"Amateur teams hold the key"

If sports car racing is to survive, attitudes need to change. Six-times Le Mans winner Jacky Ickx thinks there’s still time

Belgium’s Jacky lckx is regarded by many as the world’s finest exponent of endurance racing, joined at the pinnacle by his friend and driving companion Derek Bell. Six times a winner at Le Mans, twice a world champion sports car driver, lckx’s professional career started, and virtually ended, at the Spa-Francorchamps circuit where he was once the track director.

Currently lckx is a consultant to Mazdaspeed, taking a share of credit for last year’s Le Mans victory, and he is as concerned as any about the current poor state of endurance racing, nowadays known as the SWC. It becomes clear in conversation that he is ready, willing and able to play a part in the reconstruction of sports car racing, certain that the amateur teams hold the key to the future.

“The situation we are in today is not new, but it is a lot worse than before,” says lckx, who is 47 years old but looks hardly a day older than he did when he won his first Grand Prix, the French, at Rouen… in 1968.

“During the early ’70s we felt that there was a reduced interest in sports cars, but that was the effect of the increase in the popularity of Formula 1. So it is today.

“There were only a limited number of prototypes in 1976, and in the early 1980s, but there was a much greater variety of cars. There was always Ford versus Ferrari, or Matra versus Ferrari, and Porsche versus someone, always at least two major teams battling it out. Today we have Peugeot, we have Toyota and we have Mazda, so it is not less good or less competitive at the front.

“But always, in the last 22 years, we had full grids, plenty for the spectators to see. We had Grand Touring cars, mostly Porsches, driven mainly by amateurs. So you had professional teams, private teams and pure amateurs, and without that mix you cannot have successful endurance racing.”

My own belief is that the popularity of endurance racing is connected with the spectacle of big, powerful cars such as seven-litre Fords, the Chaparral, Porsche 917s, Ferrari 512s, Porsche 962s, Jaguar V12s and Mercedes C9/C11Is. lckx disagrees.

“I am not convinced that it was the size of the car that was important. Good racing is. I have noticed that the people who watch long-distance races are not the same as those who watch Grands Prix. As far as I am concerned the sports car category should be completely different from Formula 1.

“The mistake this season has been to have short, fast races which are soon finished, for cars resembling two-seater Formula 1s. People want endurance races to come back, I am sure, and for the manufacturers it is important to have the opportunity to show what technical heights they can reach.

“I do not object to people wanting to make the sport more professional, it is quite a normal aspiration, but they have to compromise with the amateurs. There are many aspects of the sport, in rallying for instance, where there is disaffection among the amateurs because they feel there is no room for them anymore.

“The key is to encourage them to come back. Grand Touring cars must return, we must have more categories so that there is more choice for the private teams, and more for the spectators to see.”

The speed differential between prototypes and GTs has been emphasised as a problem in recent years, as lckx knows very well.

“At the drivers’ meetings you hear people saying that the slower cars should be banned, but you know to ban the amateur drivers is a hell of a mistake. You need the amateurs in endurance racing and you have got to allow them to drive cars that they can afford to buy.

“The top drivers, the professionals, must accept that if they want to have a job, if they want to have a championship, there is the necessity to share the track with slower cars. And with less experienced drivers.

“It is the responsibility of the faster drivers to consider the slower drivers and cars, not to have accidents. As far as I am concerned, in 20 years I was never involved in an accident while overtaking, and if there was a near miss I considered it to be my fault.”

Does lckx consider that sports car racing can be saved from extinction?

“We have never been in such a bad situation before, but I believe in the new rules of Le Mans where they will increase the variety of cars, and certainly the numbers. If the formula works well we should see other organisers come back to promote events, which they will certainly not do for ten or twelve cars.

“Grand Touring has to be re-established as a category, and FISA has a great responsibility for that because in making sports car racing so professional they pushed out all the others. “At the moment my dream is to have an extended number of categories in the series… but that’s all it is, a dream. I would love to have the same rules for the Daytona 24 Hours, and Le Mans, and I would love to see Francorchamps become a 24-hour race for prototypes and GTs.

“I would move the date to early June, for example, and move Le Mans to the end of August. Le Mans would not suffer, it is the number one race and always will be.

“Then I would love to see a 24-hour race in Japan, because here they so enjoy the sport. It would be difficult, though, because they would have to change the law to race for 24 hours and that could take three years… they are forbidden to make a noise after seven o’clock.

“The priority,” lckx continues, “is to have more cars. When you have 30, 40 or 50 cars then the races will happen. The cars exist now. A number of manufacturers and teams have invested in the cars, and everyone is sure that Le Mans will be on next year. And if by luck Silverstone, or another classic long distance race, is organised, the teams can go there to prepare for Le Mans.

“It is very difficult to be optimistic when you see and hear all the things that are going on, but we must not be negative. The reason I am here is to be a consultant to Mazda, to persuade the management to keep an interest in the championship, but it is not easy because of the rules made by FISA; FISA’s whole attitude doesn’t help at all.”

Would lckx himself play any instrumental part in reviving endurance racing, perhaps in liaison with manufacturers and potential race organisers?

“To do so I would need a position in FISA, to be a part of the commission, to help to decide the rules and so on. But I am on the outside, so my answer is no. As an outsider I can only offer my opinion, be constructive instead of negative, and help Mazda to justify the budget they allocated to endurance racing. It is very difficult at the moment.”

Supposing. I asked lckx, he heard that Le Mans would become a saloon car event. How would he react? There was a long silence while the Belgian considered.

“I would be sorry. I would be sorry for the ACO, but the race would survive because all the top teams would go there. Le Mans would survive for a number of years with existing cars, but if there were no rules to encourage people to build new cars the race would die slowly.

“I think it inevitable that Grand Touring cars will have their place at Le Mans, and I approve of the Spyders they want to introduce. With variety, Le Mans will turn the corner and get better, and when that happens we will see a return of the classic events.”