He ‘ain’t heavy
Philipp Peter and Fabio Babini scored an historic win at Estoril, the penultimate
round of the FIA GT Championship, driving their N-Technology prepared Ferrari
575 to victory on its maiden outing, salvaging some pride from an otherwise torrid
season. No one begrudged the team, or the drivers, their win, but the FIA set a
dangerous precedent with the acceptance of the car in Portugal and, if the Ferrari
wins again at Monza this weekend, the season may well end in uproar.
The Ferrari 575, a new car in the championship with an existing team, won in
Portugal while running without the ballast indicated in the regulations. This
caused a stirring among the regulars in the paddock, who are worried that the FIA
has immediately been blinded by the bright lights of manufacturer involvement
and going directly against Stephane Ratel's ethos of the series, or Max Mosley's
promises made back in June.
Stop in the name of Love
Ratel learned a hard lesson at the tail end of the 20th century. Competing teams
do not want to be beaten by manufacturers, and Ratel formulated a plan to keep
them out, unless they had a long-term commitment and spread themselves
across the grid.
The Frenchman's plan was clear: "at least four manufacturers commit to the
Championship for four years, each bringing at least six cars to the
Championship…four of the Manufacturers' cars would have to be entered by
teams which took part in an entire season in 2002 or 2003…with points being
scored by five cars, the manufacturers would have to spread their expenses over
the teams, not concentrate solely on a two-car factory team."
No feelings of domination
No one manufacturer could come in and crush the privateers as Porsche did at
the end of 1996, and with Mercedes, completed the job in 1997. Ratel must still
wake up at night with nightmares of what happened to his beloved BPR series
when the manufacturers came in with virtually a free rein, producing cars that had
nothing to do with the road and everything to do with the circuit. The two German
companies steam-rollered the series and, when Porsche was fed up with being
beaten every weekend and withdrew from the series, Ratel was left with broken
pieces of a dream.
Chrysler Team ORECA dominated the 1999 season, but when they went to the
ALMS full time in 2000, Ratel was busy picking up the pieces of a fallen dream.
With the help of men like Laurence Pearce, Toine Hezemans, Gerold Reid,
Manfred Freisinger, Paul Belmondo, Franz Konrad and Hugh Chamberlain, and
with Jurgen Barth working behind the scenes at Porsche, the series was put back
together. Ratel linked with Eurosport, the ETCC, electronics company LG, Renault
and this year his championship has flourished.
However, FIA President Max Mosley appeared at Donington and announced his
own vision for the future of the series. "As far as manufacturers are concerned, I
think big manufacturers should be encouraged to come in on the basis that they
sell cars to competitors at a sensible price, but still do so profitably," he said. "I
think it is up to us to arrange the regulations so that this becomes possible…I
don't think that we need a minimum number [of manufacturers to take part in the
Ratel could go along with this, provided Mosley was capable of restricting the
manufacturers in a way that the FIA had failed to do in 1997. The sudden and
unexpected success of the Ferrari 575 at Estoril suggests that the FIA GT
Championship has fallen at the first hurdle.
Restricting the restrictors
The BMS team, with its cars prepared by Prodrive, a company that had been in
discussion with Ferrari for factory support but had suddenly and dramatically been
turned away, had its restrictors cut after winning for the sixth time at Spa. The 550
has only scored one pole position this year, and Thomas Biagi and Matteo Bobbi
have simply been the strongest pair of drivers in the most reliable car. The FIA cut
their air restrictor size after the Belgian event to make sure the team couldn't win
again but as everyone around them crashed and broke down at Oschersleben,
they found themselves on the top step of the podium. Oops.
The restrictors were increased again for Estoril after Frederic Dor, backer of
Prodrive's development of the Ferrari 550 Maranello, had a meeting with
Stephane Ratel to protest against the air restrictor sizes. Whether the rumours
were true, and he did indeed threaten to withdraw his cars, is irrelevant. There
were mutterings in the bowels of the series that the championship was already
bowing to pressure from Ferrari, and what happened at Estoril has done nothing
to quell the disquiet.
The regulation itself is clear. Article 68 of the FIA Sporting Regulations states: "In
each category, cars that have not been entered for the whole of the Championship
will be allocated a minimum handicap weight according to the following scale:
At the 3rd Event in the Championship +20kg
At the 4th Event in the Championship +30kg
At the 5th Event in the Championship +40kg
At the 6th Event in the Championship and others +60kg"
The JMB Racing team had entered the disastrous Ferrari 550 Maranello for the
first eight races, blowing up more than 20 engines during a torrid year. The team
was delighted to see the back of the 550 and the arrival of the 575. The fact that it
was a new car, targeted in the wording of the regulations, was swept aside by the
officials, and the car will race at Monza with just the 40kg success ballast
awarded to a winner in the GT class of the championship.
Back to the future
Rival teams are already agitated that the car will not run with 100kg of ballast in
Italy and if the 575 wins again, people will start talking more openly and the
season will be ruined amid tales of Porsche, 1996 and the GT1. The problem is,
the FIA cannot take back the win at Estoril, they cannot admit that they made a
mistake, they cannot undo the damage, but must hope that the 575 does not win
in Italy if there is to be a peaceful winter.