Saturday, 29 March 2014

Get Out Your Map of Tassie

The V8 circus currently has its big top pitched at Symmons Plains, Tasmania, a track you can see on the new Google Maps right here (the tilt function especially makes it a bit more real - the geography lets it down a bit, sadly, but Mount Panorama is a mountain, so it looks fantastic. Doesn't quite give the full impression of what a rollercoaster ride it is, but gives you a much better idea of the contours of the thing than a flat overhead shot).

Anyway, since its Symmons Plains, I thought I'd take the opportunity to dust off a favourite video of mine, also from Symmons Plains. It's only short, so stop and have a watch.

That's Jim Richards...

You know, this bloke. a JPS-sponsored BMW M3 powered by an all-new 2.3-litre motor, racing Peter Brock in a Mobil-sponsored VK Commodore powered by a 5-litre V8 that was brand new in omigod 1969!  This is the side of Group A we don't remember today. Mention the era now and all you'll get is grumble-grumble-Godzilla-bloody-forrin-cars-scratch-me-Holden-grumble-grumble. But in fact, in the early years, it was a fantastic example of racing regulations gone right.

CAMS initially adopted the Group A rules in 1985 because they were sick of all the argy-bargy involved in making the ATCC a fair fight (with five manufacturers on the grid and protests about Volvo's aero package already kicking up dust, it's a situation AVESCO might soon be intimately familiar with). One of the main attractions of the international Group A rules - in force in Britain, continental Europe and Nippon since 1982 - was that all the performance concession-whoring would be the FIA's problem. CAMs gave themselves an eight-year breather that lasted until, oh, what's the date today? (It's not often mentioned, but to this day V8 Supercars is a "pirate" series with no official sanctioning, like the Indy Racing League and NASCAR. Just one of the reasons it's not called "the ATCC" anymore).

Anyway, in Group A you started with a normal road car, a mass-volume seller with four seats and over 5,000 registrations per year, welded in a roll cage and started speccing up the standard engine block it came with. The rules were amazingly lenient, almost formula libre by modern standards: virtually all components could be upgraded and heat/chemically treated. That was acceptable to the FIA because they'd specified all the intake stuff could be no bigger than the road version, so you could make it rev but you couldn't make it breathe. In a time when every part in a V8 Supercar engine has to come off an approved "control list" available to everyone, that's almost unthinkable - in today's world of Inconel, beryllium and DLC coatings, leaving the engineers with so much freedom would cost a figure high enough for a Wall Street trader to retire, satisfied. Even in the Gordon Gecko 80's, it wasn't exactly cheap: a normal BMW 635 would set you back only $60,000, but for the model that won the '86 ATCC, you'd better have a spare $225,000. In the Eighties.

By comparison, a pack of the cigarettes it was advertising cost only $2.35. Moving on...

But the real core of Group A was its equivalence system: a bigger engine incurred a higher minimum weight, but was allowed a larger fuel tank and wider, grippier tyres. In theory, that would equalise performance across a number of different models. In practice... go watch the video again. Two sports sedans from opposite corners of the world, racing door-to-door.

1987 was the last time Group A worked like that. The FIA had already stumped themselves by allowing the Jaguar XJS to compete (a car that almost certainly never reached 5,000 production examples per year), and they were seemed to have had the wool pulled over their eyes regarding turbocharging. Originally the rules said a turbo car found its equivalence by multiplying its engine capacity by 1.4 (putting the 2-litre Sierra in the 2.8-litre class) but honestly x2 or x3 would have been more realistic. Turbocharging was a gigantic loophole, and by the time Bathurst came around the grid had become a sea of Belgian Fords, and next year Dick Johnson would have the boost sorted on his blood red Shell Sierra and be ready to turn the series into a DJR benefit. And Nissan was hard at work behind the scenes polishing their next-gen Skyline concept...

But that was all still in the future. Right now, in 1987, it was all still working beautifully. And for any kids reading this, "JPS" stands for John Player & Sons, a cigarette brand, because in those days you were allowed to advertise ciggies on the telly. No, really! And they were even allowed to colour in the packs, which is why Jim's car is that sexy black and gold. With the recent efforts of the Australian government, though, it isn't hard to imagine what a modern JPS team car would look like.

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