Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Remembering Group C

Let's leave F1 alone for a week. I've nothing to add to the vast acres of coverage of the Renault 'race-fixing' scandal. The series of articles on the subject on Joe Saward's blog and last week's MPH column in Autosport together give a pretty good overview of the whole grubby affair. It appears that we have seen the back of Flavio Briatore. For me, he was always the personification of so much that is wrong with modern F1. His lack of any real interest in racing, his love of tawdry glamour, his willingness to do anything for a quick buck. I doubt he'll be missed.

The Renault team, though, has got a stay of execution - at least so long as chairman Carlos Ghosn doesn't decide that enough is enough. So there will still be two full manufacturer teams in the sport next year, assuming Toyota don't make a dash for the exit door, as is currently rumoured.

In the end, I'm still not convinced that Formula 1 really makes that much sense for major car makers. For the man on the street, it has always been first and foremost about the drivers, and not about the cars. Ferrari are a bit of a special case, and dyed-in-the-wool anoraks like me have our favourite teams, but most people are fans of Alonso, or Raikkonen, or Hamilton, not Toyota, BMW or Renault. In any case, the cars these days are so devoid of distinctive character, so visually alike, that it would be hard for most people to tell them apart were they painted uniform white, let alone decide upon a favourite.

The other weekend, I was catching up with my father, and he said that if he was to pick his absolute favourite experience of seeing motorsport trackside - he'd have to go with the opening laps of the 1990 British Empire Trophy, at Silverstone, the third round of that year's Group C Sports Car Championship. For me, it doesn't top the opening lap of the European Grand Prix at Donington - I was a huge Senna fan as a kid - but I was there with him and I can see what he means. The sight of the Sauber Mercedes and TWR Jaguars going doorhandle to doorhandle through Woodcote as if they were in a ten lap sprint rather than a 3 hour endurance race was quite something to behold.

It strikes me that this was the kind of series that made sense for motor manufacturers. For a start, it was all about the cars, rather than the drivers. Nobody really cared whether Mauro Baldi and Jochen Mass beat Alain Ferte and Andy Wallace. It was about Jaguar versus Porsche, versus Mercedes, versus the Japanese arrivistes, Mazda, Nissan and Toyota. And the cars were much more interesting than modern F1 cars. At the risk of oversimplifying massively, it was essentially a fuel-economy formula. Teams could run, within reason, whatever engine configuration they wanted, but simply running the biggest, most powerful block possible would leave the car running dry long before the race's end. As a result, there was huge variety in engines - Jaguar tried both stock-block 7 litre normally aspirated and 3 litre V6 turbo engines, Mercedes ran a 5 litre turbo, Aston Martin a 6 litre Callaway beast, while Toyota experimented with both 4 and 8 cylinder turbos. Mazda ploughed their own furrow with the distinctive, wailing 1.3l rotary engines which can still be found in their road cars.

It must also have counted for something that these cars were works of beauty, something that can be said of no modern F1 car. The Porsche 962 is a design classic, while the late 1980s series of Sauber Mercedes machines are to my mind perhaps the most visually arresting racing cars I've ever set eyes on. Worthy successors to the Silver Arrows of 1930s Grand Prix racing. Nissan and Aston Martin's efforts - the RC90 and the AMR1, also stand out, though somewhat heretically, I never much cared for

Group C racing never received the kind of coverage that F1 did - a short-ish entry in the back pages of the broadsheets, but little in the way of terrestrial TV coverage, save at Le Mans. It did, however, attract vastly greater crowds than sportscar racing manages to these days. People might not have been able to tell you who was at the wheel, but even casual racing fans would have known who won Le Mans - and even those who couldn't care less about motorsport might have recognised a TWR Jaguar XJR9. Not something one could say with confidence of the Aston Martin Lolas, Courage-AERs and ORECA-Aims that were fighting it out for the LMES series at Silverstone the other weekend. The lower profile of the series, in comparison to F1, probably helped play a part in keeping budgets sensible too. The potential rewards were smaller, and, while I have no way of knowing for sure, budgets probably reflected this. Certainly, a private team with the money to buy a Porsche 962 could, for many years, stand a chance of beating the works if they could buy in a couple of talented guys to drive it.

For a few years, Group C provided the purist racing fan with a fascinating, multi-dimensional contest fought out with exotic, mechanically interesting racing machinery. The drivers were very much a secondary consideration, but guys like Martin Brundle, Andy Wallace, Alain Ferte, Mauro Baldi and Bob Wollek certainly weren't slow. Oh, and there was that young German kid with the funny-shaped chin in one of the Sauber Mercedes. He didn't do bad...

It didn't last. The series went from having capacity grids and huge crowds in 1990, to struggling to put together a grid of 10 cars, to play to deserted venues, just two years later. There was no 1993 World Sportscar Championship. The death of Group C could probably be a whole article in itself. Was it simply a victim of the recession of the early 1990s? Of the growing media attention given to touring car racing? Or was it killed quite deliberately by the FIA and Bernie Ecclestone, who weren't keen on anything that looked like it might one day be a threat to F1. Certainly, in retrospect, the switch to F1-spec 3.5l normally aspirated engines was a bad move. But whether it was intended to kill the series, or whether it was simply a miscalculated attempt to provide a market for old F1 engines, is hard to say. Its our loss. Sports car racing has never been the same since. Every now and again, the LMES, or ALMS, looks like it might be on the up-swing, but it never quite works out. Probably now, with so many sports and activities competing for the public's attention, there will only ever be room for one high-profile racing series, and that will be Formula 1. But it's a shame, because in many ways, Group C racing personified so much of what F1 lacks.

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