The Ultimate Super Group

Three decades ago, Group C set out to prove that a fuel efficiency formula could make for magnificent racing

It had been great while it lasted. The 1992 FIA Sportscar World Championship was proof of that old adage that you only need two cars to make a motor race, although strictly speaking there were as many as four or five front-running cars per meeting; those rounds that weren’t cancelled, you understand. Political machinations had served to neuter the series before the season had even begun. It was a sad end for anyone who witnessed Group C in its pomp, a wonderful era of sports car racing that left an indelible impression.

Arriving in 1982, this was a category that breathed new life into an arena of motor sport that, like a dead horse, had been flogged once too often during the previous half-a-decade. Grids during the Group 6 period waned as manufacturers departed in droves, and the few that lingered racked up hollow victories over a ragtag bunch of privateers.

FISA responded with a series based, if only initially, on fuel efficiency. This acted as a stabilising force and attracted former Grand Prix stars, young hotshots looking to forge a reputation, competent journeymen and local heroes. Oh, and manufacturers. In North America the movement gained similar momentum, although typically they did things their own way. FISA’s hopes of fashioning a link with the International Motor Sports Association failed to reach fruition after IMSA’s committee rejected the fuel-based regulations. Instead it introduced an equivalency formula – Grand Touring Prototypes – based on engine size and weight. It too flourished, with Indycar and even NASCAR stars racing on free weekends against established sports car aces.

It was fantastic. Then Formula 1-style 3.5-litre normally-aspirated engines arrived in 1990, leading many to surmise that this was merely a smokescreen to entice manufacturers into jumping ship to F1 instead. Costs skyrocketed, factory teams made for the door, and in ’92 Group C died a pitiful death, IMSA GTP lasting one further season. Game over.

But as sports car racing becomes a genuinely global series once again with the relaunch of World Endurance Championship for 2012, we look back at the legacy it has to live up to. Join us as we celebrate the great and good of Group C as it turns 30; the category may exist in the past tense but, as you will discover, its appeal hasn’t diminished.

Porsche 956/962

No other car came to symbolise Group C quite like the Porsche 956 and, by proxy, its 962 descendant. Six victories at Le Mans was just the start of it; a seventh came a full 12 years after the first, let’s not forget. The fact that variations on the theme outlived the formula for which the model was created says everything. It was nothing if not a survivor.

Departing from standard Porsche practice, the 956 featured a monocoque, due largely to the need for ground effects but also because of safety requirements. Not that there was anything particularly innovative about the 956’s make-up, the tub comprising sheet aluminium out of expediency. Body panels were made of Kevlar, glassfibre and aluminium. The heart of the 956 was lifted from the 1981 Le Mans-winning 936/81, the fuel-injected 2.65-litre flat-six being topped off with a pair of KKK turbos while the gearbox was designed specifically for the model. In the car’s debut at the Pace Petroleum Six Hours at Silverstone in May ’82, Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx finished second behind a works Lancia and first in the Group C class (Group 6 cars were still allowed in that season). By June the Porsche steamroller was in full effect: the Rothmans-liveried works cars took all three podium positions at Le Mans with Bell and Ickx hoisting the winners’ trophy aloft once again.

The 956 was the dominant player, with the detail-driven B-spec version arriving a year on, before it too was succeeded by the 962. Conceived as an IMSA version of the existing car, the big difference was the single-turbo, 935-derived engine (2.8- and later 3-litre) and lengthened wheelbase to bring the pedal box behind the front axle line. Raced by the works in Europe from 1985 as IMSA’s pedal box regs were universally adopted, the 962 – or rather the 962C in GpC-spec – would spearhead the factory squad’s charge until Jaguar and Sauber upped the ante in the late ’80s.

However, the beauty of the 956/962 was that it was an excellent customer racer, the privateer Dauer Racing 962C pictured here being a case in point. Driven by everyone from Ayrton Senna to AJ Foyt, Sir Jack Brabham to Henri Toivonen, few cars played host to as many different drivers at international level as the Weissach workhorse. And while it would ultimately be ballasted into oblivion in the World Sports Prototype Championship, the 962 continued to rack up wins in IMSA and Interserie.

This was due in no small part to the ingenuity of privateers. The late Richard Lloyd kicked things off with his own replacement/development tub (956GTi) in 1984. John Thompson’s TC Prototypes concern was also highly regarded for its own-brand chassis design; Walter Brun and the Kremer brothers were customers for its honeycomb aluminium monocoques.

Among the more substantially changed designs was that of Vern Schuppan who went so far as to initiate a street-legal reworking in 1991. And it would be a road-going adaptation that would mark the 962’s send off at international level. Sort of. Like Schuppan, Jochen Dauer’s concern offered its own take – the Dauer 962 Le Mans – that featured new bodywork but was patently still a racing car. It was allowed to compete at La Sarthe in 1994 and triumphed outright.

But that wasn’t the final hurrah. An altogether more authentic 962 fielded by Team Taisan won an All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship round at Fuji Speedway in August of that year. To put this into perspective, 956s were already appearing in historic meetings Stateside. Now that’s longevity.

Lancia LC2

All the ingredients were in place for success but Lancia’s Group C bid emerged half-baked. Having enjoyed success in 1982 with its loophole-exploiting Group 6 LC1 barchettas, the factory team followed through with the fabulous LC2 GpC sports-prototype for ’83.

The Martini-liveried machine was beautifully designed by Gianpaolo Dallara, hugely powerful and often formidably quick in qualifying, which would account for the many pole positions. Unfortunately, one thing conspicuously missing from the Lancia’s armoury was stamina.

The alliance of Ferrari and Lancia had decades earlier rescued the D50 Grand Prix car programme from oblivion. But while that had been very much a shotgun union, brought about in part by Lancia’s penury, by the early ’80s the Maranello concern and its Turin collaborator were both under the Fiat umbrella, hence the Ferrari-sourced V8 in the back of the LC2. However, contrary to what is often written about the ‘Tipo 282C’ engine housed in the model’s carbon fibre and glassfibre body/chassis, it wasn’t merely borrowed from a Ferrari 308 road car and modified for its new role. It was a purpose-built unit but with some parts commonality. Unfortunately, the 2.6-litre (3-litre from ’84) unit would prove the car’s Achilles heel. Producing as much as 620bhp with its brace of KKK turbos running at race boost, it had power in abundance but was hobbled by poor reliability.

Making its public bow before the media on February 9, 1983, the model was blooded at the Monza 1000Kms two months later. The Piercarlo Ghinzani/Teo Fabi car claimed pole position by almost a second but retired from the race, while the sister machine of Michele Alboreto and Riccardo Patrese came home an embattled ninth overall. The LC2 would be continuously honed and tweaked, the developments focusing on helping it cleave the air more cleanly and on extracting even more power from the Ferrari engine. But all too often the LC2s would prove fragile, rear half-shafts breaking or the electronic engine management system letting go, before you factor in the V8’s more unruly tendencies.

That said, there were high points. It’s just that they occurred when the factory Porsche squad wasn’t around. Indeed, the car pictured here – chassis LC2-84 005 – claimed pole position at Le Mans in 1984 when the works 962s were withdrawn following a row with the ACO, and there were wins at Imola in ’83 and at Kyalami the following season when the German factory cars again stayed at home. The final victory came at Spa in ’85, Bob Wollek and Mauro Baldi taking the flag ahead of an army of 962s. Unfortunately, joy was in short supply, the race having ended prematurely following Stefan Bellof’s fatal shunt. The works team failed to see out the season and a half-hearted partial stab in ’86 with a single car for Andrea de Cesaris and Sandro Nannini resulted in a best result of second place at Monza. At the Silverstone 1000Kms the car started from pole only to retire with a lack of fuel pressure, and the fan-favourite, flame-spitting Martini Lancias wouldn’t be seen again in period.

However, while the works team then concentrated on rallying, LC2s were run by minnows such as Team Mussato Action Car and Scuderia Mirabella, but results were in short supply: if the factory squad couldn’t get a handle on getting a car to last a race distance, privateers stood no chance. The Veneto Equipe team fielded Lancias as late as 1991 but few noticed. One intriguing potential spin-off was a V10-powered Alfa Romeo GpC car based on the LC2 tub, but the one car built was never raced. Sad though that might be, it was perhaps for the best.

Jaguar XJR-9

While Jaguar claimed the Vingt-Quatres Heures du Mans on five occasions during the 1950s, the marque hadn’t been represented in the great race since 1964. Twenty years later Bob Tullius fielded a brace of factory-backed cars in the round-the-clock classic, but the gorgeous Lee Dykstra-designed Group 44 XJR-5s failed to complete the distance. Still, this was an important toe-in-the-water exercise for a marque that had only recently been freed from state ownership.

However, Jaguar’s big wins in Group C would be realised with a different team altogether. While Group 44 would return to Le Mans in ’85, one car being classified thirteenth, a contract between Jaguar and Tom Walkinshaw had been signed in September of the previous year. A new, entirely British car – the XJR-6 – would spearhead Jaguar’s World Endurance Championship bid. The resultant Tony Southgate-designed sports-prototype made its race debut at Mosport Park in August ’85, with Martin Brundle, Mike Thackwell and Jean-Louis Schlesser finishing third in the 6.2-litre (later 6.5-litre) V12 machine. Derek Warwick and Eddie Cheever steered one to honours in the May ’86 Silverstone 1000Kms but it would be the model that followed which truly cemented Jaguar’s trackside return at international level.

The closely related 7-litre XJR-8 claimed its first win in March ’87 at Jarama, driven by Jan Lammers and John Watson. By the end of the season, British brawn had batted away the German challenge with eight World Sports Prototype Championship victories from ten rounds. Five-time victor Raul Boesel claimed the drivers’ championship. Yet victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours had thus far proved elusive; the XJR-9 would remedy this situation with new boys Johnny Dumfries and fellow former British F3 champion Andy Wallace joining Lammers in the winning car in 1988 (the XJR-9LM pictured here finished 16th driven by Danny Sullivan, Davy Jones and Price Cobb). This triumph was all the more remarkable since Lammers was obliged to drive in fourth gear throughout the closing stages. The Dutchman’s mechanical sympathy made all the difference in breaking Porsche’s seven-year stranglehold on the 24 Hours.

There would be five other wins for Jaguar that year, with Brundle taking the drivers’ title and TWR Jaguar the manufacturers’ prize. However, it would be a different story the following year as Sauber came to the fore. Success was limited to the IMSA GTP category Stateside, where Jaguar bookended its season with honours in January’s Daytona 24 Hours and the season finale at Del Mar, Southern California in October. Into 1990 and the twin-turbo, 3.5-litre V6-powered XJR-11, which had been introduced at Brands Hatch in July ’89, scored only once in the championship. Brundle and Alain Ferté won the Silverstone 1000Kms, while Brundle also claimed Le Mans honours alongside Cobb and John Nielsen.

The pace of the Silver Arrows began to recede and Sauber-Mercedes won just once in 1991, as Michael Schumacher and Karl Wendlinger claimed the eighth and final round of the FIA World Sportscar Championship at Autopolis, Japan. The Ross Brawn-designed Jaguar XJR-14 was the class of the field, with only Peugeot providing meaningful competition that season. Silk Cut Jaguar lifted the teams’ gong with Teo Fabi taking the drivers’ title from Derek Warwick, who was still reeling from the tragic death of his brother Paul in a British F3000 accident.

As Group C limped into ’92, there would be no further Jaguar involvement, the marque bowing out of America following the ’93 Daytona 24 Hours. Job done.

Nissan R90CK

It should have been the marque’s finest hour trackside but Nissan’s victory in the 1985 Fuji 1000Kms was anything but. Earthquakes in the run up to the event, along with torrential rain and powerful storms, prompted those European teams that had made the trip to sit out the penultimate round of the World Endurance Championship en masse. Kazuyoshi Hoshino, Akira Hagiura and Keiji Matsumoto waded home first in their March-Nissan in what became in effect a round of the All-Japan Endurance Championship.

Winning at home was not what Nissan craved, though. It had been involved in Group C since the category’s birth in a roundabout fashion, and often had the right drivers, decent equipment and a reasonable budget. However, what mattered most was victory in one particular race: Le Mans. For much of the ’80s, everything else was of secondary importance. Nissan had supplied engines to teams as far back as 1982, with factory racers such as the LM03 Fairlady-Z and LM04C Skyline C also appearing at the annual Fuji GpC round. But it was only after the marque tapped British constructors that it began to make inroads at the 24 Hours – of a sort.

The link with March Engineering began in 1983, the four-cylinder turbocharged Hoshino Racing 83G appearing at Fuji. Fast-forward to 1986 and the relationship resulted in the 86V which was powered by a 60deg V6 based in part on the 300ZX road car engine. The promise was there but culture clashes between the Japanese paymasters and the European hired help occasionally spilled over – and publicly. The vastly experienced Keith Greene was brought in to oversee the ’86 Le Mans bid but it soon unravelled amid farcical scenes in the pitlane of the foot-shooting variety.

Fast-forward to the end of the decade and Nissan was obliged under the 1989/90 rules to compete in the full series rather than cherry-picking Le Mans and home races only. Nissan became more overt in its involvement, teaming up with Lola for the R89C (T89/10 in Lola speak) which featured a Kevlar and carbon fibre-based monocoque and a twin-turbo ‘VRH35’ 3.5-litre V6. With Milton Keynes-based Nissan Motorsports Europe (NME) competing internationally, and the established NISMO squad fielding cars in Japan in addition to providing covering fire at the local WSPC race (which was now held at Suzuka rather than Fuji), a major threat to the existing order was expected.

It didn’t materialise. Nissan did raise its game, but despite encouraging results and a third place finish in the teams’ points table, it didn’t win a single race at international level. Into 1990, Nissan fielded the Lola-designed, NME-honed R90CK but hedged its bets with NISMO also producing its own variations on the theme such as the low-drag R90CP. There would be podium finishes that season, and Mark Blundell put an R90CK on pole at Le Mans (the car pictured here was subsequently heavily reworked by Nova Engineering), but NME was disbanded for ’91. Attention instead turned to Don Devendorf’s Nissan Performance Technology squad, which had racked up GTP titles in IMSA with Geoff Brabham and also showed form at Le Mans in ’90. However, Nissan’s plan to run at Le Mans in ’91 and sit out the rest of the season were scotched as the FIA stuck to its guns; if Nissan wanted to compete in the 24 Hours it needed to commit to the entire championship.

Nissan stayed at home. It must have been especially galling, therefore, that a Japanese manufacturer finally claimed the top spot that very year. Mazdaspeed got the job done for a surprise Le Mans win with its rotary-engined 787B. That must have hurt.

Peugeot 905B

That Peugeot came to be involved in Group C as a manufacturer team was a direct result of the demise of the Group B category in the World Rally Championship. Having dominated in 1985-86 with the 205 T16s, Peugeot changed tack after the class was killed off in 1986 and turned its hand to the Paris-Dakar rally raid and Pikes Peak hillclimb, in which it predictably excelled. For maximum publicity value, though, any future international motor sport programme would clearly need to be on-track rather than off-piste, hence team manager Jean Todt’s decision to push ahead with a GpC challenger.

Peugeot had prior form in sports-prototypes, having aided and abetted the hugely enthusiastic WM squad via the back door. However, Gérard Welter and Michel Meunier’s squad appeared more interested in being fastest through the speed traps at Le Mans than reaching the flag; race distances could often be measured in feet rather than laps.

The works programme was an altogether more serious proposition. The 905 prototype ‘EV11’ ran for the first time at Montlhéry in June 1990. Stubby, compact and purposeful-looking, and with a near-central driving position within the super-cramped cockpit, it was designed under André de Cortanze (whose previous work included the ’78 Le Mans-winning Renault Sport Alpine A442B). The carbon-fibre shell was made by Dassault Aviation. Power came from a normally aspirated 3.5-litre V10 with a four-valve-per-cylinder head.

Eager to encourage new-for-1991 750kg ‘Category One’ cars with normally aspirated Formula 1-type engines, the FIA gave Peugeot special dispensation to compete in the final two rounds of the 1990 season without accruing fines for non-appearances in previous races (being a French effort may have helped). Keke Rosberg and Jean-Pierre Jabouille qualified 12th in Montréal, only to retire the car with fuel pressure issues, and started 11th and placed 12th in the Mexico finale.

But these were early days and power-to-weight disadvantages compared with the Jaguar and Mercedes entries were all too obvious; the 905 was initially 40kg overweight. Into the 1991 season and it soon became clear that Jaguar’s mighty XJR-14 was faster than the 905, and significantly so. The team did pick up a fortuitous win at Suzuka but both entries were out before quarter distance at Le Mans.

Peugeot came back fighting. The 905B, essentially a new car with only the cockpit carried over from its forebear, arrived at the Nürburgring in August. With a more powerful ‘SA35-A2’ engine, and revised aerodynamics which ran to a two-tier rear wing, there was an immediate step in performance. The new car rounded out the ’91 campaign with wins at Magny-Cours and Mexico.

Since only Peugeot and Toyota were represented by manufacturer teams in 1992, the 40th (and until this year final) World Sportscar Championship was largely devoid of racing. Peugeot claimed five wins from the six rounds, with Derek Warwick and team-mate Yannick Dalmas jointly sharing the drivers’ title. The duo’s finest hour was the Le Mans 24 Hours where they were joined by Mark Blundell for an emphatic victory.

With no series to speak of in 1993, Peugeot competed just once but the 905B rounded off its competition career in the best way possible with a 1-2-3 finish at Le Mans. Eric Hélary, Christophe Bouchut and Geoff Brabham shared the winning car. A proposed Evo 2 version of the 905 sadly never raced, since Todt was headhunted by Ferrari and Peugeot pushed ahead with its F1 engine programme, which resulted in markedly fewer headlines.

Now that's what I call racing
Enthusiastic promotion and well-populated grids mean the 1980s revival is in full swing on the track

Vastly experienced driver and promoter Bob Berridge took over the Group C Racing reins three years ago and is bullish about its future.

“We were doing the Le Mans Endurance series from 2005-08 and then started looking for something significant to do elsewhere,” he says. “We had a look at historic Group C and thought it looked good, but there weren’t many cars out there at the time. We ran a Nissan for the first year and I was then asked by the directors to take over because I had experience of running championships. There was no real structure, the series being typical of the sort where a bunch of enthusiasts got on with things but without a proper strategy. We defined who we thought we were, what events we wanted to go to, and the race structure. We put that in place for 2010 and it’s grown from there.”

With seasoned veterans and relative newcomers competing, racing is spirited but not cut-throat. “It’s the ultimate form of historic racing,” says Steve Tandy, who dovetails runs in the Nissan R91CK featured here with modern GT machinery. “I enjoy driving the cars, the atmosphere is great and so is the racing. Bob has done a fantastic job in his own style; he gets things done. You only have to look at the grid for the Le Mans 24 Hours support race where numbers are limited to 32 cars purely because of paddock restrictions. You have to be impressed with those numbers.”

Lancia pilot Rupert Clevely echoes Tandy’s sentiment: “For me, Group C was the pinnacle of motor sport, and I loved the fact that Grand Prix drivers would race sports cars on their weekends off. It was a great era of motor sport and as an amateur driver this series is the right place to be. I like that there is a very clear strategy of where the series is heading. When anything is clear, you want to be a part of it, less so when there is lots of infighting. Bob has given it the direction it needs and he has the passion. And of course the cars look and sound fantastic.”

“Right now, we have a great mix of cars,” Berridge adds. “We have the classic Group C cars – the Porsche 962s, the Jaguars and the Sauber-Mercs – and our grids are representative of what you would have seen in the ’80s. Of course in the current economic environment you have to recalibrate what constitutes a good grid. I think having around 16 and 20 cars out for a race is good for Donington, Brands Hatch, Paul Ricard and so on. For the really big meetings, your Silverstone Classics or Le Mans for example, I want to see around 30 cars and that’s what we’re getting. We’re about where we need to be.”

And running costs? “It isn’t cheap by any stretch but you need to keep a sense of perspective. You could run a car for a year for anywhere between £40,000 and £80,000. Compare that to, say, the budget required for a drive in the British GT Championship, and factor in the sort of events we do, and you certainly get your money’s worth. You get plenty of track time over the course of a race weekend and the one-hour format for the race itself allows you to have one driver in a car or two. You can reduce the costs further by having someone else in the car.

“The other big factor is this: you’re unlikely to lose money with a Group C car. Whereas something like a GT car will be worth less after a season’s racing, here your car might even be worth more. Ultimately, our series has the fastest cars in historic racing, and by far.”

Our thanks to Bob Berridge, Steve Tandy, Derek Hood at JD Classics, Rupert Clevely, Gareth Evans and Donington Park for their help with this feature.

Our thanks to Bob Berridge, Steve Tandy, Derek Hood at JD Classics, Rupert Clevely, Gareth Evans and Donington Park for their help with this feature.

Richard Heseltine