Cotton On

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A Long Way to Go

The first three Sportscar World Championship races have taken place since I prepared the column for the May edition, and the mood in the paddock is rather more optimistic than it has any real right to be.

On paper, seven 3.5-litre cars backed by ten “unlimited” Group C cars (we still can’t refer to them as “turbos” because they do include the Mazda quad-rotor, and Jaguar V12s when they appear) are a promotional disaster and the loss of World Championship races at the Ricard circuit and at Montreal would seem to be more nails in the coffin.

Tremendous encouragement is drawn from the new cars, though. Not so much from their reliability, nor for the quality of the racing, but from their spectacular speed, visual appeal and aural sensation. Quite unlike the lumbering old “fuel consumption” cars the new breed are breathtakingly fast and superb in sound.

If we can get more cars like these in 1992, then surely the championship does have a good future. Toyota will join the contest with a pair of V10-powered cars designed by Tony Southgate, while Lola and March are perfectly serious about going into production with customer cars that could be fully competitive.

The secret here is the possible availability of the Ford HB engine to a wider market. The Jaguar version is already proving far superior to anything else around, and any private team that got its hands on a Ford V8-powered Lola or March today, if such a thing were possible, could be hoping to beat Mercedes and Peugeot straightaway.

Another positive sign is the new spirit of co-operation that seems to stem from FISA. The last two seasons have been frankly bruising and unpleasant in and around the paddock with teams regimented and fleeced, sponsors abused and the public excluded.

There is still a long way to go before we return to the friendly atmosphere of the years to 1988, and I don’t think this return will ever be completed. But at least FISA seems to be a listening organisation, flexible even, though this flexibility is demonstrated by the making of a new rule each week and changing it in the week that follows. Stability is a word now found only in the dictionary, but not in FISA’s lexicon.

Not all is well. The reason given for the cancellation of the Paul Ricard race, merely four weeks before it was due to take place, was that the organisers stood to lose FF9 million. That is $1.5 million in round US dollars, FISA’s currency, and everyone within the sport would like to see such an outlay itemised.

It’s not spent on promotion, which hardly exists in reality, and it certainly doesn’t reach the teams since at $3000 per car per start, FISA’s commitment to the entrants is no more than $51,000 per race assuming 17 cars.

It is small wonder that the promoters at Ricard and Montreal can’t afford a race (Tom Wheatcroft didn’t even apply for his popular Donington date this year, for financial reasons), and unless FISA does enlighten us we’ll be left with the impression that staggering sums of money are being syphoned out of the sport to the detriment of the Sportscar World Championship.

We will not labour the point, though. There are positive signs of movement at FISA, though ironically a much-needed adjustment to the regulations was blocked by Peugeot, one of the three manufacturers supporting the championship.

FISA reserved the right to alter the weights of the unlimited cars, and did indeed reduce the weight of the Porsches to 950 kg for sprint races, and the weight of the Mazdas to 830 kg for Le Mans. Mercedes would love to have the C11’s weight reduced to 950 kg as well, but since the Swiss-German team led the World Championship after two rounds, with a couple of top-three results, that’s really off the agenda.

It would behove FISA to reduce the weight of the Equipe Veneto Lancia to 950 kg immediately on the grounds of safety — its brakes can’t cope with the weight — and to allow all the unlimited cars more fuel in order to speed them up a bit and produce some closer racing.

Such a proposal got short shrift from Jean Todt. When asked why he had blocked the move he retorted: “It’s obvious, isn’t it? We always opposed having the turbos in the championship this year; we don’t want them.”

There is some new-found realism at FISA that Le Mans needs more than a bunch of noisy, unreliable 3.5-litre cars next year, and Motor Sport’s longstanding suggestion of adding, or incorporating, Grand Touring racing seems to be gaining credence.

There will be a lot of debate before FISA could possibly decide to adopt this suggestion, but at the back of the corporate minds at Place de la Revolution will be the realisation that if they don’t offer the Automobile Club de l’Ouest a damned good race in 1992, the ACO might well opt out and draw up its own set of regulations. That would cause irreparable harm to the Sportscar World Championship, and probably scupper its future altogether.

Another positive signal received by FISA is that the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) is prepared positively to support the 3.5-litre championship. Next year would see 3.5-litres and “unlimited” combined, like this year’s World Championship, and in 1993 the Japan Sportscar Championship is likely to be run exclusively for 3.5-litre cars. This must now be the will of Toyota, Mazda and Nissan, who certainly considered the IMSA formula which caters specifically for 3.5-litre cars among others.

There is a growing realisation that the old-generation Group C cars are now too slow (and would be even if they weighed 900 kg), and that any private team that wants to buy a new car for the SWC series can only consider a March or a Lola at the present time.

Judgement must necessarily be reserved on the status and health of the SWC series until August, when the German round is held at the Nürburgring, but there is hope that the life support system won’t be needed much longer. — MLC

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