The ITC’s collapse mirrors that of the World Touring Car Championship nine years ago. But who is really to blame? Gwyn Dolphin reports
The paddock at a race track is normally a hive of activity, people on the move meeting and greeting bustling from place to place. Mugello’s International Touring Car race on September 27 was strangely different, characterised by clusters of people earnestly embroiled in conversation. No hustle and bustle, no life.
The reason? Only two days before Opel had joined Alfa Romeo in announcing its withdrawal from the ITC a body blow which signalled the effective demise of the series. As a result championship regulars found themselves contemplating a future darker than a black hole in Calcutta.
It was all strangely reminiscent of another time annther place the World Touring Car Championship round at Calder Park nine years earlier when news filtered through that the series would be axed at the end of its first year.
The ITC and the WTCC had little in common bar the fact that both died in their infancy and that FIA Vice President Bernie Ecclestone played a hand in each. To assume that the Formula One supremos role in both was destructive however, is to be ill informed.
The WTCC evolved at a time when touring car racing was benignly controlled by the FIA via a single series the European Touring Car Championship. Through the complex and often contentious Group A regulations structured around three classes, Ford, BMW and Alfa Romeo ran cars which competed in the same races but rarely raced against each other. Track battles were strictly inter-class Eggenberger Ford versus Rouse, Wolf, Moffat or works Holdens Down Under, Schnitzer’s BMW operation against the CiBiEmme, Linder and Bigazzi teams, followed by factory Alfas and Snobeck-prepared Mercedes, privateer Toyotas in internecine squabbles lower down.
The WTCC emerged from its European forerunner at a time when Ecclestone wanted it to hold back. He told Ian Gamole, the Kiwi promoter pushing for a world series through his Strathmore Group, that 1988 would be a more suitable first year. However, a groundswell of support built up behind the initiative, and when Strathmore entertained FISA President Jean-Mane Balestre at the 1986 Wellington street race. housed the occasion to announce the creation of the series.
If Balestre wanted it, though, Ecclestone was unhappy. As the teams prepared for the season, he asked for a $60,000 bond per car for race promotion with a simple ruling no bond, no points. The upshot was that at the opening Monza round, only 16 of the 40 entries were eligible to score in the championship! Four were BMWs, most of which were declared to have illegal bodywork after the race. The factory Fords had already been thrown out during qualifying! The race finally went to Allan Moffat and John Harvey in a non-registered Holden, whilst the first points-scorer was down in 14th. Nobody got to see it on TV anyway…
At least the ITC did not have such chaotic beginnings to contend with – Ecclestone and the FIA championed the series from the start. The WTCC never had such high-profile promotion from FIA staff, championship co-ordinators and stewards. And the new incarnation of global touring car racing, spawned from Germany’s Class 1 DTM series, came from a much stronger powerbase than the WTCC.
However, when approached to run a global championship (perhaps with an eye to 1987), Ecclestone and the FIA demanded a three-year commitment from the three manufacturers Mercedes, Alfa and Opel supported by an $8 million penalty clause. Armed with guarantees, Bernie set about making the ITC work.
The biggest obstacle was not television, he struck deals with ITV in the UK and RAI in Italy to show ITC races, with the Italians agreeing to start this year and there was no lack of international media support, as it attracted strong pan-European and Japanese coverage. In reality, the problems lay in Germany, where both the fans and the press felt that they were being deprived of their baby, the DTM. The manufacturers persuaded the FIA that an F1 -style closed paddock should not be the ITC’s way. Ecclestone agreed, and at the Hockenheim opener in April, the track was bursting at the seams.
But there was still disquiet from some quarters in Germany, and these disagreements emerged at Nurburgring’s second race, when the circuit made little attempt to promote the race. Ecclestone stepped in to make it happen but, coming just a few weeks after the European GP at the same track, crowds were sparse.
By now television coverage in Germany was suffering. The DTM had given its coverage away, just as the BPR Organisation does now, and Eurosport, amongst others, was a willing taker. The German ITC deal had already been done by Hans-Werner Aufrecht, Ecclestone’s associate in the new company running the series, but it was far from ideal for the fans. Only those with access to the Vox satellite channel could see the races, and Ecclestone was squarely blamed.
The end arrived swiftly, almost without warning. It was clear that Alfa Romeo had felt the weight of the Fiat Group upon its shoulders when it announced its official withdrawal, citing wide-ranging cuts in competition expenditure. But it was the pace with which Opel jumped on the bandwagon that brought down the final curtain. Complaining of a lack of TV coverage, concerned over dropping crowd figures and a lack of brand recognition. GM’s European arm withdrew and unwittingly entered into a war of words with the FIA. Ecclestone retaliated by producing figures to show that TV coverage outside Germany had increased and that the non-German crowd figures those not supported by the three manufacturers purchasing huge numbers of tickets were on a par with previous years. In return, Opel, proffered more detailed criticisms: correspondence it had entered into with Ecclestone and his lack of response to its suggestions. Angered, Bernie threatened to go public with all their dealings, while FIA boss Max Mosley mooted a two-year ban on GM from FIA events for breaking the ITC agreement.
Perhaps the greatest irony is one that goes all the way back to the WTCC. In May 1987, Balestre told a concerned Moffat on the grid at Dijon that the series was safe. Six months later it was dead. When the FIA announced its winding-up, and the return to the European Championship the following autumn, the real agenda swiftly emerged. Ecclestone was working on another touring car formula tentatively called Procar. This was to based around silhouette racers such as the Alfa 164 that Riccardo Patrese demonstrated at the 1988 Italian GP. It gained little support from manufacturers, however, and the plan was quietly shelved.
Yet nothing comes closer to that Procar concept than Class 1 1996-style. Multi-cylinder engines, wide use of carbon-fibre, high-tech masterpieces: they match Ecclestone s original vision perfectly. Given his faith in the idea, which he called a NASCAR for Europe, and with lower technology levels and thus costs on the drawing board for 1997, it seems hard to believe that the man from Princes Gate wants to see this championship end.
Instead, look hard at the motives of some of the manufacturers (who wrote the technical rules), and their desire to make the DTM the biggest race series outside of Formula One. Look at the way they drove up costs by resorting to ever more expensive technology, ran without commercial sponsorship and reached the point at which national-type budgets gave way to F1 levels of funding. Look at the way they expected dramatically increased publicity after just one full season.
Ecclestone, Mosley and the FIA may not have the best reputations in the world, but as far as the ITC is concerned, perhaps they are the good guys.