GALLERY: The Extreme Aero, Bold Liveries, And Magnificent Presence Of Group C Prototypes
Photography by Armando Musotto
Events like the Monza Historic (part of Peter Auto’s international vintage racing series this year), aim to provide more than just a snapshot of one marque, one era, or one specific series of racing. This kind of consolidation is simply practical. It thins out the cost per participant on the entrant side, and gives the audience a lot more to look at in the process.
Even if you attend just to see one particular car out on track, you’re treated to a sampler of highlights from motorsport history; in the morning you might see a swarm of ’70s F1 machines weaving around each other like salmon headed upstream, followed in the afternoon by 289 Cobras and 250 GTOs duking it out on the same curbstones.
The point is, whatever race group you mark as your favorite, there are plenty of strong candidates for your second favorite at a weekend like this. I highlighted the weekend as a whole a few weeks back, but this time I wanted to zoom in on the prototypes that raced under the FIA’s Group C regulations in the 1980s and ’90s. Extremely high tech machines that are dated by any quantitative measure you could use today, they are an intriguing breed of “classics.”
Before they take to the circuit, I enjoy the relative silence of the changeover between race groups. The incessant roar of revs is replaced by the occasional blurts of air tools and miscellaneous metallic clangs in the pits, the murmur of the crowd blends in with the breeze, but there is an anxious atmosphere infused into these otherwise calm moments. Because in front of me, meters away, is the Monza start-finish straight. It is one of the fastest in the world, a forebodingly simple stretch of asphalt that accurately measures the guts of those who race down it.
A siren pierces the silence and recalibrate the mood. I realize, for the umpteenth time, that I’m at Monza. The prototypes are emerging from their garages like dragons from lairs, and it as the first engines crack into life I feel the familiar goosebumps that precede serious motorsport. The cars don’t race each other like they used to of course, but even at a crawl they have the power to just evoke.
Introduced in 1982, the cars that competed under the Group C regulations represented one of the biggest technological leaps in sports car racing. With the gist of the new rulebook promoting efficiency (there were restrictions on fuel consumption put in place with the new rules), the works team budgets were directed towards aerodynamics and construction materials more heavily than in the past. The result was a field of diverse engines powering cars that almost ubiquitously featured slab sides, extreme diffusers and ground effects, and more often than not a massive rear wing slung out behind the rear wheels.
As is the fate of many a series that gets factory attention, the budgets of the big teams competing in Group C series like the World Sportscar Championship eventually got so big that it became too costly for anyone else to compete. The rulebook was revised and split the cars into two categories in part to give the less-funded teams a chance to compete, but the series was nixed after the 1993 season. To many, that decade of Group C racing marks a turning point between the old school and the new in sports car racing. Monza hosted 22 of these wild machines during the Historic weekend, and it provided people like me—who missed these cars the first time around—a chance to see them in motion.
And this really is a perfect track to highlight Group C. The long, very fast straights showcase the outright acceleration and speed, but the sweeping corners where such speed is maintained is where they really impress. I have always been a fan of maximum aerodynamic designs, the pure function pushing the visuals to the limits. Between the Porsche 956, Nissan R90K, Sauber C11, Peugeot 905, you can see the evolution of downforce taking place; more curves emerge, but the general principles remain.
These beautiful shapes are the result of nature and man—the wind is the master, but minds and computers do their best to tame it. Watching the group of them leave PrimaVariante in a thunderous wave of forward pace leaves me stunned, temporarily-deaf, and quite happy indeed. The first laps of the qualifying sessions are harder fought than I would have imagined, with some of the drivers pushing over 350km/h in a symphony of V8s and flat-sixes, natural aspiration and the chirpy whirs of turbos.
The C11, R90, 956/962, Spices, and Gebhardts on the track are dogfighting from Ascari to Roggia to the Parabolica. They dart and weave like it was 30 years ago, a rainbow of bold liveries constantly shifting as the cars trade position or fight to maintain it. They might not race for 24 hours like they once did, but 45 minutes of this is not a bad consolation to that fact. The checkered flag falls sooner than we’d all like it to, but not for good.