Breathtaking. That’s the only word I can use to describe the force and motion of a Group C car in full on-the-ground flight, as it travels through the belly of Eau Rouge and through the quick directional change of Raidillon and then over the crest and away, onward to the Kemmel straight. Others might use different adjectives to describe the kinesis of these nearly thirty-year-old beasts as they negotiate the bridge over this old red waterway, but breathtaking sums it up for me. As a photographer with my “invincibility vest” I’m afforded the privilege of being quite close to this dance of downforce as the pilots maneuver these one-ton (or thereabouts) composite cars through one of racing’s most revered corners—it’s a staggering sight.
A good run through this section of the track is vital to carrying enough speed onto the length of Kemmel, and the way these racing cars flick left and then right as they power up towards the crest is a scene that elicits a giggle and a grin from me each time it happens. In the beginning, when they’re all bunched up, I’m basically laughing at the vicarious fun I’m having as a driver and the real-life privileges I’m granted as a photographer.
Group C cars at Spa-Francorchamps? It’s hard to imagine we call this vintage racing. The cars are getting on in years sure, but to call this kind of mechanical competency in any way “old” feels a bit incorrect.
It seems I’m not the only one fan of these huge wings and slab sides either, seeing as the grandstands and viewing platforms are totally packed out for the appearance of these machines’ first race on Saturday afternoon. Of course, the circuit was busy throughout the weekend—this is not to take away from any of the other classes in action at the Spa Classic—but there is magic in these ‘80s prototypes. The shapes, those great big bits of aero hanging from the rear of the low-slung bodies, the slight height of these machines accentuating the width of the wings that already seem a hundred feet wide. They look menacing, sat squarely on wide 290-section boots, but with beautifully shaped bodywork, the perfect mix of aerodynamic curves and aggressive angles. Those liveries as well, ones we all can recognize instantly and attribute to a place and a time or a race and a victor.
Whilst this wonderful nostalgia laid out before all the fans at Spa is all well and good, this isn’t a parade lap for the fans to wave back at the drivers, and every single person trackside wants to see these things really go at it anyway. It may not be possible during this modern weekend to recreate the fabulous endurance battles of the class’s heyday, but for the four 45-minute sessions attributed for the Group C machines, we are all sure as hell going to imagine that they are the longer battles we enjoyed in the not too distant past.
It’s clear that the drivers are determined as well, as no matter where I observe the racing the cars are being flung fast and somewhat loose around this hallowed track. Suspensions chatter harshly over bumps, curbs are hopped and corners are cut as everyone is trying to eek out the last bit of space. Race Two in particular provides a superb battle between four or so cars, positions changing turn to turn under bright sunshine and a blue ceiling that covered this particular patch of the Ardennes forest last weekend.
The sound of the different engines is a welcome cacophony that charts an audible history of the class somewhat, from the large naturally-aspirated engines in cars like the Jaguar XJR-9, with its seven-liter 12-pot, to cars like the Spice SE89C that ran smaller Cosworth DFL power plants. Like most categories, Group C changed a bit before it was left behind, and it’s fun to chart this evolution as it wails past at 100+.
A total of 30 cars made it onto the track for the opening practice session and whilst this number would drop through the weekend, due to the almost inevitable mechanical frailties of these highly-strung racers (especially the Group C Junior cars), there was plenty for the fans to see come race day, in addition to some more intimate inspections taking place in the pit garages—this kind of general admission access is a particular highlight for visitors to Spa for the Classic weekend.
Like the cars racing on it, the circuit has changed over the decades, but it’s still comprised of a series of peaks and troughs, as it tracks the contours of the hills. The Group C class itself followed an ever-increasing upward trajectory, before somewhat unceremoniously falling quickly from its summit—a figurative elevation change to Spa’s literal ones.
The series was introduced to level out the playing field again in endurance racing (history repeats itself, look at the state of LMP1 right now), with a limit in fuel consumption designed to prevent constructors from purely chasing horsepower to win races. This had the effect of allowing privateer entrants to compete at the top level, such as the aforementioned Gordon Spice and his contemporaries going up against the big guns of Porsche and Jaguar with a chance of success. At its height in popularity at the end of the ‘80s the racing arguably rivaled F1 for reputation, with staggering speeds of over 400km/h at Le Mans. Sadly, it’s success was to be its downfall too, as the FIA attempted to transform it into a Formula series, AKA rule changes which benefitted the bigger teams that were now using engines sourced from F1. The teams that had built cars to the original specifications of the series, which were mostly the independent outfits, lost out and as numbers of entries dwindled the class petered out entirely.
Whilst the story of Group C’s demise is a bit of a sad one, none of that mattered this past weekend in Belgium, as once again these fabulous machines raced, fought, and tore a flash of color and exhaust flame through the lines of one of the greatest circuits in the world. This was not a mourning of what could have been for a championship, but a celebration and a continuation of the impressive racing of the ’80s.