These Are The F1 Cars And Group C Prototypes That Shifted The Paradigms Of Motorsport
Photography by Patrice Minol
The 2017 Silverstone Classic took place many months ago, and this past August provided one of the better displays of Formula 1 and Group C cars I’ve seen in the UK (or anywhere). What’s the point? Well, the weather here these days is characterized by cold days and colder nights, the epitome of dreariness really—what little daylight hours we are allotted at this time of the year are filled with grey skies and a near-constant drizzle. In an English winter it seemingly only stops raining when it starts snowing, and for a car enthusiast it can get a bit stir crazy in these parts.
During these months, I tend to revisit the photos and memories acquired during the more agreeable seasons for car racing, and I recently found a memory card I thought I’d lost full of the Group C and F1 categories from the best event of the year for classic motorsport fans; I figured it was a good a time as any to share some of that with my fellow enthusiasts who find themselves facing winter and a lack of vintage racing nearby.
There are arguments for every age of Formula 1 being its so-called golden one, and I think they all have valid points to make. It’s almost an apples to oranges scenario though, trying to compare the intangible cool factors of open-wheeled ‘60s icons to something like a machine from the turbo era in the ‘80s. They are all certifiably wicked in their own ways. That said, my favorite period from the sport was when the ground effects and aero packages really came into their own during the 1970s. It was akin to the rapid advancement of rally cars during the decade that followed, and I only wish I was around to see the likes of UOP Shadow DN5s in period, battling it out with Brabhams and Ferraris across Europe.
The collection of F1 cars that came to the Classic this year was a great spread of mostly 3-liter machines from the ‘60s to the ‘80s, and it recalled a history of Cosworth DFVs, early wind-tunnel testing, manual gearboxes, and great rivalry between men, between machines, and the triumphs and tribulations of the two put together and sent off in the pursuit of speed.
There are cars here with legendary drivers and engineers tied to their histories—Stewart, Lauda, Fittipaldi, Head, Hunt, Colani, so many more—and though they aren’t being flogged to their limits in 2017, there is still nothing else that can compare to the noise and image of these things coming at you on a race track. To think that some of these are nearing their 50th birthdays is a very strange concept indeed. The word “vintage” doesn’t seem appropriate in this case.
Take the DN5 I mentioned earlier. It’s still insane looking. The air intake scoop calls to mind the iconic shark fin scenes from Jaws, but it’s black silhouette is leagues more sinister than any great white. Making around 400hp from its DFV (double four-valve), this sinister submarine (from behind the barrier, it looks like a periscope) weighed less than 600kg. That’s never going to be considered slow.
Another F1 car that struck me as being particularly unique in its design was the German Eifelland-March 721 (pictured above on the right). Designed by the remarkably creative mind of Luigi Colani (whose design portfolio was recently featured on the site), and driven by the great German racer Rolf Stommelen in period, it was a departure from the norm, featuring more rounded shapes and an odd center-mount mirror. It looks like a catfish merged with an F1 car from some angles, but it is beautiful in its own right, if not simply because it was different. The driver cockpit area recalls the shapes of early hydroplane water crafts, like the Ferrari-powered Arno XI.
The F1 spectacle was just that, a spectacle, and no matter how many times I get to see cars like them I never find myself jaded or bored. It’s just impossible when you get past a certain level of performance. The sounds and smells and the shapes required to move people around this quickly will always be captivating.
And while the Formula cars are the star of the show for the majority of the crowd, I was sure to stick around after they’d been put away, because by the end of the day at the Classic the Group C cars come out to play in the last hours of light. The sounds of exotic V8s and spooling turbochargers and chattering transmissions fill the paddock at dusk, and the most exciting race of the event gets underway with a field of Group C prototypes spanning the decade between 1982 ad 1993. Many of these machines wrote the books on endurance racing’s renaissance period, and their rock chips were earned from all over the world, Le Mans to Suzuka.
Like the sweeping change that ground effects brought into F1, it also applied to these cars in much the same way, giving them massive amounts of grip compared to their predecessors. The group that came to Silverstone was a great opportunity to see both the legends and the lesser-known middle-of-the-pack cars next to each again, as well as some interesting crossover between the cars that arrived at the beginning of the classification in the early ‘80s, to those that marked its end in the early ‘90s. They are all still wildly complex and capable, with power figures and lap times that can still embarrass modern race cars.
They represent a time when manufacturer support was strong for endurance racing (in sad juxtaposition to the shaky future of LMP1 today), and even the smaller teams and private entries made some pretty competitive bits of kit. Perhaps my favorite of the lot though was the ex-Schumacher Sauber-Mercedes. I usually think of these cars as sort of a second coming of the Silver Arrows even though they weren’t Grand Prix cars. It was a time when Mercedes had just reentered top-tier motorsport series after decades of absence, and they promptly trounced everyone with cars like this one, winning two WSC championships and an overall victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. I could have looked at this example for hours with its deck lid raised, studying the intricate tubing and carbon fiber mastery and marveling at the harmony of engineering between chassis and powertrain.
The race itself is quite fun to watch too, seeing as this year’s Classic started the Group C race at 8PM! That’s pitch black now, but in the summer it allowed for a dramatic low-light race between these cars, one cloaked in rain and impending darkness. It was all very appropriate I think, given the performance of these cars it’s only fitting that the atmosphere matches the gravitas of the occasion. Rain can get a bit tiring in the UK of course, but I didn’t mind it falling here because it made the sights in front of me even wilder. The suction and airflow channels on these flat-bottom, diffuser-laden cars makes for huge walls of water kicked out in their wake, and the sight of the pack of cars coming at you head on with a mist of white behind them is something I won’t soon forget.
Looking through these found-again photos brought back all the memories from the event, and it’s now left me anticipating the next season of historic racing events—what are you looking forward to attending in 2018?