A green light...at last

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A life support system has kept the Sportscar World Championship alive for another season, almost certainly its last. This time it was provided by the three major manufacturers actively involved Peugeot, Toyota and Mazda who each pledged $600,000 per entry to FISA’s promotional fund “to indemnify the organisers against losses” as president Max Mosley eloquently summarised.

Having sailed the ship onto the rocks, FISA has now made an honest attempt to refloat it. Some of the teams represented at the Penta Hotel, Heathrow, on March 26 wondered why on earth Bernie Ecclestone and Max Mosley hadn’t taken such a reasonable and accommodating line in 1989, when the World Sports-Prototype Championship had grids of 36 cars.

It was supported, then, by six of the world’s most prestigious manufacturers (Mercedes, Jaguar, Aston Martin, Toyota, Nissan and Mazda), with Peugeot already committed to the 3.5-litre formula, and it must have occurred to the powers-that-be that if even half of them switched to Grand Prix racing with their wonderful new engines, Formula 1 would be even stronger.

As yet, we have no confirmation that any of them will take the big step into Formula 1. Jaguar might finish up with its name on Ford’s new V12 and rumours linking John Barnard’s name with Toyota are known to have strong substance. However, Mercedes-Benz thwarted Jochen Neerpasch’s hopes, and it seems that Jean Todt is fighting a losing battle with Peugeot’s management too.

Sometime between December 20 and January 2, FISA’s attitude changed from being wholly negative about the Sportscar World Championship to cautiously positive, possibly because Peugeot’s lawyers paid close attention to FISA’s own three-year stability rule.

Instead of demanding 20 fully-fledged World Championship entries (not including the HA Cup entries) to have a viable series, FISA is now prepared to go ahead on the basis of nine confirmed entries, plus half a dozen European Cup cars.

Of Mr Randall and his nine Jaguars, little can be said. His Arabian ‘backer’ from Dubai withdrew its interest, and frantic efforts to retrieve the situation look to be in vain. Tom Walkinshaw did secure a vote to allow his Jaguars (V12s) to run at Le Mans, and even if the championship had foundered at the end of March the 24 Hours race would have been safe.

Jean Todt agreed so readily to Ecclestone’s suggestion of a $1 million levy on each two-car factory team that it seemed he had been primed in advance, though Toyota and Mazda asked for a few days to consider the matter.

On March 27 it seemed that the Japanese would pay the levy, so it came as a shock to hear that night that Peugeot would not. Only after the weekend did it transpire that a Peugeot spokesman aired his personal opinion without a proper briefing, and finally on March 31 the last piece of the jigsaw fell into place.

Ecclestone had, in the meantime, raised the going price from $500,000 per works car to $600,000, needing $3 million but having overlooked the fact that Mazda was only committed to one car, at first. That in itself delayed the announcement by 48 hours, renewing the tension that surrounded the health of the series.

Controversy will continue to haunt the ACO.

On behalf of the Porsche customer teams, with perhaps 10 cars, Max Welti insisted that the reduction in fuel allocation must be waived. Instead of the 100 kg weight penalty applied last year, taking the Porsches to a clearly unsafe 1,000 kg, FISA has decided instead to reduce the fuel allocation from 2,550 litres to 2,140.

Ostensibly this is a reduction of about 16 per cent, but since the ‘unlimited’ cars can be refuelled rapidly, like the 3.5-litre entries, they will spend more time on the track and the real penalty is closer to 18 per cent. “We’ll have to spend the first hour in the pits before we go racing,” growls Tom Walkinshaw who, with his Jaguar V12s accepted for the race, joins Porsche in lobbying for a decent fuel allocation. Ever the diplomat, Welti says that unless the allocation is increased, Porsche “would not be able to recommend its customers to support the race”, which is a nice way of threatening to boycott Le Mans.

So long as Le Mans is part of the Sportscar World Championship, though, it would need the unanimous agreement of all the teams to change FISA’s rule. Needless to say, Jean Todt was steadfastly opposed and so too, presumably, are most of the 3.5-litre teams.

A good, reliable 3.5-litre car should be able to lap the Porsches and Jaguars many times in 24 hours, and Toyota’s winter test programme at Eastern Creek, Australia indicates that the V10 powered TS010 might be a revelation at Le Mans. After nearly 48 hours of endurance testing, according to one of the driver squad, “the car was fine, but the drivers were knackered!”

The teams which have invested in 3.5-litre cars are, in the main, united against the Porsches almost as much as they are against Nissan, which never lost the stigma of pulling out of the foundering series in 1991.

Walkinshaw is in the rather curious position of having produced the World Championship winning Jaguar XJR-14 which may not race again in a FISA series, of assisting Mazda in developing a V10 version of it, of wanting to run V12s at Le Mans, and again of being the chairman of Silverstone Circuits Limited, where the second round of the SWC series will be run on May 10.

At the Penta Hotel Walkinshaw spelled out that he didn’t want to run an emasculated SWC race at Silverstone, even though his words potentially harmed the chances of the World Championship going ahead this year, and could have upset Mazda as clients of TWR.

Anomalies abound, and interests conflict at every turn. This is what the old World Endurance Championship has come to, a series worn out by three years of attention from financial leeches and political wranglers, now on offer to any serious bidders.

What can the future hold? This must, of course, be the last year of the Sportscar World Championship in its present form. One cannot imagine Peugeot, Toyota and Mazda going through this wringer again next winter, and indeed Mosley concedes the fact that this 3.5-litre formula is done for.

Stubbornly he clings to the idea of 3.5-litre prototypes with little downforce, and narrow wheels, as a means of reducing the power requirements and cutting development costs. “What’s the point of having another 50 horsepower if you can’t get it to the road?” he asks.

The majority view of the teams at the Penta Hotel was to ridicule the notion. “The cars aren’t going to be any slower down the straights,” said one. “With little downforce and narrow tyres they’ll be very tricky in the corners. I don’t think it would be very advisable to spectate at the end of the straights.”

Indeed not. Circuit owners would come under new pressure to improve the safety aspects, and spectators at Silverstone’s Copse corner might be moved back to the outskirts of Towcester.

Who will build these cars? Who, even, would rebody and adapt existing cars to such a specification? The proposition is already dead in the water, stillborn, but if President Mosley can’t see that, it’s his problem. He has come to the view consistently held by MOTOR SPORT since January 1989 that a return to Grand Touring cars is the only feasible way for Le Mans, and endurance racing, to proceed.

That is to Mosley’s credit, and he has asked FISA’s Sportscar Commission to be prepared to discuss the matter at Monza on April 23. From there, he hopes to present a firm proposal to FISA’s World Council on June 23, for implementation next January.

Jaguar, Mercedes and Porsche are cautiously interested in the Grand Touring category proposal, which may even not require a minimum production level. Obviously Mercedes could make 500 C112 type supercars without too much difficulty, where Aston Martin would find it impossible to manufacture and sell even 50 Virage 6.3 models in today’s markets.

Mosley does accept the principle of handicapping, something that has always been an anathema to the FIA, and would be prepared to find an equivalency between a Jaguar XJR-15 and a Honda NSX, for instance. If he can actually proceed over this bridge in June and reach the other side, he’ll find himself on the same bank as IMSA’s Mark Raffauf.

Handicapping, by weight, by air restrictions, tyre widths, whatever, has always been not only acceptable to the Americans, but desirable. As a result they have good close racing, and at the recent Daytona 24 Hours and Sebring 12 Hours we have seen seven different makes of engine in the top seven positions. This did not happen by accident, but is the result of a philosophy which encourages competition amongst near equals.

Mosley floats the notion of 24-hour Grand Touring Car races at Daytona, Le Mans, and in Japan (not favouring either Fuji or Suzuka, at this stage. Fuji wants a 24-hour race but has rather primitive facilities).

Le Mans cannot exist without an infrastructure, of cars and events. Teams cannot simply prepare themselves to race once a year, unless on a completely amateur basis, and as FISA knows very well, an endurance championship can’t thrive without Le Mans.

The World Championship is dead anyway, after this year. Mosley’s proposal inevitably centres upon the IMSA Bridgestone Potenza Supercar series in America, a new European championship, and something similar in Japan.

Prototype racing will exist in America and in Japan, as I predicted, with a new axis formed between IMSA and the Japan Automobile Federation. If you want to see Nissans, Jaguars, Toyotas, Mazda rotaries, Chevrolets, even the odd Porsche if you’re lucky, better book an air ticket for Daytona next February!

They really care for sports car racing in America, promote it, nurture it, reward the winners, and as a consequence have a series that is doing reasonably well despite the recession. It’s a lesson that has been completely lost on FISA, more is the pity.

“At the moment we have lots of ideas and few solutions,” Mosley admits. We have to be utterly realistic, at this point, and question where the Grand Touring Cars are going to come from. It’s nice to think of Jaguar XJR-15s at Le Mans (a 48-valve version is reputed to be hitting 240 mph at MIRA) along with Ferrari F40s, Chevrolet Corvettes, Honda NSXs and Lamborghini Diablos, but it takes time a very long time, in fact to prepare all these delectable cars for one grid. With FISA’s track record, how many team owners are going to invest hugely, and quickly, in this attractive formula?

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