A few weeks back a bunch of scoundrels gathered in the metropolis otherwise known as West Kingsdown, the Mercure at the entrance to Brands Hatch to be precise. The purpose was to celebrate Malcolm Cracknell’s début as a novelist with the launch of his cracking yarn “Taking the World by Storm”. Michael Cotton, a celebrated author himself was amongst the guest list, and has provided us with a book review that you can see HERE
The guests were drawn from Malcolm’s friends and family and also his extended family in the motor sport fraternity. We were fed and watered in some style courtesy of Crackers. But before that we had the high point of a very convivial luncheon date, Crackers presenting his creation. The performance was given without notes and he was well supported through the 45 minutes by his attentive carer, Maria.
During that address we learned some interesting facts that had remained largely unknown till that point. One of the disguised stars of the book’s narrative, Laurence Pearce, was there with his better half, Fiona. Crackers asked him about a few things relating to the book then mentioned the Le Mans Pre-Qualifying in 1998.
Those of you who are not familiar with this unhappy episode will be shocked to learn the Lister Storm was refused even access to the track, let alone the chance to get into the Big Race. The officials maintained that the modifications made since the ’97 event had changed the car so much that it was no longer in compliance with the homologation papers as submitted to support its status as a GT. In addition the rerouted exhaust system, now through the cockpit, was also declared illegal. No doubt this bad news would have been delivered in the usual sympathetic and sensitive manner that the French in general, and the ACO in particular, are rightly famous for.
Laurence told the assembled throng that he suspected that the ACO had been tipped off about the exhaust by none other than Tom Walkinshaw who was running three Nissan R390s for the Japanese manufacturer. The two outfits had tested at the same time at Le Castellet with the Lister struggling to put whole laps together but showing flashes of real pace. Walkinshaw and TWR must have realised that their policy of developing their ’97 car had led to them falling behind in terms of speed compared to their rivals such as Toyota, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, all of whom had new racers for ’98. From the original entry list it looked as if up to eight or nine GT1 entries would be eliminated in the Pre-Qualifying sessions in early May, so grassing on a potential competitor for one of the starting slots would not have been given a second thought by TWR. As Laurence declared, it was not sand-bagging that dictated their behaviour at Paul Ricard but that the car had a problem with the new clutch actuation system and struggled to get a clear lap…………..
Crackers then asked if it were true that Laurence had grabbed the Chief Scrutineer, Daniel Perdrix, by the throat when informed of the ACO’s position. No came the answer, though I did kick down the door to the office of Technical Director, Alain Bertaut…………….I was trying to explain my views on the situation.
The topic of gambling came up and once again Laurence confirmed that this actually happened in the 1999 British GT Championship, but the sum won was actually £1,000,000………I am still not sure quite how all this was possible but it must have been completely above board if it involved upstanding citizens such as Julian Bailey, Jamie Campbell-Walter and Laurence. Life in Portugal must agree with the Pearces, as both looked in top form.
It was also good to see James Weaver once more and looking well. He came a long way to attend and I know that Crackers really appreciated this. In real life as in the book James is an absolute star. Other stalwarts of the sportscar scene put in appearances such as Mike Youles, Peter Snowdon, Tommy Erdos, Jock Simpson, Shaun Redmayne, Alan Lis, Martin Little, Graham Goodwin and all the way from the Pacific Coast, historian Janos Wimpffen. Special mention should be made of Ian Smith, the engineer who “narrates” the tale……..he managed to show up despite working in the Far East for McLaren. One person who was missed, having to deal with a domestic crisis that suddenly sprung up, was Deborah Stephens. The book is dedicated to her brother aka The Captain and others who also have gone way too soon, Allan, Damo and Jack.
It was one of the good days………………brilliantly organised and put together by Marcus Potts and his son Josh.
For those interested or those considering purchasing the book there is a web page HERE
The endurance racing paddocks and media centres have been graced by a few during my time in the game, and disgraced by many as well. On the right side of the ledger is Michael Cotton who had been one the leaders of the pack till he took a well earned retirement. Another in that gang of the righteous is Malcolm Cracknell, one of the pioneers of reporting on the internet as it was known some twenty years ago. ‘Crackers’ has also been forced to take a step back out of the limelightbut maintains a keen interest in the sportscar world. A few years back he decided to write a book, finally he has managed to publish it. The launch was last week, Mr Cotton was in attendance and now gives us his verdict. Go on buy it, you won’t regret it.
Fact or fiction? It’s called faction, and Malcolm Cracknell has served us a cracking blend of faction based on Laurence Pearce’s Lister Storm GT cars which challenged the might of Porsche, McLaren, BMW, Nissan and Toyota at Le Mans in the mid-1990s. Pearce becomes Larry Payne, his Paddock Princess wife Fiona is Frances, engine builder Ian Smith, who relates the story to Malcolm, is Smithy throughout, and the Jaguar V12 powered cars are Laser Strikes. You get the idea.
James Weaver and Andy Wallace (who did not drive the Storm, they were in a Panoz) became James Wheeler and Arnie Wallis, joined by rookie Dane Allan Stevensen. The story has an authentic ring on almost every page. I can hear Laurence giving Smithy near impossible tasks to perform, targets to meet, insurmountable obstacles to be overcome, driving and cajoling the entire team through testing, qualifying and to the starting grid. Yes, he ran out of money, asked the crew to forego their wages until the end of June, but scraped through with sponsorship, though without the mythical wager that was said to put £4 million into the coffers,if the Laser Strike could finish in the top ten. I swallowed bits of the story hook, line and sinker. It was more than 20 years ago, I remembered episodes as though they happened the day before yesterday, but had to pinch myself to remember that Tom Kristensen was part of Joest Racing’s Porsche prototype team, and he damned well did win the race. Neither of the Storms, yes there were two in the race, even got to nightfall on Saturday, but let that not spoil a jolly good yarn.
Facts were plucked from the history of Le Mans, the Porsche’s seizing engine that just tottered over the line in 1983, Nissan’s missing luggage boxes, the works Porsche 911 GT1 catching fire in the closing stages, and the extraordinary shenanigans of the March-Nissan team, hell-bent on not winning Le Mans in 1986 (“a bun-fight of truly biblical proportions” said James Weaver, who was the target of several obstacles posed by the Japanese).
Malcolm Cracknell was one of the pioneers of sports-car racing media on the internet as the World-Wide-Web was known in those innocent times. SportsCarWorld,TotalMotorSport and finally DailySportsCar were the introduction for most of us to the concept of paperless information in real time rather than on a weekly cycle. I joined Crackers on this journey at the start and now as we head for the winding down laps we spend time looking back as well as forward.
1999 is the target this time round for the Tardis……….
John Brooks and I are quite proficient at nattering away on
the telephone. We call it “living in the
past”, because we always return to discussing racing in a previous era.
For various reasons, I’ve been thinking about 1999
recently. Conveniently that’s two
decades ago, but with the state of my brain, I’ve inevitably forgotten things
that I wish I could remember – so I’ve had to consult the reference books (and
What I do remember is that in late ’98, I was planning a
trip to the season-opening Rolex 24.
Presumably, finances dictated that it was either the Rolex or the
Sebring 12 Hours (in early ’99). I have no idea why I chose the first of the
two endurance classics): perhaps it was simply a desperate desire to escape the
British winter for a few days? I’m
guessing that I hadn’t absorbed how the maiden Petit Le Mans in ‘98 was going
to set the tone for US
endurance racing in years to come. Had I
had any clue, I would have undoubtedly chosen Sebring.
But I certainly didn’t regret going to Florida in January. The first person I met after stumbling into
was Andy Wallace. Oddly, I’d not yet met
Andy: our paths simply hadn’t crossed.
But I was encouraged to find that he knew who I was and that he’d seen
the last news item I’d posted, before dashing to Gatwick. That was an image of the new BMW prototype,
which would make its debut at… Sebring.
Andy and I were both a little perplexed by the BMW’s single, pointed
roll hoop: the governing body was trying to mandate full width roll hoops, but
BMW (and others, subsequently) had presumably found a way round the wording.
I loved Daytona! It
was relatively straightforward to cover the race, live and single-handed, on
the internet – by dashing to the nearby pit-lane every hour or two to grab a
pitstop photograph and, hopefully, a comment from a competitor, then rushing
back to the media center, to pick up the threads of the race.
I was delighted when Dyson Racing took the overall win (AWOL,
Butch Leitzinger and, appropriately, the way the season would evolve, EF-R) –
and also with Brit David Warnock being part of the winning GTS crew in Roock’s
Porsche. This was the event that saw the
debut of the Corvettes, and thanks to a fortuitous bit of timing, I managed to
grab 15 minutes with Doug Fehan, before the track opened. He talked me through the technical aspects of
the car – and immediately planted a soft spot for the Corvettes in my
brain. They weren’t race winners yet,
and anyway, I always liked to see privateers beat the factory cars, which is
just what the Roock Porsche managed.
Years later, James Weaver told me what he thought of the
power output of the (restricted) Ford V8s in the Dyson R&Ss. ‘You can come past the pits (at Daytona) flat
out, take your seat belts off, stand up, turn through 360 degrees, sit down, do
your belts up – and still have time to
brake for Turn 1’, was the essence of his complaint!
170mph+ was nowhere near fast enough for James. He wanted to reach at least 190. My only conversation with James during that Rolex
meeting was a snatched “Stu Hayner has binned it (the #16) at the chicane,” at
some point during the night.
Right, I’m getting near to the point of this piece now: the
1999 ALMS season, and the influence of one (great) man. I’m not about to review the whole ’99 season:
I’m just going to refer to Sebring, the Road Atlanta sprint race and the finale
at Las Vegas.
I think I’ve already told you that I finally ‘discovered’
youtube last year: I moved house, had to buy a new TV decoder thing, and really
by accident, found that I could watch youtube on the TV (I can’t look at a
laptop for any length of time, because of my illness). And there on youtube are highlights of all
the ALMS races! Brilliant!
Sebring in ’99 was clearly an epic event, and I should have
been there. A huge crowd, a fantastic
entry (58 cars) – including van de Poele / Enge / Saelens in that gorgeous
Rafanelli R&S Judd, a car that Eric vdP described somewhere (at the time)
as, paraphrasing here, ‘the best car I ever drove’.
The admirable Belgian leapt into the lead at the start, and
kept the BMWs at bay for 11 laps, before pitting with a misfire (it eventually
retired after 185 laps). BMW tried to
‘shoot themselves in the foot’, which enabled the EF-R / Leitzinger Dyson
R&S to stay in touch with the surviving factory entry of Lehto / Kristensen
/ Muller – which set up a great finale, with Weaver plonked in the R&S to
try and chase down TK. He came up short
by about 17 seconds at the flag. Great
Audi finished third and fifth with their original R8s – and
a year later, the ultimate R8 would transform prototype racing. Porsches took the GTS and GT classes – as
Corvette Racing continued to develop the C-5Rs.
I’ve no recollection of how (as it was then)
sportscarworld.co.uk covered that Sebring race, but for the Road Atlanta event
in April, the site had the benefit of Philip XXXX’s reporting skills. Alas, I can’t remember Philip’s surname, even
though we have since been in touch on Facebook.
How frustrating! Sorry
Philip. But what a classic race you saw
Andy Wallace led from the start for Dyson (the BMWs were
absent as they prepared to win Le Mans),
but was called in during the first caution period, which turned out to be the
wrong move. vdP and David Brabham (this was the debut of the mighty Panoz
roadster) started well back, after some kind of ‘qualifying times withdrawn’
nonsense – and while the Panoz was a handful during its first run ever on full
tanks, the Rafanelli entry was going like a dream. vdP picked his way through virtually the
whole field and took the lead, which set up a conclusion in which partner Mimmo
Schiattarella saw off Didier Theys in the Doran Lista Ferrari, to win by 25
The V12 Ferraris seemed handicapped by their restrictors in
’99, in ways that the V10 Judd-powered R&S wasn’t. The commentators (rather unfairly) suggested
that the V10 might fail in that last stint – but it was as simple as an
over-filled oil tank blowing out the excess.
I wonder if Dyson Racing ever considered converting their
cars to Judd power? Kevin Doran eventually
did just that with his 333 Ferrari, creating the famous ‘Fudd’.
EF-R / Leitzinger finished third, as their points tally grew
steadily, while Don’s LMP Roadster S finished a fine fifth on its debut.
The Schumacher and Snow Porsches had a great race in GTS
(the former just winning), while PTG won GT – with none other than Johannes van
Overbeek partnering Brian Cunningham. Is
Johannes the longest serving driver in the series?
Don’s series. That
was a sad day, back in September last year, when we learned that Don had passed
away. The greatest benefactor that any
series has ever had? Did he ever get
annoyed if his cars didn’t win? To my
knowledge, he never did. He genuinely
seemed to simply love a great event, his event, attended by huge numbers of
I know how much he loved it when the orange, Lawrence
Tomlinson, Panoz Esperante won its class at Le Mans: when his bellowing (prototype) monsters
beat the Audis, he was clearly thrilled – but he didn’t seem to demand race
wins, the way others might.
My Don Panoz story came a few years later, in the spring of 2004. For the full story, you’ll have to wait until my book is launched (I think enough years have elapsed for the tale to be told), but in essence, Don was grateful for a story that I didn’t write. Don and Scott Atherton approached me in the Monza press room (it was the ELMS race), and Don expressed his personal thanks to me. I was touched!
Incidentally, I’m hoping the book will be launched at Brands Hatch on May 25. Anyone who reads this is invited to attend – and I’m sure you’ll announce it on DDC nearer the time, once it’s confirmed. Thanks in advance for that!
Right, back to 1999.
Don’s cars took a 1-2 at Mosport (Tom Kjos had taken over reporting
duties – and what a great job he did over the years), won again at Portland,
lucked into the win at the second Petit Le Mans (that man Wallace joined
regulars Brabham and Bernard), lost out at Laguna Seca – and all the while,
EF-R had been racking up the points.
The proposed San Diego race
didn’t happen, replaced by a fanless Las
Vegas – and I was determined to be there. With the help of Brooksie, Kerry Morse and
Cort Wagner, the trip was on.
The TV highlights of that race don’t match my memories in
one, significant respect… Having qualified eighth and ninth, the Dyson entries
experienced very different fortunes.
AWOL and Butch in #20 were out after just 22 laps with gearbox trouble,
but James was EF-R’s ‘wingman’ in #16.
In the opening exchanges, my memory is James really going for it – but
the highlights on youtube don’t really show that. I can still picture the Riley & Scott on
a charge, its driver all ‘elbows out’ as he battled to give Elliott a chance of
the title later on. Jean-Marc Gounon was
almost as boisterous in the DAMS Lola: it was fantastic entertainment.
But #16 then suffered with a fuel pressure problem, and it
looked as though the Panoz drivers (B & B) would be title winners – until
their engine failed with 17 laps left. BMW finished 1-2, but EF-R limped home
sixth and he was the drivers’ champion.
I surprised James Weaver by appearing in the pit-lane
wearing his old, ’96, BPR
Gulf overalls (lent to me
by Kerry Morse – I’ve no idea how he got hold of them).
“You’re wearing my overalls!” said an otherwise speechless
Oh, the Rafanelli R&S was first retirement,
unfortunately, with overheating. Was it
the right move to park that car and race a Lola in 2000?
Cort Wagner was the champ in GT, while Olivier Beretta took
the honours in GTS, in an ORECA Viper, a car that I haven’t mentioned in this
tale (Le Mans
was the initial priority). Wagner and
Muller won their class at Las Vegas,
with the red and white Vipers 1-2 in GTS.
My last thought here is connected to youtube, again. Something I’ve been getting interested in is
the whole 9/11 thing. I’m not going to
ram my thoughts down your throat – but I would like to suggest that you look up
Rebekah Roth, Christopher Bollyn, Barbara Honegger and / or Richard Gage, and
listen to some of their views on what really happened in September 2001. The more you find out, the more extraordinary
that tale becomes. If you find that lot
interesting, you might also consider looking up ‘Operation Mockingbird’.
Now, I’ve got to go and look up my favourite ALMS race on
youtube: Laguna Seca in 2005. I think
that was the one when John Hindhaugh ‘did his nut’ when the overall leaders
came up to lap the scrapping Corvettes and Aston Martins. Great memories (or just plain “living in the
Malcolm Cracknell was one of the pioneers of endurance racing coverage on the then new-fangled internet. What set him apart from the throng of wanabees and fans with passes who invaded Media Centres at that time was the fact that he actually had a clue. Crackers understood both racing and people, especially the gang of scoundrels who chose endurance sportscars as their platform. Even after years of enforced retirement he observes the distant paddocks with more acuity than many who actually attend the races. Time spent chewing the fat with him over the phone is never wasted and is generally punctuated by laughter and seasoned with salacious gossip, ancient and modern.
When this SRO book was published last year I asked him to write a review from his own perspective, he was witness to much of the narrative. He did so promptly, which is more than can be said for my performance in posting the piece. So with humble apologies from the Editor for the delay here is the weekend treat.
25 YEARS OF GT RACING
STEPHANE RATEL AND SRO MOTORSPORTS
This is an extraordinary book, in so many ways.In terms of value for money, it has to be a bargain: £75 for a glossy, 406 page volume, packed with superb photographs, suggests to me that it has to be subsidised to some degree.
I’ll add a ‘but’ here though: this needs to be described as a hagiography (a biography that treats its subject with undue reverence). Stéphane Ratel is largely portrayed as a God-like figure, his SRO the salvation of GT racing – which is certainly true in many ways.
Andrew Cotton tells more than the story of 25 years of GT racing: he begins with Ratel’s tragic childhood and describes the young man’s ‘playboy years’, importing supercars from California to re-sell in Europe at a healthy profit, then organising a ‘Cannonball Run’ in France (Paris to San Tropez) for his wealthy mates, which developed into the Venturi Trophy (1992-4, which saved the company) – and finally, with Jürgen Barth and Patrick Peter, he created the BPR Series.
Was that the high point of GT racing in the modern era? In many ways it probably was – at least in terms of the way it captured the imagination of the public. But as we know so well, Porsche and then Mercedes initiated a very rapid boom and bust – and Andrew Cotton reveals one (of many) fascinating tales that perhaps had more of an impact on Ratel the businessman than any other. I won’t spoil it for those of you considering buying the book, but the man who wrote the foreword, one B. C. Ecclestone, was involved – and taught Ratel a very important lesson.
When the FIA GT Championship ‘expired’ at the end of a disappointing 1998 season, only one man was prepared to try and salvage the thing, and the last 19 years have seen Stéphane Ratel and SRO carry it on with varying degrees of success.
1999 was probably the low point, but if you’re determined enough, you can follow all the ups and downs to the present day. It’s a convoluted tale, but to his credit, Ratel has stuck at it and is to be admired for that.
It’s been a battleground along the way, with GT2s becoming GT1s, three hour races becoming two, N-GTs briefly becoming the headline class – and then (I think this is missing from the book), in August 2007, there was an extraordinary Ratel proposal for the future of GT racing which was so convoluted that I’d need a 1,000 words to explain it.
That didn’t happen, but Ratel does admit that his plan for a GT1 Championship, of one hour races, was a mistake. Ironically, he’d already discovered what the future should be with his GT3 idea. Who, among those present at the launch of the FIA GT3 Championship, at a wet Silverstone in April 2006, could have guessed where this was going?
I was astonished to read that over 1,500 GT3 racers have been constructed in the last ten or so years. Bentley has recently announced that it will ‘only’ build 40 of its latest GT3 racer, compared to the 100 to 200 cars that Audi and Mercedes have built. Extraordinary figures, all of them.
‘Ratel series’ have expanded across the globe to soak up the demand, and it was intriguing to rediscover how the FIA tag came to be dropped, in favour of a slightly less formal, but more commercial, Blancpain name.
The book is punctuated with interviews / mini-biographies of a huge number of (not always) well known names who have been involved in SRO GT events during the last 25 years – many of whom have fascinating stories to tell.
In conclusion, I would suggest that there are only two things missing from this book. One would be a results section – but in fairness, there have been so many races, it would need another book to encompass their results.
The other would be any mention of any relationship between SRO and fans of GT racing – but fans don’t seem (with the exception of the Spa 24 Hours) to fit the SRO business model. Stéphane Ratel provides the cars, it’s up to the circuits to market their events to potential spectators. But with or without them, GT3 racing just seems to grow and grow.