Come all ye faithful

Group C was a party and everyone was invited, making it one of the great eras of sports car racing

1980s Group C racing

What is the greatest era of sports car racing? Many would plump for the seasons covered by the short-lived career of the Porsche 917 as a Group 6 racer. Others might go for the Ford versus Ferrari grudge matches of the middle 1960s. And some would look no further than the seasons just gone when Audi, Porsche and Toyota went at it hammer and tongs with their high-tech LMP1 hybrids. But everyone has a soft spot for the Group C years of the 1980s. That’s because it has a very strong claim to being the greatest era of them all.

The Group C fuel-formula that came on stream in 1982 gave us one of the greatest competition cars of all time, Porsche’s 956/962. It also lured Jaguar and Mercedes back to front-line endurance racing in what turned out to be successful attempts to recapture their former glories at Le Mans.

We have Group C to thank for the succession of V12-engined Jaguar prototypes to race off Tony Southgate’s drawing board and the svelte curves of the Sauber-Mercedes C9 and its successor, the Merc C11. Nor should we forget that it brought a line of Japanese manufacturers in Mazda, Toyota and Nissan onto the global motor sport stage, at least as far as circuit racing went.

They weren’t the only manufacturers to take the challenge of Group C. Ford, Lancia and, at either end of the 1980s, Aston Martin had cars on the grid. There was even a Lamborghini of sorts, the Countach-engined QVX based on a design of Tiga origins and funded by the marque’s British importer.

But the legend of Group C was built on much more than factory machinery. The category spawned an industry. British big gun constructors March and Lola were represented with cars bearing their own names and those of others. Tiga was a significant player for a short period, while Group C and its US derivatives facilitated the launch of a new marque in Spice Engineering, founded by touring car great Gordon Spice. It would go on to build approximately 50 prototypes in just a few short years.

A veritable A-Z of constructors developed cars through the lifespan of Group C, from ADA to Zakspeed. And if you don’t want to count the latter on the grounds that its cars were reworked Fords, there are always URD, Veskanda and WM to (almost) complete the set. Group C fostered a diversity of machinery missing in so many other so-called great epochs of sports car racing.

The heroic failures and the underfinanced backyard specials are just as much part of the Group C story as the 956, the Jag XJR-9 and the Sauber C9.

Lancia’s charismatic LC2, powered by an engine borrowed from Ferrari and resplendent in Martini stripes, was fast but fragile — and never as frugal as the Porsche. Ford’s C100 failed to fulfil its potential, a victim of muddled decision-making and then the corporate axe when everything was in place for the programme to come good.

The minnows that graced the grid have their own place in the rich story of Group C, too. There were French Le Mans perennials like Yves Courage with his Cougars, subsequently renamed after himself, and WM. The latter team was a collection of motor sport part-timers, with Peugeot head of styling Gérard Welter — the ‘W’ of WM — at the helm. They kept coming back to Le Mans, not in pursuit of victory, but with the target of attaining ever higher top speeds down a Mulsanne Straight yet to be adulterated by chicanes. A WM-Peugeot, driven by team flag-bearer Roger Dorchy, hit 407kph in 1988. That’s a mind-blowing 253mph!

And then there was the so-called De Cadenet Lola, a misnomer given that the car was definitely more Lola than De Cadenet. But there was a bit of Porsche in there, too — the windscreen was borrowed from a 906 and mounted upside down. It was built by the British ADA Engineering squad in 1982 for a total of £8000, including the purchase of a Cosworth DFV for five grand. This value-for-money racer, largely assembled out of bits discovered in storage in a railway arch somewhere in south London, would compete at Le Mans on three occasions, the final time in 1984 as the ADA 01.

Group C provided a diversity and also a bulk of cars missing in so many other eras of sports car racing. The grid today at Le Mans, and in the World Endurance Championship, is filled by a mix of prototypes and GT cars split over four classes. Yet back in the 1980s, the French enduro and what we can generically call the world sports car championship (the series had various names during the days of Group C) was all about pure-bred prototypes. There were GT cars in the early years of the category, but they had disappeared entirely by 1988.

That year at Le Mans, 32 of the 52 cars that went into qualifying for the race were cars racing in the higher Group C category, known as C1. Three of the others were Mazdas, running to the North American IMSA GTP rules in a move essentially designed to allow the Japanese manufacturer to trumpet another Le Mans class victory in the Monday morning newspapers in Japan. The rest came from the secondary C2 division so were definitely Group C cars just the same. A total of 49 prototypes went to the grid!

ELEVEN OF THE C1 cars that year were Porsches, all but three of them run, not by the factory, but by privateers. Selling racing cars has always been important for Porsche, but back then you could buy a turnkey prototype racer — quite literally because the things started on a key — that was only an evolution or so behind the Rothmans-liveried works cars.

Porsche was proud of the successes of its customers. When seven of its first batch of privateer 956s claimed top-10 finishes at Le Mans in 1983, behind the factory cars in first and second positions, it booked press ads proclaiming the fact. “Nobody’s perfect” ran the tagline in reference to the Sauber-BMW in ninth place.

The successes of Porsche’s customers with the 956 and then its long-wheelbase cousin, the 962C, are an important part of the narrative of Group C. The German manufacturer sold cars that could compete with its own in-house factory team from Weissach, and compete they undoubtedly did.

Joest Racing, GTi Engineering run by Richard Lloyd, John Fitzpatrick’s eponymous team, Kremer Racing and Brun Motorsport all won important Group C races with the 956/962 in the face of factory opposition. Brun even claimed the World Sports-Prototype Championship title for teams in ’86, ahead of both the factory and newcomer Jaguar.

There were famous wins for Porsche independents against the works cars through the Group C years. Joest, of course, triumphed over the factory at Le Mans in 1985, thanks in part to the tweaks aimed at improving the basic Porsche design. Engines developed in-house with a higher compression ratio, revised electronics and a new aerodynamic underfloor were among its developments, but some of the customers went further. Lloyd’s GTi team, one of the first wave of 956 customers, had its own chassis built in aluminium honeycomb, designed to be stiffer than Porsche’s sheet aluminium version, and was constantly on the look-out for aerodynamic improvements.

This British privateer – which took wins at Brands Hatch in ’84 (with an ungainly front-mounted wing borrowed from a Formula 3 car) and the Norisring in ’87 (with a honeycomb chassis) – started a trend that continued through the lifespan of Porsche’s Group C design. A cottage industry grew up around the 956/962.

Group C was an inclusive category because the rules were designed that way. There was no cubic capacity limit on engines, just a cap on how much fuel could be used over the course of a race. The idea was that anyone could compete. There could be no excuse that you didn’t have the right outfit (read engine) to go to the party. Flat-sixes, V8s and V12s, turbos and normally-aspirated engines and Mazda’s rotaries all competed with effect.

That explains why fuel-formula Group C was a success and what followed was not. When fuel limitations were abandoned for 3.5-litre Formula 1 engines — in a phased introduction through 1989, 1990 and into 1991 — the world championship rapidly withered from a position of immense strength.

The WSPC opened in 1990 at Suzuka with a grid of 34 C1 cars (there was no Group C2 by this stage). Exactly one year later at the same track in Japan, there were just seven of the new 3.5-litre sports cars. Six manufacturers raced factory Group C cars in 1990 prior to Peugeot’s arrival with the first iteration of its 3.5-litre 905 at the back end of the season. Only five car makers would make it to the grid with a new generation of Group C machinery over the next two years — and never all at the same time.

The Peugeot, Jaguar’s XJR-14, the Mercedes C291, the Toyota TS010 and the Mazda MXR-01 (actually a Judd-engined Jag with a longer wheelbase) were Group C cars in name, but they were certainly not in spirit. The history of the world sports car championship, covering 40 rich seasons, came to an end in October 1992. The blame can be laid at the door of Group C’s second iteration, which wasn’t an improvement at all. It was as exclusive as the original was inclusive. It wasn’t affordable and it wasn’t sustainable.

True, Group C had everything the Automobile Club de l’Ouest at Le Mans, promoter of the WEC, is shooting for today as the revived world championship heads into the brave new world of its 2018/19 ‘superseason’ and, beyond that, new LMP1 rules for 2020/21: a big and diverse grid of prototypes, factory teams from some of the world’s most important car makers and privateers able to challenge them for outright victory.