19 April 2001

Does anyone out there remember the Lotus 79? I know, it was a single-seater, and this site attracts sportscar fans more than F1 spectators. Anyway, when the 1978 British Grand Prix finally arrived, it felt like an honour to see the car. It was so obviously the best example of a Formula One car ever built, and it was visibly quicker than any other car, but much like the Audi R8 two decades later, it was quick without being spectacular. The Audi is a great car, it does everything so efficiently, but it isn’t loud and it doesn’t slide about – you just have to be impressed at its speed and stability.

The European Le Mans Series kicked off at Donington Park on Easter Saturday. I was there, and I was glad I was. Because of commitments to my rapidly growing family, it was the first race I saw this year, but overall I came home on Saturday night somewhat disappointed. Perhaps because my expectations were too high – Silverstone’s ELMS race last year was one of the best of the season, and I was hoping for similar at Donington.

The new Panoz sounded great, but not as great as last year’s car. Four litres don’t do it when you’re used to six. And the rest? The Courage was good but the Peugeot engine sounded like an old turbo-charged Porsche flat-6. The Judd in the Ascari sounded better, but the car hasn’t yet proved it can run competitively in an endurance event. The GTs? I liked the Saleen, even if it does look like a Jaguar XJ220. Somehow having Lehto and Müller in a BMW 3-series touring car was disappointing as well, although when JJ was charging, he warmed the toes. And while it’s good to have a large entry, you have to face the fact that a lot of them were 911GT3-Rs.

In the end, the Audis were just too good, the result never really in doubt. The new Panoz isn’t on the pace yet. Chrysler seems to be on the right track. The battle for fourth in the early stages was good, with a Panoz, the Chrysler, the Courage and the Ascari, but you somehow sensed that they would all stop before the Audis did. An extra car in each of the single car teams would have helped. There’s a long way to go in the season yet, though.

For those who travelled to Donington and braved the cold, both the official raceday programme (17 pages) and the support races didn’t do justice to the prestige of the meeting. Whether the circuit suited the cars as well as Silverstone did, I’m not sure. Donington’s Craner Curvers are certainly exciting, but Silverstone, for all its featureless expanse, is a proper Grand Prix circuit, with acreage more appropriate to Le Mans cars.

The Donington race, part of the ELMS series, and backed by Don Panoz, is in head-on competition with two FIA-supported championships, one for GTs and one for prototypes. In this context, Donington exhibited as close to what you’ll see at Le Mans as anything. The entry was better than many people had feared and the crowd wasn’t bad at all, considering the number of options for motorsport fans over Easter. I don’t expect to see as many spectators either at Silverstone in May for the FIA GT race, nor back at Donington in August for the FIA Sports Car Championship.

The ELMS problem, as far as I can see, is the venues for the events, compared with the FIA series’ circuits. Both FIA series visit Monza, and between them they add to that Spa, Silverstone and Nürburgring, to name but three. Visiting Vallelunga and Salzburgring hardly enhances the ELMS reputation.

Let’s look back at the European Sports Car Season so far. We kicked off at Monza, with the opening round of the FIA GT series. To the casual observer, it was a continuation of last year, with the works Lister overcoming privateer opposition in Vipers. The fabulous new Ferraris from Gabriele Raffanelli failed to compete with tried and tested opposition.

The FIA Sports Car Championship season opened a week later at Barcelona, with victory again going to a car which won the championship last year. Reigning champion Christian Pescatori, armed with an ageing Ferrari 333SP proved the class of the field, as the new cars and teams failed to deliver in the endurance stakes.

In addition to the ELMS at Donington, Easter weekend also saw the second round of the GT series at Brno, and defeat for the Lister, which might be the best thing for it, as Vipers filled the podium.

What about the other classes? ELMS features LMP675 alongside the LMP900 prototype category. At Donington, the LMP675 cars were visually very similar to their heavier (not necessarily larger) LMP900 counterparts. I suggest that very few of those present on Saturday would have been able to say that the Ascari and Reynard were in different classes. The SR2 class in the FIA SCC is well-supported and seems to match the needs of the competitors nicely. The line between GTS (or GT as the FIA calls it) and GT (or N-GT according to the FIA) is being blurred and should be removed altogether in my view.

I still struggle trying to explain exactly where all these categories fit together though. If we assume that there is a market place for Le Mans car outside Le Mans, (the crowd at Donington confirms that) then ALMS fits very well. Certainly Donington gave us a taster for what we may see in France in June, as well as a reminder for those who were there last year. The two FIA series would dovetail together better if (a) the SCC would invite factory teams along and (b) the GT series would have some more pukka factory teams – Chevrolet, Saleen, etc.

In summary, a good deal of what is happening at the moment is the legacy of last year, but there are areas of hope. First, there’s enough interest to sustain all three European championships without seriously impacting the national series. Second, new cars are coming along, although more reliability wouldn’t go amiss. Finally, the 24 hour race at Le Mans, still the pinnacle of the sports car season, is attracting new manufacturers, and it is to be hoped that some of them will be willing and able to race their cars at other events.

There is an old drinker’s toast, “to those who reach contentment before capacity, and above all remain gentleman”. I sometimes think that we sports car addicts are clamouring for more than is good for us.

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