September Editorial
Where Are We Going?

As Janos Wimpffen would say, sportscar and GT racing is always in a state of flux, and nothing stays the same for long. Except in Grand Am, Janos, with a 20 year plan there.

When we cover a major meeting such as Spa last weekend, we spend all our time covering the meeting. It would have been a pleasure to have sat down with Stephane Ratel for an hour, but we didn’t have an hour to spare. Gary Watkins of Autosport clearly did (much less space to fill with race coverage there), but the comments in Autosport today from Stephane Ratel leave us confused.

Perhaps your point of view is largely dependant on whether you’re a prototype man, a GT man, or both. We are passionately and resolutely in the ‘both’ category. Spa was the confirmation of that (with slight reservations of course), although you could easily argue that the Proximus 24 Hours was proof that GTs don’t need prototypes. Which event had the bigger crowd? The 24 Hours, of course. But perhaps we’re not comparing like with like. Maybe a comparison of the Monza FIA GT crowd with that at Spa last weekend (25,000 over three days) would be fairer.

The bitter disappointment at Spa was the appearance of just 11 prototypes. Imagine 11 of them racing around on their own for six hours. No, best not to. But let’s look upon Spa as the beginning of 2004, not the end of the FIA SCC. We’ve made the point already – repeatedly – that we love the mix of prototypes and GTs. Kristensen and Wallace going round the outside of TVRs and Morgans, in the wet, made you suck in your breath. Such breath-sucking happens every fortnight in the ALMS. In-car camera footage of Lehto at Mosport was fantastic stuff. The speed differential is so, so important. Instant drama, on every lap. Even Kristensen at Le Mans in the Bentley – and with a safe cushion, there’s still the potential for an incident with a backmarker: it’s a real test of a driver’s skill to go quickly – but also know when to settle for losing a second by following someone through a corner.

Ian Dawson gave his view of 2004 here, yesterday. He’s a prototype man. He fervently believes that the Le Mans Endurance Series is the salvation of prototype racing in Europe. He’s got a calendar he can sell to backers: Sebring, two in Europe, Le Mans itself, two more in Europe, then off to the Petit Le Mans. He can build on that. The worrying factor is of course that production of new prototypes is at an all time low. But let’s have a bit of belief here: let’s assume that the LMES will be as good as we and Ian Dawson hope. Let’s assume that it will be the catalyst for the manufacture of new cars. Let’s believe that French teams in particular (Courage and Pescarolo) will begin to make long term plans, with new cars, with proper French backing, giving French spectators someone to really get behind at the 24 Hours.

If Pescarolo appears at the first 2004 LMES race with one car, and Yves Courage doesn’t appear at all, then the dream is doomed.

Could they beat Audi? Unlikely. There is a sense that Audi actually frightens away potential rivals, as it did Cadillac. But prototype racing isn’t just for Audi’s benefit. Did Ian Dawson shy away from Spa because an Audi was there?

We’ve counted 20 competitive prototypes that are available to race in Europe next year, as things stand now. Oreca showed how hard it is, of course, to find the budget to race at Le Mans, but the LMES could be the resurgence that kick starts this kind of racing. Of course, we could have had the FIA GTs and John Mangoletsi’s prototypes running together as an ‘LMES’ for several years already….

But what we do have is an FIA GT Championship that consistently gets out 30 or more cars, for a ten race Championship of three hour races. Why are they three hour races? Why are there ten of them? TV, presumably. On Eurosport, the timekeeping wizards of the TV schedule….

And now we read that the FIA GTs and the ETCC are going to go global, if Stephane Ratel has his way (Autosport today). He is looking at the prospect of one race outside Europe next year (Dubai?), then two or three in 2005. Presumably he can negotiate transport costs that make it possible, but this coming weekend we have a race in Sweden with a smaller entry than usual (29) and N-GT teams in particular struggling to complete the season. Max Mosley has already made the point that the ‘World’ title would only be assigned if the series raced on three continents. Why does it need to be a World Series?

Then there’s Stephane Ratel’s view that GT supercars should go head to head with prototypes at Le Mans. So Lamborghini will be encouraged to race in the LMES, and compete with the prototypes? So do we slow the prototypes down again? And lose that vital speed differential? The Frenchman seems to be at odds with the ACO here, yet the two are working together on the LMES, with Ratel still in charge of the FIA GT Championship.

If other manufacturers come in to prototype racing, Stephane Ratel seems happy to let this idea rest, but if they don’t, “I will be personally pushing for the ACO and FIA to sit around the table to come up with regulations to equalise the new GT cars, such as next year’s Maserati…and the open top sportscars,” he says in Autosport.

More new prototype regulations then…

Let’s wait and see if what we have next year works in Europe. The LMES should become what the ELMS should have become in its second year. Some would say that the FIA GT Championship is strong enough to carry on untouched, and that there is no room for anything else. We’d suggest that it’s time for GT entrants to be given a choice, and prototype entrants to be given what they deserve. Spa last weekend was proof that the ACO / ALMS format still works. The next test will be the entry for the Le Mans 1000 Km. We think every man and his dog (in Europe) will want to be there, and we hope it is the catalyst for mixed racing to take off in Europe. We could have six ‘Sebrings’ (well almost) each year – two in the USA and four in Europe. And mixed racing could get stronger on both sides of the Atlantic. Just look at the ALMS crowd figures.
Malcolm Cracknell


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