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The Group C Sportscar Championship - Part One - The Porsche 962 Era

It seems odd now that just fifteen years ago, Europe could boast two world class, manufacturer supported motor racing championships. Yet as recently as the first years of the 1990s, the World Sportscar championship had more manufacturers involved than Formula One, some of the most beautiful, elegant racing cars ever made, and often fierce competition on the track. Some even talked of Group C sportscar racing as something that might eventually supplant Formula One as the world's premier motorsports category. With the benefit of hindsight that seems an amusingly naïve view, but at the time there seemed good reason to believe it might happen. The series attracted works entries from Mercedes, Porsche, Jaguar, Nissan, Toyota, Mazda, Peugeot and Lancia at various points through its existence. It seemed to be the preferred form of motorsport for the big manufacturers, who saw formula one as overly expensive and focussed to greatly on the drivers, rather than the cars they were trying to sell. Unlike modern Grand Prix cars, the Group C sportscars looked the part. The Sauber Mercedes C9/11s were amongst the most jaw droppingly beautiful cars ever made, in their old German national silver arrows colours. The Porsche 962 remains a timeless classic design - and one which pretty much defined the basic shape of a Group C car for a decade, while even the horrible Silk-Cut livery couldn't entirely hide the fact that Tom Walkinshaw's people built some pretty stunning looking machinery on behalf of Jaguar. There were, of course, exceptions - Japanese fashion house Italya Sports' involvement in the series resulted in some luridly pink 962s that would have looked more at home fronting a Gay Pride rally than at a race track, Taka-Q's involvement with the Toyota team resulted in their cars being a peculiarly vomit inducing shade of yellow, while Ford's uncompetitive C100 was a pretty unbecoming machine.

Different people talk of different 'golden ages' of sportscar racing. Many remember fondly the Can-Am championship of the early seventies, while those of a more European bent might prefer to remember the brief reign of Porsche's awesome 917 in the late sixties and early seventies as the greatest period in sportscar history. Being a child of the 1980s, however, I would choose the Group C battles of that decade as the most fascinating time there ever was for sportscar racing.

The Group C era dawned in 1980 when Jean Rondeau won Le Mans with his own closed top Rondeau sportscar, after an inspired tyre choice saw him past Jacky Ickx's Porsche in the final half hour. Rondeau had grown up near the Le Mans circuit and had always dreamed of building his own car to compete in the event. The car was entered in the old Group 6 category, but under special 'Le Mans' rules created by the organisers, allowing teams to run closed-top prototypes in the event. When the FIA set about reinventing the sportscar rulebook, these rules were used as the basis of the Group C category which replaced the old Group 6 series in 1982. That year, Porsche Porsche introduced their stunning new 956, a closed top version of the 936 which had won Le Mans the previous year. The team scored a dominant one-two-three at Le Mans, the winner being thirty laps ahead of the first non-956 which finished third.

Ford and Lancia were taking their first faltering steps into sportscar racing at Le Mans with the C100 and the Lancia LC1 respectively, but none of their cars finished, and in any case they were some way from the ultimate pace. Such a level of dominance could have killed the nascent sports car championship dead in its tracks, but Porsche took the decision to sell the 956 to anybody who could put up the money to buy one. The result was that the following year at Le Mans, eleven 956s started the race, and they filled the first eight positions in the final standings. The works team still had the edge, but John Fitzpatrick Racing, Kremer, Joest and Obermaier were amongst those ensuring the men from Weissach were kept honest. The first non-Porsche that year was, incidentally, a BMW powered machine run by a Swiss by the name of Peter Sauber. His time would come.

In 1984 Porsche would again face little opposition at Le Mans, but in the Sports Car Championship Lancia had now got their LC2 on the pace, and although it was rare that the Italian cars would actually go the distance, they frequently picked up pole positions and did succeed in notching up one race win. Ford's own abortive programme was less successful. They did succeed in leading the opening laps of a very wet Brands Hatch 1000kms, before the two cars ran into each other, but quite simply the Ford DFV engine that the team used was ill-suited for endurance racing, and nothing they did with it could change this fact. Over on the other side of the water, Bob Tullius was reintroducing the Jaguar name to the sport with his Group 44 Jaguar XJR5s in the IMSA championship - though this series too was dominated by Porsche with its IMSA spec 962s. 1985 saw the fourth straight win for the 956/62, though this time the works team, running the latest spec 962s (an evolution version of the 956) was beaten by the privateer Joest outfit. One of the upshots of this was that when Porsche reduced its official involvement, it was Joest who headed up the resulting proxy-works team in the late eighties.

The next two years saw the championship step up a gear. Lancia and Ford, who had never seemed entirely committed to the series, pulled out but for the first time, Porsche faced sustained opposition in the category. Tom Walkinshaw had taken over Jaguar's sports car operation from Bob Tullius and was making a rather better job of it. Having introduced the first all-composite sportscar the previous year - and taken a podium in its debut race at Canada. The following year, the team won the Silverstone 1000kms and, partly thanks to the somewhat eccentric scoring system the championship used, they almost came away with the drivers' title as well. Peter Sauber got altogether more serious about his racing, tying up with Mercedes, who supplied an engine, and putting together a pretty neat car in the Sauber C8. The Japanese began to come in on the game too. Mazda had been attempting Le Mans in a low key kind of way for a long time, but Toyota and Nissan now joined them. Indeed, Nissan took the first victory for a Japanese manufacturer at Fuji in 1985. The March Nissan was generally considered to be a pretty horrendous machine, and certainly no match for the Porsches, but when the weather turned seriously nasty, the foreign teams decided to withdraw, while the locals, who were well used to the climatic extremes to be found at the circuit, raced on. Kazuyoshi Hoshino was amongst those who stayed on the road, and came home first in what he has since said was the race of his life.

In 1987 the balance of power turned away from Porsche, and Jaguar walked away with the sportscar championship, taking eight victories from the ten races. With Sauber beginning to threaten as well, it was clear that a new era was dawning in Group C racing. Porsche nonetheless succeeded in taking their sixth and final win at Le Mans (at least in Group C - an allegedly road-legal spec 962 won Le Mans in 1994, some twelve years after the first win in 82 !) with the 956/62, after the Jaguars and Saubers were delayed or else failed to finish at all. With the Japanese teams learning fast, and Mercedes significantly increasing its involvement in the Sauber sportscar project, it was clear that Group C racing stood on the cusp of a whole new era…..arguably a second golden era of sportscar racing echoing the battles between Porsche and Ferrari in the late sixties.

To be continued……..

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