Sunday, 26 February 2012


I was having a bit of a spring clean recently, and in the course of re-organising my book-shelves, I came across a copy of Anthony Pritchard’s 'The Motor Racing Year No. 3'. Sadly the cover has come under attack from some paper-eating animal, but the pages are still intact, and I was drawn to Part 2 - The Sports Car Year. It is fascinating looking back, and I wondered what might be learned from examining the state of sports car racing forty years or so ago and comparing it to the state we are in today. That there was a (World) Sports Car Manufacturers’ Championship was not remarked upon, nor was the fact that it took place over eleven rounds in which Le Mans was round nine, and the final race of the season was before the end of July. Different days indeed.

However, Spa, Le Mans and Sebring were all on the championship trail, all venues steeped in sports car racing history. There is something very reassuring about consistency of this nature - it makes you feel that the subject of your interest is more worthy, more honourable, in a way. It reminded me of Andrew Marr's recent documentary about "The Diamond Queen", in which we are told of the Queen's constant presence over the last sixty years: despite all the changes in the social and political background, the monarchy has always been there and somehow one thinks it will always be there.

Not like sports car racing. Or is it? I found particularly fascinating the doom-laden tone of much of the text of the time. Take this, the introduction to chapter 6: “The 1971 season was not exceptional by any standard, as one vital ingredient for exciting motor racing was lacking, the absence at most races of any serious opposition to the overwhelming Porsche onslaught.” Audi’s approach to 2012 may not be such an onslaught, but it struck me as ironic that, forty years later, there are strong parallels.

That's the beauty of looking back - as any student of history will confirm; you find uncanny similarities with the past, as well as unexpected and unpredictable contrasts.

Then there is the review of the Le Mans 24 hours race itself: “Le Mans has degenerated into a long, tedious marathon of attrition, with most of the faster cars retiring and with very little interest or drama except in the first few hours.” Pritchard continues: “The 1971 race attracted the worst entry for many years,” but goes on to assert that the ACO had seventy-four entries from which to pick the fifty-five starters. Seems strong enough a level of support to me, but there seemed little space for optimism in 1971. Is that true in 2012?

In 1971, Motor Sport's DSJ wasn't even at Le Mans, covering instead a non-championship Formula One race at Hockenheim. The 24 hour race was reported for Motor Sport by Andrew Marriott, who wrote:
"Undoubtedly, Le Mans has lost much of its old magic and in this, the last year of the present 5-litre cars, there were few high spots as the most famous of all sports car races played itself out.

Don't you just love the closely packed text?

"The 1971 Le Mans 24-Hours will go down as one of the less memorable races for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the main one was that, with a couple of minor exceptions, there were no really new models in the race.

"Yes, the Le Mans magic has faded, and several of the old faces were missing including MOTOR SPORT's Continental Correspondent who was giving the race a miss for the first time in almost twenty years."

The zenith of Group C is far in the future, the complete disappearance of a world championship in the 1990's unimaginable, and yet, here we are, approaching the eightieth running of the great race with its popularity intact and probably, if anything, on the increase.

In his Continental Notes in MOTOR SPORT's July, 1971 edition, however, Denis Jenkinson did suggest, that with the introduction of the 3-litre formula for sports cars, scheduled for 1972, an era could be envisaged in which Grand Prix and Sports car racing would be able to converge: "Could we possibly be entering on a new phase of equality between Grand Prix and Sports Cars where the best of both worlds are combined into a one-type racing scene, with the scrapping of the Drivers' World Championship and the Manufacturers' Campionship, and the introduction of an overall Racing Championship for the best team (and/or driver) in motor racing."

Hardly. And now Formula 1, as Grand Prix racing seems to have become known, is further from any other form of the sport than even Jenks can have expected. But Sports Car racing still fills an important niche, with the ACO particularly willing to encourage and embrace new technologies with relevance to road car development.

Just as today, the 1970's were full of economic uncertainty, a severe fuel crisis, and the ACO had to react to world events with innovative regulations, often in the face of conflicting direction from the CSI (the then sporting arm of the FIA).

Apart from the sheer joy of wallowing in history, I think the point I am trying to draw out here is that ever since the announcement of the World Endurance Championship for 2012, media outlets have been portraying the negative aspects. Such is the nature of the media. I would not pretend that everything is necessarily as rosy as it could be. But by examining the past and understanding it, you become better placed to make the right decisions in the present to the benefit of the future.

In general, interest in sports car racing is high. The organisation is trying to make things better, not worse and I believe that, from a technical point of view, sports car racing is in good hands. What I sometimes doubt is when political or sporting decisions are made, they are frequently off beam - full of shortsightedness or riven with unintended consequence.

What we need now is wisdom and a strong nerve - not just in sports car racing, but in the world in general. 1971 gave us the Porsche Curves, and a 24-hour distance record that survived until 2010. I hope that 2012 can provide similarly iconic legacies.

1 comment:

  1. I actually enjoy an old-school wall-of-text-type story book about a race more than the kind of picturebooks these days, with a few things described you could not have missed at the race's TV broadcast unless that time was actually spent asleep on the lounge chair. There are only so many ways of trying to capture the speed or the movement of a car in a still frame, and for my taste, too many times, these days, the chosen tool is have the car be sort of out of focus and point the camera at a 45 degree angle...

    Being too young to have understood much of it before it ended, I also find it lovely to have a world championship for sports cars again after all these years. Let's hope it works out and stays around for some time.