Monday, September 24, 2007

A Muddled Formula

The other week, I was clearing through my things when I came across some photos I had taken as a kid at Donington Park at a World Sportscar Championship round, some time in the late eighties or early nineties. Aside from the awfulness of the photos (I want a Nikon D80, but there's a lot to be said for my Fuji S9000 when set against an old Miranda ME-Z), there were a couple of other things that struck me. The first thing was that those old Group C cars really were incredibly good looking machines. They were perhaps the last serious racing machines to be truly aesthetically wonderful. The Sauber-Mercedes 'silver arrows' are to my mind, perhaps as close as we'll ever come to the platonic ideal of a racing car.

The other thing that hit me was that the photos clearly show that there was a really big crowd there that day. It was no one-off either, I remember pictures in Autosport from the Brands Hatch sportscar race showing the spectator bank at Paddock Hill Bend absolutely thronged with people. Yes, this may come as a surprise to younger readers, but there was a time, not so very long ago, nwhen sportscar racing was very big indeed, particularly in Europe.

How things have changed. I happened to catch TV coverage of this year's Silverstone Empire Trophy 1000kms LMS race the other weekend, and whatever else there might have been, crowds of people there certainly were not. A few faces dotted the perimeter fence and the grandstands, but here was Britain's premier sportscar event, and I'd be surprised if there had been much more than a thousand paying spectators in total - a small fraction of what a typical British Touring Car race brings in.

It's not hard to see why. The race itself was a foregone conclusion. If the oddly named Peugeot 908 HDi FAPs kept running, they would win. As it happened, only one of them did make it to the end - the other falling foul of overly fussy rules about running with damaged bodywork. But who were they racing against, exactly? Peugeot is a major car manufacturer with past experience at the top level in F1 and World Rally and yet only once a year, at Le Mans, do they come up against anything remotely resembling opposition, when Audi brings out its R10 diesels.

The rest of the time, they do the European series while Audi does the ALMS. Behind them are a series of rich, enthusiastic amateurs in 'off the shelf' prototypes. The quickest of these, the Charouz Racing Lola, was 3s off the pace of the Peugeots in qualifying, and a good deal more fragile to boot. The truth of the matter is that in reality, there are not four but five categories, LMP1, LMP2, GT1, GT2, and an invitation class for the French car maker's diesels. Its a situation aggravated still further by rules which tilt in favour of diesel power plants, which remain unavailable to the privateers who make up the bulk of the field.

So why were things so different in the 1980s? Two words. The Porsche 956/62. Sure, in a way, things weren't so different. The Rothmans-backed works cars were usually the quickest around, at least in the years before TWR and Sauber got their act together, but it wasn't always that way. The Porsche 956/62 was that rarest of things - a genuinely effective first rate turn-key racing car. In addition to the works cars, the factory sold chassis to pretty well anyone with the cash to buy one, and any reasonably adept racing team with a pair of quality drivers could run at a competitive pace.

The proof of this lies in the fact that customer teams like John Fitzpatrick, Brun, Joest and RLR/GTI Engineering were on occasion capable of beating the works in a straight fight. In fact, had many of the cars not been crewed by pay-drivers, teams like Kremer and Obermaier racing might have been in a position to offer a serious threat as well. Two examples stand out in particular. Joest's 1985 victory at Le Mans, ahead of the works team, where they simply out-paced the factory team was perhaps key to their later being charged with the job of running the works cars; And Walter Brun's out-of-the-blue performance at the same race five years later. Many remember the crushing disappointment of pay-driver Jesus Pareja when his Brun 962 expired just minutes from the end of the 24hr race, while running second. Not so many recall that, but for an electrical problem in the early morning, two wealthy businessmen in an outmoded car would have been vying with the leading works Jaguar for outright victory!

Indeed, the decline of the world sports car championship could be said to have been down, in no small part, to the fact that the Porsche 962 slowly became simply too old and outmoded to enable the private teams to compete. Ultimately, the 3.5l era arrived and the cars were simply outlawed. Lola and Euroracing had a go at creating a customer prototype for the atmo era, but it was never cheap or reliable enough, and the attempt failed (beautiful car though, the T92/10, and there's an interesting story or two for another time...)

In a nutshell, the problem is that creating a reliable, high performance turn-key sports car that is simple enough for a private team to run competitively is really not easy. And the current kings of sportscar racing don't seem much inclined to try. Audi would never let customers buy their R8s, only borrow them, and they were forbidden from making any modifications. As for Peugeot, their 908 is simply not yet a sufficiently reliable car to go around hawking to customer teams, even if they were inclined to allow it.

The result is that most teams are reliant on cars built by relatively small concerns, such as Zytek, Courage and Pescarolo. These cars aren't bad, but they simply don't run trouble-free in the way that Audi's R8 used to (and to a large extent, its R10 still does). Neither are these cars quick enough to compete with the works Peugeots, although how much of that is down to rules which have simply handed things to the diesels on a plate is hard to determine. The lack of any true contest (at Silverstone, even the Peugeots were clearly not actually racing each other) is serving to drive all but the most dedicated of fans away. Without spectators or a public profile, the big sponsors will stay away, and without their money, teams are almost entirely reliant on money from wealthy older gentleman-racers to fund operations. On occasion, a professional is brought in to partner these guys, but that so often merely results in the frustrating thought that if only the car were driven entirely by people who knew what they were doing, it might be competitive.

There's nothing particularly wrong with a racing category aimed at rich amateurs with interesting machinery but a) Shouldn't the premier sportscar category be aiming a little higher? and b) If that is the road we are going down, why are Peugeot being allowed to come in and rain on everyone's parade?

Now those of you who are keen on your sportscar racing (and I count myself amongst you on a good day, else I wouldn't bother writing this), there is the argument that while European sportscar racing is a bit of a mess, the ALMS has been providing really rather close racing. You'd be right, but its been achieved only by messing around with the rules so as to create an artificially close contest between two categories of car which should not be in direct competition - the Audi R10s in LMP1, and the Porsche Spyders (and to a lesser extent, the Acuras) in LMP2. Had that not been the case, I rather doubt that even Penske would have been within a country mile of the Audis. And remove Penske and Audi from the mix, and the ALMS actually looks a good bit more sparse than the LMES. The moribund GT1 category is a case in point. So, come on, Audi and Peugeot. Race each other or take your toys away and let somebody else play...

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Blogger Nicebloke said...

The Porsches and Audis in ALMS are running to the exact same rules as LMP1 and LMP2 in Europe and have been for every race since Lime Rock. In fact I'd say that the Porsche LMP Spyders could increasingly fill the same role that the 956/962 did in the 80s by providing privateers with a car that can legitimately challenge for a win, especially on the tighter American tracks, but also on some of the European circuits too. About the only place the Spyder has no real shot is Le Mans.

12:47 PM  
Blogger patrick said...

Interesting. I didn't realise that the break for the LMP2 cars in ALMS was ever as small as it was.

Of course, over in Europe, the series organisers have effectively barred anyone from bringing a Spyder to LMP2, for fear that it will drive away everyone else (someone is getting to run one, on condition that they don't get a team of pros to drive it, if I no threat to Peugeot).

1:16 PM  

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