A Star in the Ascendant

Those who have followed the FISA saga through the winter may be aware that President Jean-Marie Balestre was given a ringing vote of confidence at the special meetings in March, the news coming just too late for our April edition. He received the unanimous support of the FIA’s General Assembly for his handling of the Senna and Le Mans affaires during the winter, and a majority of 90% in a FISA Plenary vote,

Britain’s delegate, RAC MSA Chairman Sir John Rogers, declines to disclose how he voted, “I’m sure M. Balestre would like to know who voted against him, but it’s a secret vote and it’s better if it remains that way. Just say that I represented the views of British licence holders . . . and that McLaren Racing is one of them. In all these matters I am expected to vote for what I think is best for British motor sports.”

Sir John can give the impression of being a supporter of Balestre, confirming statements from other sources in FISA that the president is calm and rational when it suits him, “But he’s a showman,” says our delegate. “As soon as he gets into the limelight he changes.” In Brazil, certainly, the president once again poured fuel onto the embers of controversy surrounding Ayrton Senna’s woes, arousing Brazilian passions to new heights.

Now, though, Balestre is invincible, a president for life it seems, whatever that may be worth to a man who celebrated his 69th birthday on April 9. It will be up to him to work out a peace formula with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest so that the 24 Hours of Le Mans can return to the World Championship in 1991, and if he can do so calmly and rationally, so much the better.

All the manufacturers without exception wish Le Mans to be part of the series. Arguably, this one race is as important as all the others put together; without doubt it’s the ace card in sponsorship negotiations. In 1989 Le Mans took place outside the championship and it made precious little difference. Perhaps it won’t matter this year that it’s not part of the series, although the absence of Mercedes will be regretted greatly.

Next year, though, there is a new formula for 3 1/2 litre cars. The series is devised by FISA, promoted by FISA and unquestionably ‘belongs’ to FISA in the fullest sense. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest might feel, for the first time, that it needs to approach FISA with a touch of humility to request the presence of this new generation of Group C cars at the 24 Hours.

Le Mans will have new pits in 1991, and all the apparatus that’s needed to stage a round of the World Sportscar Championship. Is there any reason why the ACO should not bow to the inevitable and enter negotiation now for the return of the race to the series?

It didn’t make headlines, but FISA’s Spring Congress in March overturned an earlier ruling, and several statements by the president, in allowing the current turbocharged Group C cars another year in World Championship racing.

We understand that the authorities didn’t want to take this step before. To have done so would be to take the pressure off manufacturers preparing 3 1/2 litre engines, but all the same M. Balestre did expose himself more than somewhat with a series of positively final statements to the effect that there would be no concessions whatsoever in FISA’s position on turbos, “even if there are only twelve 3 1/2 litre cars ready for the first races.”

There would have been more, but perhaps no more than 20. Half the cars on the grids this year are Porsches, or Porsche powered, and the Zuffenhausen company won’t have a 3 1/2 litre V12 ready for sports car racing before 1992, and then perhaps only for the Joest Racing team. A season of sports car racing without Porsches is almost unthinkable (some can remember the miserable championship of 1975), and eventually FISA faced the reality.

Jochen Neerpasch, competitions director of Mercedes, spoke for most manufacturers when he said that the continuation of the turbo era could be countenanced “so long as they can’t win.” Neither, he said, could they be allowed to command the starting grids, so the equation must involve more than a reduction in the amount of fuel allocated to the turbos.

The last year of the Formula One turbo era in 1988 demonstrated that a clever and determined manufacturer of turbocharged engines can achieve what seems almost impossible, and FISA’s technical commission won’t want a replay of that scenario. They’ll consider reducing the fuel allocation by at least ten per cent, perhaps from 51 litres per 100 kilometres to 45 litre per kms.

The qualifying situation could be resolved easily, as it was in 1966/67 when Formula 2 cars were needed to make up some Grand Prix grids, by making the fastest turbos line up behind all the 3172 litre cars. Few entrants would argue with that, and it would eliminate all the complexities of technical solutions.

Howard Marsden, principal of Nissan’s World Championship team, believes that FISA will be so hard on the turbo teams next year that they’ll make them run on three wheels. He’s only half joking! The temptation to raise the technical challenge to an impossible level must be avoided, though.

The goal for the turbo teams in 1991 must be realistic enough to interest the Porsche factory and the Joest, Brun, Kremer and Lloyd Porsche teams. If they decide, collectively, that the mission is impossible and they’re racing for tenth place at best, they’ll pitch their tents and branch off into other forms of motor racing. In that case FISA’s objective will have failed, because with the best will in the world no-one wants to watch Antoine Salamin and the Almeras brothers driving mobile chicanes amongst a pack of 3 1/2 litre sports cars.

Superficially Alfa Romeo’s sports conference in Milan was a disappointment to anyone expecting to hear about the company’s return to World Championship racing. One Italian journalist who asked, somewhat imprudently, why Alfa Romeo is engaged in Indycar (CART) racing and not Formula 1, was told by company chairman Gianni Razelli that “in the Fiat Group we have Ferrari to represent us in Formula 1 . . . and that is more than enough!”

Sig. Razelli volunteered, though, that Alfa Romeo continues to work on a 3 1/2 litre sports-prototype which would be ready in a few months, “and we will make the decision later on whether or not we wish to participate in the World Championship.”

It seems more than likely that Alfa Romeo will return to sports car racing in 1992, just 15 years after the Autodelta team pulled out of the old Group 6 series which degenerated into a European Championship. The new car will be powered by a V12 engine which will be ready for testing by the end of this year, allowing Ing. Claudio Lombardi — head of Alfa Corse as well as the Lancia rally team — plenty of time to prepare for 1992. “We want to see how the first races go in 1991,” says Ing. Lombardi. “Particularly, we want to see the reaction in Italy. We think we know the answer, but we must see.” The company’s management understands, all too well, that enthusiasm for sports car racing in Italy has never matched the levels of the ‘Fifties and ‘Sixties, the heyday of Ferrari’s might at Le Mans, Monza and the Targa Florio. Alfa Romeo, represented by Autodelta’s Tipo 33, may have won a few races but missed out badly in the glamour stakes and eventually sank without a trace. Today, Alfa’s management cannot remember that period very happily.

Fiat has controlled Alfa Romeo for two full years now, and it’s a very benign form of control. There is new blood at Alfa Corse, plenty of innovation, and In. Lombardi’s face lights up when he talks about the V12 . . . it will have five valves per cylinder, three inlet and two exhaust, so that it can turn 15,000 rpm. The car is being designed and built exclusively by Alfa Corse without outside assistance, and it will look, and sound, fabulous.

Alfa Corse will arrange secret trials at Monza, but the dates will leak out. A large number of Milanese aficiniados will bury mothers-in-law when the car first runs, and half of Milan will be there for the second outing. That’s how Sig. Razelli and his board of management will come to make their decision.

Ing. Lombardi may be famous for his technical and management control of the Lancia rally team, but he remembers only too well having to bury the firm’s LC2 Group C project. He came into Group C in 1985 when Cesare Fiorio despaired of beating the works Porsches, widened the car’s track and made other technical changes, and supervised the team’s only major victory in the ill-fated Spa race of that year.

Now, of course, Lancia’s role is clearly defined in the rally world. Ing. Lombardi attends WS-PC races from time to time and certainly never lost interest. However, the next time he brings a car, it’ll be an Alfa Romeo, it’ll be good and it’ll earn the goodwill of the Italian nation.

Sports car fans everywhere will want to salute and thank Sir John Egan, who retires from the championship of Jaguar Cars at the end of June. He brought the company back from the dead after taking control in 1980, steered it into private ownership four years later, and masterminded its return to prestige and prosperity.

Hand-in-hand with the resurgence was a famously successful Jaguar competitions programme directed by Tom Walkinshaw, the Scotsman who matches Sir John for sheer determination and for his refusal to settle for anything less than best. World Championships for Silk Cut Jaguar in 1987 and in 1988 were a tremendous credit to Jaguar and TWR, but victory at Le Mans in 1988 was the culmination of their ambitions.

Walkinshaw and his team will be more determined than ever in June to give Sir John Egan a five-star send-off, a second victory for the XJR V12, and it’s within their grasp.

But here is a conundrum. Would another Le Mans victory make it more likely, or less, that Ford-nominated board members Bill Hayden and John Grant will authorise a full scale venture into the new 3 1/2 litre formula?

A new contract with TWR would be a suitable and fitting reward for all that’s been achieved in the past few years, but by the same token Ford might consider that Jaguar has already had the best of limelight, and that it’s time now to concentrate on the enormous investment of time, money and resources in products and production. We hope to hear very soon of Jaguar’s commitment to the 3 1/2 litre formula; the company would surely not rely for long on a handicapped turbo model XJR 11 in 1991, so Walkinshaw will need a decision at the earliest time. We believe that readers of MOTOR SPORT will want to join us in wishing Sir John Egan every success in his future career. MLC