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Five star circuit

Tom Wheatcroft’s first FIA World Championship race at Donington Park was widely acclaimed, and stakes a powerful claim for the East Midlands track to hold a Formula One GP in the foreseable future. Mercedes won the 1989 World Sports-Prototype Championship on September 3 in a meeting that passed off without incident, and the Germans were able to laugh about the replica Spitfire which pointed ominously at their silver cars on the Craner Curves.

There was some irony in Mercedes relieving Jaguar of the World Championship on the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of war and none of the Germans actually said “third time lucky”, as was rumoured. The title is well deserved though, because Peter’ Sauber’s Mercedes team has made 15 car starts this season and has no retirements, nor any finishes below fifth place (Jarama and Le Mans).

Some people were concerned, as I was, that the track would be too narrow, the concrete walls too close in places, and that overtaking would be too difficult for the Group C cars that are ‘as wide as some Japanese Christmascracker saloons are long. However the track has been skillfully upgraded since it was opened in 1977 with gravel beds and tyre walls, and the expanse of manicured grass on each side of the Craner Curves looked quite inviting to the unwary.

Overtaking was never a problem, and in fact Kenny Acheson said it was a good deal easier than at Brands Hatch which is, after all, virtually one big corner. There are three appreciable straights at Donington, and a couple of sharp corners where two drivers of like mind can reach an understanding, and complimentary remarks about the track were heard everywhere.

Of the race, though, there were mixed feelings. Most schoolchildren know that the release of energy causes heat, and in motor cars energy is created by the fuel. Donington was enormously hard on brakes and therefore enormously hard on the fuel consumption, even more so than at the Nurburgring which had been the previous port of call. The drivers are, of course, supposed to race at a speed which will get them to the end with a litre to spare, and within that constraint all the tracks should present similar targets. But drivers have to watch their digital gauges very carefully at the ‘Ring, and (according to one calculation) Donington was 15% more demanding. Frank Jelinski, normally an amiable man, was fuming when he got out of the fourth-placed Porsche: “It’s a **** race. We’re on the lowest boost, the leanest fuel setting, and still I hate it.” His words were echoed by Herve Regout, another of motor racing’s gentlemen.

Clearly Donington can’t please all the people all the time, but it now seems to be almost ideal for fuel-free F1 cars and,in 1991, for sports cars as well. Mr. Wheatcroft didn’t mince his words or hopes on Friday night when he entertained people like Yvon Leon, FISA’s secretary-general, Pierre Aumonier of the BRDC and Silverstone, Group C steward Alain Bertaut, and Dennis Keeping of Shell. “I hope this is our first World Championship motor race and, as most people know, we want the Grand Prix here as soon as possible,” said the Leicestershire master builder.

The in-fighting between interests at Silverstone, Brands Hatch, Birmingham and Donington in recent years can only be imagined, and without getting involved in all that we can only say that there are good tracks and not-so-good, and Donington can now take its place in the five-star category. Street tracks often give rise to frustration, ultra-fast tracks are sometimes not ideal for spectators, but Wheatcroft’s dream conveniently affords superb viewing in a driver-friendly environment. If only they’d close the East Midlands airport for two or three hours, though!

A success for Donington Park, a triumph for the Silver Arrows. The Sauber Mercedes team’s record this year has been pretty well impeccable, apart from the tyre related defeat at Dijon (which was excellent for the championship’s reputation), and the reliability record is every bit as good as the Rothmans-Porsche team’s in its heyday. The difference is that Porsche had to beat none but its customers in 1983-85, and always had the advantage in equipment, resources, drivers and teamwork.

When Mercedes-Benz put its full weight behind Peter Sauber’s team at the beginning of 1988 the already impressive C9 model went into top gear. The silly failures like broken seat catches became a thing of the past, the suspect Hewland VGC based transmissions became almost perfectly reliable (with the help of the British company, Staffs Silent Gear), and victories began to pile up: Jerez, Hungaroring, the Nurburgring, Spa and Sandown Park. There were only two retirements in 1988, those of Mass who was the victim of an accident at Brands Hatch, and of Mauro Baldi who had a brake disc explode at Fuji.

It would take an outstanding team to beat the Swiss-German outfit, and so far this year Reinhold Joest’s Goodyear tyred Porsche, driven by Bob Wollek and Frank Jelinski, was the only one up early enough in the morning at Dijon. The Silk Cut Jaguar team has struggled all year and Nissan has emerged as Mercedes’ strongest challenger with the R89C.

The Nissan team of 1989, engaged in the full World Championship, is very different from the sleepy Japanese team which came to Le Mans in 1986, ’87 and ’88. Oriental priorities seemed not to be the same as those of Europeans and development work was determined by committee, and proceeded imperceptibly.

Now the chassis supplied by Eric Broadley as recently as April 3 has been turned into a near winner, and seems likely to take the chequered flag any race now. For their part, Nissan’s engineers have made substantial progress with fuel-economising engine management chips, and are near to solving the delicate equation between power and economy.

Nobody in Formula 1, certainly, misses the fuel-rationed races and even the turbocharged engines are nothing but fond memories today. At the Nurburgring Jean-Marie Balestre confirmed, as he had at Dijon, that there would be no delay in introducing the universal 31/2-litre engine formula in 1991. Unless he contradicts himself later on we have only one more year of fuel-regulated Group C racing, and only one more year of the production-based engines, which is a great pity.

A 11/2-litre turbocharged Formula 1 engine which produces 1,200 horsepower is a remarkable creation, but totally irrelevant in the real world. Even a 31/2-litre V12 which produces in excess of 600 bhp is fairly irrelevant, when compared with production based V8 and V12 engines which churn out 720 bhp or thereabouts, whilst using no more than 51 litres of fuel per 100 kilometres. If that sounds excessively thirsty, by the way, then consider that the current Group C engines are about 35% more economical, when specific consumptions are measured in grammes per kilowatt-hour, than modern passenger cars.

There are times when fuel consumption is nothing but a nuisance, especially at the Nurburgring and Donington, and the Americans have evolved a better system in IMSA racing with inlet orifice restrictors (once promised for World Championship racing, but immediately buried by the bureaucrats ).

In an ideal world we’d carry on with production engines, greatly favoured by manufacturers as a basis for racing and much liked by the spectators, and substitute restrictors for fuel consumptions so that parity is reached, approximately, without the sight of cars conking out on the last lap and failing to be classified.

But we do not live in an ideal world, and like it or not we’re heading for still shorter races for which the entry fee is a £10 million 31/2-litre V12, and it will be called sports car racing. Eight manufacturers who have so far declared their interest will love it, for the oppotunities to be seen on the World’s television sets, but Pedro and Seppi may turn in their graves.

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