Cotton on: Downhill at Spa

Another irony for Jean-Louis Schlesser to contemplate is that if the WS-PC teams had occupied their usual pits on the downhill stretch, between La Source and Eau Rouge, he would now be the World Champion!

How so? The timing line would have been halfway down the hill, and that’s where the race would have started and finished. Many a competitor has coaxed an extra 600 metres out of his car to the “proper” line, but Schlesser just couldn’t get his Sauber Mercedes uphill to what we might call the “World Championship” start/finish. Second place was all he needed, and second place was denied by a very slender margin of 500 millilitres of gasoline.

The “Formula 1 paddock” and new pits were built at Spa on FISA’s insistence (perhaps that should read FOCA’s?) with spirit level accuracy, and in order that none of the team owners or sponsors need get their shoes dusty.

Unfortunately the entire area at La Source is now an ecological disaster deprived of a view, of decent surroundings and worst of all, deprived of spectators. Ah yes, the spectators … 2,000 in the pouring rain on Saturday, 3,000 on quite a nice Sunday afternoon. Not very impressive, least of all to FOCA which undertook to promote the race! Perhaps the charge of £35 to £40 per grandstand seat took the shine off the event for some?

Pit stops are of prime interest in sportscar racing. Drivers are changed, wheels are replaced, sometimes brake pads are changed as well inside two minutes, and there’s no lack of activity that makes a change from watching the cars go around. That’s why the biggest grandstands face the pits, and let us admit, in the case of Grand Prix racing, there’s little else that’s worth watching along the pits straight. At Spa-Francorchamps, though, the main grandstand overlooks superbly appointed garages (much larger than those in the Fl paddock, and more modern) and commands views of La Source and Eau Rouge as well.

So why in heaven’s name should FISA move the World Championship sportscars to the top paddock? No-one had a good word to say for the F1 area, and least of all for the viewing potential. Facing the pits are two private houses, the owners of which came into their gardens for a while. That was all. The short stretch between the awful “bus stop” chicane and the first-gear hairpin is devoid of interest, and even the “F1 grandstand”, a concrete job, is set back from the pit-lane so that it has no view of the activity there. If someone decided to scupper the World Sports-Prototype Championship race at Spa-Francorchamps, the task was carried out most effectively. The race must have a future, but to secure it, the event will have to be returned to the downhill paddock and pits, whatever the minor inconvenience to the teams that prefer level ground.

A provisional WS-PC calendar for 1990 (and Bernie Eccelstone warned the teams that it might be changed substantially in the next few weeks) has 12 races listed including Le Mans, Phillip Island in Australia, Tampa in Florida, and Montreal. We may not always agree with FISA’s plans for the World Championship nor with the methods, but the series has suffered for much of its existence from poor grids, a threadbare calendar and, since the Sixties, sparse crowds as well. Now there’s fresh enthusiasm which can be felt in almost every area.

A good calendar, fine grids and increasing exposure on television should give sportscar racing a new lease of life in the Nineties, but for the various reasons we have stated before, it will be a hollow World Championship if it doesn’t include the 24-Hours of Le Mans. Negotiations did commence between the ACO and FISA around the mid-September time that M.Balestre said they should be completed, and we await the outcome — and its consequences – with considerable interest. MLC