First-class second class

We asked versatile Frenchman Nicolas Minassian to try his hand at Group C2 – sports car racing’s finishing school when such as Porsche and Jaguar ruled the roost – and assess the formula’s enduring appeal
Writer Simon Arron, photographer Howard Simmons

"In my eyes it’s the best race in the world, bar none,” Nicolas Minassian says. “I’ve done Le Mans 15 times now and feel the same sense of excitement every time. The event still retains its flair, which doesn’t necessarily happen elsewhere. In many areas of our sport you have ups and downs, but Le Mans remains the same. There is a huge crowd and, as a driver, I always get the same buzz. The circuit has a slightly edgy feel to it – and I like that. In Formula 1, many of the current tracks have huge run-off areas, but at Le Mans you have to respect the limits. You can’t just jump in and drive flat out straight away. You have to build yourself up a little bit – and there is still something special about the cars, to my mind…”

Born 41 years ago in Marseille, but a long-time UK resident now based in Sussex, Minassian was never likely to spurn an invitation to drive a couple of sports cars. Especially at Silverstone, where he scored victories in both British F3 and the FIA Formula 3000 Championship. “I actually preferred the previous version of the circuit, because it had a better flow,” he says, “but it’s one of my favourite tracks. There are parts where the run-off is still quite narrow and I like that, because it’s easier to read the circuit when you don’t have huge amounts of empty space. At modern tracks, you tend to be balls out after a couple of laps, because if you make a mistake it probably won’t cost you more than a few tenths. Silverstone still has some good, challenging corners: from Copse through Becketts and down to Stowe…”

It’s a bit of a throwback to hear a driver using proper corner names, rather than Turn One, Turn Five or whatever. “You should respect traditions,” Minassian says. “That quick sequence is as good as any in the world, fast, technical and challenging without a great deal of margin for error. You have to think about what you’re doing.”

The cars in which he’ll be thinking hail from an era rich in small-volume manufacture, when Porsche, Jaguar and Co would share the track with C2 artisans such as Sthemo, Strandell, Alba and Gebhardt. First is a Tiga GC286, a 1986 chassis originally powered by a 1.7-litre Ford turbo but later uprated to GC287 spec and mated to a Cosworth DFL. The other is a crowned champion, the very first Spice chassis, a Cosworth-powered SE86C that carried Gordon Spice and Ray Bellm to the C2 world title in 1986 (and now run by Celtic Speed). There was a plan to give Minassian a run in Mike Donovan’s Spice SE88, too, but the test takes place during the build-up to the Silverstone Classic, when Group C cars share the circuit with Lola T70s, Chevron B16s and similar bygones. Driving standards are not quite as glorious as these cars’ proportions, however, and red flags trim the available track time.

You might recall Minassian appearing in these pages a few years ago, when – as an only-just-former factory Peugeot driver – he tried a Group C 905 and compared it with the 908 V12 turbodiesel he’d used in his day job. He has also tested other Group C cars, including a Lancia LC2 (raced by the factory from 1983-86) and a Jaguar XJR-14 (in which he dominated the Historic Group C race at the 2013 Silverstone Classic). Since Peugeot withdrew from sports car racing on the eve of the 2012 season, Minassian has raced various LMP1 and LMP2 cars, most recently Russian entrant SMP’s ORECA 03R-Nissan. “I’ve had some very competitive cars at Le Mans,” he says, “and am absolutely gutted that I never won it…” Twice he has finished on the podium, sharing the 908s that finished second and third in 2008 and 2011 respectively.

It’s a little-remembered fact that he made his Le Mans debut in a Group C car, aged 21 in 1994. “It was a rebadged Sauber from about 1986,” he says. “They called it an Alpa and fitted it with a Cosworth engine. To be honest I don’t remember a great deal, because at that time I was completely wrapped up in a little bubble, focusing on F1. I had to pump the brakes a lot and don’t recall the car feeling particularly stable…”

From that, then, to a Tiga of similar vintage – now owned by Group C series director Bob Berridge. “It’s perhaps not the best-looking car,” Minassian says, “but I was quite surprised by how straightforward everything felt. With some older cars, just getting out of the pits can be quite difficult – the engines don’t idle very well and everything has to be nice and warm before it works properly. This just felt like a road car: start the engine, engage gear and go. Lots of sports cars are a bit understeery and are designed to be predictable and quite easy to drive. The Tiga was quite the opposite and reminded me of a single-seater, with a very strong front end and good high-speed stability. In slow corners it was quite twitchy and turned in really well, which I liked. The engine is nice, too – the V8 revs very nicely and has just the right amount of power for the chassis. It was very well balanced. It’s not complicated like a turbo car: you just get in and it does what you want it to do. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so much fun.”

Initial impressions of the Spice are less favourable, but then he’s barely into his stride when the red flag comes out. “Just leaving the pits it felt less user-friendly than the Tiga,” he says. “It had a sharper clutch, stiffer accelerator and felt less driveable. The Tiga is just ‘brrrm’ – start and go.”

It will be a few hours, a sandwich and a glass or three of fruit juice before it’s his turn again – and this time he manages a few laps in the Spice before the inevitable reds appear. “It wasn’t quite what I’d expected after my initial experience in the pits, where it felt as though it might be quite tricky,” he says. “On track, any difference between the two cars pretty much disappeared. The Spice and Tiga feel quite similar, which probably isn’t surprising as they both have V8s. I preferred the way the Tiga was set up, because it felt very stable on the brakes, while the Spice felt more as though it was in Le Mans trim – with less of the downforce you need around here. The cabin ergonomics are better than those in the Tiga, so if you need to make a quick change you can. Given the choice, I’d probably use the Tiga for most of the championship but take the Spice to Le Mans. I felt more in tune with the Tiga, but that was probably just a set-up thing.

“It’s funny, though, because the gap between Group C2 and Group C feels very much like the difference between LMP2 and LMP1 nowadays. You have to hassle the smaller cars a bit to get results – it feels like a stepping stone.

“To me, though, the biggest difference between these two eras is reliability. Now you drive an endurance racer and absolutely trash it, in a way, pushing to the maximum, getting every little bit out of it. You can really hammer modern cars and they will take it. And if something breaks, it’s probably not your fault – it means something has gone wrong, because there are so many electronic systems to protect gearboxes and so on. The older cars, though, were much more physical – no power steering, a lot of work to do during downshifts, double declutching, heel and toe…

“In terms of a car’s core functions, there’s much more to consider when driving a Group C car, because you don’t ever want to miss a gear. Nowadays, you have much more to think about electronically – adjusting engine mapping or KERS, for instance – but you have no worries about reliability. In Group C, a steering wheel was just used for steering… but if you missed a gear at 300kph you were probably going to break the engine.

“Things have changed a lot in the last 12 to 15 years, with the switch from H-pattern gearboxes to sequential semi-automatics and so on. The difference between the 1980s and the present is huge, but when I drove that Jaguar XJR14 – from 1991 – I found that was actually quite close to what I race now, in terms of feel. It was stiff, and you drove it pretty much like a single-seater. That’s true of all prototypes now – they’re like single-seaters to drive, but a little heavier. The 1980s cars are something else altogether. The Lancia I tested was quite soft and understeery, but by the early 1990s Group C cars had underfloor tunnels and lots of downforce. That’s when they turned a page.”

And is it much harder contesting Le Mans in your 40s than it was at half that age? “It’s OK,” he says, “because LMP2 is less physical than LMP1, straight-line speeds are reduced and power steering makes it quite easy. The Peugeot 908 was harder, because in a closed car you immediately have more heat and with 800bhp it’s never going to be less than physical. You get a kick up the arse every time you change gear, there’s the pressure of driving for a manufacturer and you tend to drive longer stints. In LMP2 you generally stay out for as long as a set of tyres lasts, usually three stints, and don’t get that tired.”

Does he have a favourite among the heritage cars with which he’s been entrusted? “The XJR14,” he replies, almost before the question is finished. “It was incredible – the memory is implanted in my brain and will remain forever. I’d love to have been a factory driver at that time. It was a big beast, but well sorted. I think it was the perfect racing car. The only slight snag for me was having the gearchange on the left. Even though I’ve been driving in England for many years, it felt a little strange. It’s just wrong to put the lever on the left, isn’t it?”

During the Frenchman’s single-seater heyday, many drivers were a little sniffy about endurance racing and regarded it as something that might perhaps be useful to top up their pension funds, once they had conquered F1. Since then, of course, it has become an accepted career goal – F1’s more accessible alternative. Minassian, though, always thought it a viable option.

“I never considered it to be a race for old men,” he says. “Mark Webber and I were contemporaries in F3 – and when I was doing my first F3000 season he went off to race sports cars, with Mercedes. I was already looking at it back then, because if he thought it was a good option then I realised it could be the same for me, too. I never attended Le Mans as a fan – my first visit was in 1994, my race debut – but as a young boy, when I bought toy cars, I usually chose Le Mans models because I liked the way they looked. Still do, in fact! The Group C era was just fantastic, wasn’t it?”

And with that, he’s back to his favourite subject: Le Mans. “I love it,” he says, “because it’s a chance to race in front of a big crowd at a great track. I don’t like it when there are no people in the grandstands. It’s much better when there’s a proper atmosphere.

“Nowadays, many races present relatively little challenge, but at Le Mans you have to work with the team around you, factor in the best strategy, deal with changing track conditions, tyre degradation, everything… That makes it very special and almost gladiatorial. You put your car in the arena and fight.

“Every time I drive a racing car, I feel I’m lucky to be able to do what I’m doing. But at Le Mans, it feels even better. Some drivers complain that it takes too long, because you tend to be there the whole week, but it’s a nice city, the rillettes [a meat dish, similar to paté] are nice and everything about it is good. I embrace the whole thing, because I’m sure many others would love to be in my position.”

Vitamin C
A dedicated historic championship has matured significantly in recent years

When Bob Berridge first competed in historic Group C, there were only eight cars on the grid for the first part of a double-header. “We lost three of those in the opening race,” he says, “and the second had to be cancelled. Or perhaps it was just shortened – I can’t remember which! It was a bit disastrous. The series didn’t really have an identity, or much idea about what it wanted to be. It wasn’t really historic and it wasn’t particularly allied to anything else. I took the reins five or six years ago and we spent time focusing it around historic meetings, so that we’re now at all the biggest such events in Europe...”

That means major fixtures at Spa, Silverstone, Paul Ricard and Barcelona, with a biennial trip to Le Mans and other circuits bolted on to create a six-race calendar. Zandvoort is on the schedule this year, Dijon is under consideration for 2015 and Monza opportunities are being evaluated. Grids vary from venue to venue: Le Mans attracts the largest field, usually about 35 cars, while other venues draw 18 to 25. Before 2011 cars competed in a series of stand-alone races, but Group C was then given FIA championship status.

“Once you have FIA approval,” Berridge says, “your rules have to stand the acid test. Under our umbrella we have IMSA GTP cars, Japanese sports cars and Group C, so we had to devise a set of rules to balance all three and we’ve tried to be as pragmatic as possible. We’ve not attempted to replicate exactly what they had in period: we want to get as close as possible, but will make small changes so long as it benefits durability or safety.”

How much does it cost to compete? The numbers might look daunting, but Berridge insists they compare favourably in the stratospheric context of motor racing. “From what I’m hearing,” he says, “it costs much less to race in Group C than it does to do the British GT series. You can compete in the C2 class for £50,000-£60,000 a year, good cars are available from about £120,000 – and they are appreciating assets.

“A competitive GpC season will cost about £100,000, including the price of an end-of-year rebuild so you’re ready to go again the following April. The cars aren’t silly, either. Around Spa, for instance, my Mercedes C11 is five or six seconds quicker than a historic F1 machine. I’ve raced contemporary LMP2 and historic F1 cars, among other things [he won three straight historic F1 titles in the late 1990s], but the C11 has given me by far and away my best racing experiences. It’s magical, a proper factory car that pulls 3.5 lateral g around Silverstone and 4g on the brakes – it’s head and shoulders above anything else I’ve driven.”

At Le Mans this year, incidentally, Katsu Kubota’s Group C pole time would have put his Nissan R90CK in the middle of the grid for the main race, on the tail of the LMP2 cars. And he tripped the speed trap at 338.1kph (210mph).

“C2 is a good entry level to the top class,” Berridge says, “because cars, tyres, engines and everything else are just that little bit cheaper, but it’s still seriously quick. We don’t treat it as a lesser category, either – both classes have their own podium ceremony.

“The one thing that’s consistent is that GpC and C2 cars were designed to compete at Le Mans, so they’re built to stop and start 30-odd times in the pits without overheating. They’re very benign to run, particularly in C2, but even my Mercedes needs very little attention during the year. You need to keep on top of them if you want reliability, but – apart from the obvious lubricants and fluids – they don’t need much maintenance. We strip the hubs and check details, but these cars were designed to last 24 hours and our whole season adds up to about 15…”