The first voice of concern to be heard about the state of World Championship sports car racing is that of Dr. Ulrich Bez, the man who has directed Porsche’s research and development centre at Weissach since early last year.
Some of the statements made by Dr. Bez at a Porsche sport conference at the beginning of May raise fundamental points, issues that other manufacturers are only beginning to address. Firstly, Dr. Bez believes that the World Sportscar Championship should not be developed along the same lines as Formula 1, but should have a separate appeal.
Secondly, he believes that fuel economy will have to be taken into consideration again, perhaps in the mid-Nineties, and that we should prepare for that by admitting small displacement turbo engines (‘which are known to consume less fuel but to yield the same power output’), and thirdly, there has to be a place for ‘customer teams’, which are now an endangered species.
Since the FISA/FOCA authority assumed its responsibility for the World Sports-Prototype Championship towards the end of the 1988 season, a number of things have happened, some of them good, some debatable and some, in truth, bad.
We are delighted to see full grids for all World Championship sports car races, perhaps the most positive enactment in the history of the endurance sport. We should bear in mind, though, that it wouldn’t have been on the cards even five years ago, and succeeeded in a strong financial climate within the motor industry, coupled with a competitiveness between manufacturers rarely seen before.
If Max Mosley, interviewed in this issue (see page 585) is correct in his forecasts the future is indeed very fine, but if the constraints of another energy crisis were added to fears about pollution controls, and a world slump, it might be the end of sports car racing as we know it.
Also to the good is the level of professionalism demanded of the organisers and the participants, guaranteeing spectators a strong entry of attractive cars, and the best racing that the formula can offer.
Then we come to the grey area. Entrants have the right to expect the events to be promoted properly, and to be televised. That was part of the FISA/FOCA promise and is their part of the bargain, but it simply hasn’t happened. The opening round at Suzuka was well promoted because the organisers did their job, but the second round at Monza was very poorly promoted as usual, and we felt that the grandstands were busy despite the lack of publicity surrounding the event. If we look back to Spa last September, a FOCA event, there was virtually no promotion at all, despite the ‘double-header’ programme of sports cars and Formula 3000. We endured an existence in the top paddock, with no spectators for the pit stops, the main grandstand was nearly empty (hardly surprising, since Formula 1 prices were being charged!), and around 1500 paying spectators put up with inclement weather. Nor did the masses stay at home to watch the event on the box, because there was no television coverage. Bearing all this in mind, some competitors wonder out loud if Bernie Ecclestone’s famed ‘Midas Touch’, which works perfectly well in Grand Prix racing, which he understands well and is deeply involved with, fails to make contact in other forms of the sport.
Some bad things have happened too, matters that the teams don’t really want to talk about too openly. The level of regimentation is growing all the time, and not in ways that suit the entrants or the championship as a whole. All freight outside Europe has to be handled by one company, all air tickets by another. The teams have to stay in certain hotels, and while at the circuits they now have to eat the food provided by one particular caterer. What all that means, and who it benefits, is anyone’s guess.
If teams or sponsors want to invite guests, they must put the order through FOCA’s office in Geneva. For the Silverstone race just gone, the would-be hosts were quoted US $500 per head. Nobody could afford it, not even Mercedes or Jaguar, so the tradition of putting up hospitality marquees was totally absent on May 19/20. It was rather like banning strawberries from Wimbledon, or marquees from Henley, an unnecessary and arbitrary matter which seriously detracted from the atmosphere of the weekend.
So FOCA priced themselves out of the equation, not for the first time, but they may not have been terribly concerned . . . . the real losers were the manufacturers, team owners and sponsors who wanted to justify their investments in World Championship racing but were unable to do so, because of the rapacity of those running the show. Is that really the message Jaguar’s sales director wants to take to his new chairman and managing director, whilst at the same time asking them to authorise a budget for a new 3 1/2 litre racing engine?
In the past year we have seen the effects of touching a flywheel turning at 10,000 rpm on a big, lazy motor turning at 5000 rpm. There have been some terrible graunching noises, lots of sparks and a fair amount of heat and smoke. In 1992, when the World Sportscar Championship caters exclusively for manufacturers and highly professional private teams with 3 1/2 litre cars, the whole show will be running at 10,000 rpm and keeping pace with Grand Prix racing. Some people will make lots of money, some will make enough to keep them out of the red, and some will be operating on a wing and a prayer as usual.
Only then may we, the sports car racing devotee, judge whether we are in a place we ever wanted to be. A handful of manufacturers will be deliriously happy, and they’ll be responsible for 18 cars at most, but others perhaps will entertain serious doubts already voiced by Dr. Bez. It’s already rumoured that Mercedes will graduate to Grand Prix racing in 1993, and if the flywheel and motor are both turning at 10,000 rpm the step would be a very easy one to take.
From where, though, will the bulk of entries come in 1992? Two cars each from Mercedes, Jaguar, Toyota, Nissan, Mazda, Porsche, Peugeot, Alfa Romeo and Lamborghini will provide a terrific base for a spectacular world championship, and let no-one say that MOTOR SPORT is whingeing about the new-look sportscar series . . . . but that’s half a grid. Gordon Spice knows that no offence is meant when we say that a dozen Spice-Cosworths has next to no spectator appeal, but a dozen Porsches could pull quite a big crowd if they’re good ‘uns.
As Dr. Bez said in his thoughtful address: ‘Porsche’s contribution to the competition side of motor racing has been a considerable one over the last 40 years. I think it is no exaggeration to say that motor sport would have been much poorer without Porsche.’ Truer words were rarely spoken!
Even today, when the 962C design is long past its peak, Porsches makes up half the grid. In 1992, we believe, Reinhold Joest’s team will operate a pair of new Porsches powered by 3 1/2-litre V12 engines, and if there is a market these new cars could become available to World Championship and IMSA customers in 1993, certainly not sooner. The cars will of course be amazingly expensive, perhaps the first to sell for £1 million apiece. Chassis will be made of composite materials, the engines will rev to 15,000 rpm and develop 650 bhp, and rebuilds will be frequent and dear. Brake discs will be made of carbon, will cost £1000 each and will need replacing often. Anyone for tennis?
At Suzuka and Monza two things were immediately evident: the private teams are finding it more difficult than ever to secure sponsorship, but they are at the same time responding to competitive pressures by undertaking more development work and more testing. As a result a whole lot of engines were broken (one Porsche engine had done 30 hours when a cylinder liner cracked, and that was in a top-line car), and teams’ debts began to look like third world government overdrafts.
There is no shadow of doubt that the `haves’, the top manufacturers, will draw further and further ahead of the ‘have-not’ private or works-assisted teams — the process has already begun, and will accelerate — and that there will be a lot of very disillusioned people around in a year of two. For all its faults ‘restrictor racing’, and whether we’re talking about fuel or air consumption, or both, is immaterial, has given the immense advantages of capping power outputs and keeping engine development costs under control, with benefits that can be passed to customers.
At the moment Honda is reminding us that if you apply enough brains, intelligence and money to the problems, winning becomes a strong probability. This, however, is a devil-take-the-hindmost policy that’s already causing very grave concerns in the world of Grand Prix racing, and will become a still greater threat to the World Sportscar Championship when Mercedes and Peugeot become seriously competitive with the big Japanese marques. Dr. Bez knows that a company of Porsche’s size cannot be drawn into such a contest, and neither can its customers, hence the sensible call for economy to continue to be a cornerstone of sports car racing. Failing that, some marvellous castles may be built on quicksand. MLC