The inaugural, 1987 season of the World Touring Car Championship was - without any doubt - a disaster that put the series into sleep for 18 years and the first race had it all. This is its story.
1987 was a good year for all matters. The peak of the 80s. Synth-pop and thrash metal co-existed as some of the most successful musical genres, ‘Predator’ was the movie to watch and if you lived in the US, you could still go and survive Action Park in New Jersey.
1987 was also a mixed year for motorsports: Group C cars reigned the full stretch of the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans, but Group B was banned in rallying. Group A was the name of the game, and touring car series around the world had their fair share of said vehicles. All that is to say that the environment was perfect to create a world-wide touring car series, so the FIA went and did what was necessary to make the World Touring Car Championship, starting in 1987.
The series that saw quite a few high-profile manufacturers and a calendar that went through Europe, Oceania and the Far-East, had ‘success’ written all over it on paper, except that it wasn’t one.
First of all, WTCC was made a multi-class racing series, divided up between cars with engine displacements of (1) sub-1.6l, (2) 1.6 - 2.5l and (3) over 2.5l categories, which made racing a bit more difficult to follow and slightly softer for those liking door-on-door action. Secondly, one Bernard Ecclestone enforced a last-minute change on the teams of paying a sum of $60,000 to be eligible for points or prize money - which a lot of teams refused to do, even bigger ones -, thus creating a race-to-race ‘outlaw’ class who were driving around, even winning races, but never seeing any official recognition other than the podium and the champagne if they managed to get that far.
It was madness for the audience, even before the wheels turned for testing. Other than that, the series (or rather the entries) saw some of the finest tin-top cars ever, including some Holden Commodores, Alfa Romeo 75 Turbos, Maserati Biturbos, Ford Sierra RS Cosworths, BMW M3s, etc. and the field was stuffed with past, occasional present and future Formula 1 drivers.
The first race was set out for one of the spiritual homes of Grand Prix racing - Monza, which is a classic, power-circuit where engine tuning and low-drag body kits paid dividends. One Ford Sierra was already excluded before the green flag dropped for using an illegal engine management system, and the other one - which lead the race for quite a while - ran one, too, due to some clever rebadging. The Sierra was flying through the track in P1 until it blew a head gasket, which created a BMW M3 lockout in the first six (!) positions.
Then, in a bizarre turn of events, all factory BMW M3s went to a post-race inspection and were excluded immediately due to using thin roofs and kevlar body parts, running the cars some 80kg below the legal weight limit.
In total, seven BMW M3s - running factory kits - were excluded in Division 2, including the first six cars and a seventh, crossing the finish line in eighth position. The Australian duo of Allan Moffat and John Harves - running a Holden VL Commodore - were declared as winners (seeing the checkered flag in 8th position).
However, the car finishing in the top of the points finished the race - the Albatech Alfa Romeo 75, driven by Walter Voulaz and Marcello Cipriani - in actual 7th position and it was the 14th car to end the race - counted with the later excluded cars.
The dire and faceplanting exclusions had an otherwise very interesting outcome. There were two privately entered BMW M3s in the race, but only one finished. It could so, because it didn’t receive the illegal BMW body kits. It was Hungary’s József Cserkuti, who suddenly found himself one step away from the podium in overall 4th position and second in his category.
For the record: Cserkuti’s story is one of the many that could have ended rather differently if it wasn’t for the Iron Curtain. The chemist and artist-turned race car driver was already a legend at quite a few race tracks and hill climbs all over Europe with his self-prepared Group 5 and Group A BMWs. One of the sports reporters later quoted him saying at a kart race to look out for a Spanish kid who would be a superstar in the future. That kid was Fernando Alonso. Even I managed to - literally - cycle into a local slalom race where he showed the younger ones how it was supposed to be done, running a stock Trabant sometimes on two wheels while snaking around cones.
For someone like him, $60,000 was a sum he couldn’t have fathomed to pay, even more so the adverse achievement. This is what he had to say after the race:
Q: Your results surprised everyone! Many people had had no idea that you had been building a new racing car. (...)
J.Cs.: Ever since I first heard of the new BMW M3, I had been playing with the idea to build such a car for myself. The first components had arrived on 3rd January, since I had been working flat out. (...) We finished the car just a week before the (Monza) race. I tested it on the Hungaroring, and the team practiced refuelling tyre changes. The car was disasterous: the back end had been wobbling and the engine hadn’t been perfect either.
Q: What kind of changes did take place at Monza?
J.Cs.: At Monza, we talked to the members of BMW Motorsport GmbH and they told us what to change. They gave us new spings and suspension parts, altered the electronics of the engine, changed the exhaust system, thus they found an extra 15 hp, so the power output increased to 295 hp. The factory team lent me two mechanics to look after my car and they changed everything on the car for free. Also, Pirelli supplied us with tyres. During practice, the car was running perfectly. All three of us had recorded a time enough for qualification.
Q: You had been partnered by a German driver.
J.Cs.: I’m lacking financial funds, so I hired out the car for spare parts. Also I would like to have Hungarian driver in the team, that’s why I took András Szabó with me. He also did a time which would qualify us for the race. My other team-mate was German Anton Fischaber, who not only brought spare spare parts along, but he is a good driver as well. He had already competed in the European Touring Car series, and been the member of the Alfa works team testing the car at Monza for months. He is a five-time European hillclimb champion as well.
Q: What was the race like?
J.Cs.: To be honest, when we had arrived, I wanted to return to Hungary immediately. The entry list was full of F1 drivers, like Giacomelli, Nannini, Patrese, Danner, not to mention Johnny Ceccoto and Michael Andretti. Even the name of Niki Lauda was on the list! We were dreaming about qualifying for the race. But my fears disappeared during practice. It was Fischaber, who had started the race, I took over the car on lap 42, which time we were lying 11th. It turned out, I had made a mistake building the car, when I put the throttle and the brake pedal too close to each other and at a wrong moment I pressed them both. I spun, and flat spotted the tyres. By the time I settled down, I lost such a great deal of time, that the eventual class winners, Klammer and Oberdorfer lapped us. Circuit racing was a new experience for me, I’m not getting used to do 250 kmh! (...)
Q: According to the press agencies, you had finished seven places lower where you were actually classified. What happened?
J.Cs.: The Holden team had launched an appeal and all BMW M3 had been disqualified, except for mine.
Q: Your plans?
J.Cs.: Because of the new car, we spent all money available. We don’t have the financial assets to enter the World Championship for 60,000 bucks, nor the European Series for 6,000. We’re going to do some races both WC and EC to learn something about circuit racing. But we emphasize our efforts on the European hillclimb championship.
Due to such, other controversial events in the Australian round of the series, the World Championship was cancelled and it did not return until 2005. Phasing out the M3 in the early 90s, BMW continued its racing activities in the Super Touring Car series of the world, eventually rejoining WTCC. Currently it runs in the DTM.
image sources: BMW image source unknown, taken from Autosport’s forum; rest of the images are of Creative Commons licence
quote source: undesignated Hungarian magazine, translation by Géza Sury