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Group C: The Rise and Fall of the Golden Age of Endurance Racing

Submitted by on February 6, 2019

by Marcel Hundscheid / Speed-O-Graphica

In this series of articles we’re going to indulge in a retrospective of Group C Racing, perhaps the golden age of endurance racing. In this first part we head back to the roots of these great cars that participated in the World Sports Car Championship.

Group C was introduced by the FIA to replace Group 5 (open to special production cars) and Group 6 (two-seater racing cars). Although the new category was introduced in 1982, we have to dive back into the mid-1970s for its roots. During those days the French ACO introduced the GTP-category for the Le Mans 24 Hours.

Limited to a weight of 800 kg and maximum fuel capacity of 100 litres, GTP cars were roofed prototypes using 3.0-litre engines as were used in Formula 1. It was a great loss that legendary cars such as the Porsche 917 and the Ferrari 512 became obsolete as the big 5.0 litre engine were no longer allowed.

When Ferrari decided to concentrate on Formula 1, French manufacturer Matra would dominate Le Mans. Then, when Matra decided to follow Ferrari into Formula 1, it was Mirage from the UK with Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx who claimed victory at Circuit de la Sarthe with their GR8. A few years later, in 1980 to be exact, Jean Rondeau won the Le Mans 24 Hours in his own Rondeau M379B together with his fellow countryman Jean-Pierre Jaussaud.

In 1982 the FIA created Group C for cars weighing a minimum of 800 kg with a maximum fuel capacity of 100 litres. Racing distance was limited to 1000 kilometers, with a restriction of five re-fueling stops during a single race. With these rules, the FIA hoped that manufacturers would shift their concentration away from the worrying climb in engine output.

Ford and Porsche were the first manufacturers to enter the championship with the Ford C100 and Porsche 956. They were followed by Aston Martin, Jaguar, Lancia, Mazda, Mercedes, Nissan and Toyota.

Ever rising costs remained a significant issue, so an additional category was developed in 1983 for privateers and smaller teams, initially known as Group C Junior. Instead of five re-fueling stops within a 1000 kilometer race distance, Group C Junior cars were allowed 330 litres per 1000 kilometers. The minimum weight for these cars was 700 kg. Different engine types were used, such as the BMW M1 (3.5 litre) or the 3.3 litre Cosworth DFL. Lightweight turbo engines were used as well as engines from Austin-Rover. In 1984 the FIA renamed Group C Junior to Group C2.

Group C grew in popularity, and when Peugeot recorded the highest top speed during qualifying for the 1988 Le Mans 24 Hours, reaching 407 km/h, the FIA adapted a new rule book that would become effective in 1991. C1 was introduced to mandate normally aspirated 3.5 litre engines similar to what was used in Formula 1 and generating less power than what was found in Group C cars at the time. As these engines were not affordable for privateer and smaller teams, Group C started to die. At the start of the 1991 season only a handful of C1 cars formed the grid. As a result, the FIA allowed cars complying with the pre-1991 Group C rules to participate. However, interest was lacking and after a poorly-supported World Sports Car race at Magny-Cours in 1992, the championship came to a premature end.

The diversity of cars that applied under Group C regulations combined with sheer speed to attract vast crowds around the world. It was a shame to see that the second most popular category in motorsports, just behind Formula 1, disappeared so suddenly.

Nowadays the Group C Racing Series hosted under the Peter Auto flag recreates the great days of endurance racing with cars that actually raced in the World Sportscar Championship. Across Europe with races in Spain, Belgium, France and Italy, fans can still enjoy the sounds and shapes of these great cars. The highlight of the Peter Auto calendar is the bi-annual Le Mans Classic featuring a race for Group C cars from that particular era.

In the next episode we continue our series of articles by getting to know the manufacturers.

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