Where is saloon car racing going?
“BUT, but, I thought saloons were rather dull production things like Broadspeed Triumph Dolomite Sprints, or Toyota Celicas or Hillman Avengers ?” Doubtless you recognised the quotation from D.S.J., who was commenting on the inventively engineered super saloons at Silverstone for the supporting race to the farcical Grand Prix. Unfortunately these products of untold hours of individual toil provided an even worse spectacle than the hapless GP machinery, Gerry Marshall’s 480 horsepower Firenza V8 pulling out an enormous lead. Those opening remarks would apply far more to the processional specials, rather than the Manufacturers’ skilled Group 1-modified machines, contesting the RAC British Saloon Car Championship. At present the future of Super Saloon car specials is in the balance as a separate Championship formula, so we thought this might be an opportune moment to look briefly into just where all kinds of European saloon racing is headed.
First, we had better dispose of what is going on in Britain at present, and the answer is, as usual, rather too much racing for all formulae to survive. When I came to count up the Championships involved, it was astonishing just now many kinds of saloon cars currently enjoy the debased status of a British Championship. Starting from the bottom in costs there is the original one-marque series, that for Mini 7 Club 850s, the later 1000s (Mille Miglia) and, next year, there is to be a series for slightly modified roadgoing 1275 GTs.
Ford were the next ones into this way of selling their products, and they came up with the ferocious Escort Mexico (now includes the 1600 Sport) Championship, sponsored this year by Penthouse. The early years were marked by big prizes scrapped over by the likes of Jody Scheckter, and there has been something of a revival in the series this season. Ex-F5000 pilot Steve Thompson stylishly won a series that is as full of bent panels and airborne motor cars as stock car racing was, before the latter was cleaned up. Finally there are rolling, lurching, and virtually silent—save for the screams of drivers and tyres—Renault 5s. At this point I wonder, is that motor racing ? That remark also applies to the celebrity races in Shell-sponsored Escort Sports, unless they are driven well, and that is rare enough for me to wonder if spectators really like these events ? Now we progress into the general Club racing events, where we find that all the attention is concentrated on the BBC Radio 1 races, catering for FIA Group 1 (over 5,000 units per annum) cars, picking their way unsteadily on road tyres, but attracting sponsors hoping for a BBC mention. There is a parallel series sponsored by staunch racing supporters Britax, and that attracts plenty of support too. In both series the race order normally reads—Camaro, Camaro, and then, either Jock Robertson heading the squad of Mazda RX3s, one of the fleeter Capris, or the inevitable Marshall in a Vauxhall Magnum. Cars are divided by price in both series and this results in some very close struggles at the lower end of the field between such unlikely mounts as the Lada (successors in racing success to the Moskviches), a Honda Civic, Mini 1275, Imp or Simca Rallye. To me that sums up the ingredients that ought to be present in a good saloon-car event, variety and close competition. Unfortunately I also like sheer speed and some
thing that looks a little different from the car I can see duelling desperately around Hyde Park. Here the British progress into an absolute plethora of Club racing Championships for Special Saloons. These are the less modified lightweights from which Super Saloons sprang in recent years, and to which category that exotic formula may well be forced to return next year. In fact, you’ll often find that one, or perhaps only two, circuits are used in the acquisition of these titles, some of which are run under a regional title, while others are rather deceptive, and really only useful for presenting to prospective sponsors as a testimonial. Cars for these Championships tend to be either Minis, Imps, Escorts, Vivas
or Capris in advanced racing tune. A few years back, when there were less titles, a driver could progress through these Club saloon formulae and earn an International or RAC Saloon Car Championship drive. That seems more likely to happen for the Radio 1 and Britax contestants today. Rather a shame, for the Group 1 machines demand little more than the good road driver can give, and an awful lot depends on how much engine power you have, rather than skill. Sitting at the top of the British tree this year have been the Super Saloons, and the British interpretation of Group 1, applied to machines contesting the Southern Organs-RAC British Championship. The Super Saloons boast some truly incredible machinery, but the people running them often do not have the resources to sustain a competitive and reliable car. This has led to the situation where Dealer Team Vauxhall have constructed the virtually invincible slab-sided Firenza. The
parody of a Vauxhall shape is constructed in glass-fibre, there’s a monocoque central tub, front-mounted Repco-Iiolden 5-litre engine, massive GM four-speed gearbox and extremely sophisticated independent suspension, connected to massive alloy wheels. It took a couple of races for Marshall and the DTV machine to understand each other, but now it is driven with the kind of opposite lock abandon that Marshall applies to most of his mounts. In turn this means that nobody has been able to offer a consistent challenge. That does sound dull, but it really is fun to inspect
the opposition when it comprises devices like Skodas with either 5.7 V8 or 2-litre (Cesworth 275 b.h.p.) power; a VW 411 with Formula One Cosworth 3-litre DFV (Chris Craft has driven this 450-b.h.p. hybrid into much better form of late); two Capris with varying amounts of Chevrolet V8 impetus; a Capri II carrying the 440 horsepower Cosworth 3.4litre V6, and a Vauxhall Viva with double turbocharger installation for its Aston Martin V8. Much more rarely seen is the Richardson 8.1-litre Chevrolet Corvair (a very close relative to a McLaren Can-Am car) and the recently completed Jaguar-Chevrolet V8 of Tony Hazelwood, neatly christened XJ8. If the Tricentrol-sponsored series for these and some others is abandoned next year, these hulking monsters will share races uneasily with their rather more restricted Club specification brethren, as they always have done, Prior to this season. Certainly it seems that the place for these examples of what can be
called a saloon car is probably out of International limelight, unless you want an appropriate accompaniment to a British GP! This is not to disparage the category, for it is nice to find a class where the majority are there for the fun of it. Where a skilled man can shine in a reliable car, driven to its absolute limit . . . but there simply doesn’t seem to be enough money and expertise to lay on an International status Championship.
Recently there has been a lot of discussion over the form that next year’s British Saloon Car Championship should take, and it is rather sad to report that the RAC have been pressured into backing the adoption of a 3-litre limit. The object is to eliminate the easy dominance of the American Camaros, and introduce three-way scraps for outright victory between such honourable European marques as Ford, BMW and Opel . . . so much better than those vulgar American cars, now that we have to toe the EEC line! Otherwise the regulations stay as the 1975 series, which means they have a little more power and little more suspension freedom than FM regulations demand, carrying alloy wheels to show that they really are racing cars. 1976 classes will be: Up to 1,300 c.c., 1,300-1,600 c.c., 1,600-2,300 c.c., and 2,3003,000 c.c.
A bit more exciting from the driver’s viewpoint should be next year’s European Group 2 (over 1,000 cars produced per annum) European Touring Car Championship. These new Group 2 regulations amount to a determined attempt to provide closer racing via weight limits based upon a car’s cubic capacity; also included are fuel and rim width restrictions. These regulations had not received their final stamp of official approval as we went to Press, though it was not thought that anything more than minor changes could be made to the proposals. Next year’s Group 2 regulations are very similar to those governing the Trophee de L’Avenir races this year. This series has attracted excellent support from well-sponsored “semi-factory” teams with hot disputes for outright victory between a Britishbased Capri II team, a pair of Belgian Luigi BMW 3.0 CSis and Opel Commodore GS/Es
backed by Levis in Holland and BP Belgium. In essence these cars are Group 1 homologated models that are allowed free carburation (but not fuel injection, unless it is already fitted) and hand finished engines, coupled into a body shell that carries wheel arch extensions, of no more than 5 cm., front spoilers, plus wheels and tyres that will fit under such arches.
The result of these rules can be seen in a new British Leyland Dolomite Sprint which was produced to take part in the final round of the series, the TT at Silverstone in early October. Trophee de L’Avenir regulations have allowed the double Weber-carburated engine to produce 235 b.h.p. at 7,750 r.p.m., and the car sits on 9-in, wide wheels. Compared to a British Dolomite racing in the RAC series there is around an extra 45 horsepower, much better brakes (ventilated 10.3 in. dia.) and a rear axle located with the normal four links, plus a Panhard rod. Interestingly the pushrod 3-litre Capris arc generally no more powerful than Broadspeed’s L’Avenir Dolomite and the Ford is badly handicapped by poor braking, even with non-standard ventilated units installed. Kings of Trophee de L’Avenir power races, aside from the occasional American interloper, are the injected BMWs (295 b.h.p.) and Opels, which normally have some 10 horsepower less. The reason that the Ford is competitive with its German rivals is the old one of light weight and, it must be said, some exceptional driving from regular pairing, Tom Walkinshaw/John Fitzpatrick. The Capri us had actually led every round of the series prior to the TT, and recorded pole position plus fastest lap as well. That is not enough for victory though, and the Capri has only won twice, again prior to the Ti’, owing to breakdowns, often of the gearbox yielding under the strain of trying to help out the brakes! The practical effects of the new Group 2 over the present L’Avenir machinery will be to allow the use of fuel injection, much higher compression ratios • (Dolomite will go from Continued on page 1294
10.75 to 1 to 12.2 to 1) and the re-location of the engine in the frame. The 16-valve engine of the Dolomite can be moved backwards, and downwards, to produce considerable handling benefits.
Next year, while the Europeans bask in the glamour of the more expensive and faster Group 2, which their prosperity can apparently support, we will have what the promoters tell us we want. A formula designed to fit no International regulations and minus the big American machines that took over as outright winners from jaguar in the early 605. Leyland will not be taking the Group 2 battle directly to the Europeans, for the prototype car illustrated here is meant to develop ideas ready for others to use, nOt herald an official Leyland factory team, despite its BL Corporate livery and factory entry (the first time) at the TT.—J.W.