Ahead of the resumption of motorsport worldwide, we have decided to look back at the rich history of Sports Car Racing. Part 1 of this short series will look at top-level Sports Car Racing in the 20th Century and will place focus on the events in the 1990s, which laid the foundations for Sports Car Racing today.
Early Days (1920-30s)
In the 1920s, Sports Car and Grand Prix motor races effectively used the same machinery, with both forms of racing sporting closed wheel cars with 2 seats; the Second Seat was often used for mechanics (in modern sports car racing, regulations still require room for a second seat in the cockpit, although this space is often used for electronics).
1923 saw the running of the inaugural 24 Hours of Le Mans, on a 17.26 kilometer long circuit that was laid out along public roads.
This practice of the same cars being used across Sports Car and Grand Prix series continued until the early 1930s, when specialisation began to creep into both categories, with a notable example of this being the Alfa Romeo Tipo A, the very first Single Seater racing car.
Post-War years & the Separation of GTs & Sports Cars (1945-1950s)
Following the conclusion of World War II, motorsport returned in the late 1940s, and in 1953, 3 years after the establishment of the FIA World Championship of Drivers, the FIA World Championship for Sports Cars was established. The Championship would run for 39 consecutive years in various guises, before meeting its demise in early 1993. In 1958, the championship had its’ first major rule change, with the introduction of a 3-Litre engine size limit, in the wake of high-profile accidents at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In 1962, the FIA opted to shift the focus of the championship away from Sports Cars to production-based GTs. Despite this, Sports Cars and Prototypes were still able to contest in the championship, in the Coupe des Sports category. This season marked the first time that teams and drivers would compete for class titles, as opposed a single championship title, a practice that still stands today in the FIA World Endurance Championship.
Rise & Fall of the Prototypes (1960-1970s)
By the early 1960s, the first Sports Prototypes began appearing in the Championship, and even after the 1962 changes in the championship. In 1966, the Championship underwent a series of changes, with the introduction of the International Manufacturers’ Championship & the International Sports Car Championship, replacing the former International Trophy for GT Prototypes and the International Championship for GT Manufacturers, respectively. Group 6 Prototypes would compete for the first crown, while Group 4 Sports Cars, which had a production requirement would vy for the latter title. This arrangement did not last long, and by 1968, Group 4 Sports Cars began competing against Group 6 Prototypes and Group 3 Grand Touring Cars in the International Championship for Makes. An International Cup for GT Cars was introduced below the Championship for Makes, exclusively running Group 3 cars.
This period saw Sports Car Racing come into the international spotlight, with numerous marques entering works supported teams into major sports car races, while the release of the 1971 Steve McQueen film Le Mans further boosted global awareness of the sport. This period also saw the emergence of the first “Homologation specials”, where manufacturers built race cars in sufficient quantities to qualify as a “Production vehicle”, or built “production vehicles” which were really race cars that adapted to be “road-going”. This is still practised today, with the now-retired Ford GT LM being a notable modern-day example.
Owing to the high costs of running and building Sports Prototypes, by the late 1970s, interest in Prototype racing had collapsed, with most grids being filled with Group 4 Special Grand Touring Cars and Group 5 Sports Cars.
Prototype Renaissance – Group C & GTP era (1980s)
In 1981, the World Championship for Makes evolved into the World Endurance Championship, and in 1982, introduced the Group C prototypes, a new class of Prototypes which were similar to the IMSA GTP class which had been introduced in the IMSA GT Championship in 1981. While both classes were relatively similar, Group C placed an emphasis on Fuel Consumption when limiting vehicle performance, while GTP used a scale that pegged minimum weights to engine size. Both IMSA GTP & Group C had junior classes, Camel Lights & Group C Junior (later Group C2) respectively.
In the 1982 World Endurance Championship, Group B was introduced, with the class intended to replace Group 4 & 5. However, following a series of High-Profile Rally accidents, the entire class was scrapped in 1986, and the World Endurance Championship became rechristened as the FIA World Sports Prototype Championship, run solely with Group C machinery.
Group C/GTP Collapse & The birth of modern GT Racing (1990s)
In the 1991 season, Group C had an engine rules change, which banned the use of Turbocharged engines, with the new engine Formula allowing engines of up to 12 cylinders with a maximum capacity of 3.5 Litres. This In the 1991 season, Group C had an engine rules change, which banned the use of Turbocharged engines, with the new engine Formula allowing engines of up to 12 cylinders with a maximum capacity of 3.5 Litres.
This move effectively brought Group Cs engine regulations in line with that of Formula 1 and would prove to be the mistake that led to the collapse of the class. 1991 would be a transition year, and cars from the 1990 season were eligible to be grandfathered in the championship. However, in 1992, cars utilising engines above 3.5 litres in capacity, or forced induction could no longer compete, resulting in a vastly depleted grid compared to the previous year. The high cost of Formula 1-spec engines was unaffordable for privateers, while manufacturers who realised that they now had a Formula 1 engine departed Group C to focus on Formula 1 programmes.
Across the pond in the IMSA GT Championship, the GTP category was also facing a dearth in entries. Owing to similarly declining manufacturer interest, and the departure of privateers, GTP cars were phased out of the IMSA GT Championship by the end of the 1993 season.
For the 1992 24 Hours of Le Mans, the ACO allowed small open-cockpit race cars using production road car engines which were raced in small national championships to enter, in an attempt to boost the Prototype count. For 1993, cars in the category became known as Le Mans Prototypes and in 1994, after Group C cars were phased out at Le Mans, the term was applied to 2 open-cockpit sports prototype classes: LMP1 (Cars with large displacement custom-built engines that were usually turbocharged) & LMP2 (Cars with smaller displacement production-based engines).
In 1994, the IMSA GT Championship introduced the World Sports Car (WSC) category, which would be equivalent to LMP1, featuring open cockpit Prototypes and also allowing turbocharged engines. This LMP1/WSC & LMP2 format would in use at Le Mans until 1999, when LMP2 was axed briefly in 1999 for the LMGTP class, a new class of closed-cockpit prototypes comprising of “Homologation Specials” which had previously run in the LMGT1 class. (more on this will be covered later)
1997 saw the establishment of the International Sports Racing Series, which would eventually evolve into the FIA Sports Car Championship. The Championship used 2 prototype classes, SR1 & SR2. Both classes were similar to LMP1 & LMP2 respectively, albeit with some differences. In 1998, the Championship introduced the CN class, with the class appearing in the championship for a single season before being removed.
The 1998 season would prove to be the final season of the IMSA GT Championship, which now faced competition in the United States from the breakaway United States Road Racing Championship (USRRC), which eventually evolved into the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series. For the 1999 season, the IMSA GT Championship morphed into the American Le Mans series, utilising the ACO’s rules.
The decline of Prototype Racing in the early 1990s saw the rise of various GT The decline of Prototype Racing in the early 1990s saw the rise of various GT series across the world. In Japan, following the collapse of the All-Japan Sports Prototype Championship, the All Japan Grand Touring Car Championship was created in 1993, which subsequently evolved into the Super GT Championship, running a mix of silhouettes and production-based Grand Tourers.
In Europe, the BPR GT series was created in 1994, by Patrick Peter, Stéphane Ratel and Jürgen Barth, as an international championship that sought to fill the void left in the wake of the fallen World Championship. The series had started out as a championship intended for privateers, but by the 1996 season, manufacturer teams had began to populate the championship, and it morphed into the FIA GT Championship in the next year. In 1996, post-Le Mans, controversy erupted in the paddock after the Porsche factory team entered the final few rounds of the season with the “Homologation Special” 911 GT1. In a bid to appease teams, a compromise saw the Porsches being able to start, but be ineligible for points.
The 1997 FIA GT Championship saw the GT1 category filled with professional teams, and the introduction of yet another “Homologation Special”, the Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR. Realising the F1 GTR could no longer be competitive against the “Homologation Specials”, McLaren drastically upgraded the F1 GTR, with the alterations being significant enough to necessitate the building of new road cars with the updated bodywork, effectively turning the car into a homologation special. The resulting car was known as the F1 GT, with 3 being produced, while Le Mans saw the introduction of Nissan R390 GT1.
1998 saw a similar situation in both the FIA GT Championship and Le Mans, with Porsche returning with the 911 GT1-98, and Mercedes with the both the CLK GTR and the CLK LM. Le Mans saw Toyota bring out it’s GT-One, which became infamous for it’s “luggage space” located in the fuel tank, successfully convincing ACO officials that the Fuel Tank was trunk space when emptied, since it was theoretically able to hold a suitcase.
The 1999 season saw the GT1 category cut out of the FIA GT Championship, owing to a lack of entries; the sole entrant had been none other than Mercedes-AMG, who had dominated the 1998 season….