Under scrutiny: Japanese sports-car teams

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Full of Eastern promise

It may be two or three years before all the benefits of FISA’s attention to the World Sports-Prototype Championship can be gauged, but immediately evident is the strong Japanese presence in the entire series. Race organisers are guaranteed full grids this year, in contrast to the patchy entry lists of recent seasons, as Nissan, Toyota and Mazda join battle with Jaguar and Mercedes throughout Europe and even in the United States. To do so they needed to set up bases in Europe, and all three chose central England, where their racing ties seemed to be strongest.

The Japanese manufacturers needed, at least, a presence in the World Championship, but what they have given is much more than that — a full-scale financial commitment which, in the case of Nissan for example, must rival those of Jaguar and Mercedes even though it hardly seems likely to lead to race victories this year. “We are about to see the biggest expansion there has ever been in motorsport,” says Nissan Motor Sports Europe director Howard Marsden, whose eyes light up at the prospect. “In the early 1990s we shall see a release of energy the like of which has not been seen since the turn of the century when every manufacturer, even Rolls-Royce, saw the need to take part in competitions in order to advertise.

“Now we live in the age of television, when a race in America can be watched in Japan, and throughout Europe, so the stakes are quite enormous. They can be assessed in terms of sales, marketing, public relations, advertising, as well as technical development, all with the aim of selling more cars.”

So eloquently does Marsden state the reason for the explosion in support for Group C racing that he speaks for all. Sports-car racing will polarise, perhaps, with the leading European manufacturers in one camp and the Japanese in the other, knowing that the stakes are not merely to win races, but to win prestige, and therefore new sales, in key markets throughout the world.

If there is anything to prevent the continued expansion of this category of competition in the 1990s, it is the potential of those who control the sport with a verbal shotgun to step in and prevent it overtaking Formula One in the prestige stakes. The Japanese, certainly, understand that FISA is a volatile body with unstable policies, and they have received no favours in the past year, but still they regard the prize of domination in the 1990s as being worth a few risks.

Mazda: suffering in silence

Mazda has suffered most of all at the hands of the ruling body. Mr Ohashi, then the Hiroshima company’s team manager, looked aghast at the ACO press conference at Le Mans last June when he heard Monsieur Balestre announce that rotary engines would be banned from competitions within two years. It was the first he’d heard of the decision, and there was no mistake in the translation; World Championship racing will not have a class for Mazda’s Wankel patent motor in 1991.

It took six months for Mazdaspeed to make a fundamental decision, to continue to support World Championship racing. The alternative was to go IMSA, and indeed the 767B ran extremely well at Daytona, but America is only one of three major world markets (Europe and Japan being the others). Mazdaspeed president Noriaki Yoshioka persuaded his board that the company should join Nissan and Toyota in the world arena in 1991, and work has now started on a conventional 31/2-litre engine.

In the meantime the 767B continues to be eligible for the IMSA class, and at 820kg its weight advantage over the C1 cars is actually extended. With some 620 bhp from the sweet-sounding quad-rotor, the Mazda appears to have a power-to-weight ratio close to that of the 31/2-litre Cosworth-powered Spices (say, 575 bhp and 750kg) and might be equally competitive on handling circuits such as Brands Hatch and Donington (Jarama in June, though, is the “optional event” which Mazda will not support).

The World Championship drivers will be David Kennedy and Pierre Dieudonne — the Japanese are extremely loyal to those who offer them loyalty, especially if they are as skilled as these Europeans — to be joined by Elliott Forbes-Robinson plus a Japanese squad at Le Mans.