Already hard-pressed for business and profits, the world's airlines are now hit again by the Gulf war crisis. Many major international companies have forbidden their staffs to board international flights, and the first effect of this in motor racing was the absence of Olivetti's Rolando Argentero from Daytona, on the first leg of his contract to time the IMSA series.
This may be the first visible tip of the iceberg, so far as motor racing is concerned. Rumour had it, in Florida, that FISA has sent word to ACCUS warning that the US Grand Prix at Phoenix (March 10) is at risk unless the war is soon won. Some major corporations deeply involved in Formula 1 may forbid their senior personnel to fly the Atlantic, but it would be unwise to name them.
Goodyear was supposed to be one such company, but at Daytona Leo Mehl reacted with surprise: "I don't know how that story got about. It's not true. Goodyear is in the aviation business, and we do not have a ban on air travel. I flew here!"
Motor racing is a risk business, but statistically air travel is still safer than staying at home. Airline security is such that even today there might be less risk in flying than in crossing the road. So, is it corporate cowardice that puts a cloud over our sport?
Surely not. The broader picture shows us that the world economy is in a recession which may be deeper than that of 1980/81. Only the Germans have escaped, so far, but it will penetrate their economy too when the extremely weak dollar works its way through the motor industry. This is the time for cutting staff levels, cancelling discretionary budgets and eliminating all the frills. If a phone call will do the job of a business class air ticket, then get dialling!
The Gulf war is a convenient peg on which to hang these cutbacks. Mercedes has postponed a motorsport forum planned for March 1 "due to the current international situation", losing the chance to preseht the new C291 Group C car, and German Touring Car Championship (DTM) teams before the season begins.
Some people find the reason given for postponement difficult to accept, even allowing that Messerschmitt, part of the Daimler-Benz group, is out of favour, allegedly for helping Iraq to double the range of the Scud missiles.
There are good grounds for believing that the new 3.5-litre flat-12 engine isn't developing as well as Dr Hermann Hiereth hoped, due to oil scavenging problems. Engine speeds, and power, are below expectations, and in a recent test at the Ricard circuit, the C291 wasn't able to match the times of Cor Euser in a Spice-Cosworth.
Would Mercedes pull the plug on the entire racing programme? German and Swiss journalists, certainly, believe that this could happen. "Mercedes doesn't go racing because of the sport.. . . Mercedes goes to win" says one German commentator. If the chances of winning on a fairly regular basis are poor, so are the chances of Mercedes being a competitor.
All this is pure speculation. Deep down, we expect Mercedes to honour its commitment to FISA, to the World Championship, to Peter Sauber, and to its motorsports followers. Failure to do so really would be corporate cowardice.
Tom Walkinshaw confirmed, at the end of January, that there would be two Silk Cut Jaguar XJR-15s taking part in the World Sportscar Championship. They'll be powered by a modified, JaguarSport version of the Cosworth-designed Ford HB, V8 Formula 1 engine, already a proven winner, and the cars themselves have been designed by Ross Brawn, formerly with Arrows.
Elements within Mercedes and Peugeot already concede that the Jaguars will be winners, perhaps World Champions by the end of the year. Derek Warwick and John Nielsen will be the lead drivers and they may compete single-handed in faster races, such as the Monza 420 kms which is likely to be over and done with in about 130 minutes.
Signals were put out, in December, that the Silk Cut team might be reduced to one car in 1991. Design and development work had been a very expensive business, and Jaguar's business is in a trough. No extra money would come from Coventry, that was for sure, but happily the budget has been stretched to cover two cars.
Two more drivers will be selected and should get to drive at Suzuka on April 14. Walkinshaw has a pretty good idea who they'll be, but isn't telling. "We'll test them in March and then we'll make our announcement," he disclosed. They'll be young, they'll be quick, with single-seater experience, but they won't be too proud to sit on the sidelines when told.
Brawn describes the XJR-14 as a "two-seat Formula 1 car," and says that the availability of six weeks to complete the development work will be a luxury. "I never had that long at Arrows," he maintains, saying he'd be surprised if the car needed much development anyway. British hopes rest on his expertise and confidence!
FISA extended the deadline for World Sportscar Championship regulation to the middle of March, citing the Gulf war as the reason, but there's little prospect of attracting more entries. A reasonable assumption is for 19 cars on the starting grid at Suzuka.
Two Mercedes C219s will start with numbers 1 and 2, for Jean-Louis Schlesser/Jochen Mass and Karl Wendlinger/Michael Schumacher, two Silk Cut Jaguars at 3 and 4 for Derek Warwick and John Nielsen, with co-drivers to be nominated.
Then we'll have two Peugeot 905s for Keke Rosberg/Yannick Dalmas and Mauro Baldi/Philippe Alliot, a new Repsol Brun-Judd C90 for Oscar Larrauri, two Lamborghini-powered Wolf-Konrads for Franz Konrad/Harri Toivonen and, perhaps, Stefan Johansson/Paolo Barilla, Charles Hausmann's Spice-Cosworth for himself and Cor Euser (and possibly Tim Harvey on occasions), and an ALD-Cosworth.
Ten new cars battling for the lead would be a few more than we've had in the past few seasons! Years of Porsche domination, followed by a couple of years of Jaguar supremacy, then two more years of Mercedes might, have not appealed to spectators. Perhaps the sight and sound of these new generation, high-revving sports cars will bring the spectators back. There will be fears for the survival of the formula if they don't return.
The back half of the grids will have a more familiar look with two Porsches entered by Team Davey, and one each by Walter Brun, Antoine Salamin and the Almeras brothers, a Mazda 787 quad-rotor for David Kennedy and Maurizio Sandro Sala, a Cougar-Porsche from Yves Courage, and a Lancia LC2 from the new Veneto Equip in Italy.
It's hard to see how FISA will present the Automobile Club de l'Ouest with 50 cars for Le Mans. Any of the Porsche teams registered can introduce the Joest and Kremer teams to the 24-hour race, and with multiple entries the list could easily top 30. After that, the going will be tough.
The ACO wisely insisted on a clause in the FISA contract permitting the invitation of teams, in the time-honoured way, and It seems a near certainty that Nissan will receive such an invitation. So, too, might other teams competing in the IMSA and All-Japan championships.
That's just for 1991, though. What could the ACO do in 1992, when FISA will insist on the entry being restricted to new 3.5-litre cars? Controversy is not yet over! -- MLC