Thursday
Nov172011

Beginnings And Endings

In 2010, the FIA GT1 World and GT3 European championships were the first series to use the redeveloped ‘Arena’ track layout at Silverstone. And this year, the teams, fans and media of these championships were the first to experience the dramatic ‘Wing’ building that houses the brand-new pit garages, hospitality suites and media centre. Of course, both of these ‘first looks’ served as dry runs for the British Formula 1 Grand Prix that followed several weeks afterward, and the occasional teething problem or unresolved detail did manifest itself at various points over the weekend. But the overriding sense is that Silverstone is firmly on the right track, and showing the flashy Asian and Middle Eastern venues that there’s life in motorsport’s ‘Old World’ yet. This is particularly important in light of the FIA’s recent on-again, off-again Bahrain Grand Prix debacle, but at Silverstone this year the main point of conversation was another FIA decision, which came to light mid-way through the weekend.

 

For many sportscar fans, it was like Christmas and their birthday had arrived together: In 2012, the FIA and the ACO will finally bury the hatchet and launch the first proper World Championship for sports prototypes to have been held since 1992. The World Endurance Championship will supersede the promising but somewhat clumsily named Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, and promises two races in Europe, two in North America and two in Asia, in addition to the flagship 24-hour event at Le Mans. Unlike the ILMC, there will be both driver’s and constructor’s titles, while the successful GTE category, divided into Pro and Am sub-classes, is carried forward. The news has been greeted warmly by sportscar fans, who have long been speculating about global series just like this to properly succeed the old WSC.But the WEC’s arrival poses several questions, some of which have been answered and some of which have not.

 

One issue that has now been resolved is the future of the GT1 category, which, as expected, is going to involve some compromise. From next year, the GT1 World Championship becomes simply the GT World Championship, open to a performance-balanced combination of GT1, ‘old’ GT2 and GT3 machinery. It seems likely, however, that the bulk of the grid will be made up of GT3 cars, such as the new privateer’s favourite the Mercedes SLS and the GT3 version of Nissan’s GT-R. It’s not the vision Stephane Ratel set out at the beginning of 2010, but the mercurial Frenchman does still have a lot to be happy about. His new Blancpain-sponsored endurance series for GT3 cars has been a roaring success, and the GT3 European Series continues to attract healthy grids. However, it seems the combined might of the FIA and the ACO will serve to prevent him laying claim to the true top flight of global GT racing, as he has wanted to do for so long.

 

 

The other major issue thrown up by the WEC is its effect on the two regional ACO-rules series, the ALMS and the European-based Le Mans Series. In this case, the outcome is not yet clear. Both of these championships, but in particular the American one, have struggled to attract full-season prototype entries in 2011, and both have turned to incorporating formerly seperate one-make series as sub-classes as a way of boosting grid numbers. With the additional commercial possibilities opened up by the ‘World Championship’ title likely to lure more teams onto the global stage, it’s difficult to see the situation for either championship improving in 2012. In fact, it’s probably going to get worse, with the ‘feast-or-famine’ effect of 2011 – where ILMC-counting rounds mean huge grids but ‘domestic’ rounds see the ranks thinning out considerably – likely to be further amplified.

 

Turning our attention to events on track at Silverstone, and once again the major bone of contention was driving standards. The one-hour sprint race format of GT1 and GT3, combined with the relatively robust nature of the cars, has given rise to some very bullish and aggressive tactics, with frequent clashes off the starting line and into the first corner seen in the opening few rounds of the season. Some argue that these ‘demolition derby’ antics appeal to the masses, but the truth is the combative tactics are proving just as damaging to the long-term health of the series as a lack of new cars being developed or recession-related pressure on sponsorship revenues. The withdrawal of Reiter Engineering from the GT1 championship at the end of 2010 was attributed largely to what the team saw as an unacceptable level of damage being sustained at each race, while the outfit that took over the running of their two Lamborghini Murcielagos, Swiss Racing Team, has itself now missed a clutch of rounds after a particularly punishing weekend at the Sachsenring. And the participation of the veteran GT1 Corvettes for the rest of the season is hanging by a thread – a source within one of teams indicated that they simply cannot afford another major accident damage bill if they are to continue racing.

 

But at Silverstone, matters came to a head with a truly disgraceful display by the young (but old enough to know better) German Stefan Mucke. After being spun out by JRM Racing’s Richard Westbrook while exiting Becketts corner, Mücke rejoined the track, caught up to the Nissan GT-R, and then gesticulated at Westbrook so forcefully that he lost control of his Aston Martin, hitting first Westbrook’s car and then the barrier so hard that he completely destroyed the front end of the DBR9, leaving debris strewn along half the length of Hangar Straight. Westbrook’s initial move was optimistic, no doubt, but it was nothing that hasn’t happened in racing a thousand times before. Mücke’s response, however, was one of the most shocking, not to mention downright stupid, things I have ever witnessed at a racetrack. But despite the stewards at the meeting recommending his license be suspended, the German national sporting authority, ADAC, has not done so, and Mücke has continued to race for Aston Martin since then, both as part of the disastrous Le Mans entry and in the GT1 World Championship car.

 

The Mucke incident may be the worst, but it’s certainly not the only, example of severe ‘brain fade’ that has occured in Europen GT racing this year. And the standard sanctions of time penalties and grid-place drops for the next race don’t seem to be stamping it out. If anything, these penalties are contributing to the frustration that is then going on to be the cause of further incidents. Is it time to start handing out simple race bans to really hammer home the point that drivers need to think before they lunge? Or will it take an injury, or worse, to a driver, track worker or spectator before everyone finally calms down?

All images: Ed Fahey

« SCI Interview: Bas Leinders | Main | SCI Interview: CGA Race Engineering »