Question time

Will the WSC formula work?

Daytona 24 Hours

The new era of open-top, naturally aspirated World Sports Cars opened at the Daytona Speedway, Florida, on February 5/6, raising as many questions as were answered at the Rolex 24-Hour race. The big event was won, on its 30th anniversary, by a front-engined car for the first time since 1976, a Nissan 300ZX from the GTS category, and by the handsome margin of 24 laps from the FAT Express Porsche 911 Turbo.

Spice chassis claimed the front row of the grid, Fermin Velez helped by a 'sprint' engine in his Chevrolet-powered Scandia team WSC-94, but his time was almost two seconds slower than the Camel Lights pole position time set by an Acura-powered Spice 'coupé' last year.

None of the new cars were particularly reliable in the engine department, and the contest for WSC victory was for ninth overall. Bob Schader's Brix team, Motorola sponsored Oldsmobile-Spice WSC 94 claimed the place just a lap ahead of Jirn Downing's Mazda rotary-powered Kudzu, which lost second gear on Sunday morning.

Fears that the new-look IMSA formula would lack spectacle were justified.

The American organisation had the noble objective of outlawing the ultra hi-tech Toyota Eagles and Nissan GTPs, reducing running expenses and bringing the main prizes back within reach of the private teams.

No longer did we see the GTP cars streaking round the banking at up to 220 mph. The World Sports Cars and GTS category Nissan 300ZX, Porsche 911 Turbo and Oldsmobile Cutlass machines were evenly matched for speed but visibly slower, Stuck's Brumos Porsche timed over the start-finish line at 196 mph. Velez was timed at 194 mph in his open-top Spice, Steve Millen at 193 mph in the Nissan 300ZX.

"They are slow round the corners," said James Weaver, driving Rob Dyson's Ferrari 348 powered Spice, "and they are slow on the straights!" That just about summed up the feelings of most leading drivers, robbed of the ground-effect venturi tunnels they had become accustomed to in the past decade.

"Like pushing a bar of soap up the side of the bath with one finger," commented Price Cobb after qualifying the Brix team Oldsmobile Spice on the outside of the front row.

Much of the problem was due to the stiff constructions and hard compounds of the tyres, designed for the GTP cars which developed up to 8,000 lbs of downforce; the Camel Lights developed approximately 3,750, but the new flat-bottomed WSC machines develop no more than 2,000, all from the top-side bodywork and wing.

"I must admit. the WSC cars are fun to drive," says Derek Bell. "They are not too physical, but it's difficult to get the tyres up to temperature. Goodyear are going to have to do some more work on construction and compounding, and when we have these tyres the cars should be very enjoyable."

Velez started the Scandia Chevrolet Spice from pole position and led the first 10 laps of the race, but that was the sum of the World Sports Cars superiority. A minor battery fire dropped him back and the two Clayton Cunningham team Nissan 300ZXs moved into the lead, one of them destined to dominate the entire event.

Front engined, crude in design, but strong and well developed over the past six years, the Nissans had everything going for them: the V6, twin-turbo engines were straight out of the GTP cars that dominated between 1988 and 1991, said to develop 700 horsepower even with restrictors. They handled well, and they carried 100 litres of fuel in their tanks.

The World Sports Cars were restricted to just 70 litres, "so as to make sure they stop twice in a two-hour sprint event" as IMSA's Mark Raffauf explained. Effectively they made three refuelling stops for every two made by their GTS rivals, so that even if they had a trouble-free race, they stood no chance of success.

Daytona was not a memorable race for Porsche, the master of endurance racing, because the GTS category Nissans were a step higher on the ladder than the Le Mans GT class Porsches. Scott Pruett and Steve Millen qualified together four seconds quicker than Hans Stuck in the 3.6-litre Brumos Porsche 911 Turbo, and ran off with the race.

The Brumos Porsche nosed into the lead at the second hour when Pruett collided with a backmarker and damaged his Nissan's wheel, but it was mostly a matter of the Porsches going longer on a tank of fuel.

The turning point for the Brumos team happened on Saturday evening when the cooling fan belt broke. Coincidentally perhaps, the same thing happened to Franz Konrad's well-placed 911 Carrera RSR at the same time.

The FAT Express Porsche 911 Turbo, last year's works car, had been crashed heavily by Dominique Dupuy during qualifying, and with Bob Wollek on the driving strength it made a steady start, to work its way up the leaderboard.

The Nissans were tied together at midnight, six laps ahead of the FAT Express Porsche in third place, eight laps ahead of the Brumos Porsche. Anyone not directly involved could easily break off for sleep, to dream of the 'works' Jaguars, Toyotas and Nissans in the so-called golden age.

Quite suddenly the crankshaft broke in Steve Millen's Nissan ("We think it may have happened because we were running too slowly, in a bad range perhaps," said the New Zealand driver), and the team was down to one car.

Scott Pruett, Butch Leitzinger and Paul Gentilozzi, joined for an hour on Sunday by Millen, had nothing to do other than protect their precious Nissan for 15 hours, and they won in a professional manner.

The FAT Express Porsche was a full 24 laps behind at the finish crewed by Dupuy, Wollek, Jesus Pareja and Jürgen Barth, but claimed victory in the Le Mans GT class. The Brumos Porsche was forced out of the race when the cooling fan drive belt broke for the second time, overheating the six-cylinder turbo engine on Sunday morning.

Third, then, was claimed by the gallant private Heico Motorsports Porsche Carrera RSR team of Dirk Ebeling, Karl Wlazik, Ulrich Richter and Günther Doebler, who ran through with never a problem. They broke Mazda's stranglehold on the GTU category, and recorded the highest-ever finish by a GTU team.

Good news and bad news lies in the future.

The good is the imminent arrival of the Ferrari 333SPs, two of which will appear in Momo and Campari colours at Sebring. Michele Alboreto will join Massimo Sigala in one, and Eliseo Salazar drives the other with Giampiero Moretti and Derek Bell.

There will be at least one more Ferrari at Atlanta in April, and the predominantly scarlet colours will sparkle in the sunshine. But then the GTS machines will be taken away, to compete in a separate event, and the WSC cars will have to stand alone.

The best forecast for the bulk of the series? Just 15 cars, and team-owners are bracing themselves for a difficult inaugural season. Not that the past two years have been easy . . .

The Ferraris will expose a further chink in IMSA's thin armour. The World Sports Cars formula was supposed to be affordable, and indeed a team could set up with a Kudzu or a Spice for $350,000 including the powertrain.

These are indeed low-tech machines (IMSA's technical director Amos Johnson modelled the formula on Jim Downing's Kudzu, which he used to drive), but the $950,000 Ferraris will almost certainly come in at a much higher level. They will be to the Kudzus what the Nissan and Toyota GTPs were to the ageing Porsches 962s.

All the engines were supposed to be production-based. The Ferrari's is not, although the V12 powered F130 will go on sale in 1995. They were supposed to be restricted to 10,500 rpm, but Johnson has been unable to locate a compulsory restrictor for all types of engine. "I'll stand by the trackside, and I'll know when they're doing more than ten-five," he promises in his southern drawl.

Those with Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Ferrari V8 and Mazda rotary engines will run at lower weights than the Ferrari 333SPs, and realise that if Alboreto and Salazar seriously exploit the performance of their 60-valve engines they'll soon be in the pits for fuel. It will be an interesting equation, but nobody expects the Italian cars to be anywhere but on pole position throughout the 1994 season.

IMSA's policies could undergo change in the weeks ahead. Two days after the Daytona race news leaked out that owner Mike Cone has sold the organisation to Charles Slater, who made his fortune in the medical equipment industry.

It had been known for a long time that Cone would sell out for $3M, and that Brands Hatch Leisure's Nicola Foulston was one of the interested parties. BRSCC executive John Nicol went out to Daytona to meet IMSA executives Dan Greenwood and Mark Raffauf, but unknown to all of them Cone had already made his decision to sell to someone almost unknown to seasoned competitors.

All the top jobs are on the line, especially those of Greenwood and Johnson, who has upset many team owners since his appointment 15 months ago. It is speculated now that the new World Sports Cars will be given a break, perhaps with a 100-litre fuel tank allowed for the 'endurance' races at Sebring and Watkins Glen.

The Automobile Club de l'Ouest's Alain Bertaut was also at Daytona, but not to buy anything. He had a 'technical discussion' with Amos Johnson, although a convergence of regulations between the ACO and IMSA is no more likely than the 'peace in our time' hopes entertained by Jean-Marie Balestre 10 years ago. The Americans and French simply do things differently, and will not be persuaded otherwise.

This disappoints Porsche. Above all else, Max Welti would like to see a common set of regulations and stability, so that he can establish a development path for the Weissach engineers. "I am afraid it won't happen," he said ruefully after talking to Bertaut and Johnson.

"We would like IMSA to allow turbo engines to compete with restrictors in the WSC class, but we are not getting anywhere." IMSA has been paranoid for many years about Porsche's dominance, and will go to great lengths to prevent the German steamroller from going into action.

For the time being, Porsche will concentrate on IMSA's North American GT Endurance Cup (comprising races at Daytona, Sebring and Watkins Glen) with the Brumos 911 Turbo, and preparing a highly secret, very special two-car team for the GT Prototype category at Le Mans. "Son of Moby Dick," is the phrase mentioned by one insider.

The Rolex 24 was not a classic race by any stretch of the imagination, but IMSA has succeeded in turning the clock back and pegging costs, for the time being. Significantly, though, confidence in sports car and GT endurance racing is being re-established after a very unhappy episode. M L C

Rolex 24 Hours — February 5/6 1994

1:Gentilozzi/Pruett/Leitzinger/Millen, Nissan 3002X, GTS, 707 laps.

2:Dupuy/Pareja/Wollek/Barth, Porsche 911 Turbo, GTS, 688 laps.

3:Ebeling/Wlazik/Richter/Doebler, Porsche 911 Carrera RSR, GTU, 671 laps.

4:Sandridge/Grohs/Maylander/Katthofer, Porsche 911 Carrera RSR, GTU, 670 laps.

5:Hoerr/Riggins/Smith, Oldsmobile Cutlass, GTS, 665 laps.

6:Konrad/Sandro Sala/Euser/Hermann, Porsche 911 Carrera RSR, GTU, 664 laps.

7:Heinricy/Pilgrim/Said/Hayner, Chevrolet Corvette, GTS, 658 laps.

8:Doren/Pagotto/Angelastri/Gualtiero, Porsche 911 Carrera RSR, GTU, 656 laps.

9:Schader/Dale/Melgrati/Cobb, Oldsmobile Spice 94, WSC, 651 laps.

10:Downing/Taylor/Fuller/Morgan, Mazda Kudzu DG-3, WSC, 650 laps