|Rocking Horse World David Soares on myths and tragedies|
After an initial flurry of press releases and posturing, things are strangely quiet
about the controversy between the International Motor Sports Association and the
Automobile Club de l’Ouest over the special exemption for the FIA GT-
homologated Maserati MC12 entered for this week’s Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of
Sebring. It seems that most sports car commentators don’t know whether to shit
or go blind and are waiting to see who takes to the track. As a person who prefers
just about anything to blindness, my urge is to go on record before the controversy
plays out and to be either dramatically right or embarrassingly wrong.
First of all: Don Panoz’ money was spent to establish the American Le Mans
Series. Every serious competitor in IMSA’s premier sanctioned series is there to
get an invitation to the Big One in France in June. This is the Big Leagues and
requires a big commitment. The leading teams in this series have heavy factory
support from manufacturers who want to sell cars under the halo of a Le Mans
victory. If you don’t have what it takes you should probably be somewhere else.
When the ALMS started there wasn't a somewhere else. Now there is: the Grand
American Road Racing Association’s Rolex Series for Daytona Prototypes.
People tired of getting their clocks cleaned by factory-backed teams have defected
to the DP ranks in droves. Setting aside the selective arrival of manufacturer
dollars in GARRA for the moment, twenty-two cars worth of road racing talent are
contesting DP as regulars with even more showing up at Daytona for the 24.
Meanwhile the ALMS are scrambling to get car counts beyond an automatic
podium for anybody who bothers to show up. This is particularly embarrassing
for series stalwart Corvette Racing, who turn out world-beaters but haven’t been
able strut their stuff for the fans at home against serious opposition.
The decision-making process that led to the invitation of the Maserati MC12
remains shrouded in mystery but you don’t need to be a mind-reader to see that
the non-arrival of Prodrive’s Ferraris and Astons for the bulk of the series created
a problem for the promoter in GT1. Since the FIA has homologated the Maserati
for the FIA GT championship run by Stephane Ratel it didn’t seem like a great leap
to allow the car to run here. After all, Ratel has been having press conferences
with the ACO leadership about combining international GT regulations across the
board. IMSA technical staff was in Paris during the off-season working on the new
GT1 and GT2 regulations. What’s the big deal?
The big deal, in my humble opinion, is this: Maserati is being presented in
certain quarters as some kind of cottage industry underdog who just want to
come and race. You know, Carlo, Bindo, Alfieri, Ettore, Mario, and Ernesto and
their little machine shop in Bologna. The triumphant return of the tortellini-twisters
who last won Sebring with Juan Manuel Fangio in 1957. What’s not to like? Latin
connections go over big in Florida, and everybody loves Italian cottage industry.
It’s even got an atmo V-12 to make-a da beautiful music. A car from a nation of
artisans pressing olive oil, not big business like Karting with Bernie.
Well, wrong ‘em boy-o. The Maserati is nothing but a badge-engineered Ferrari,
and Ferrari is all about Formula One. This ain’t no friendly gesture from a few
Bolognese brothers with a couple of lathes under the salamis curing in the
rafters. This gift comes direct from Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, and if you ask
me IMSA taking on the MC12 looks a whole lot like Trojans taking gifts from
Greeks. Why is the good dottore so solicitous of IMSA’s car counts? Why does
he want them to overlook the rulebook about silly widths and overhangs just this
eensie teensy bit?
I don’t like Oliver Stone movies all that much (except maybe The Doors) but you
don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to connect these dots. Ferrari just cut a
$100 million deal with Bernie to stay in Formula One, another series with car
count issues, through 2012. With tobacco money drying up in the European
Community, Formula One car counts are going to be dependent on manufacturer
involvement. Ford has already pulled out and is funding current and potential
sportscar projects. The others have been making noises about going it alone
and have used sportscars as a successful marketing platform in the past.
Why are the ACO so worried about one car competing in “exhibition” status?
Look to Paul Stoddart’s little farce in the Victoria Supreme Court this month in
Melbourne for the answer. He took advantage of Australia’s anti-trust laws to
temporarily force the FIA to let him run his Formula One Minardis in 2004
specification. The European Commission also has anti-trust laws – remember
that the GTR Organization caused the FIA millions in grief a few years ago over
FOA’s restrictive licensing practices. The matter eventually settled more-or-less
to the satisfaction of the FIA and FOA but it set some potentially dangerous
precedents. Might an Italian court force homologation of the MC12 on anti-
competitive grounds? They almost certainly might. The ACO aren’t interested in
getting home-towned the way the FIA did by Stoddart in Melbourne when the LMES
shows up at Monza.
The original sales pitch of the ALMS was that conforming to an international
formula would provide a stable marketing platform for competitors and more
importantly, sponsors. Sportscar racing needs rules stability and an international
calendar to attract entrants at the highest levels. This is the great appeal of
GARRA and what the bickering is about in just about every other form of
competition including Karting with Bernie. The ACO lost major manufacturer
involvement at the turn of the 21st century over homologation tinkering by other
sanctioning bodies, especially the FIA. IMSA was out in the wilderness then,
SportsCar the ‘90’s equivalent of GARRA. The ACO remember that BMW, Daimler
Benz, and Toyota were major players in endurance racing in the late’90’s and are
all Karting with Bernie today. They left because rules were being enforced
inconsistently and the lack of an international schedule.
None of this is lost on dottore di Montezemolo. Take a look at the FIA GT website
– it’s covered with Maserati logos. The MC12 got a homologation exception
thanks to cubic Euros. Ironically many of these Euros came from the two billion
dollar extortion payment by GM to get out of buying Fiat from di Montezemolo’s
associates (remember National Lampoon’s “Buy This Magazine or We’ll Shoot
this Dog” issue?). The Maserati MC12 is a joke car designed to be another
Porsche GT-1 rules-bender. If a court allows a cheater to be homologated then
manufacturers might not be so interested in going sportscar racing, especially if
Schuey agrees to crash out of a few more races and give up the top step of the
podium every once in a while.
It’s a shame and I hope that I’m wrong, but I think that the ALMS are about to get
slammed. Atherton and Mayer are in a panic about car counts after Daytona. The
nice Trojan man offers them a “gift,” a beautiful V-12 full of heritage and Fangio
references. What’s the big deal? The big deal is that the ACO have no intention
of letting their homologation requirements get pitched out the window again
through the meddling of other sanctioning bodies. Atherton and Mayer are right
that nobody’s going to lose their license over Sebring. The ACO needs the
entries. But if the future of sportscar endurance racing is with GT entrants, there
is another series across town with a new GT class and a marquee endurance
event early in the year in Florida.
|THEATER OF THE ABSURD Bill Oursler on the big countdown|
Perhaps we should call it the “Theater of the Absurd.” This week the American Le
Mans Series will open its 2005 season with the Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring,
perhaps the oldest, certainly one of the most prestigious of all the road racing
events in the United States. Just once since it began in March of 1952 has
Sebring not been held, that being in 1974 when the gas crisis was in full swing.
At a time when most would expect the “buzz” to be about whom will emerge as
the latest winner, the sole subject of conversation seems to center around the
Maserati MC 12. This topic has been thoroughly covered in the past weeks by the
motor sport media as if life itself depended on whether or not the Italian Super
Car would run in the 12 Hours of Sebring and beyond.
The fact is that the Maserati will participate because the ALMS not only wants it
to, but because it needs it to. Using clever semantics, the sanctioning body for the
ALMS, the International Motor Sport Association, likewise owned by Don Panoz,
the man behind the series, is permitting the MC 12 to take the green flag as “its
guest.” When is a rose not a rose? When the folks at Le Mans, from whom the
ALMS leases its technical regulations decides to be stubborn and forget that
Panoz expects his championship to be a money making enterprise.
And if you give me… I'm willin'
Basically, the dispute has come down to a contest of wills on the part of La
Sarthe and its representatives who appear to care little about the financial health
of the ALMS, at least not in the way that Panoz does. However, in a rare moment of
sanity, the Automobile Club De L’Ouest has said it will “discuss” the Maserati’s
future AFTER Sebring, this giving rise to suspicions that perhaps the ACO will
forget about those discussions and allow everyone to move forward with their
Now comes David Richards, boss of Prodrive, the team which has built and
developed the two Aston Martins scheduled to make their inaugural appearance
at the aging Central Florida track. Richards has announced that he will take action
against IMSA if the MC12's are permitted to run, even as “guests” and not for
points or money. That strikes me as peculiar to say the least. What Richards
seems to propose is that the Federation Intenationale de L’Automobile, lift its
listing of Sebring as a response to the illegality of the MC12’s collective presence.
The problem with Richards’ argument is simple: while the ACO has not
approved the Maserati, the FIA has. So how can the FIA be asked to lift its sanction
of a race because a car, which it has approved for its own GT series is running at
Sebring against the wishes of the ACO? In truth, it should be funny, yet it is deadly
serious, for it is this kind of self-centered thinking which has brought sports car
racing to the sorry state it currently finds itself in.
Shaken and stirred…
The ALMS is in a squeeze, what with the Grand Am championship gaining the
entrants that the ALMS sorely needs. The other problem is that of trying to
entertain its fans with what are, for the most part (the new Corvettes, the Aston
Martins and the MC12s being the exceptions) last year’s cars. Hopefully there are
better times ahead. At the moment, however, the ALMS needs all the help it can
find, and that means the Maseratis because after Sebring, win or lose, Richards
is taking his toys home to play in Europe and won’t be back until the final two
events in the fall – if then.
For years those in power like the FIA and the ACO have played their games,
never once worrying about the overall future of the sport, but rather preferring to
concentrate on their immediate agendas. The Maserati issue may seem petty,
but so too does a minor skin cancer at first. IMSA and the ALMS have taken a firm
stance, and I, for one, applaud them. The time has come to starting looking at the
whole picture, not what’s the most self-serving.