In 2002

26 September 2001

This was a piece originally prepared after the Donington Park round of the FIASCC, but remained unfinished owing to other commitments. Its time seemed to have passed, that was until the piece posted earlier this week by David Blumlein.

One of the key messages from David’s copy seemed to be that this form of racing is more for the competitors than the fans. I’m sure of two things on this front. I don’t agree with him and neither would the teams’ sponsors. There is no place in international motorsport for a top-line series which can’t and doesn’t pay its way. The history books are littered with examples of failed series that have tried to buck this trend; it may be a sad reflection of real life affecting sport, but it is a reality.

More than this though, there is the current issue of survival, presumably of the fittest. There seems a general acceptance that the marketplace in Europe is too crowded at present, with too few cars being courted by too many races. On this front, a feisty exchange of views has been raging on the Racing Talk Forum for many weeks over the merits or otherwise of the FIASCC and ELMS. The debate boils down to two basic areas - grids (size and quality) and spectator appeal.

So then, how do the two series compare on these counts, in their quest to be recognised as Europe’s premier sportscar series?

First the ‘new boy’ ELMS. A series which had the best possible pre-publicity with last season’s superb Silverstone ALMS meeting showing just what could (and should!) be possible as a spectacle for European Sports / GT fans. Great racing and unrivalled access “For The Fans” sent the crowds away with a feeling that their presence mattered, a feeling all too often missing in the paddocks and spectator enclosures of international series.

Put bluntly though, the series has failed to scale those heights this season. Much has been written on the failure of the nascent ELMS to attract anything other than skeleton entries in anything other than the GT class. The accusation from some has been that the Don Panoz backed series has overstretched itself.

It certainly didn’t seem that way when the ‘show’ hit Donington Park. The brand new Chrysler LMP seemed close to the (then!) seemingly unbeatable factory Audis’ ultimate pace, and there were other close battles further down the field in (almost) every class. British fans lapped up their first opportunity to see the stunning new Saleen S7Rs and were left deeply impressed by the pace of BMW’s new (and controversial) M3GTR in the hands of their top class driving squad. Their battle with the Alex Job Racing Porsches was something to savour.

Sadly though, post Le Mans and the entry lists have dropped off dramatically, with prototype entries at pitifully low levels in recent rounds. Some great racing in the GT class apart, the ELMS has flattered to deceive in its debut season. The end of year report card from many fans doubtless reads “Must Do Better.” If current rumours are to be believed, it surely will.

The ‘established player’ FIA SCC is undoubtedly looking across at the current woes of its direct rival. It should not be forgotten however that this series too had a troubled childhood. But poor grids, some unremarkable racing and the Ferrari winning year after year was tolerated for season after season – because the ISRS / SRWC was new, and needed time to develop. Indeed, under whatever name, its grids have never met the heady heights which Championship organiser John Mangoletsi has long claimed are within reach, but if the racing amongst the current entries is good enough then that need not be too much of a problem.

So is it?

I had heard criticism of the racing from earlier (Donington) years but had never attended a round until this season’s Derbyshire meeting.

First impressions were good; a tidy, professional paddock with some established team names and a couple of personal favourites (step forward Messrs Lammers and Nielsen) whetted the appetite. There was local interest too. The Ascari team were looking to take another big step up the ladder of international motorsport, whilst the hard working Rowan Racing were looking to sweep away their Le Mans disappointment, (where their Pilbeam was sidelined early in the race as a result of someone else’s accident), with an SR2 championship run.

Whatever criticism can be found of the series it undoubtedly scores plus points on its soundtrack. Screaming Ferrari V12s and Judd V10s and a rumbling Roush V8 set the scene nicely. On the driver front, the line up of established names (Lammers, Nielsen, Gounon, Baldi, Caffi) are being pressed by some impressive newcomers (Sam Hancock, Val Hildebrand, Ben Collins). The mix looks good and in SR1 the racing (at the front of the field at least) was pacey and hard fought.

There were less welcome surprises though. As the entirely dominant Racing For Holland and Den Bla Avis Domes hit trouble, Ascari picked up the baton to take a well deserved debut win. Second place went to the reliable but outclassed BMS Scuderia Italia Ferrari 333SP of Jean-Marc Gounon and champion-elect Marco Zadra. Put simply, whilst the basic tenet of “To finish first you must first finish” is undoubtedly true, the car had not been remotely competitive all weekend. Those fans present who were more fond of the swift rather than steady approach to racing would leave disappointed.

BMS themselves were reportedly unhappy with moves to hobble their beautifully prepared Ferraris, and Jean-Marc Gounon seemed well briefed on the issue. The Frenchman, drafted in in the absence of Christian Pescatori to bolster championship leader Marco Zadra’s campaign, lost no opportunity to tell any member of the media that cared to ask (and one or two that didn’t!) how profoundly unfair it would be to hobble the 333SP with smaller restrictors. Others grumble that the pit stop package was designed to keep the 333s competitive beyond their natural retirement age. It is a tiresome and needless debate, seemingly the result of the need to keep grids up to the required numbers, a problem replicated throughout sportscar racing at present except for the really big races (Daytona, Le Mans, PLM).

For this spectator at least, there were other downsides. The SR2 cars just don’t have enough appeal to provide anything other than a sideshow. Yes there were good drives (Rowan Racing’s home win, Racing Teams Sweden’s gutsy drive to second with a rear tyre rooted to the core, plus a popular podium slot on an astonishing weekend for Ian Flux.) But, the cars are not exciting to watch (or to listen to!) and there seemed to be too many driving squads that would struggle in a national series, let alone at this level.

For this correspondent at least though, the biggest downside was the pitstops. FIASCC regulations prescribe three compulsory stops per car. With teams choosing wildly differing race strategies, paying spectators would soon lose track of the running order. Even with the benefit of live timing, those in the press room were finding it difficult to follow the true state of the race. This is an area where the sound of the cars is a definite downside, with spectators unable to hear the circuits PA system.

For 2002, the biggest challenge for both series is to attract new blood. Predictably there is little news available yet, particularly since the ELMS has not yet announced its 2002 calendar, but some snippets are beginning to leak out.

Neither European series can, at present, boast a single, mainstream factory prototype team. Audi, Cadillac and Chrysler have all chosen to do battle in the US and Bentley and MG, despite constant rumours of limited ALMS campaigns, are seemingly happy (unhappy?) to keep their powder dry for a campaign focused purely on Le Mans. Instead the entrants on offer look set to come from the ranks of the privateers.

The ELMS seems to be attracting the attention of new LMP 675 hopefuls Lindsay. The new British team hope to make an impact at Le Mans, but with little pedigree at this level of sportscar racing are hoping to catch the eye of the ACO. Redman Bright also seem keen to jump on the LMP675 bandwagon and are looking to the ELMS for greener pastures than their FIASCC SR1 campaign has yielded in 2001.

For the FIASCC’s part, sources claim that Audi R8s (albeit restricted Audis) are on the way to the series; realistically this must mean the rumoured two car privateer Johansson Motorsport effort. Audi sources however, unhappy with the prospect of restrictors, say that any R8 entry into the series will do so without their support. If Johansson does come to the FIA series, it would surely be a body blow for the ELMS.

There are also claims that BMS Scuderia Italia may return in 2002 with two new Dallaras, joining their ‘classic’ Ferrari 333SPs in a four car team (others say this is not at all assured in light of recent moves designed to reduce the competitiveness of the ageing but still sonorous V12s). More definite is that Pescarolo will dedicate his team to a single championship – the FIASCC.

Ascari could prove to be an interesting team to watch in the weeks and months to come. If Team Manager Ian Dawson’s testing plans go well, they will soon have cars at their disposal which could be competitive in both FIASCC (Judd-engined) and A/ELMS (BMW-turbo). Whether they choose one, the other or a combination of both (series) will be a telling decision. This is a team with ambition and they will surely take the route which takes them to the top most quickly.

The two other teams to watch will be the two Dome S101 runners. John Nielsen’s Den Bla Avis and Jan Lammer’s Racing for Holland. Both cars are capable of being front runners at Le Mans (Lammers proved it this year).

John Mangoletsi suggests that these two teams don’t want to race against GT cars, but they must be prime targets for the ELMS. If the newer series attracts these two, the FIASCC would be in trouble. If the ELMS cannot attract entries of this sort, it may have to look very hard at its plans and structure.

In the days and weeks to come, we will find out more about the plans for 2002, not just of the championship organisers, but more critically of the major teams. It could be a long, hard winter for Messrs Mangoletsi and Macdonald.

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