Why does sports car racing have to be so cyclical in nature? When I entered this business, Group C was at its height with Porsches, Jaguars, Mercedes, Astons, Mazdas and many others all duking it out in a riotous assembly of rumbles, growls, howls, screams and shrieks. But then it got really expensive and everyone ran away, leaving a few thinly disguised formula racing cars. Group C died, but from its ashes rose the BPR and with it McLaren F1s, Porsche 911s, Ferrari F40s, Dodge Vipers and, briefly, all was well with the world.
But then once more money got in the way. Manufacturers started passing off prototypes as production cars, and sports car racing was heading for the doldrums until a load of factory teams turned up to take us to a point at Le Mans in 1999 where there were works squads from Audi, BMW, Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, Panoz, and Toyota. And then just as things looked like they couldn’t get any better, they got a lot worse. We entered the era of Audi out-thinking and outspending the opposition, resulting in a run of 13 Le Mans victories in 15 seasons. Even then, remember that while one of its two losses in France was fair and square to Peugeot, in 2003 Audi didn’t send works cars to Le Mans.
And for the most part, particularly when inaudible diesels entered the fray, it got dull. Then the temptation of being able to showcase its hybrid technology meant that Porsche piled in, so did Toyota and with Audi not prepared to relinquish its territory, briefly sports car racing was as good as it had ever been. We had cars with four, six and eight cylinders, natural and forced aspiration, four- and two-wheel drive, hybrids storing energy, and all lapping in near identical times. The middle of the last decade was a golden era, but a short one. Porsche and Audi buggered off to pursue ambitions in Formula E leaving sports car racing once more in a very parlous state.
Two years from now there will be cars from Porsche, Audi, Toyota, Peugeot, Honda and Ferrari (at least) all vying for outright victory in what looks like the most exciting time for sports car racing since at least the BPR in the mid 1990s, and perhaps since Porsche and Ferrari last knocked lumps out of each other over 24 hours in France in the early 1970s.
“Emissions of race cars are nothing compared to those of aircraft”
But how long is it going to last? Someone will find a way to build a car that’s faster than all the others and a graphene-thin film away from illegality. The others will be faced with either spending millions catching up, by which stage the goalposts will have moved, or finding another sandpit in which to play.
Who’s to blame? It can only be the rule makers who have an unenviable record of being outwitted by race cars engineers ever since their rulebook came into being. So why not just get rid of the rules, because you can’t break something that doesn’t exist? The idea of a return to the simplicity of Formula Libre has an appeal, but it’s not practical. The reasons you need rules today are not just to ensure a level playing field (which they never do) but to stop cars going faster than is safe. So having no rules is never going to work.
So what to do? You can balance performance in the usual way but that addresses merely the symptoms of an inadequate rulebook
and creates other problems, such as teams deliberately under-performing in the previous race or qualifying to gain a favourable BoP for the actual race they really want to win, usually Le Mans, and we all know that happens.
It’s not easy, but I’d be interested to see if strict enforcement of a presumption of illegality made a difference. Instead of being able to put anything on the car the rules don’t specifically disallow, instead teams wouldn’t be able to put anything on the car unless it was specifically allowed. Maybe that’s what happens already but unless someone finds a way of breaking the boom-and-bust cycle of sports car racing, two things are clear: in a few years sports car is going to be wonderful; after that, we’re going to be having this conversation again.
Porsche’s suggestion that it would take a serious look at involvement in F1 if the sport adopted synthetic fuels seems to be more than a toe in the water. F1 last year announced it was looking to have its cars powered by ‘sustainable’ fuels by 2026, and unless it means fuel cells or battery powered cars – and it doesn’t – petrol produced in a lab seems the only way forward. So Porsche’s proviso appears to have been met, and in a timescale that coincides with the vast Porsche-Siemens synthetic fuel plant being built in Chile to come fully on stream. Whether it will maintain its presence in Formula E and LMdH is not known. As its sports car programme will have barely started by then, if it were to give up something, it would seem logical for it to follow Audi and BMW out of Formula E.
But the bigger question is whether Formula 1 can claim any form of environmental credibility when the emissions of the race cars are as nothing compared to those of the aircraft that fly the circus around the world. That’s where synthetic fuels are exciting: the car industry has more than one clean and credible alternative to the internal combustion engine, but the airline industry none. If F1’s move to sustainable fuels is to be more than a gesture, it needs to use them not only to power the race cars that are its public face, but the fleet of cargo aircraft that are the real source of its significant emissions.
A former editor of Motor Sport, Andrew splits his time between testing the latest road cars and racing (mostly) historic machinery
Follow Andrew on Twitter @Andrew_Frankel