The snow that swept across the British Isles last week was fairly impressive,
according to the television pictures and a BBC weather girl with a bright smile.
However, it completely missed my house. Apparently our village was the only one
in England where I could not have built a snowman. As those who have to travel
to work complained of blocked roads and the traffic reports were full of disaster,
my 10-yard walk to work across the front garden was deeply disappointing.
However, come last Friday, the temperature gauge in the office plummeted as I
monitored the rapidly deteriorating relationship between the ACO and the IMSA
organisation. The desire to build a snowman shot out of the window the moment
the ACO statement landed in my in-box, signalling a brand new Cold War. At the
heart of the affair is the Maserati MC12, a car that the ACO declared illegal and
therefore not allowed to take part in any race bearing the “Le Mans” name. IMSA
signed one contract with Maserati to allow the MC12 to run in the ALMS this year,
and long ago signed another allowing usage of the “Le Mans” brand until 2008,
irresistible force meets immovable object.
The pen is mightier than the sword (though Errol Flynn would have never have
been great if he had been armed with just a Biro) and the statement from the ACO
was razor sharp. “The ‘AUTOMOBILE CLUB DE L’OUEST’ has noted the decision
taken by the AMERICAN LE MANS SERIES to put the MASERATI MC 12 on the list
of entries for the coming SEBRING 12 HOURS” it read. ”The ‘AUTOMOBILE CLUB
DE L’OUEST’ reminds the parties concerned that the MC 12 does not comply with
the Technical Regulations and is not homologated. Thus, this car is not allowed
to take part in events run under the ‘LE MANS’ label.”
The message came from Daniel Poissenot, the race director of the 24 Hueres
du Mans. Poissenot is a man who has spoken publicly against the Maserati and
staunchly defended his position despite strong rumours and signed contracts.
Over my dead body was his message, and he ain’t dead. IMSA then put out
another statement in response: “IMSA confirms that it has invited the Maserati
MC12 to compete in the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring and each of the events
of the 2005 American Le Mans Series, as a guest of IMSA, and not as part of the
Le Mans branded series.”
The problem lies with the ACO saying ‘no’ to the car competing in “events run
under the Le Mans label,” and IMSA allowing the car to run at “events of the 2005
American Le Mans Series.” The car will not be eligible for points and therefore,
IMSA argues, is not part of the series. The ACO is unimpressed with all of this.
“The ACO doesn’t agree with IMSA and the ALMS,” said sporting director Gerard
Gaschet on Monday. “This is clear.”
Too much Monkey Business
How the two organisations will bridge the gap will be interesting to see but from
Maserati on Friday came the comment: “We confirmed that we will race in the
championship and we are preparing to go there. The contract is signed with the
organisers and any problem is between the ACO and the organiser.” The ACO
seems to have accepted the reality that the MC12 will run at Sebring, and will sort
out any fall-out after the event.
The ACO has in the past accommodated the needs of the IMSA organisation,
with allowances to run larger air restrictors in its prototypes, a delay in introducing
new aero kits and the date change for the Le Mans trials to help the US teams.
The Maserati situation, however, is something different. The car is not
homologated, and the ACO does not want to return to the dark days of argument
over the BMW M3 GTR.
That car ran in 2001, fitted with a 4-litre, V8 engine which was not part of any
BMW 3-series production. The ACO allowed it, despite protestations from
Porsche, but at the end of the year imposed criteria clarifying their description of a
legal LM-GT car. BMW did not meet those criteria and therefore was restricted out
of competition. The ALMS lost a valuable marketing tool, a prestige manufacturer
like BMW, and the series suffered for it. Porsche against BMW was a mighty
prospect, though the M3 was a superior car and won the championship.
Born to Run
The ACO stood firm then, and is standing firm now. The Maserati has not been
homologated which begs the question as to why should the likes of Aston Martin
and Corvette run against what the ACO considers to be an illegal car? IMSA, on
the other hand, sees that in marketing terms Corvette against Saleen is not as
attractive proposition as Corvette against Maserati. Again, the series needs the
manufacturer, and needs the competition. Though many believe the Saleen to be
the better car at the moment, and have put it as favourite to win the race this
month, the S7R simply does not have the same profile as the Italian supercar.
Aston Martin’s objection to the MC12 running in un-homologated form has been
noted, and investor Frederic Dor has long objected to it in the FIA GT
Championship. He, like the ACO, believes the car should have been built to the
existing regulations. Corvette’s Doug Fehan commented: “We are flattered that
Ferrari/Maserati would find it necessary to bring a weapon as formidable as the
MC12 to do battle against the GT1 Corvette C6R. It should provide interesting
theatre before, during and after each event.”
Long Promised Road
Quite what restrictions the Maserati will run with depends on its performance in
free practice at Sebring. Common sense suggests air restrictor balances rather
than either weight (which over the bumps at Sebring could be dangerous) or body
work changes. The MC12 is untested over 12-hours in race conditions and few
expect it to run without trouble in the tough Floridian event. The Corvette C6R is
also untested in any kind of race conditions, and the GM crowd are expecting a
potentially problematic race too.
As the snow ceased and the flurries settled, the situation is now at a stage
where both sides are re-grouping for a show-down after Sebring. “It is important
to understand that we made decisions with extreme care and only after careful
consultation and consideration,” said IMSA’s Scott Atherton. “To suggest
otherwise is simply not accurate.” And from the ACO’s point of view, no one there
wants the relationship to end either.
For now, the new cars from Aston Martin and Corvette will be viewed by the ACO
at Sebring, fulfilling the criteria to be selected for Le Mans 2005. Those who have
been invited already know that their entry is safe. It will be a fascinating race, but
an even more interesting post-script.