Concorde in France

The most unhappy, damaging and unnecessary episode in the history of sports car racing came to an end in Paris on September 18 when FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre and ACO President Raymond Goulomes signed a contract said by JMB to be historic. It guarantees the 24 hours of Le Mans a place in the World Sportscar Championship for the next five years, and neither party was prepared to speak of “victory”.

Neither shall we. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest had to acknowledge the authority of FISA, and conceded all television rights to the event. FISA will time the event, by the Longines/Olivetti system, and will have total control over privileged passes, including (and especially!) those for the pits lane.

In return FISA agreed to respect the special nature of the event, and allow the Syndicat d’Initiative to retain financial control. Scrutineering will still take place in the Place des Jacobins on Tuesday and Wednesday, and qualifying will take place on Wednesday and Thursday evenings.

“The FISA and the ACO are delighted at the way the situation has evolved,” says a joint statement, “and consider that it is in the interests of motor sport for both parties to contribute jointly to the success of the Sportscar World Championship, and of the Le Mans 24-hours”.

We believe that Bernie Ecclestone, FISA’s vice-president for marketing, can take a lot of the credit for the peace effort. He is not a sports car fan, as he makes clear, and has never been to the 24-hour race, but the absence of the event from the World Championship calendar was a serious obstacle to the promotion of Group C, and especially to the television “package” that he so dearly wants.

The classic event went out of the World Championship last year for a whole host of reasons, one of them being irrevocable television contracts, and Ecclestone was frankly astonished to hear, later, that the ACO actually paid to have cameras installed. The ACO themselves pointed out, with pride, that the event has a potential of 376 million viewers in 26 countries, but the distribution, often via cable companies, and revenues were not what they ought to have been. It’s likely that the ACO will do far better with the “FOCA package”. Negotiations with Ecclestone were undoubtedly realistic and business-like, in contrast with the warmongering rhetoric which passed between the two French communities last winter. Only the French, one feels, could celebrate the anniversary of a revolution that other nations might prefer to forget, had it been part of their own history, and their continuing capacity for being horrid to each other is not surpassed in the civilised world.

Problems remain, but they won’t be insurmountable. It remains unlikely that as many as two dozen cars will be registered for the 1991 World Sportscar Championship, now that the turbos have effectively been frozen out by the 1000kg minimum weight limit. Somehow FISA has to double this number, at least, as part of its commitment to Le Mans, and Balestre acknowledged this when he declared; “We must work with Le Mans to study all the possibilities in respect of the regulations to get 50 cars. For Le Mans we agreed that one constructor can have six cars, or more. If Mercedes have two cars in the World Championship they can have five cars at Le Mans, or Porsche, 20!”

While the entrant would run the usual quota of championship registered cars; Jaguar a pair of XJR14s, Mercedes a pair of C291s, and so on, they will in addition be allowed, encouraged even, to run any number of Group C cars currently eligible. This, I’m happy to say, is precisely the solution proposed in the August edition of MOTOR SPORT (page 854) because it will enable TWR to run two or three 7-litre XJR-12s, and Mercedes their C11s.

After all, we will see a return match between Jaguar and Mercedes, because both Jochen Neerpasch and Tom Walkinshaw have indicated their interest in running the “unlimited” cars again. Walkinshaw wants to beat the Mercedes fair and square (as he feels he would have done this year, had they shown up), and Neerpasch is equally keen to repeat last year’s success. He says he took no notice of remarks that Mercedes wasn’t interested in defending the victory, but the barbs did strike.

Toyota will continue with their existing cars until Le Mans, we believe, and Nissan’s management in Tokyo is in the last stages of deciding to carry on with the R90C for another year, uncompetitive though it will be. Toyota is behind with the development of the V10 powered 3 1/2-litre car, and Nissan’s target date for a V12 has always been the end of 1991, for a full season in ’92. The chassis, however, will be designed in California by Trevor Harris, the man responsible for the hugely successful Nissan IMSA cars.

Porsche’s management in Stuttgart is now in a quandary, having advised customers not to support the 1991 World Sportscar Championship. This was on the grounds that the 962C was designed for an 850kg class and would need to undergo rigorous tests before it could be declared safe for 1000kg starts (plus driver, plus fuel).

One can understand the concern of Dr Ulrich Bez, Porsche’s technical director, and sympathise with the instinct to keep well clear of the new-style championship, especially at the shortened 430 kilometre distance, in which the 962Cs will appear to be lumbering dinosaurs.

For Porsche, though, the worst scenario has happened. Le Mans is back in the World Championship, and the marque can’t be represented unless at least one 962C is registered for the entire series. There hasn’t been a Porsche-less Le Mans since 1950, and even now Porsche provides the backbone of the entry. Make no mistake, even at 1000kg some good Porsches would stand a real chance of winning the race, because the new 3 1/2-litre cars simply will not go the distance without problems at their first appearance.

Perhaps Richard Lloyd is waiting by his phone, at Silverstone. There, at GTi Engineering, he has a unique chassis designed by Nigel Stroud, and built in England. The RLR Porsche would not be subject to any doubts cast by the factory, and would make an ideal Trojan Horse for Weissach.

A fine debut for Peugeot

The new French Group C car didn’t last long in the Montreal race, but it made a superb impression during qualifying. For a start, certain aspects of the design have surprised Jaguar and Mercedes, who now see the French definition of the 1991 regulations in a couple of grey areas, notably in the cockpit width and door apertures. Beautifully styled, and with a Peugeot “house” resemblance, the 905 is painted white with strong sponsorship from Esso and Michelin. Many supposed that it would grow some lumps and bumps as the track time clocked up, but this wasn’t so. The Peugeot breaks the mould of Porsche lookalikes in Group C, and that’s no bad thing as we enter a new era.

It was the sound, though, that drew every enthusiast to the rails. The eerie shriek of the V10 as Keke Rosberg changed it down through the six-speed gearbox, hitting the 12,000 limit each time, and the sight of him outbraking three Porches in one huge effort, was the highlight of our trip to Canada.

There was a noise we hadn’t heard since the last Matra V12s were wheeled into a museum in 1974. Oh, those lost years! Porsche’s turbos gave us a different sound, of muffled power, and the fuel consumption formula introduced in 1982 brought about a new phenomenon, top-gear racing.

Somewhere down the line sports car racing enthusiasts have lost 15 years of aural excitement, and in 1991 we’re going to get it back again. Every World Sportscar Championship team, from the first to the last, will hope that sound, and close competition, are the missing ingredients about to be restored, and that spectators will return to Group C in huge numbers. The future of the WSC series depends on it. MLC