On the evidence of the opening round, it would be easy to write off the European Touring Car Championship as a lost cause.
Only 22 cars, led by the two Ford Cosworth RS500s of the Eggenberger team and the twin BMW works efforts, droned around Monza for three hours in a race of no contest. The Fords, literally a class above the BMWs, were never troubled as Steve Soper and Pierre Dieudonné put Ford on the top of step of the victory podium again.
Monza painted an untrue picture though. Absent from the fray, although on the provisional entry list for the Italian race of the eleven-round series, were not less than eleven other Cosworths. They missed the event through lack of parts, held up by the recent industrial action at Ford’s British plants.
Then there was the problem with the middle-class M3s – so many of them dependent on Pirelli’s tyres. The close-season regulation change of tyre sizes for the BMWs from 10in to 9in-wide rims, and Pirelli’s resultant production delays, meant that several privateer runners were unable to race, tyre priority going to the works Schnitzer team.
On top of which, there was the absence of those cars awaiting homologation into Group A – the revised Maserati Biturbo for example. In 1987, it had a miserable year at the hands of the disorganised and comical Proteam operation, which did little to improve the cars all year. Now in the hands of Thomas Lindstrom, the Swedish former ETC champion and renowned engineer, the cars are expected to realise their true potential at last.
The same is hoped of the Nissan GTS-R, scheduled to compete in only a selection of races in Europe. Having proved its worth in Australia and Japan in Skyline mode, the new-style Nissan is to be based in Milton Keynes for the season. There has been a frantic rush to get the car ready, but at least the team has no worries over the driving staff, seasoned campaigners Win Percy and Allan Grice having been hired.
However, the big question mark which still hands over the series is whether anybody can touch the works Fords. Ruedi Eggenberger’s team produces, without doubt, the best cars in the ETCC, both in performance and glamour terms. He has a fine team of drivers in Soper, Dieudonné, Klaus Ludwig and Klaus Niedzwiedz, excellent technical back-up from Ford and Pirelli, and an adequate budget from Texaco.
At present, the Fords are at least a year ahead of the new opposition in terms of development, and strides ahead of BMW in power terms. Quite obviously, the only victory BMW can now hope to achieve in each race is its class.
The works M3 effort is split between two totally different teams. On one hand there is the Schnitzer team from Freilassig, for whom World Champion Roberto Ravaglia, and “coming-men” Emanuele Pirro, Eric van de Poele and Fabien Giroix drive. The other is the Anglo-Italian Bigazzi operation, employing ex-F1 star Jacques Laffite, ETC Champion Winni Vogt, F3000 man Olivier Grouillard and a certain Prime Minister’s son by the name of Mark Thatcher.
In line with BMW Motorsport boss Peter Flohr’s thinking, Schnitzer uses Pirelli tyres and runs AP brakes, while Bigazzi has the eminently preferable Yokohama tyres, but not-so-good Brembo brakes. That means the works M3s are fighting with each other for their class wins, as well as trying for good overall placings.
There is a chink of light at the end of the tunnel for BMW thought, as far as overall victory is concerned. On April 15 FISA introduced a new clause into its regulations which deals with the alterations allowed to the wheel-arches. If the outcome is as it seems, Ford may no longer be able to use 10in-wide tyres, and that could mean renewed hope for M3 runners. GD