The turning points, or apexes, if you’ll excuse the pun, of motorsport are usually identifiable only after enough time has gone by to prove that the trajectory has truly shifted. It’s also often the case that the bearers of the fresh zeitgeist are seen in the moment as simply an evolution of the old ways, and not for the revolutionary change that becomes clear in hindsight. This is not the case for Group C. The changing of the guard wrought by this field of competition was instantaneous, but that’s also not an implication of any sorts of flashes in any sorts of low-drag belly pans either. Just look at the horsepower figures of the incoming class of LMP1 contenders and try to figure out how the seconds are being lopped off the lap times with marginal power increases over the past few decades. The genesis of the modern prototype can be traced back to 1982.
The last thing I want to imply here though is any sort of antiquity in the classes that Group C replaced—Groups 5 and 6, the members of which consisted of truly mind-altering, gut-rattling brutality like the Porsche 935 and 936—not at all. Even when we reach the point of zero-emission vehicles that can out-accelerate today’s hypercars, I will not be convinced that a machine like the Group 5 Ford Capri Turbo is irrelevant. However, Group C did improve the breed in a sweeping display of engineering achievement, that, strangely, can be attributed to following the rules instead of breaking them.
What I mean by that lies in the essence of the FIA’s stipulations for their new flagship category. Clearly, the vaulted performance capacities of the cars in Group C were not due to what up until that point had been the recipe: more power. No, this time it would be brains beating brawn. This was arguably the moment in which aerodynamics and efficiency first emerged as the most critical component of success on the race track. Power outputs remained static or even dipped a bit, but the lap times fell even further because the FIA imposed limitations on fuel consumption and weight in their new-for-’82 rulebook, forcing a new approach.
For the first time in sports car racing, wringing more power from your engine was not a guaranteed benefit, and instead, race technicians and engineers needed to better utilize their horsepower, not simply add to it. This took form in a radical, logarithmic rise of the importance of aerodynamics. Of wing, of NACA, of splitter, of spoiler, of Venturi. Not a brief decade or so earlier, the cutting edge (if we take the winningest cars’ recipes as the paragon of the sport’s thinking) of downforce and atmospheric manipulation took the form of someone noticing the bug-splatter pattern on a Porsche 917. How far we’d come with the ground effects of the Porsche 956/962.
Before you tear me apart, yes, prior to Group C, Chaparral and many others were successfully experimenting with myriad wings and unconventional-at-the-time methods of enhancing grip, but it wasn’t until this new category of sports car racing that all the big-time players started to devote their rocket-scientists-cum-race car-engineers to the full-fledged pursuit of gluing their cars to the ground on the world’s main stage of big-budget competition.
To exalt the likes of the Sauber-Mercedes C11 or the enduro-champion-emeritus 956/962 is not to detract from what came before, but there is something supremely and uniquely special about the first foray into the field of race-tech that gave way to the to-this-day record lap at the Nordschleife. And while Stefan Bellof is sadly no longer with us, events like the Spa Classic offer a glimpse into the world in which he thrived, allowing us to experience once more the great catching-up of aero to engines.
A Jaguar XJR-12 at full peg in the belly of Eau Rouge is exerting earthward pressure that would strain James Cameron’s submersible, and I think that deserves to be celebrated, in perpetuity. If you agree, you’ll enjoy this gallery of some of Group C’s finest alive and well in 2017 at the kind of racetrack capable of wringing every ounce of potency from these legendary creatures of CAD and wind tunnels. I hope you enjoy this gallery by Jochen Paesen of Group C at the Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps.