GRR

Group C's Top 10 Drivers – Part 1

13th June 2016
Kevin Turner
Five who tamed sportscars' greatest monsters...
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Jacky Ickx

1982 and 1983 World Sportscar Champion

1982 Le Mans winner

11 Group C World Sportscar victories

Although the Group C era came towards the end of his glittering career, Jacky Ickx was still one of sportscar racing’s benchmarks in the early 1980s.

Ickx’s first endurance successes came while he was still a leading contender in Formula 1. His time at the pinnacle of single-seaters yielded eight World Championship Grand Prix victories and the Belgian was twice runner-up in the F1 drivers’ standings.

By the time his F1 career was over – in 1979 – Ickx was already a four-time winner of the Le Mans 24 Hours and he was Porsche’s lead driver as Group C approached. Indeed, he and legendary co-driver Derek Bell used Porsche’s type-935 2.65-litre engine that would become its Group C powerplant in the back of an ageing 936 chassis to dominate at Le Mans in 1981.

Ickx, ably supported by Bell and Jochen Mass, then battled for the first Group C drivers’ title against Lancia’s Riccardo Patrese. Along the way, Ickx and Bell led an impressive 956 1-2-3 at Le Mans as Porsche stamped its authority on the new category.

The German marque had already wrapped up the manufacturers’ crown when it sent one car to the Brands Hatch finale, with Ickx leading Patrese by one point in the drivers’ table, and the stage was set for a dramatic championship showdown.

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In the closing stages of a rain-affected encounter that had been red-flagged and restarted over a second part, Ickx was left to chase Teo Fabi, who was sharing the leading Lancia with Patrese. Whichever title protagonist finished ahead would be champion and Ickx scythed through the traffic to cross the line 1.7 seconds behind after a stirring performance. And that, thanks to the Porsche’s advantage over the Lancia from the first part of the race, was enough to give Ickx the victory – and crown – by 4.7 seconds.

Despite competition from rising stars like Stefan Bellof and Jonathan Palmer, Ickx remained one of the world’s leading sportscar stars and secured a second title in 1983, even though another Le Mans success narrowly eluded him.

Ickx was still a race winner in his final Group C season in 1985. Sadly, his year was marred by the death of Bellof after the young German tried an ambitious move on Ickx into Eau Rouge at Spa, a circuit at which Ickx had always excelled.

One of the great motorsport all-rounders, Ickx can also boast a European Touring Car Championship class title (in 1965 with a Ford Mustang), Bathurst 1,000 victory (in 1977 with Allan Moffat in a Ford), the 1979 Can-Am crown in a Lola, and a Dakar Rally success (in 1983 with Mercedes) on his CV.

Ickx has never been far from the sport and in 1991 was a consultant to the ORECA-run Mazda squad that won Le Mans with the rotary-engined 787B.

A true legend, it’s no surprise that Ickx is still a popular figure whenever he appears on the hill at the Goodwood Festival of Speed.

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Derek Bell

1985 and 1986 World Sportscar champion

1982, 1986 and 1987 Le Mans winner

15 Group C World Sportscar victories

Britain’s most successful Le Mans driver with five wins in the 24 Hours, Derek Bell began his career at Goodwood in 1964 and became one of sportscar racing’s familiar names.

Before Group C began, he forged a strong partnership with Jacky Ickx, producing one of the sport’s great line-ups.

Bell had a promising junior single-seater record, but things never really came together in Formula 1 and the Briton scored just one point from nine starts. Fortunately, sportscar racing provided more opportunities and Bell became a stalwart of John Wyer’s JWA operation, taking his first Le Mans win in 1975 alongside Ickx.

By the early 1980s, he was one of the leading names on the Porsche factory’s list of drivers and Bell duly assisted Ickx to another Le Mans success (their third together) and the World Endurance Championship drivers’ crown in 1982 with the 956.

For much of 1983 and 1984, Bell was partnered with rapid rising star Stefan Bellof. As expected, he was not as quick as his young German co-driver, but he could be called upon to make sure they hit their fuel-consumption targets, and it wasn’t Bell who had the occasional spectacular accident. The duo was successful and Bellof won the 1984 drivers’ title.

Bell finally got his just reward with his own world crown – shared with new co-driver Hans-Joachim Stück – in 1985. He then narrowly made it a double after a topsy-turvy season finale against Jaguar the following year.

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Before that, though, had come arguably Bell’s greatest drive. Sharing once again with Ickx at Le Mans in 1983, Bell found himself second in the closing stages, chasing down a two-lap deficit to the ailing sister 956 of Al Holbert/Vern Schuppan/Hurley Haywood after several early delays. Bell’s car was suffering with cracked brake discs, but changing them would certainly have cost the duo any chance of winning.

Bell stepped up, hurling the car around in uncharacteristic style, lapping almost as quickly as Ickx had done previously with a healthy car. Holbert’s overheating 956 staggered around the last lap to cross the line just 64 seconds ahead of Bell, who then ran out of fuel.

Somewhat ironically, Holbert would then help Bell to his fourth and fifth Le Mans wins in 1986 and 1987. Along with Stück, they fought off the growing Jaguar threat on both occasions. The latter victory was particularly special, the trio being the only factory Porsche for much of the race after a terrible week for the marque.

That 1987 success was also the final race in an incredible seven-year sequence in which Bell finished on the Le Mans podium every year, including four victories.

He continued to race Porsches to the end of the era, scoring his third Daytona 24 Hours success in 1989. The closest he came to a sixth Le Mans win was in 1995, sharing a McLaren F1 GTR with son Justin and Andy Wallace. They finished third.

Now 74, Bell remains a Goodwood regular and is always a fan favourite.

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Stefan Bellof

1984 World Sportscar Champion

9 Group C World Sportscar victories

One of sportscar racing’s worst moments came when Stefan Bellof lost his life during the Spa 1,000km in September 1985. The 27-year-old German had already won the world title and a successful career in Formula 1 appeared to beckon.

The move to overtake his Group C rival Jacky Ickx into Eau Rouge was an ill-judged one, but he paid a heavy price. As did German motorsport. Along with the death of Manfred Winkelhock in a Porsche at Mosport less than a month earlier, it meant Germany had to wait another decade before finding an F1 world champion.

Bellof had impressed in European Formula 2 on his way up, taking fourth in the 1982 standings in a Maurer-BMW. For 1983 he joined the factory Porsche squad in the World Sportscar Championship and immediately startled the old hands with his raw speed.

He became the pacesetter, taking half the poles over the next two seasons, sparking a rivalry with established star Ickx within the same team. Like Ickx – almost 13 years his senior – Bellof was also a rainmeister.

The highlight of his first Porsche season was perhaps his qualifying record on the 12.9-mile Nürburgring Nordschleife – 6m11.13s (a speed of over 125mph), a mark that still stands – and his rapid pace while leading the 1,000km itself, culminating in another (race) record of 6m25.91s.

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The lowlight was crashing the Rothmans 956 in the same event after he and Derek Bell had built up a big lead. It was a massive crash too, the 956 taking off at the Pflanzgarten and destroying itself, though Bellof escaped serious injury.

In 1984 Bellof starred in the Monaco Grand Prix for Tyrrell. Fellow F1 rookie Ayrton Senna grabbed the headlines for his red-flag-thwarted chase of leader Alain Prost’s McLaren in appalling conditions, but Bellof had been catching both turbo cars in his Cosworth DFV-engined 012. He still finished third, only for the team to lose all its results at the end of the year after a fuel-sample controversy.

At the same time, Bellof was piecing together a title challenge in Group C. Many observers suggested he only had one speed: flat-out. That was not necessarily ideal for fuel-formula competition, but the wins kept coming. Ably support by the experienced Bell for much of the campaign, Bellof scored six victories and beat Jochen Mass and Ickx to the drivers’ crown to underline his status as one of the fastest drivers in the world.

There was no works Porsche deal for 1985 so Bellof, who remained at Tyrrell in F1, raced a Brun Motorsport 956 in selected events alongside Thierry Boutsen. It was in this car that Bellof made his fateful move on Ickx, sending the Brun machine head-on into the barriers. The 27-year-old stood little chance.

Bellof is often considered the lost talent of his generation. His sportscar career did at least provide a stage for him to showcase his abilities in a way F1 had not done by 1985.

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Hans-Joachim Stück

1985 World Sportscar Champion

1986 and 1987 Le Mans winner

7 Group C World Sportscar victories

The son of famed pre-war Auto Union driver Hans Stück, Hans-Joachim was one of the best post-war German drivers. In a long and illustrious career, he scored wins in touring cars, sports-prototypes and GT1, and was also one of the drivers you’d want behind the wheel when rain arrived.

A winner in European Formula 2, Stück graduated to Formula 1 in 1974 with March. He was a podium finisher with Brabham in 1977, but that was as good as it got for the tall Stück at the pinnacle of single-seaters. He bowed out after a fifth place in the 1979 USA Grand Prix for ATS, having started 74 World Championship Grands Prix.

By then he had already started the Le Mans 24 Hours in touring car machinery, and Stück underlined his endurance credentials with a stunning drive against faster entries in the appallingly wet 1981 Silverstone 6 Hours in a BMW M1.

Stück’s first major sportscar victory came at Imola in 1984, sharing with Stefan Bellof, and the following season he replaced his fellow German in the works Porsche squad, partnering Derek Bell.

It proved the perfect move. Three wins in a four-race run mid-season were enough for the Anglo-German alliance to beat team-mates Jacky Ickx/Jochen Mass to the World Sportscar drivers’ title.

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The duo then narrowly held off the new Jaguar challenge to win again the following season, though Stück lost the crown to Bell on a tiebreak. They also won Le Mans, along with American Porsche ace Al Holbert.

Stück, who had racked up good mileage in the 956/962 even before joining the factory racing line-up, established himself as the pace man in the squad. In 1987 he took four poles, even though by then the ageing turbo Porsche was no match for the Jaguar XJR-8 in sprint races. It was, however, still a force in longer events and Stück/Bell/Holbert repeated their 1986 success against the odds.

Stück qualified on pole and set fastest lap in the 1988 French classic too, but had to settle for second after a hard-fought battle with Jaguar. He remained a leading Porsche driver long after the firm’s withdrawal from the championship, and twice won the Sebring 12 Hours in 962s, adding to his 1975 honours with BMW.

Porsche’s return with the GT1 in 1996 yielded two BPR GT victories – and another near miss at Le Mans – but in between Stück had proved his versatility elsewhere. There were Trans-Am race wins and a DTM title for Audi, as well 24-hour successes at his beloved Nürburgring for BMW.

One of sportscar racing’s great characters, Stück is still involved with the sport and has starred at the Festival of Speed many times, piloting a variety of machinery ranging from pre-war Auto Union to Audi tin-top, via Rothmans Porsche. It’s always a delight to welcome the enthusiastic German to Goodwood.

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Jan Lammers

1988 Le Mans winner

5 Group C World Sportscar victories

One of many drivers never to get a proper Formula 1 chance in competitive machinery, despite a fine junior record that included the 1978 European Formula 3 crown, Jan Lammers became an endurance racing ace during the 1980s.

The popular and versatile Dutchman’s first World Sportscar victory came at Brands Hatch in 1984, sharing a GTi Engineering/Richard Lloyd Racing Porsche with Jonathan Palmer, but it was with the Tom Walkinshaw Racing Jaguar operation that he really made his mark.

After three wins with ex-F1 driver John Watson in an XJR-8, Lammers narrowly missed out on the 1987 drivers’ crown to Jaguar team-mate Raul Boesel. Perhaps his finest moment, however, came in the following year’s Le Mans 24 Hours.

Ranged against the works Porsche team, Lammers’ XJR-9LM took the fight to the German firm – unbeaten at La Sarthe since 1980 – from the start of the 1988 race. He, Andy Wallace and Johnny Dumfries kept the pressure up, even as the other Big Cats hit trouble, and were always in the lead battle.

In the closing stages, Lammers had to contend with a transmission problem – which had already struck the sister cars – but sympathetically coaxed the car home to give Jaguar its first Le Mans win for 31 years, doing much for the profile of Group C in the process.

Wallace, who was just starting out on his own successful sportscar career, remembers Lammers was also a star outside of the cockpit.

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“Jan helped me a lot,” he says. “He was a well-respected member of the TWR team. I was just out of Formula 3 and single-seater drivers don’t trust anyone, but he was incredibly helpful straight away. We walked around the track and he told me things about 24-hour races that I used throughout my career.”

Lammers remained a hard trier for Jaguar over the next two seasons, finishing fourth and second at Le Mans in 1989 and 1990 respectively. Sharing with Wallace, Martin Brundle and Davy Jones, he also claimed Daytona 24 Hours success with Jaguar in 1990 to further prove his endurance credentials.

There were no more World Sportscar Championship wins as Jaguar’s XJR-11 was outclassed by the Sauber-Mercedes C9 and C11, but Lammers did get another F1 call-up, albeit briefly with March at the end of 1992.

He also raced alongside Rickard Rydell in the 1994 British Touring Car Championship for Volvo in the infamous 850 SE/GLT estate, scoring a best finish of fifth.

More significantly, he was a stalwart of GT and sportscar racing with various teams throughout the 1990s and 2000s, often starring at Le Mans. He started his own successful Racing for Holland operation around the turn of the Millennium and took FIA Sportscar Championship titles with his Dome in 2002 and 2003.

Lammers also went on to run the Dutch A1 GP squad, but it is his time at Jaguar in Group C for which he is probably best remembered.

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