Standing in the middle of the stadium complex towards the end of the Circuit De Catalunya, I was enjoying the silence that had descended over the track. Formula 1 cars of the ’70s and ’80s had just completed their tentative first laps for the weekend and trailed back into the pits after getting the oil circulating through their bodies and shaking loose the winter cobwebs. I knew what was coming next and couldn’t wait. Cars that for me still rank as the most incredible racing machines ever to exist, a series with an innocuous name that smashed apart the ’80s and would be fighting Formula 1 to be the predominant global championship come the end of that decade.
Of course, it could only be Group C. The crucible that gave birth to some of the most ferocious, extreme racing machines ever produced. Give me a weekend with classic F1 cars and Group C, and – unless you throw in SuperTourers as well – you’ve got something that can’t be topped for eye-melting amounts of awesome.
Why do I still eulogise these cars? Well, I don’t think it needs that much explanation when you see them. Super wide. Super low. Enormous rear wings that create crushing levels of downforce. Volcanic power and unreal top speeds. Day-long, epic battles that have gone down in racing legend.
Fashions of the ’80s might be questionable, but as with the classic F1s I looked at in my previous story, the Group Cs just reinforced how good the liveries were in that decade. A plethora of highly individual car shapes married to graphical perfection that always added to the visual impact of the cars.
For the Spirit Of Montjuïc Festival in Spain, Group C racers had again joined the busy schedule for the weekend, though this year they seemed to suffer more in terms of numbers, perhaps due to being the first round of 2015. Packed it wasn’t, with just 11 cars taking part.
Compared to more established rounds that the Group C series can run at, such as when the cars are invited to raise the curtain on the Le Mans 24 Hours race or ‘home’ runs like the Silverstone Classic where car numbers can be pushing 30 or more, you could think that 11 wouldn’t be that impressive.
But this was quality over quantity. I promise you that seeing 11 Group C cars is still a weekend-making experience, one worth travelling to another country for. To be honest, one thoroughbred Group C car can do it. The opening day saw three 30-minute practice sessions, and I made sure I was right there for each one. Missing even a second wasn’t going to happen.
During these opening forays there was the incongruous sight of the Group Cs sharing the track with cars of far older vintage, the downforce-laden cars swooping past the Lolas and Chevrons through corners, eating them up down the straights.
However, Group C machines don’t need context to make it apparent how fast they are. 240mph rocketships speak for themselves.
Of the 11 entries, it was difficult not to be bewitched by the hero cars at the front. For me, that really meant being hypnotised by silver and purple: the Sauber-built Mercedes-Benz C11 and epic Jaguar XJR-14 – rivals in period, still rivals now.
There’s something about the monochrome C11 that I find completely entrancing. It’s like being confronted with a shark – slightly dead-eyed and ruthless looking, not a superfluous line to it, a machine built for a single purpose. There was visual continuity from the previous series Sauber C9 that finished first and second at Le Mans in ’89 too. The C11 retained the brutal simplicity of the flat silver livery that accentuated its lithe, low-drag shape, but was just that little bit more aggressive at the front, that little bit more sharp at the rear.
The C11 signified Mercedes returning to headline status in 1990, attaching its name to the racer where previously it had shied away, having kept to a supporting role till that point. It completely dominated the 1990 season, winning all but one race and invariably finishing first and second – with a certain Michael Schumacher on the driver roster for three races, also winning the season finale in Mexico. At just 900kg, the carbon-Kevlar monocoque, composite bodywork and pushrod suspension moved the C11 into the upper levels of racing technology.
Watching the car from trackside, it seemed to have epic levels of traction and was pursued by its own breathless, rasping noise. That soundtrack was provided by the 720hp, M119 5.0-litre V8 with twin KKK turbochargers mounted behind the cockpit, its explosive force shooting flames under rapid deceleration as the engine tried to deal with the excess flammable gases.
This was the first run out for the C11’s new owner, and he took full advantage of being at the track, relentlessly pounding round with mechanical regularity for the majority of every session. It would warp onto the track, blitz round for half an hour, then warp out again to whichever dimension it came from, to await its next opportunity to stalk the opposition. This chassis was Sauber’s test car in period, used to hone the setup and aero for the race cars.Big Cats On The Loose
If the Mercedes was like a menacing shadow, then this car was at the opposite end of the spectrum both visually and aurally. The gloriously iridescent XJR-14 from 1991 was Jaguar’s riposte to Mercedes domination of the previous year, taking full advantage of new Group C rules that gave effective parity between Formula 1 and the World Sportscar Championship machinery – specifically through taking on F1 engines and abandoning the fuel limitations.
Stats first before the joyful jabbering. Designed by Ross Brawn and John Price, the Jag used a 3.5-litre Ford HB V8 engine previously seen in the Benetton F1 car. With the base weight at just 750kg, its mildly detuned 650hp was more than enough – aero requirements were turned on their head, with concerns about drag dismissed compared to the quest for raw downforce.
And this car screamed downforce. The front end was effectively a wing. The underside was scarred with ground-effect tunnels, leading through to a huge diffuser which packaged the air up for its final battering. The back… well, you don’t have to try hard to spot this particular wing, do you? The rules allowed for breathtakingly massive rear aero work, multi-element skyscrapers. In ’92 when the car raced on street tracks in the States, it produced 10,000lbs of downforce at 200mph…
There were no doors – you had to get in via the narrow window flap. The gear change was centrally mounted for optimal and direct linkage to the transmission.
The XJR-14 also had a remarkable legacy. Not only were five customer chassis sold to Mazda as MXR-01s – to be campaigned by the Japanese team in both international and domestic races – but a chassis later morphed into the Porsche WSC95 that would go on to twice win Le Mans outright in the mid-’90s.
The XJR-14 wasn’t the only Jaguar in Barcelona – two Bud Light livered XJR-16s also took up a garage, although sadly only one of the pair made it out on track.
Whilst the XJR-14 was a Big Cat on the global trail for prey, the US had always been a happy hunting ground for Jaguar. Just as everything was about to spiral out of control on the world stage as the ’90s broke, so in IMSA the big guns were getting seriously bigger. Toyota’s Eagle and the Nissan NTP-90 were delivering stratospheric performance that threatened to leave Jag trailing in the dust, so for 1991 they pushed out the cruise missile that was the XJR-16.
IMSA had always allowed cars to be a bit more out-there, without any of the fuel limit concerns of their Group C cousins. Although outwardly similar to the 14, especially with that 80-inch wide barn-door of a rear wing assembly, it’s technically a more steroidal XJR-10. The big difference was under the rear deck in the shape of a 750hp, 3.0-litre V6 sporting twin Garrett turbos, which created very different aero requirements.
There’s just something about faired-in wheels that always makes a car look even more missile-like and glued to the ground. You almost expect to see ripped up tarmac in its wake…
I could just tilt my head and then imagine this car hammering around the Daytona banking – although with all the drag it was always the twisty courses that this car excelled on. Still, another car it was an absolute pleasure to witness.More Of The Best – Not Just The Rest
Two evolutions of Nissan’s early-’90s, 3.5-litre twin turbo Group C racer were also out in Spain, both of which were equally impressive – and fast – as the aforementioned machinery. Both cars are regulars on the historic Group C circuit, with the R90CK proudly sporting both factory colours and the iconic 23 race number.
The Lola-designed CK was developed for the 1990 season by another well-known British firm, Ray Mallock Limited. It was at that year’s Le Mans 24 Hours that Mark Blundell set his legendary pole lap – in a 1,100hp turbo car with a stuck wastegate.
The R90CK in Spain was likely running at a more manageable 800hp or so – still plenty for a 900kg car, and enough for it to win the second race of the weekend. The boost could still liven things up to around 900hp, should the dial get turned up ‘accidentally’.
The canary yellow From-A R91CK sports the unmistakable livery it ran in Japan’s Sports Prototype Championship. Again, this car has been a regular in Group C, with a lowlight being when I saw it spin on oil and self-destruct against the barriers at the Donington Historic Festival a couple of years back.
It’s run by one of the many specialist teams who rock up with big race trucks stuffed with these machines. Supporting multiple cars for customers works for everyone, and usually means more cars turning up for us to enjoy.
The turbocharged V8 delivered yet another unique pitch to listen to as cars approached – more raw than the cry of the Jaguars or the muffled rumble of the Merc.
You can’t say Group C without mentioning Porsche, and their representative was in the form of this Kremer-modified 962 in yet another iconic livery, the turquoise of Leyton House.
From the front its unmistakably 962, but from the side you see more of the development work the Kremer brothers put in for the ’87 season, especially on the short tail and detached wing. This car still had the bonded and riveted aluminium monocoque, a precursor to Kremer’s bespoke carbon monocoque CK6 derivative that would follow.
The Spice team started off producing efficient racers for the C2 supporting category, but moved into the IMSA GTP and Group C1 classes with their 89C. I’ve always liked the clean, unfussy lines of Spice racers – it’s something that modern Daytona Prototypes seemed to want to copy but never quite managed until the most recent iterations.
Spice followed up C2 success with the SE90, cranking out over 30 of these cars in a startling variety of forms to race in both the World and US series.
This was one of the IMSA cars, which meant that it was powered by a brute-force Ford V8 that made it one of the fastest – and loudest – cars at the Circuit De Catalunya.
Gebhardt is a name that might not be familiar to any but the most hardened Group C fans – this is the C91, a tidy carbon-tubbed prototype that started life in the ’91 IMSA series powered by an Audi 2.0-litre turbo engine. Like Spice, the team began in C2 in the mid-’80s before moving into the top category.
The C91 raced sporadically in Europe with Cosworth power during ’92 before having its top chopped off. The lid was reinstated a couple of years back, and this minnow of the ’90s is now well able to run with the better-known marques.
Again, as with the F1 cars in Spain, these historic series aren’t just about the headline cars that ruled the roost back in period – it’s also a chance for people to run cars from low-key efforts that never shone at the time. The first time I saw this car a few seasons ago I thought it might be a privateer Lancia LC2, but it’s actually a Swiss from 1991, known either as a Cheetah G606 or a ROC 002 depending on what day it is. Using a carbon fibre tub, this car only ran two races in period (including Le Mans) before being retired – it’s run more in the last couple of years than it ever did then, and with more success!
Finally, another C2: a C289 from 1989, which is linked to the Cheetah/ROC above through its boss having entered the latter car at Le Mans. This Automobile Louis Descartes C289 raced at Le Mans in ’89 and ’90 with Cosworth DFR power, then with a 3.0-litre Peugeot engine in ’92 for a last hurrah.
The small but select batch of Group C cars at the Spirit Of Montjuïc festival left me satisfied at having seen a couple of rare cars I hadn’t seen in anger either at all or for some considerable time – viz the beautiful XJR-14 in particular – and just reinforced that I need to see them out again this year. Preferably just to watch and not work, which is really the sign of something I love.
The cars might not be pushed right to the ragged edge, the racing now firm but fair, but the evidence of the drivers’ efforts was clear not just from trackside but also with the battle scars evident on the cars in parc fermé. There’s still a magic about these cars – a real purity of purpose that’s undimmed even 25 years later. The shapes are as relevant as ever – particularly the Jaguar but even the C11 don’t look that dated to my eyes, and are certainly more aesthetically pleasing than the more angular, slightly overly-technical modern LMPs. Although maybe that’s why Nissan’s latest LMP is so exciting – perhaps it could fit in better with these old Group C cars!