24 heaven

He's won Le Mans, Daytona and Sebring and rues the passing of Group C. Andy Wallace tells Rich Heseltine why 800bhp is best

“The problem with modern sportscar racing", muses Andy Wallace, "is that it's all about braking. There's little finesse. These days the key to being quick is how late you dare brake going for a corner and how quickly you can get down the gears. It would be much nicer if we had less downforce and about 800bhp. Group C was perfect, you know? You just used to open the throttle and whoosh — you're gone. Big torque, big power and a gear lever instead of a paddle shift. Modern sportscars make a lot of noise without actually going anywhere. With Group C you had lots of power and not much time to think as it would take you half a straight to scrub off enough speed to make a corner. It was challenging. And fun. And I do miss it."

And he's not the only one. Those who witnessed Group C in its prime — the last time that sportscar racing really had a prime — will echo the sentiments of the world's fastest former gas fitter. Born in 1982, this was a category that reinvigorated an arena of motorsport that had been dying on its backside for the second half of the previous decade through a mixture of mismanagement and apathy. Grids were thin, manufacturers had departed in droves and those few that remained recorded hollow victories over a bunch of no-marks and makeweights.

FISA responded with a series based, if only initially, on fuel regulations, which acted as a stabilising force, attracting former grand prix stars, young aces on the make, competent journeymen and local heroes. And manufacturers. With the arrival of the secondary C2 category from 1983, there was an extra attraction for useful amateurs looking to step up from national to international competition, with some wonderful — and sometimes downright awful — chassis and engine combinations appearing over the years. It all looked rosy. And it was, if only until 3.5-litre normally-aspirated Formula One-derived engines arrived in 1990 to ruin everything, the C2 category having been dropped the previous year.

What began as endurance racing had morphed into a sprint contest; costs skyrocketed and the number of constructors ebbed. Group C died in 1992, a shadow of its once-formidable former self, with grids seemingly propped up by St John's ambulances and rescue tenders. A sad end.

In America the movement lasted a further season. Typically, the US johnnies did things their own way. FISAs hopes of forging a link with the International Motor Sports Association had failed to reach fruition after IMSAs John Bishop and his committee rejected the fuel-consumption regulations. Instead it introduced an equivalency formula — Grand Touring Prototypes — based on engine size and weight. It too flourished, with Indycar stars racing on free weekends against established sportscar aces (and drug dealers: not always mutually exclusive).

By 1993 the drug barons had gone and it was a case of which of the AAR Eagle-Toyotas was going to win. Predictably GTP tanked that same year. Dan Gurney's squad didn't even bother taking in all the races that year, such was its dominance.

Wallace has his own view on Group C's downfall: "The switch to 3.5-litre engines killed it stone dead but the drivers gained, if only in the short term. Cars weighed in at around 750kg and with full ground effects were incredibly quick. When I was testing at Monza for Toyota in 1992, McLaren had been there the day before and I wasn't far off matching Ayrton Senna's times. Now I'm sure he could have gone a lot quicker but the point is that there wasn't much between an F1 car and a sportscar in terms of outright pace. Over a 24-hour distance you couldn't catch your breath because of the g-forces. It was no great surprise that Group C died. Something had to give and I'm sure the only reason why the 3.5-litre formula was adopted was so that it would appeal to manufacturers looking towards Formula One."

But it was great while it lasted. Thanks to Jim Graham and his Group C/GTP Racing organisation, interest in this era of sportscar racing is on the up, with more than 50 cars on its books and decent-sized grids in 2005. Andy Wallace could be among its number this year, if he can find one or two free weekends among his American Le Mans Series and Grand-Am commitments: "I just want to have another go. For fun, you understand."

Naturally. And it's this enthusiasm that makes the effortlessly friendly former Le Mans winner a natural candidate to try our triumvirate of sportscar weaponry. Understandably, considering his spell as a TWR man, it's the Jaguar XJR-12D that's the major draw. Raced only once in period, this final development of the V12 warhorse appeared at the 1993 Daytona 24 Hours with a high-downforce rear wing, similar to those fitted to the XJR-14 and 16. Entered in the Le Mans category, and driven by John Andretti, David Brabham, Davy Jones and John Nielsen, it was withdrawn after 92 laps following complaints of 'spooky' handling. It marked Jaguar's final fling in top-flight sportscar racing (not including the XJ220Cs at Le Mans that same year).

"It's like slotting into an old pair of shoes," claims a manifestly excited Wallace. "I was driving for AAR against this car but I'd raced, or at least tested, most variations of the XJR-12. Of course I got my sportscar start with Jaguar, so it's a bit special. It was at the end of '86, the year I won the British F3 Championship. I got a call from TWR asking if I would like to race for Jaguar at Le Mans the following year. I said, 'Thanks but no, I want to be an F1 driver.' What an idiot! Luckily for me I got another call 12 months later asking if I'd be up for a test. I bit their arm off! I went to Paul Ricard and was told that if I did OK I'd get a race drive.

"Martin Brundle was there with a low-downforce sprint car and Jan [Lammers] and Johnny Dumfries were testing the endurance version. Jan did a bogey time and then I went out. Paul Ricard has quite a long straight and it was the fastest car I'd ever driven: much quicker than an F3000 car. I think it was something like 205mph. And you needed the full width of the circuit as it squirmed all over the place. Jan told me not to fight the car: just let it do its thing. Those Jaguars were quite heavy and, with lots of downforce, cornering was limited only by how fast you could hang on to it. You had to trust the car. Anyway, I got the drive and I did Road Atlanta with John Watson and then Jerez [with Wattie' and Nielsen] where I was second. We should have won there but I had to take to the grass to avoid a C2 car that was blocking the circuit — on a fifth-gear corner — which meant a trip to the pits to get all the muck out of the radiators. A Sauber won, so Tom Walkinshaw was not happy. I got the blame for it of course, but what could I do?

"Later, the guy who I'd avoided sought me out in the pits and apologised. He said he was lucky to be alive as I'd done well to avoid hitting him. I said if you really want to pay me back go over to that cabin and tell the boss what happened. I was at the door straining to listen to what was going on. All I could hear was Tom shouting, ‘Laddy, if I was angry with him, he'd know it by now!' Luckily for me the next race was Le Mans. I just did what I was told and Jan and Johnny did a great job. That was a big win for all of us — we even made it on to Record Breakers! I have to thank Jan as he taught me everything I know about 24-hour racing."

A few laps of a not-altogether-dry Donington, and it's as though Wallace has never been away. "It's still damp but phew, what a car! You open the throttle and it's so fast. It's all down to the engine. The V12 is the heart and soul of the XJR-12 and it doesn't really matter what gear you're in. I don't think I went below third. It's just a big, solid car; a heavy one that's got massive torque. You just wind it up and corners come up very quickly.

Unlike the turbo cars I race these days it's not a busy car. You can take corners in a high gear and rely on the torque to pull you out and propel you to the next one. Obviously I didn't push it too hard as I didn't want to bend it, but I was going fast enough. To be honest, Donington isn't the ideal circuit for a car like this as it's built for long straights, and understeer is evident going into the Old Hairpin. You have to anticipate wheelspin and gently feed in the power. Once I'd got some heat into the tyres it wasn't so bad but what this car really needs is space.

"The speed of these cars is immense. That sounds obvious, I know, but the difference between say 200mph and 240mph is a lot. When I first went to Le Mans in 1988 there wasn't a test day for some reason. The first time I drove the car was in qualifying. I looked at the gear chart and it said 6000rpm in top equated to 200mph. It would rev to 6800rpm. I was probably applying half throttle first time around, trying to learn the circuit, and another Jaguar and a Sauber-Merc went past me like I was standing still. I remember thinking, 'I don't know if I can do this!' On my third lap I went flat-out, and going through the kink was something else: the soundtrack didn't match the video. There was such a gap between gears that when you changed into top it came in with a bang. That first time I raced there, I remember looking at the trees. They went past so quickly. It was just surreal. Then I thought, 'Look where you're going!' I think until you've actually driven one of these cars in anger, you cannot appreciate just how fast they are."

Next up, the Porsche. No other car epitomises Group C more than the 956/962. Here was the ultimate customer racer, driven by everyone from Ayrton Senna to AJ Foyt, Jack Brabham to Stefan Bellof. A classic of its kind that inflicted complete dominance on the World Sports Prototype Championship, IMSA GTP, Interserie and every tin-pot local series, at least until Jaguar came on strong in '87.

Something that Wallace is all too familiar with: "Every weekend the Porsche was a constant thorn in our side. Though the factory had obviously slowed down its development, you could never count them out. At Le Mans in 1988, and again in 1990, they were in with a sniff. Like the Sauber C9, this is a car I have always wanted to try."

'Our' car was entered in the 1989 running of the endurance classic by former winner (in a Rothmans 956 six years earlier) Vern Schuppan. Driven by Will Hoy, Jean Alesi and Dominic Dobson, the Takefuji-sponsored car retired four hours in after a ruptured fuel line saw the rear end get a mite toasty. The car then went back to Porsche and was rebuilt before being shipped out to Japan, where Martin Donnelly and Johnny Herbert raced it in October's All-Japan Sports-Prototype race at Fuji, finishing fourth on aggregate.

"I've never raced a Porsche. The closest I ever came was the Porsche-powered Lola I shared with Lucas Luhr, Sascha Maassen and Hurley Haywood at Daytona in '01. That wasn't a great car. Getting into the 962, the weirdest thing you notice is that it has an ignition key. I wasn't ready for that. I spent ages trying to find the starter button. I've never been in a racing car that starts with a key! Going out on to the track, I was immediately grabbed by the noise the car makes. When I was racing at Le Mans the first few times, there were two sounds that stuck out. The first was the triple-rotary Mazda: the noise that thing would make... You could hear it over your own engine and it would stop you from sleeping between stints. Then there was the Porsche 962, which was whisper-quiet most of the time, but you couldn't miss it on the overrun and the downchanges.

"And that's largely due to the synchromesh 'box. When you're going down the gears, it's a lazy blip — bum-de-da-da, bum-de-da-da. I was warned by [current Dyson team-mate and former 962 veteran] James Weaver that I wouldn't get on with the gearbox, but I actually quite liked it. With the syncho you can't race your changes, but you can't really miss them either. The Porsche is a very user-friendly car. You can spin the wheels quite easily, and there's a sound you get with old turbo cars which precedes something bad happening: all of a sudden the urgency of the note changes and it's followed by big wheelspin. If you don't want full boost, you can hear it before it's wide open and close it down. If in doubt, open the throttle. If you don't like what you hear, close it again. The 962 isn't going to do anything silly. Once it gets grunting at around 6000rpm — full boost is between 6 and 8 — it really moves. It certainly pins you back and you know that you're going fast but it's pretty faithful.

"That said, it's a bit cumbersome in the slow corners and very pointy at speed, although it turns in better than the Jaguar. I imagine that with greater familiarity you could probably dial out some of the quirks, but these are big cars with lots of power so they're never going to be agile. Modern sportscars are very nimble by comparison but the power is restricted and tyre technology has come on a long way so braking distances are that much shorter. Driving a car like this makes me wish that it was still like this: grabbing hold of the wheel on opening the throttle and then whoosh — the straight has disappeared. That's how it should be."

We're not going to argue. As with the Porsche, Wallace has only fleeting experiences of racing a Spice: "I did a couple of events in the US in 1994 with Hugh Fuller; a really nice guy but, being a powerboat racer, he was abnormally brave. Hugh would do anything you asked of him, but for that very reason you had to be careful what you told him as he'd take everything literally. If you said, 'That corner's flat', he would do it first time out and crash.

"At Portland in August I'd qualified his Spice-Oldsmobile [open WSC car] on pole for the two-hour IMSA race and did the first hour. I think we had something like a 20-second lead when it came time to hand over. Anyway, he's a gentleman driver and he's doing a good job until he collides with the Ferrari 333 SP of Fermin Velez when diving for a corner [the Spaniard had unexpectedly slowed with a sudden misfire]. The Spice is now on its side. He tips it back on to its wheels, limps back to the pits and says, 'Guess what? I've got a great idea. You drive.' Cheers! The safety car was out because of our accident so we would do a few laps and then come back in to do further repairs. Fortunately it rained, which saved us. We were fourth in the end.

"At Phoenix that same year it was decided that Hugh would start. On the grid he asked me what I would do. We were on the left side of the grid leading to a left-hander: there are concrete walls either side. I told him that I would go between the car in front and the wall. I failed to mention 'if there's a gap wide enough to fit through.' So he comes around on the pace lap, nails it and there wasn't room. The nose flies off and it's back into the pits. Even so, I had a good battle with James Weaver in a Spice-Ferrari later on and finished one place ahead of him in fifth."

Though Spice is inextricably linked with the C2 category, the SE90C was a pretty useful C1 car in period, even if it was never going to mount a serious challenge to the bigger players. Raced by brandy importer and C2 regular Costas Los in the 1990 All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship, it was entered a year on at Le Mans for Desire Wilson, Lyn St James and Cathy Muller, only to retire following an accident. More recently it's run at the front in historics when driven by sportscar regular David Mercer.

"I really like the Spice. It's probably the best suited of the three for Donington. I suppose it's a bit kart-like in that it's very busy. You're constantly working away. It has a small, high-revving V8 so you need to change gear a lot. Every time you put it in gear, you need another one and then another one. It's a bit like the sportscars I race now, so I knew straight away what was going on. There's no torque so you're not going to spin the wheels; you can comfortably dive into a corner with the throttle wide open, and breakaway is very gentle. On a high-speed circuit it would probably suffer but here it was probably quickest of the three. I was a bit surprised at how much understeer I was getting through the Craner Curves and into the Old Hairpin, but again this could be down to familiarity. It's chalk and cheese between this car and the other two. This feels much more alive and I can understand why Spices were popular with privateer teams."

To those of you tired of guessing which Audi R8 is going to win Le Mans, and confused by the numerous contemporary sportscar series acronyms, a return to Group C-style competition would certainly find favour among racegoers. Just imagine it: 30-car grids, roughly split between 800-1000bhp front-running monsters and 450bhp secondary sports-racers. Magic.

Not such a fanciful notion: if Jim Graham and his team have their way, this is a very real possibility. It might not be modern, but racing will be entertaining. What a concept.

Our thanks to Jim Graham. Don Law Racing. Nick Rini, David Mercer and Donington Park


Why sportscar hero loves his job

Before he became a sportscar superstar, Andy Wallace was a pretty useful single-seater ace. "My story was no different to a lot of other guys," he claims, taking another mouthful of lasagne. I had no money and looked at karting as a means of getting started in racing, but I was already 18 at the time so there didn't seem much point in going down that route. I'd been to a couple of Pre-74 Formula Ford meetings and it seemed like fun so I went out and bought a Hawke DL11 for £1550. The guy selling it lived in Scotland so we met half way: I drove it around a Manchester service station car park and did the deal. I then towed it home and took the car apart, pretending that I knew what I was doing. My first race was at Silverstone on August 31 1979. I recall going down the Club straight and a Mallock came flying past me; as he pulled

in front of me, the car picked up a puncture and spun out. I clipped him and the Mallock went end over end. Next thing I know, 'Silverstone Sid' is lifting me out of my car. It took me six months to fix the Hawke as there's no Haynes manual for racing cars. And I was broke."

Regardless, Wallace netted six wins from 13 starts in '80 to claim the title before heading into contemporary FF1600 and FF2000 and arriving in British F3 in '85: "I won my first race and went on to finish second in the championship. In '86 I took the title: I won 12 races including Macau. Unfortunately, it all started to go wrong after that. I had an offer of a drive with Tyrrell but it would have cost something like $600,000, which is nothing now but it was beyond me. I did F3000 the following year with Madgwick Motorsport but with a budget that wouldn't have covered an F3 season. It was pretty desperate, really. I did go on to test for Benetton, and was reserve driver for Leyton House for a while, but my single-seater aspirations pretty much stalled after F3."

That first outing with TWR in '88 sealed Wallace's future as a sportscar driver: "I had a go at British touring cars with a BMW 3-series and didn't enjoy the experience, and did the DTM with a privateer Alfa 155 in '94, but sportscars are my first love. I just feel honoured that people let me race their cars. To be a professional racing driver has to be the best job in the world."