Group C and Le Mans

| 6 Apr 2016

Sportscar racing suffered one of its occasional dips in mid- to late-1970s, yet the arrival of the Group C formula in 1982 sparked a glorious revival. At its heart were minimum-weight (800kg) and fuel-efficiency regulations that enabled the likes of the normally aspirated V12 Jaguars to take on the turbocharged Porsches. Other manufacturers joined in, too, from Mercedes and Lancia to Japanese powerhouses Nissan and Toyota. 

With countless privateers bolstering grids around the world, the result was some of the most enthralling and memorable racing ever seen, with the Jaguar vs Porsche vs Mercedes battles creating a storyline that rivalled anything Formula One could offer. 

These spectacular cars are now enjoying a second lease of life in historics racing, and they are set to return to their spiritual home for what should be an unforgettable outing at this year’s Le Mans Classic (8-10 July). 

Built as a replacement for the Group 6 936, the 956 set the standard during the early days of the Group C formula. It featured Porsche’s first monocoque (constructed in aluminium), as well as ground-effect aerodynamics and a 2.65-litre turbocharged flat-six that offered in excess of 635bhp. 

Such was the car’s dominance that the factory entries scored a 1-2-3 at La Sarthe at their first attempt, with Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell taking the top honours ahead of Jochen Mass/Very Schuppan and the third-placed Al Holbert/Hurley Haywood/Jürgen Barth. 

Like Porsche, Lancia were early converts to Group C, developing their LC2 as a replacement for the open-cockpit Group 6 LC1. Powered by a modified version of  Ferrari’s four-valve V8 engine, there was no doubting the LC2’s pace. In fact, the Martini-liveried car of Bob Wollek and Alessandra Nannini qualified on pole position at Le Mans in 1984, a full 11 seconds quicker than the winning Porsche. 

Reliability, however, was a different matter. Not only did the German racers have the edge over full race distance, but its 956s were also more frugal, allowing them to push harder for longer. 

The 962 had the unenviable task of following the 956, and was intended to be eligible for both the World Sports Car Championship and the American IMSA series. It proved just as successful as its predecessor, which had won Le Mans four times in succession from 1982, delivering Derek Bell, Hans Stuck and Al Holbert victory there in ’86. 

It wasn’t just a hit for the factory. Of the 91 examples constructed between 1984 and 1991, just 16 were works cars. The remaining 75 were sold to privateers. 

Jaguar returned to Le Mans in 1984 with Bob Tullius’ Group 44 outfit, later putting its full-on WSC programme into the capable hands of Tom Walkinshaw Racing. The XJR-8 won eight out of 10 races in 1987, clinching the world title but missing out at Le Mans. The following year, Andy Wallace, Johnny Dumfries and Jan Lammers put that right, taking Jaguar’s first win in the 24 Hours since 1957. It was the first time since 1980 that Porsche had been beaten there. 

The XJR-9 took six wins during that 1988 season, capturing the teams’ championship once again plus the drivers’ title for Martin Brundle.  

The partnership between Peter Sauber’s eponymous team and Mercedes-Benz quietly gained momentum through the 1980s, and the C9 of 1988 was a genuine front-runner - even if the team had to withdraw from Le Mans following a tyre failure on Klaus Niedzwiedz’s car. 


For 1989, the team ditched the C9’s black livery in favour of the traditional Silver Arrows hue and introduced an upgraded M119 twin-turbo 5-litre V8. Jochen Mass, Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens stormed to victory, followed closely by the second C9 of Mauro Baldi, Gianfranco Brancatelli and Brit Kenny Acheson. 

During the race the C9s were clocked at more than 240mph on the Mulsanne Straight, beaten only by the Peugeot WMP489, which was there solely to top 250mph and not last the full 24 hours. The following year, two chicanes had been added to the fabled stretch of road in an attempt to improve safety.

Having been beaten at Le Mans in 1989 by the Saubers, TWR returned in 1990 with the XJR-12, which retained the mighty 7-litre V12 of its predecessors. With Sauber sitting out the 24 Hours, opposition came from Nissan and Porsche, but the Jaguars swept all before them. Team leader Martin Brundle took the place of Eliseo Salazar alongside John Nielson and Price Cobb after his own car retired, and the trio finished well clear of the Lammers/Wallace/Franz Konrad sister car.

Nissan’s assault on the 24 Hours was led by its R89C and R90CK models, the best finish being achieved by Masahiro Hasemi, Kazuyoshi Hoshino and Toshio Suzuki, who came fifth in 1990 – 11 laps behind the winning Jaguar. The turbocharged R90CK is perhaps best known, however, for setting a blistering pole-position time that year. With the wastegate jammed open so that the engine produced up to 1100bhp, Mark Blundell left his imagination in the pitlane and summoned an all-or-nothing lap that was six seconds quicker than the second-placed Porsche. 

One of the most outlandish machines from the tail-end of the Group C era was Mazda’s 787B, the rotary-engined shriek of which lives long in the memory of anyone who ever tried to get some sleep while it was on-track at Le Mans. Despite facing a field of next-generation Peugeot 905s, the fiercely quick TWR Jaguars and a host of Porsche 962s, the 787B delivered the only victory at the 24 Hours for a Japanese team.

It wasn’t its pace that proved the difference, but its reliability and fuel economy. Thousands of kilometres of testing had been covered at Silverstone and Estoril in advance of Le Mans to ensure that the drivers – led by eventual winner Johnny Herbert – could push the car throughout, which is par for the course now but wasn’t 25 years ago.

Aston Martin had been on the periphery of the Le Mans scene for a number of years, having supplied engines to the Nimrod Racing team, but it wasn’t until 1989 that it developed and entered its own car, the AMR1. The all-British team based the car around the 5.3-litre V8 that had been designed for the new Virage road car. In 6-litre Group C trim, it produced more than 600bhp and an bass-rich engine note that was at the opposite end of the spectrum to Mazda’s screaming rotary.  

The AMR1 was one of the most short-lived Group C entrants, taking part in just seven races during the 1989 season – including Le Mans – where the two underpowered cars qualified well down the field. Costa Los, Brian Redman and Michael Roe were classified 11th, while the sister car retired . The project was set to continue into 1990 until the FIA announced engine restrictions for the 1991 season that would outlaw the car. 

In 1991, Mercedes ran the C11 - which had dominated the 1990 season - alongside the newer 3.5-litre C291, and relied on the older car at Le Mans, where it was beaten by the Mazda. That year, however, gave the team a chance to run a car for three of its junior drivers. Alongside Heinz-Harald Frentzen and Karl Wendlinger was another promising youngster by the name of Michael Schumacher. 

Japanese giant Toyota had the financial clout to mount a serious assault on Le Mans via its TOM’s racing arm - which enjoyed success in single-seater racing – but in 1990 the best it could manage was sixth place. Geoff Lees shared the car, which was powered by a 3.2-litre turbocharged V8, with Masanori Sekiya and Hitoshi Ogawa. 

Founded by brothers Gordon and Derek, the eponymous Spice team was a mainstay of the smaller C2 category. The outfit initially used Tiga chassis - winning its class at Le Mans in 1985 - before building its own and even expanding into the C1 division. Pictured is the car of Nick Adams, Martin Birrane and Richard Jones, which retired from the 24 Hours in 1988, a year that nonetheless brought more success and the C2 world title.