24 Hours is the penultimate in the Group C series, and might for all we know be the last chance of victory for Jaguar, Porsche customers.., or even Mercedes. The Japanese manufacturers mean business, after years of fence-sitting, and Nissan and Toyota both have ideas of winning the race outright in 1990. Why wait for the 3.5-litre formula in ’91, if they can do it sooner? Think of the psychological boost of winning the last big Group C event!

I can’t see Mercedes letting the Japanese in easily, nor can I see Tom Walkinshaw doing so, but annual costs are about to take a quantum leap and Sir John Egan isn’t going to be able to make a grand gesture with Jaguar’s cheque book. In fact, last year’s operating profit of £39.4 million is probably about what Mercedes has budgeted for the next five years of motor racing, and Jaguar can only allocate the sums it receives in sponsorship from Gallahers, Castrol and Dunlop.

Sir John would be the very last person to plead poverty, but he has to be realistic on Jaguar’s behalf when assessing the huge sums which are now being dedicated to sports-car racing by Mercedes, Nissan and Toyota. Why, even Porsche is going through a period of reflection enforced by low profits, and is not ashamed to say so. World Championship sports-car racing is about to become very professional (or “commercial”, take your choice) and every indicator at Suzuka was flashing this message. John Macdonald and Charlie Whiting were controlling and liaising smoothly but effectively, Max Mosley was smiling a lot and reassuring the Japanese manufacturers that they’d done the right thing, while in the Press room a FISA public relations lady named Katje Heim was busy making sure that the official backdrop for ceremonies had the Cabin sponsorship logos removed from conjunction with FISA’s signage.

I felt a little sorry for the race organisers, though, since they’d clearly planned on the scale of a Grand Prix and were slightly disconcerted that only about 20 Press and camera people flew in from Europe, instead of the usual 100-plus, and that the 200,000 spectators we’d been warned about on race day dwindled to 31,000 paid-up ticketholders. Other than in the paddock, the big Suzuka track looked half-empty.

Still, the last time I went to Dijon, in 1976, there were about 2500 spectators and a few dogs (Alsatians, of course), and if Bernie Ecclestone chose to make his first-ever visit to a Group C race there I imagine he’d have been extremely underwhelmed.

While the majority of people were full of admiration for modest Ulsterman Kenny Acheson for his virtuoso drive in the Sauber Mercedes, there were elements even within the team that felt embarrassed.

Mercedes-Benz’s policy is to campaign for 21/2-3-hour races in 1991, events which are suitable for two drivers in the tradition of sports-car racing. On Friday, Mercedes team manager Jochen Neerpasch was perfectly certain that two drivers would be needed even for 350km. “It is impossible for one driver to race a Group C car for that distance,” he said. “Maybe at Le Mans, where you have a long straight, but here, no. Impossible.”

The following day Herr Neerpasch returned to Europe to supervise Mercedes’ touring car sortie at Zolder, and in his absence Jochen Mass’ influenza took a turn for the worse. On Sunday Acheson was still going at full speed after 300km, passing Schlesser into the lead at the 325km mark (55 laps) and again at 384km (65 laps). “I felt a bit bushed in the last dozen laps, to be honest,” said Acheson chirpily a few minutes after the ceremony, referring to the last 70km (out of 480).

In future they’ll get Willi Dungl to work on the drivers to make sure that, however good they feel, they look absolutely dreadful, pale and shaky … like Jochen Mass did, in fact! MLC