You could make a fairly watertight case for the 1980s being the most spectacular decade in motorsport history, certainly from a purely technological and performance perspective. The ‘80s saw Formula One’s bonkers, 1000bhp+ turbo era, Group B supercars terrorising the special stages of the world, and in tin-tops, the mighty Ford Sierra RS500s sweeping all before them.
Sports Car racing was by no means exempt from the forced-induction lunacy sweeping the world at the time, and though its own golden era is perhaps less well known than the ones mentioned above, it was by no less spectacular, Group C. Group C cars were built to the kind of open-ended regulations that underpinned many of their off-road and single seater contemporaries, and the cars it effectively ‘birthed’ between 1982 and 1992 have gone down in endurance racing lore.
Performance and spectacle aside, much of Group C’s popularity can be attributed to the number of different car makers involved, with dozens of different mass market car makers competing over the course of its existence. The rules underpinning the formula proved very attractive to car makers across the board, which meant race fans would eventually get to see Mazdas discing with Peugeots, Saubers with Porsches and countless other, less prestigious outfits. The primary restriction on peak performance was fuel capacity and weight, the FIA mandating that cars have no more than 100L of the former and tip the scales at no less than 800kg, with cars limited to 5 refuelling stops over the course of a 1000km race, approximately 6 hours. This equated to 600L per 1000km, and in turn created races balanced between out-and-out performance and endurance.
These are 5 of our favourite Group C icons.
It would be wrong to put together a list like this and not include the archetypal Group C car, the Le Mans racer that effectively defined the shape of Sports Cars for the best part of a decade, and one which manages to look decidedly modern today, well over three decades on from its launch. Porsche of course had serious form when it come to both Le Mans and endurance racing, and had spent much of the previous decade kicking the stuffing out of anyone with the audacity to challenge Stuttgart’s Sports Car supremacy, but it was with the 956 that it really made the sport its own.
The 956 was a technological tour-de-force at the time; from its construction through to its flat-six turbocharged engine, rivals were left in no doubt as to what the Group C benchmark actually was, nor how crushingly capable it could be. Power was never an issue, the air-cooled, turbocharged flat-six having proven both its worth and ability to make a full 630bhp in the 936/81, but it was in its construction and aero that the 956 really set new standards. Not only was the 956 an advanced, all aluminium monocoque design, it employed ground effect aerodynamics of the kind which had been outlawed from F1 a few short years previously, with the twin Venturi tunnels running from the rear axle to the back of the car the most obvious evidence of this commitment to airflow . This meant that the 956 could produce amounts of downforce hitherto unheard of in non-single seater racing and allowed it to dominate Sports Car racing for the bet part of half a decade.
The 956 won 4 Le Mans on the trot between 1982 and 1985, then, with Stafan Bellof at the wheel, went onto set a record Nurburgring lap of 6 minutes 11.13 seconds, one only beaten earlier this year Porsche’s own 919 Evo.
Jaguar spent years attempting to add to its tally of Le Mans silverware, the last outright win prior to its Group C success being with the D-Type way back in 1957. Indeed, it was over three decades later that a Coventry car finally took to the top step of the podium once more, and it was achieved with the XJR-9, one of the most evocative of all Group C cars. The XJR-9’s immediate predecessors had all been capable race cars in their own right of course, but none could challenge the might of the works Porsche 962s for the full 24 hour span (often as they were simply too fragile).
Then, 31 years on from Jaguar’s last win, the TWR-prepared XJR-9 came good. Resplendent in Silk Cut sponsorship and with its distinctive, Le Mans-spec wheel spats, the ‘9 saw off stiff competition from the Shell-clad 962s to take a stunning win, the car of Jan Lammers, Johnny Dumfries and Andy Wallace ultimately occupying the top step of the podium.
Jaguar’s famous victory owed much to the engineering underpinning the car as it did the trio of men tasked with driving it for a full day and night, with its engine, an immense 7.0 V12, a key part of this. The size and ample torque of the V12 also meant that, when stuck in 4th gear for the closing laps of the race, Lammers was able to nurse the XJR-9 home without sacrificing his hard-fought lead.
Another Jaguar Sports Car racer on a list comprising of just 5 cars might seem a little anglocentric, granted, but the XJR-14 unquestionably deservers a space on this list, if only for how far it moved the WSCC game on. It has come to represent the last gasps of Group C as a viable category, debuting in 1991 and therefore very much the product of the new, 3.5L regulations (see below).
Designed to meet said regulations by Ross Brawn, the architect of Michael Schumacher’s success with Ferrari a little under a decade later, the ’14 was packed with innovative thinking and creative rule bending. One of the most obvious was also one of the most effective, its ‘bubble’ canopy. True, Sports Cars had been becoming increasingly fighter jet-like in this department for years but Brawn took things to the next level, so much so that it dispensed with such mundanities as doors and instead made do with ‘pop out’ plastic windows.
Deleting the doors freed up extra space in the chassis, room used to house the radiators (just like an F1 car), in turn permitting TWR and Brawn greater freedom when it came to aerodynamically sculpting the front end. Then there was that rear wing. No Group C was really lacking in the wing department, true, but the Jaguar took things to the extreme, its double-decker, ‘biplane’ arrangement making those used by rivals look archaic pretty much overnight. The wing was another example of clever rule interpretation, the regulations permitting ‘biplane’ designs but failing to stipulate on either the spacing or the distance between them. TWR mounted the lower plane down low, so low that it effectively fed into the rear diffuser and worked in harmony with it. Insane levels of downforce were the result.
The XJR-14 has attained such a cult following despite being relatively light on actual wins – it took 3 across the span of its, admittedly short, career, but this somewhat sparse CV is more than made up through technological brilliance.
Forget Group C, the Mazda 787B could well be the single most charismatic car to ever race at La Sarthe – it’s certainly a long time Retropower favourite. Until Toyota’s somewhat muted triumph earlier this year the 787B was the only Japanese car to have ever taken victory, and Mazda remain the sole team to have done so using something other than a traditional reciprocating engine.
The 787B was the highpoint of a concerted attempt by Mazda, indeed the majority of Japanese car makers, to expand their reach outside of their native homeland. It was powered by one of the firm’s most iconic rotaries of all, a highly fettled version of the quad-rotor RB26B. It put out a whisker over 700bhp in race trim, a good 200bhp less than it could actually make and a sop to the reliability required to win at Le Mans, and at full chat sounded like satan stubbing his toe against a door. With a toothpick under the nail. Repeatedly.
The victory itself was nothing if not dramatic and was in fact doubt until the dying hours. Mazda’s hand had been strengthened by the new for 1991 rule restriction revisions, changes that had blunted the performance of arch rivals Nissan and Toyota, but they still went into that year’s Le Mans as outside bets at best, an opinion not helped by the trio of 787Bs starting the race well down the grid. Le Mans is anything but predictable though, and Mazda’s standing began to improve as the hours ticked by; the 787Bs were faster than the Jaguars and more reliable than the Sauber-Mercedes C11s, with the Mazda of Johnny Herbert inheriting the lead in hour 22. He held on to take a famous victory, though was so dehydrated that he had to be lifted from the car and couldn’t even make it to the podium!
Satisfied that it’d well and truly stamped its authority on the World Rally Championship with the 205T16, Peugeot set out to repeat the trick on the race tracks of the world with the 905, a car which came into its own as Group C ditched forced induction and moved ever closer to being a series for F1 cars with enclosed wheels. The same ruthless comment to professionalism and bespoke engineering that defined the T16 was thus applied to the 905, and the result was one of the fastest Sports Cars of all, a car every bit as quick as mid-pack of F1 cars of the era.
Not that Peugeot’s first foray into endurance racing went smoothly from the get go. The programme was initially beset with issues, most of them stemming from the 905’s appearance. It soon became clear that aerodynamic efficiency had taken something of a back seat to looks during the car’s development, and as a result it was badly off the pace compared to its closest competitors. Peugeot Sport were fortunate to claim victory in the opening round of the 1991 season at Suzuka thanks to the retirement of the Jaguar XJR-14s, but it was abundantly clear that the Silk Cut cars had a massive performance advantage in the corners.
An intensive development phase was therefore undertaken; vast resources were ploughed into the Sports Car programme and the 905’s appearance changed out of all recognition.The car, soon christened the 905 Evo, broke cover at the Nurburgring a few months later, and it was abundantly clear that it was a far better realised beast. Wins in France and Mexico duly followed, results which provided the team with the springboard it needed to challenge for overall victory in 1992.
1992 would prove to be the final season of Group C racing (see below) but that didn’t prevent Peugeot from throwing everything at the series in an attempt to win, and their efforts were rewarded. The 905 Evo won all but one of the races that year, including the coveted Le Mans victory. Along the way it set some of the fastest lap times ever recorded by a Sports Car, including one at Magny-Cours that would’ve placed it on the fourth row of the F1 grid!
The decline and eventual demise of Group C can be attributed to a wide range of factors, though it’s certainly the case that it ultimately became a victim of its own success. The prospect of seeing a grid full of varied, obscenely powerful racers driven by some of the finest drivers of the era proved too much for people to resist, and by the end of the ’80s Group C was challenging Formula One in the popularity stakes. This was simply unacceptable to the FIA, even more so when you consider that it wasn’t unheard of for plucky upstart independents to occasionally spring a surprise on the works teams.
It’s here that things get murky and a tad conspiratorial. New rules came into effect in both 1991 and 1992, with forced induction banned in the former and a stipulation that only 3.5L engined cars could race in the latter. This effectively brought the engines into line with those being raced in Formula One at the time but also, and some suggest that this was deliberate, hiked up costs considerably. It was now almost as expensive to contest the World Sportscar Championship as it was to take part in Formula One, and the latter came with far more cache and exposure. A mass exodus of OEMs soon followed, with the likes of Peugeot, Jaguar and Sauber-Mercedes all departing for Formula One at the end of the 1991 season, and the WSCC (and with it Group C) bit the dust.