Cotton On

WSC Prospects -- False Dawn?

Just eight 3.5-litre cars were registered for the 1991 World Sportscar Championship when FISA closed the list on March 15, and the administrators must have thanked their lucky stars that they had decided, somewhat begrudgingly a year ago, to allow the 'unlimited' fuel consumption controlled cars a year of grace. There are 10 of those, making a half-decent grid of 18 cars for the WSC series.

Being positive, there are two-car works teams from Jaguar, Mercedes and Peugeot with a fascinating variety of technical approaches. The TWR-operated Jaguar team has taken the direct route (a typically British approach, our Continental friends would say) adopting a JaguarSport version of the Ford HB Formula 1 V8 engine, and coupling it to an adventurous, stylish and probably very efficient aerodynamic body.

The TWR six-speed transmission ahead of the differential is perhaps the most interesting part of the mechanical package, and the XJR-14 is the first major sportscar project undertaken by Ross Brawn, Tom Walkinshaw's technical director.

Mercedes has a technically advanced car, the heart of which is a flat-12 engine. Flat engines went out of fashion in the Eighties, the "ground effect" era, but Dr Hermann Hiereth and C291 designer Leo Ress have agreed that such an engine, inclined upwards towards the rear, allows space for a wide, shallow venturi which is presumably as efficient as two deeper tunnels.

Peugeot has installed a V10 engine in a pretty car that looks more "styled" than its main rivals, and the 905 had the advantage of being ready for two races at the end of last season, allowing the team ample development time.

A masterpiece of planning is demonstrated by having three World Championship races in May, following a six-month layoff, and Europeans have opportunities to see them at Monza on May 5, at Silverstone on May 19 and at the Paul Ricard circuit in southern France on May 26 (why the Monza and Silverstone dates couldn't have been swapped, giving the teams an easy route from Monza to Ricard for races on consecutive weekends, only FISA knows!).

After that, there won't be any more "sprint" races until August 18, at the Nürburgring, because June is reserved for Le Mans — where most teams will run last year's cars — and nothing happens in July. The racing might, with luck, be more exciting than in the past few seasons when Porsche, Jaguar and Mercedes have dominated in turn. It would be nice to think that the three manufacturers now involved will be at each other's throats all season, and that the results could not be predicted; it would be nice to think that spectators will attend in large numbers, and that the championship will prove to be attractive to television companies around the world.

FISA too greedy

This year the World Sportscar Championship is on trial for its very existence. No matter how good the contest proves to be, I fear that the public response may not be fast enough, or strong enough, to persuade FISA and the various manufacturers that they really do have something that will rival Grand Prix racing, given time.

FISA is entirely to blame for this situation, although the administrators will heap all the blame on the manufacturers themselves, the teams, the circuit owners, the public and any other convenient scapegoats that come to mind.

It will never occur to FISA that while the public pays Formula 1 ticket prices to watch Formula 1, it has little intention of paying Formula 1 prices to watch 18 disparate sports cars racing for two-and-a-half hours, even if three manufacturers are involved.

It will never occur to FISA that the private teams, which are the backbone of any championship, have been starved out of existence, reducing the field to skeletal proportions. Before FISA took such an interest in the World Championship it was possible for the teams (with OSCAR as their voice and negotiator) to race at Fuji for little more than it cost to race at Silverstone, or Monza, because all the travel and freight costs were covered by the organisers.

Now, all competitors meet all their own expenses and receive merely $3,000 start money, whether for Suzuka or Silverstone, Monza or Montreal. It's small wonder that the likes of Spice Engineering, Reinhold Joest, Richard Lloyd, Jochen Dauer, Franz Konrad, Chamberlain Engineering and GP Motorsport found themselves unable to continue — the economics didn't add up at all, and everyone wondered where on earth the money had gone.

A team would need extremely good sponsors and/or extremely wealthy amateur drivers to have any existence in the World Championship, and these are now few and far between. Those private teams which continue to support the series are unusually loyal to sportscar racing and remain unusually optimistic that a good sponsor will materialise (perhaps because there are now only half the number of cars on the grids).

It isn't often realised that when teams get into financial difficulties, as most of the private ones are or have been, their suppliers are the hardest hit. People who make the chassis, people who supply the tyres, the wheels, the spare parts, the engine rebuilds, the travel, the air freight, the advertising, the public relations, even team personnel, these are all the people who, ultimately and unwittingly, pay the price for FISA's poor financial structures.

Many people who have been involved in the sport in supporting roles won't be there this year, and nobody will be able to calculate how many of them have been ruined by the failure of teams to pay their debts. This is not an aspect we often think of, but the burden of debt in World Championship racing would probably keep a Third World country in food for a year.

Procar folly lives on

Two questions need to be answered: How did we get into this situation, and what can be done to get out of it?

The first one is quite easy to explain, and the second one is going to cause FISA a lot of heart-searching in the next few months. In 1987 FISA had the idea of introducing "silhouette", or Procar racing, as the alternative to Formula 1. Twelve manufacturers would each produce two-car teams which would contest twelve races a year, television-oriented events restricted to a two-hour maximum. The engines would be of 3.5-litre capacity, just like in Formula 1, and the cars would resemble road-going products.

The world's manufacturers turned that idea down flat. Jaguar didn't want to be beaten by something that looked like a Skoda Estelle, and Mercedes didn't want to face ignominy by being beaten by a Nissan Sunny. The costs would be staggering, at least as high as in Formula 1, so "thanks, but no thanks!" Alfa Romeo's Procar 164 remains a single monument to this idea, which was hatched by Max Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone.

Thwarted, they turned their attention to the World Sports-Prototype Championship. Great idea! There were Jaguar, Mercedes, Porsche, Nissan, Toyota and Mazda already competing. . . . perhaps more would join in. . . . Ford, General Motors, Peugeot. Subaru, BMW and Audi. That would be the dozen FISA wanted. Make them run 3.5-litre engines, shorten the races to a couple of hours, kick out all the tatty private entries and away you go!

So FISA kidded everyone along a bit, talked about raising the level of competition, more professionalism, big television contracts under negotiation, all of that, but the Japanese were slow to respond. That was a problem, because none of them would be ready for 1991. In fact they were dragging their heels because they have quite a good domestic series, and they're happy so long as they can come to Le Mans.

Porsche decided to give priority to single-seater racing, CART and F1 in turn, Subaru got their hands burned, and apart from Peugeot, all the others maintained the same opinion they had about Procar. It was too expensive, and there was too little return. If they wanted to spend tens of millions of pounds, dollars or yen, they'd go straight into Formula 1.

Le Mans is the engine that drives the World Sportscar Championship, and although FISA hates it, this remains a fact of life. Unless Le Mans is part of the World Championship, not many people want to take part in the series and prospects for television coverage are very poor. When Le Mans is part of the World Championship the teams have to build different cars for this one race, and that puts the costs up sky-high!

There is all the difference in the world between the 3-litre cars of 1968-1975, which were built to last 1000 kilometres or six hours and could be stretched to 24 hours, and the Formula 1-engined, 13,000 rpm screamers which are "lifed" to rebuilds every three or four hours. To run them at greatly reduced speeds might eke 24 hours out of them, but I'm not sure that this would be a great spectator attraction.

Something which not many people have yet realised is that the new regulations allow the 3.5-litre cars to be classified as finishers providing they complete 90% of the distance. At Le Mans, the Peugeot team could claim a finisher so long as one of the cars lasts for 21 hours and 40 minutes (and next year, when all the cars will have to be 3.5-litres, we could see the Russell Brockbank scenario where the last car conks out an hour from the end, but could still be awarded the victory).

Optimists will say that prospects are excellent for next year's World Sportscar Championship with two-car teams from Mercedes, Jaguar and Peugeot, Nissan, Toyota and Mazda, two Lamborghini-powered cars, and Judd-powered Brun, March and Lola private entries. There could be, what, 22 or 24 cars?

Fine, if they all come, but what about Le Mans? Definitely no turbos or "unlimited" cars there, just a potential for 30 or so contemporary, 3.5-litre cars. Surely the Automobile Club de l'Ouest has already worked on this scenario?

How about IMSA?

We have to come to the conclusion either that FISA, the ACO, and the various manufacturers will view the 1992 prospect with relish and press on with the World Sportscar Championship, or — and we must face the possibility — FISA will pull the plug on the whole series, just as they did on the European and World Touring Car Championships a few years back.

Interested parties must now prepare a contingency plan, a "just supposing" idea, because if FISA did cancel the WSC series you may bet that they won't offer an alternative.

It has to be a formula for cars that exist now, and the only one that's viable is the IMSA championship in America, a series which already caters for 3.5-litre cars. Fuel consumption has outstayed its welcome (it was liked by the engineers, but never by the spectators or drivers) but IMSA's air restrictors really do balance the car performances, helped by a bit of judicious weight-rigging.

The Japanese might well decide that they would prefer IMSA regulations to their 1991 fuel consumption formula. Nissan and Toyota already have IMSA specification cars that win, and Mazda is working on a potential winner for 1992.

That leaves Europe. Some circuit owners or promoters (I'd suggest at Silverstone, Donington, Spa, the Nürburgring, Monza and Jarama) would need to agree on a series of races that would support the 24-Hours of Le Mans, and feed the ACO with suitable cars prepared to IMSA regulations.

It is possible to imagine IMSA racing in America, the All-Japan sportscar championship, and a new European championship running to exactly the same regulations, each supporting a 24-hour race: the Daytona 24-Hours in February, the Le Mans 24-Hours in June, and a new event, the 24-Hours of Fuji, in October.

Teams might move from one continent to the other for the 24-hour races, ensuring an excellent and varied entry, but not for the bulk of the programme.

Grand Touring cars would have to be admitted, and they might sometimes form the bulk of the grids. Motor Sport has already proposed the outline of such a series, and it's all the more valid with road-going XJR-15s and Porsche 962s being built in reasonable numbers, though Porsche's road cars would always be strong numerically.

Is this proposal treason, or realism? For various, valid reasons FISA will cling to the 3.5-litre formula for as long as possible, and it certainly isn't in the interests of Jochen Neerpasch, Tom Walkinshaw or Jean Todt to endorse any alternative to what we have now.

Whether they welcome it or not, though, there will have to be a period of stock-taking after Le Mans, because it would not be businesslike to press on hoping that everything will turn out right for 1992. FISA will have to ascertain, with some guarantees, that the Japanese manufacturers will support the '92 series with full commitment, and that there will be enough private teams in existence to buy March and Lola chassis in sufficient numbers to make them viable.

There will have to be real indications that the public wants the World Sportscar Championship in its new form, and FISA will need to offer an attractive level of television coverage to keep the manufacturers interested.

The ACO will have to be convinced that the World Championship offers sufficient cars, in enough forms, to maintain the attraction of the race as the world's leading sportscar event.

We hope that all these things will come to pass. Endurance racing (if only "endurance" wasn't a dirty word these days) has traditions (sorry, another dirty word) going back to the first Le Mans race in 1923, and the golden Fifties are within the recollection of many people. The 3-litre formula wasn't the end of sportscar racing, though it wasn't very good, and the 3.5-litre formula needn't be a damnation either.

If the various parties decide that the WSC series isn't going to develop properly, FISA will have to make a decision that will be shocking only if no-one has made alternative plans. The first half of this season, up to and including Le Mans, is going to be very, very critical to the future of sportscar racing, and the level of support at Silverstone on May 19 — the first international race on the new Grand Prix circuit — could well be a crystal ball for the future. -- MLC