I have been at this internet blogging/posting/opinion lark for over 20 years now. I long ago accepted that most of my output will hardly be read, much less commented upon, bloggers write for themselves for the most part. Back in late 1996 I was following the BPR Global GT Series. For a season and a half it had been absolutely fantastic, great cars, great racing but by the last few races in ’96 it was clear that it was doomed. The arrival of the Porsche 911 GT1 run by the factory had changed the landscape irrevocably, those of us who enjoyed the congenial atmosphere of the BPR howled in protest, those who were really in the business made more pragmatic plans for 1997.
The sense of frustration that I felt was articulated in the following piece, posted on, I think, Club Arnage (actually it was the lamented P9.com), but I could be wrong, time does that. It had not long been up when I received a short, sharp, phone call from BPR, explaining that I was no longer welcome at their races and that my invitation to Zhuhai had been withdrawn. Perhaps I deserved that, you can’t take The Man’s shilling and expect not to be considered bought and I was more than a bit direct in my piece. In any case I was just a minnow, easier to make an example of me than Michael Cotton or Jean-Marc Teissedre, a ‘pour encourager les autres’ sort of gesture, not that I would compare myself to those two giants of the sportscar media tribe.
I had severely pissed off Jürgen Barth, the B in BPR and re-reading the piece at the time I saw why, though these days we are reconciled and he later had the good grace to admit that most of what I written was on the money. Well it should be, I had good sources. So I stumbled across this document while looking for something in the archive and felt it was time to give it another airing…………somehow I don’t think that there are any invitations left to cancel these days…………….
John Brooks, February 2015
Since the summer recess and the trip to Suzuka we have had three rounds of the Global GT Championship organised by the BPR.
Four events have dominated the past six weeks. Ray Bellm and James Weaver have secured the title in their GTC Competition Gulf Racing McLaren by scoring victory at Nogaro, while similar results for Porsche Motorsport at Brands Hatch and Spa have threatened the very future of GT racing in Europe. The Harrods backed McLaren, victors at five races in the past year, withdrew from the series amid a welter of speculation of family disagreements and financial problems. At Nogaro, the talented and popular GT2 driver, Soames Langton sustained serious head and neck injuries and still lies in a coma as this article is being written. This dreadful situation makes all the political posturing and wrangles witnessed over that weekend pretty dam irrelevant.
The general feeling of well being and contentment that was so evident at Silverstone back in May has evaporated in the face of the performance of the GT1 Porsche. Disbelief at Brands Hatch was followed by depression at Spa and last weekend discord and dissent at Nogaro. The series itself is in danger of falling apart with the three organisers at loggerheads with each other and with the teams.
How has this state of affairs been allowed to develop and is the situation beyond redemption?
The teams are almost unanimous in their opposition to the decision to allow the works Porsche 911 GT1 to run in the latter part of the season. The objections are based on the fact that the car is not yet for sale in a road going form and is a brilliantly conceived racing car which COULD be adapted for road use – much like the Dauer 962 which won Le Mans in 1994. The guiding principle behind the concept of GT racing as set out by BPR was to take road cars and adapt them to race on the track, like the F40 Ferraris and F1 McLarens . About the only person who can hold this view of the Porsche GT1 with a straight face is Jürgen Barth who, aside from being the B in BPR, is also a manager in Porsche Motorsport. He is also a former Le Mans winner for the brand. While Barth sees nothing wrong with this conflict of interest others are not so generous.
The main objections to the newcomer are not based wholly on the crushing superiority displayed by the 911 at Brands Hatch and Spa – though this must feature somewhere, no one would care if it were slower. The objections raised by the more articulate existing competitors are firstly that the Porsche is outside the letter and spirit of the regulations as currently exist, whatever anyone cares to say about it. Secondly the appearance of this kind of prototype will drive away the gentlemen drivers on grounds of performance and cost. Cars that develop shed-loads of downforce and have ABS on their carbon fibre brakes will be outside of the current driving abilities of the amateur drivers, until recently the raison d’être for the series and certainly forming the backbone of the entry. As to cost, it is said that the Porsche engines will only run for a maximum of 30 hours. That means a rebuild every two to four races against, for instance, the V12 BMWs which are unchanged throughout the whole season excepting a quick check prior to Le Mans. The teams’ overheads would rocket with additional “spanners” required for the ABS system, the turbos, the engine itself and also for data logging; this could amount to 3 or 4 extra guys per car which would put maybe £600,000 plus on to the operating costs for a two car team. This is only the tip of the iceberg.
Another consideration with finance is that if the running budgets get much above the £1-£2 million bracket that the top teams spend each season, then there is a little man in Prince’s Gate who has the opinion that such wealth should be going into Formula One and not be wasted in sportscars or anywhere else. As history shows, he is not beyond manipulating circumstances to ensure that this becomes the case. In addition manufacturers only involve themselves in racing when there is some commercial payback so will not hesitate to up the ante financially till they are winning, driving away the private teams and drivers.
It must be acknowledged that, after Formula One, only Touring Cars provide an adequate TV audience and exposure for the investment required. Peugeot went into the Grand Prix arena in 1993/94 and reduced it’s outgoings from the stratospheric levels required to run a pseudo-F1 car at Le Mans for 24 hours. It was reported at the time that over £50 million was spent in 1992/93 which really is commercial lunacy, even for those receiving state subsidies on a French scale.
Those of us who witnessed a strong sportscar championship, Group C, disintegrate in 1991 and 1992 will feel an uncanny parallel with the circumstances that are unfolding around us. Porsche indeed may regret their approach if they succeed in remaining eligible for the 1997 Championship. With the demise of ITC, there are a number of teams and manufacturers looking to find an outlet for their sporting ambitions. It would not be beyond the bounds of reason that a Mercedes or an Alfa Romeo could commission Zakspeed or Dave Price Racing to build a two-seater Grand Prix car which would blow the doors off the GT1 Porsche much like Jaguar, Sauber and Peugeot did to the 962 in Group C after 1987.
The row over the eligibility of the Porsche has given a focus to the general discontent with the BPR Organisation. The teams have had problems with the way that the series is run. The proposal (made in June) to introduce two rounds to be staged in Brazil during mid December angered those who had already finalised their plans and budgets. Even when these events were no longer to be points-scoring, they seemed to be symptomatic of management that acted on day to day reactive basis, without any strategic considerations or appreciation of the obstacles faced by a team in running a race programme.
During the Nogaro weekend the ire of the teams was further inflamed when Barth brought round representatives from Enna-Pergusa, which has been touted as the location of the first round of next year’s championship. No one wants to visit Enna (and this has been made pretty clear in the past two months) or indeed any circuit which does not have proper facilities for the teams and media (such as Anderstorp, Nogaro, Paul Ricard, Brands Hatch or Moscow). The teams contend that there are plenty of locations with modern facilities that are crying out for the great package that is GT racing and that there is no need to return to any backwaters, no matter how friendly the locals. Sometimes it is held that this is not the fault of the clubs but of indecision on the part of BPR. At Anderstorp the organising committee put forward a proposal to alter the layout of the pits which would ease the problems faced by the teams but this went largely unheeded by BPR.
Where all this will go is anyone’s guess but the status quo will not be maintained. The three BPR founders, Jürgen Barth, Patrick Peter and Stéphane Ratel, are having a summit this weekend and the word on the street is that only B and R will be around to meet with Bernie Ecclestone next week. The FIA is expected to take over the TV rights, and possibly the series, which will leave the survivors out in the cold. Even if this does not happen then there are serious threats from the proposed German GT series which is being set-up out of the wreckage of the ITC failure, with big funding and the backing of manufacturers which will dilute support for the European series. There have also been rumbles from other parties who have threatened to do a BPR and arrange an international championship, properly funded and run through the FIA.
Meanwhile, Andy Evans was at Spa, having allegedly purchased IMSA (I lost track of THAT story while on holiday), and he was courting teams to go to his new GT based championship in the States. He had the fervour of born-again Christian when talking about GTs and sportscars, declaring that we have to get the young people involved (God not them again, can’t we just have a series for old farts like me, somewhere safe for us to dribble on about the good old days, when Oasis was something that Omar Sharif shot people over). Evans, it is said, has the ear (and pocket) of Bill Gates of Microsoft and has to be taken as a heavy shaker and mover. Some of his pronouncements were a little hard to understand such as the assertion that he had agreed the take-over of TV rights on sportscar racing from Bernie…..as this is the real substance of the “Bolt’s” control over motorsport I found it hard to accept that this asset would be transferred but Bernie is almost always ahead of the pack, so it COULD be true for some arcane reason – perhaps it is the final expression of his contempt for this form of competition.
While all this wretched politics has been going on what has the action from the tracks been like?
Well, the three locations of Brands Hatch, Spa Francorchamps and Nogaro gave an interesting contrast. Brands Hatch is a fantastic place to race and spectate but is dated in terms of ’90s motorsport with a lack of run off areas and cramped pits, it has the air of a faded ’60s rock star trying to live off former glories when in fact the show has moved on.
Spa offers Brands Hatch a vision of what is possible as it is probably the greatest circuit in the world, magisterial in scope and setting. It arose out the ashes of the original Spa public road course, which by the early ’70s was outdated for modern motorsport, though admittedly the Belgian alternatives were pretty grizzly, Zolder or Nivelles. Nevertheless the old Spa was a place of dreams and nightmares, representing the brighter side of the traditional track at the weekend were those sportscar icons backed by Gulf Oil, the Ford GT40 and the Porsche 917. This raised a sparkle in the eyes of those who witnessed Pedro and Seppi door handling their 917s into Eau Rouge in the 1970 edition of the 1000Kms. The revised circuit has distilled the essence of the great original in a way that the new Nürburgring has signally failed to do. The drivers love it, as if you achieve something in the Ardennes it gives a sense of intense satisfaction, a job well done. On Friday night at the BPR dinner Lindsay Owen-Jones was bursting to tell someone (in this case me) that he had managed 2:22 on a track that was still drying off and from the look on his face and the emotion in his voice he had conquered his own personal Everest.
Nogaro was somewhat less grand than either Spa or Brands Hatch and epitomised the problems of racing at these upmarket club circuits. First it should be recognised that there is great enthusiasm and passion shown by the clubs at places such as Nogaro, indeed most of us would go back just for the food and wine, especially the wine…… but the pits were wholly inadequate for international racing with all the equipment having to be transported under a tunnel from the transporters and then back for each session. The accident which befell Soames Langton was handled in an exemplary fashion from the medical side. However one would have to question the judgement of those who did not bring out the pace car when the full extent of the incident and the length of time that it would take to extract the stricken driver became evident. (I have subsequently learnt over the years how easy it is to be an armchair critic of Race Control and generally how wrong most of such criticism is and how easy it is to be wise after the event. I have no doubt that this falls into that category.) This is highlights one of the biggest problems facing the BPR series in the difference in attitudes and approach between those who go racing for a living and those who do it for fun and reconciling these two philosophies has not proved easy.
During the track action at both Brands Hatch and Spa it was as if a third class had been introduced above GT1 and GT2 with the appearance of Stuck and Boutsen in the Porsche. At both circuits the car was in a completely different race to all the others. It had more power, had better fuel economy, had more downforce, ABS brakes and in Stuck and Boutsen really experienced, very quick drivers, in short it had everything. The team had a vaguely embarrassed look on their faces when the car crossed the line for victory at Brands Hatch and then Spa. Thierry Boutsen managed to introduce a Formula One-style bullshit press statement with some lame swill about how hard it had been and that something could have gone wrong at any time, blah, blah, blah. The Belgian got out of the 911 at Brands Hatch looking like he had taken granny for a trip to the shops, not been in a two hour stint behind the wheel of a racing car, Boutsen is not demonstrative at the best of times but here he was almost asleep. I don’t mind Porsche building a better car within the rules, but I do feel insulted when they try to convince me with PR gibberish that my eyes and brain are deceiving me as to the real action on the track.
Ray Bellm and James Weaver took the title at Nogaro and most in the pit lane would say that they deserved it. Ray is far and away the best of the non-professional drivers. He can be a little prickly to deal with but he has earned the Championship with five wins in ’95 and five more in ’96 (if you ignore the Porsche at Spa). The partnership with James had the right combination of speed and pragmatism that title victories are made of. GTC Competition took a long hard look at why they were pipped at the post in 1995 and put these minor problems right and the result is there for all to see. Congratulations are due…..
Both at Brands Hatch and at Spa first lap indiscretions led to great comeback drives which ultimately did not get their just reward. John Nielsen tripped up at Druids and then he and Thomas Bscher drove the West McLaren on the limit for three hours but ran out of petrol within sight of the line, losing third place to the second Gulf F1 GTR of Lindsay Owen-Jones and Pierre-Henri Raphanel. At Nogaro a Touring Car-style attempt to win the race at the first corner by Peter Kox (substituting for a Japanese-bound John Nielsen) led to Jean-Marc Gounon in the ENNEA Ferrari F40 and Jan Lammers in the Lotus taking a trip into the barriers. Gounon got pushed back onto the track and appeared to wait for the race to be restarted by blocking the racing line, when that did not work he set off in pursuit already a lap and a half down. He drove the doors off the F40 and was visibly quicker than anything else out there. With 20 minutes to go he came in for a splash and dash while just 20 seconds behind the leading McLaren, Jean-Marc gave the clutch death by dropping it on the rev-limiter, braking a driveshaft or so it seemed from my angle. A poor reward for such a epic drive. He kicked the car in frustration………
Down in GT2 the decision of the Konrad and Roock teams to dispense with any further attempts to make the EVO 911 GT2 work and concentrate their efforts in GT2 has upped the ante for all the competitors in the class. At Brands Hatch and Nogaro Bob Wollek and Franz Konrad emerged triumphant after a long battle with the Marcos of Cor Euser and Tommy Erdos and the Roock Racing 911 driven by Ralf Kelleners, Gerd Ruch and Bruno Eichmann. The class victory for the season will now go to Ruch and Eichmann which, like their GT1 counterparts Bellm and Weaver, is thoroughly deserved, a solid performance from team and drivers, always on the pace.
Further back on the grid there was a stark illustration of the great highs and terrible lows that involvement in motorsport will inflict on you. Last year Lanzante, with some covert help from the factory, triumphed at Le Mans. Since Suzuka at the end of August it has all been downhill. Soames Langton wrote off the car in practice at Brands Hatch. Then a struggle with engine maladies at Spa appeared to end with a podium finish, till they were disqualified for Paul Burdell not doing the required time behind the wheel. Then came the accident at Nogaro last week with Soames suffering grievous injuries. Those of you waiting to read on your Ceefax of Damon Hill’s triumph in Japan (hopefully) will also get a message (page 366) that Soames is out of his coma and on the way to full recovery, at least that’s what will happen if there is any justice left in this world.
Next it is off to China if there is still a series.
“It’s a funny old world” as someone once declared.
Well I got the China bit wrong and, tragically, Soames never did wake up. He finally passed away in 2011, a blessed relief for his family and for him. I paid tribute to him back then HERE
The photos are from the 1996 season and give a small reminder of a time when GT Racing was flourishing. Indeed Stéphane Ratel celebrates the twenty-fifth anniversary of his SRO outfit in 2017, bulging grids and great racing in his flagship Blancpain-backed GT3 series illustrate perfectly that he learnt the lessons from the problems encountered in 1996 to 1998 seasons. We are lucky that he did not allow the ship to founder.
John Brooks, February 2015