Group C Heaven
Mike Cotton's piece on the 1982 Brands Hatch 1000 Kms stirred memories of
my years as Rothmans Porsche press officer, one of the many bows I have strung
during my career as a journalist and broadcaster.
I too was there; that and the similarly wet 1970 BOAC 1000 Kms were two of the
greatest races I have ever seen. In 1970 it was Pedro Rodriguez at the wheel of
the Gulf Porsche 917K, who threw the 570bhp beast around the Kentish circuit as
if it was dry. Not only that, but he elected to stay in the car for most of the race,
partner Leo Kinnunen being offered the minimum of driving, and the Mexican
finished five laps ahead of the second-placed Vic Elford/Denny Hulme 917K.
That dark, damp day, as much as anything, fired my enthusiasm for sportscar
racing, and four years later I raced a Chevron B21 in the same event. I fought a
first-hour battle with Porsche customer manager Jurgen Barth, who was at the
wheel of the Joest 908, and we were later to become close friends.
That was to be my last competitive drive, as the money had run out, and I was
called by the BARC to be press officer at Thruxton. After eight years in Hampshire,
I moved on to Silverstone to become press manager, and it was there in 1982 that
I was in at the birth of Group C.
Do you have a light, Mac?
Rothmans had already been involved in motorsport in the '70s as race and
Formula 5000 sponsors, but was now making a concerted effort to take its place
on the world stage. It was backing John McDonald's March Formula 1 team, and
at the same time talking to Porsche, which was pioneering fuel-economy in racing
with its 956 Group C programme.
Rothmans International's promotions boss Sean Roberts virtually took over
Silverstone for the first Group C race, the Silverstone 6 Hours, which as Mike
recalled saw the German factory hamstrung by the new FIA fuel formula, while
Lancia's open prototypes could race unfettered. Come Le Mans in June, Sean
asked me to look after the team's press operation, and I took a week's leave from
Silverstone. The cars finished 1-2-3; I could get to like this.
The result more than made up for the PR disaster that had been the Monaco
Grand Prix two weeks earlier, when neither of the Avon-tyres Rothmans Marches
qualified. Rothmans had taken 500 guests to the race, and presented each with a
Provençal wall tile proudly commemorating John Mass's 100th grand prix. That
had to wait a few more weeks...
Tip at the Title
Brands Hatch was almost as important to Rothmans as Le Mans, as it suddenly
had a chance of both makes and driver titles in its first year of sponsorship. But
first it had to beat Lancia and Sauber. The early rain played into Spa specialist
Jacky Ickx's hands, as it wiped out any need to save fuel, and many - including
Jacky himself - cite this as the finest drive of his career, ranking up with that of
As Mr. Cotton recounted, Porsche's Peter Falk came close to shooting himself
in the foot when he failed to realise that the race was to be run as two parts after
being red-flagged when the Ford C100s took each out. Sauber's Hans Stuck had
won the first from Ickx. However, master tactician Ickx, already a five-times Le
Mans winner, had worked that one out for himself, and after the Sauber's
retirement, set off after Ricardo Patrese, who had a 68-second lead with 35 laps
The Belgian threw caution to the wind over those magical laps on a drying track,
and when the chequered flag flew soon after five-and-half-hours of racing, the
Porsche had closed to within 4.7 seconds of the Lancia. That was enough to give
Ickx the win on aggregate, and the driversí title too. The makes championship,
contested against Rondeau as Lancia was not eligible, was not declared until the
FIA controversially confirmed that the points scored by a Group B Porsche in the
Nürburgring 1000 Kms could count towards Weissach's final score.
How could Rothmans Porsche top that? With even more dominant victories in the
Group C years to come, three further Le Mans wins and a string of titles for Ickx,
Bell and Hans Stuck. It encouraged me to leave Silverstone early in 1983, to join
Even then the competition was growing fast as Porsche was selling 956s to
customer teams such as Joest, Kremer, Richard Lloyd and John Fitzpatrick. It
was always rumoured, but never confirmed, that Rothmans paid Reinhold Joest
to run in Marlboro colours at the Monza opener to provide competition a different
livery. The Marlboro car, piloted by Stefan Johansson and Klaus Ludwig, won...
To my eyes, Group C cars are still the most dramatic race cars ever to hit the
tracks, even if restricted by the unloved fuel formula. That, though, had its benefits,
advancing road car technology through Bosch's work with Porsche, and
composite material technology as others - Jaguar, Mercedes and Peugeot - finally
ended Porsche's domination.
Days of Future Past
This week I am off to Daytona for the Rolex 24, like Le Mans one of my favourite
events, and I again look forward to seeing what I consider to be the closest the
sport has since got to Group C: Daytona Prototypes. Like anything new, they just
take a while to get used to.
I have also long been a great fans of 1000 Kms races, and so I welcome
Stephane Ratel and the ACO's initiative in recreating four of the classics this year
at the Nürburgring, Spa, Monza and Silverstone.
Open prototypes have had their day, and as GTs grow more and more Group
C-like, so who knows? Perhaps one day they'll be back.