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The Group C Story Part Two - Britain vs. Germany

After many years in which Porsche held sway in Group C racing, a sea change occurred in 1988. Not only were they comprehensively beaten by Sauber and Jaguar in the Sports Prototype Championship, but for the first time since 1980, they did not win Le Mans. Jaguar, with its 7 litre XJR-9, finally beat the Porsches in a straight fight at La Sarthe, as they had been threatening to do for the previous three years. It had been close, and Tom Walkinshaw’s men had had to wait until the final hour before victory finally became a certainty, but Weissach’s stranglehold on the French classic had finally been broken.

Jaguar, though, did not have it all their own way in the Sportscar world championship. The various Privateer Porsche 962s, including Richard Lloyd Racing’s Jaguar lookalike carbon fibre version, offered little threat, but Sauber were at last beginning to look like real contenders with their Mercedes powered C9s. They took five wins that year, offering an inconsistent, but noteworthy challenge to Tom Walkinshaw’s Jaguars. Of the Japanese teams, Toyota, with Johnny Dumfries and Geoff Lees, were beginning to get their act together, while Nissan had employed the old Group 6 chassis constructor Lola to build their cars for them, and were certainly making inroads in the American IMSA sportscar series, even if their track record in the World Sportscar series wasn’t so impressive. Only Mazda, who persisted in running their eccentric and underpowered rotary engined 767s looked like they weren’t taking the whole thing entirely seriously.

1989 looked like it had all the potential to be a classic year for sports car racing. Nissan’s R89C was clearly a step forward, while Toyota’s new V8 turbo engine looked sure to make them contenders again. Aston Martin were returning to the sport under the Ecurie Ecosse banner, privateer chassis manufacturer Spice entered a team of works DFR engined cars (the same Ford engines that were powering much of the F1 grid at the time). Joest were running what looked suspiciously like a covert works Porsche team, and the Jaguar/ Sauber scrap looked set to continue at the front, with Jaguar aided by the introduction of a new turbocharged V6 engine.
In the event, it didn’t turn out that way. Mercedes clearly had faith in the men from Hinwil, Switzerland. For 1989, the Saubers would run in German racing silver and they would be called Mercedes. The image conscious German manufacturer was back in top level motorsport for the first time since 1955. Sauber had clearly made a significant advance over the winter with its C9, and nobody could get close to them all year. Jaguar were a particular disappointment. They found themselves going backward relative to the Joest Porsches, and even, on occasion, the fast improving Nissans. Sauber would end up winning all but one of the races of the 1989 championship and they finally achieved victory at Le Mans. They may not have been as fast as the Jaguars, or even the best Porsches, but crucially they ran like clockwork throughout the 24 hours, and their rivals did not; the Sauber team ended up finishing 1-2-3 at the French classic. The one race that didn’t fall Sauber’s way was the Nurburgring 500kms. There they found themselves beaten by an unusually competitive Joest Porsche 962. This surprise victory for what was, after all, an eight year old design rather shocked the works, who promptly started offering rather more support to the Joest team. Spice came close to winning a race, looking well on course for an upset at Donington in August until an electrical problem forced their car out of the race. The Toyota proved very rapid, notching up a pole position in the opening race, but in what was a limited-fuel formula, its V8 engine was simply too thirsty for the team to figure in the races.

The Callaway engined Aston Martin was initially hopelessly uncompetitive – being desperately overweight and lacking in aerodynamic downforce – but improved over the course of the season, with the team notching up a fourth place finish at Brands Hatch, ahead of the Jaguars. The news that the team would not run in the 1990 championship, following the acquisition of both Aston Martin and Jaguar by Ford (who couldn’t see the point in running two sportscar programmes) was therefore something of a disappointment. If the 1990 car had been as much of a step forward as the late-season 89 car had been over the early season car, they could have provided some much needed opposition to the Sauber squad that year.

1990 opened with a very long, drawn out and mutually destructive row between the Automobile Club De L’Ouest, who run Le Mans, and the FISA, who ran the World sportscar championship. The argument was supposedly about safety, but underneath it all, cynics reckoned, it had more to do with TV money, and who should benefit from it. The end result was that the 1990 Le Mans ran with two chicanes inserted in the 3 mile Mulsanne straight for the first time (and teams and drivers, to this day, still can’t agree on whether these represent a safety improvement or a merely another place where one can have a big accident). It also ran as a non-championship event, and as such, Sauber decided they would not be entering a team. This left the way clear for sports car racing’s also- rans, that is to say, everyone else, to fight it out for a consolation prize.

The Nissans were fastest, indeed there was talk of their Qualifying engine producing 1000BHP, but they did not prove reliable. By half distance, it was clear that the race was going to boil down to a fight between the works Jaguars and the privately entered Porsche being driven by two wealthy amateurs, Walter Brun and Jesus Pareja and a former Grand Prix driver and sportscar ace, Oscar Larrauri. While most of the Porsche crews had taken the advice of the factory and turned up with the low- downforce ‘longtail’ Porsche 962s, in order to be quicker down the Mulsanne straight, Brun had decided to gamble on the high downforce, high drag Short Tail 962, and this gamble had clearly paid off. With the addition of the two chicanes on the Mulsanne, Le Mans was no longer a true low-downforce track.

The race was effectively decided when the Brun Porsche was forced to stop to replace a failed battery, losing five minutes in the process. This allowed the Jaguar of NAMES HERE into a lead they could not lose. In the event, the Brun Porsche didn’t even make the finish, retiring with engine failure just ten minutes from the end of the race. This left the way clear for Jaguar’s first 1-2 since the 1950s.

The rest of the season was, as expected, a Sauber benefit. There was a tantalising glimpse of the future of sports car racing at the Mexico City round of the championship in October 1990. Here Peugeot debuted their radical new 905, powered by a 3.5 litre V10. It instantly made much of the field look woefully obsolescent, and while teething problems ensured that it did not figure in the last race of the 1990 season, it was apparent that sports car racing was entering a new era, in which downforce and high-speed cornering ability would count for as much as good fuel consumption and reliability.

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