The five golden ages of motorsport

27th May 2020
Ben Miles

Motorsport ebbs and flows, regulation changes create new landscapes and teams come to the fore and drop back. But in each disciplines which one period is the 'golden era'? Here's what we think.


F1 – the 1980s

There are many who would look pointedly at the earliest days of Formula 1 and demand they be recognised as the true glory of the sport. The days when brave men raced monstrous cars with no kind of protection. But for me a golden era really needs to be competitive and great to watch. While the early days and even the ‘60s were exciting to witness in person, they weren’t exactly the most competitive. Take Alberto Ascari’s first title in 1952, he didn’t race at the first race in Switzerland, had a go at the Indy 500 and failed to finish, but then won every one of the remaining six races of the season. If it hadn’t been for F1’s dropped points system he would have finished the season with more than double the points total of his nearest rival, fellow Ferrari driver Guiseppe Farina. So for us those days are out. So what have I chosen as F1’s golden era? Well, rather than go for a specific ruleset, or a time known for a single manufacturer or driver, we’ve gone for a decade. This decade spans two different iconic rulesets (ground effect and turbo) and saw the end of some legendary careers (Lauda) and the beginning of others (Senna, Mansell and Prost). The 1980s really had it all.

The decade began with turbocharging beginning to hit its stride, Renault had pioneered the technology in the late 1970s and the rest of the grid began to experiment with it throughout the next decade. Bernie Ecclestone’s Brabham team even managed to talk BMW into turbocharging a four-cylinder engine to beyond a thousand horsepower. Initially this was combined with ground effect technology – not outlawed until 1983 – meaning the ‘80s straddled two of Formula 1’s most iconic rulesets. The presence of these two sets of awesome regulations is a heady enough mix to make the 1980s brilliant, and then you factor in the competition itself.

Between 1980 and 1990 the biggest winning margin in the championship was 20 points, and the smallest a record 0.5. Six times over the course of the decade the winner was decided fewer than ten points. Behind the numbers it was a decade of intrigue too, from the amazing season where Keke Rosberg won the title with a single victory, to the rivalries of Mansell and Piquet and later Prost and Senna. The ‘80s also brought some of the most iconic cars ever to race. Cars like the awesome, arrow-shaped Brabham BT52, the mighty Williams FW11 – the centre of the famous Piquet-Mansell squabble – and the McLaren MP4/4, possibly the greatest Formula 1 car of all time. Many decades can claim to have seen incredible Formula 1 feats, but I would argue that the 1980s has the greatest spread of awesome action.


Rallying – now

You thought we were going to say Group B didn’t you? Sure those cars were cool, they were powerful, the most mighty cars rallying had ever seen, or would see for the following thirty years. The drivers had incredible bravery and those were dangerous days. But Group B cars, as much as I love them, are quite slow in anything other than a straight line. So no, the actual WRC golden era is going on right now.

But, I hear you cry, the cars are all little hatchbacks with small engines. And you are correct. But these are small hatchbacks with massive aero packages, another thing that made formulae like Group B and Group 5 Special Production so awesome, and are as mighty as Group B cars. They might not belch flames like a Group B car, but they are faster in every respect and feature a plethora of technologies that make the 1980s seems like the 1880s. Toyota have even built a modern homologation special to compete with a different body-shape on the Yaris for 2021.

Today’s WRC is one of the most competitive formulae around, and features drivers who could justifiably stake a claim as some of the greatest ever. Sebastien Ogier may have been the dominant name for the last half decade, but there is proper reason to argue that he is the greatest driver the sport has ever seen – six titles, with two different teams, two of which came in an under-funded part-privateer effort and rallies won with four different manufacturers. Now the likes of Ott Tänak, Thierry Neuville, and perhaps even Elfyn Evans are emerging to challenge Ogier on equal terms. The last three season’s title battles have gone down to the last couple of rounds with rallies offering some spectacular excitement – who can forget Evans appearing in view with a puncture while seemingly on his way to an easy Tour de Corse win last season? Or Neuville ending his hopes of championship glory in 2018 by ripping a wheel off his Hyundai on the final stage loop of the last round?

Modern WRC has Hyundai, Toyota and Ford all going at it for victory, with Citroën only just departing the scene – as many manufacturers as pretty much any top line motorsport can boast right now – with Volkswagen, Citroën, Ford and Skoda all involved in the second tier of the sport. With the fastest cars ever and the best drivers ever who could argue that today isn’t a golden era of rallying?


Touring cars – Super Touring

Since we’re based in the UK, we’ll probably focus on the British Touring Car Championship to make our argument for the Super Touring era being the greatest in touring car history. At the height, not only were Renault, Audi, Volvo, Nissan, Vauxhall, Honda, Ford and Peugeot fielding factory teams, but they were using the likes of Williams to run their efforts and hiring drivers including Frank Biela, Nigel Mansell and Gabriele Tarquini. Between 1990 and 2000 six different nationalities won the drivers’ title and only one driver managed to win it twice (Alain Menu).

Introduced as the ‘2-litre Touring Car Formula’ in the BTCC in 1990, it would become an FIA global class in 1993, before the name Super Tourer was official adopted in 1995. The cars were, to the outside eye, very much like beefed-up road cars, but as the manufacturers got more and more involved these cars gradually became racing tech demons. Look under the bonnet of a later Super Tourer and you’ll see the engine set so far back it’s basically mid-engined, aerodynamics became a hardcore battleground and Audi even won with a four-wheel-drive system in 1996.

If you think of the BTCC the image that jumps into your head is of Super Touring cars, the names that appear at first thought are the names of that time (even Jason Plato began his career in Super Tourers). As if that wasn’t enough, this single formula became so popular it spread far enough around the world for the BTCC drivers to find themselves racing their cars at Bathurst in New South Wales, Australia.

Like most incredible eras in motorsport (including the one coming next) manufacturer involvement brought spiralling costs in the attempt to gain an advantage, until the series pretty much ate itself. But what a ride it was on the way. Oh, and if you need any more encouragement that Super Touring was amazing – Volvo raced an estate in 1994...


Sportscars – Group C

For me, this is an agonising choice. As a massive Le Mans-nerd I love basically every era of competition in sportscars. The early days of bonkers brave men in their rickety machines. The beautiful 1950s, the Ford v Ferrari and Porsche v Ferrari battles of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Group 6 and the 936, GT1 and the F1 GTR, LMP1 and Audi, LMP1-H and Porsche v Toyota. They are all awesome. But sometimes you just have to look at it with a cold set of eyes and see that the era that sportscar racing most grabbed the attention was Group C. From the early 1980s to the early 1990s Group C sportscars and Group B rallying really looked like they could knock F1 off its perch for popularity – and that in an era I’ve picked as the Formula 1 golden age.

Group C was a simple formula, and that was the point; aero regs created sleek closed-cockpit coupes, and incredibly open engine regulations allowed an awesome array of sounds to be emitted from those stunning machines. Porsche and Ford were the first to enter, Porsche more bombing than gently slipping a toe in with the mighty 956. They were eventually followed by Lancia, Jaguar, Mercedes, Nissan, Toyota, Mazda and Aston Martin. Few formulae have ever seen quite so many manufacturers dive in. Through the ‘80s the battles for victory got faster and faster, with costs still remaining relatively low. In this period the likes of Jacky Ickx and Derek Bell cemented their status as sportscar legends, and the mighty Stefan Bellof set a lap record at the fearsome Nürburgring Nordschleife that stands to this day. Porsche might have won five consecutive Le Mans between 1983 and 1987, but they were heading a field full of both factory teams and a raft of privateers who were easily able to run with the top level machines and compete with the manufacturers.

Over the pond in the US, IMSA ran its GTP class to basically the same regulations as Group C, meaning that Porsche, Jaguar and co. could compete on almost every continent in the same machinery. And then just as Group C seemed to be taking over the world, the regs were changed. Expensive F1-derived engines arrived and in a couple of Peugeot-dominated seasons it was all over. What had been meant to save costs and increase manufacturer involvement in both series actually ended one and asserted the dominance of the other. So while Group C in name carried on until 1993, the golden era was the ten seasons from 1983 until 1992, and it was awesome.


IndyCar – the 1990s

There was a period, in the mid-1990s, where the IndyCar series – known then as CART – had the ability not only to generate more interest at times than Formula 1, but actually to poach drivers. And not just any drivers, the current World Champion. When Nigel Mansell made the switch from Formula 1 and Williams to CART and Newman/Haas it was partly due to a particularly Mansell-ian reaction to news of his new team-mate for 1993, and partly because the money and interest in CART were on a par with that of Formula 1. And Mansell wasn’t going over to just defeat a bunch of second-rate no hopers. He was up against Emerson Fittipaldi, Bobby Rahal, Mario Andretti, Al Unser Jr. These were some serious names.

CART’s ‘90s formula was pretty simple: big, hairy engines and not an awful lot of downforce. It meant the cars were quick – with Mercedes’ Ilmor-designed engine easily topping 1,000bhp – but looked spectacular on the edge. Mansell would win the championship at the first try, becoming the only person to hold both F1 and IndyCar titles at the same time, but in 1994 he didn’t have it his own way and quickly left after an unimpressive second go.

Over the next few years CART would become a breeding ground for some of the finest racing drivers around. Jacques Villeneuve, Juan Pablo Montoya, Dario Franchitti; they all got their start in world of CART, learning how to handle cars which needed proper driving.

But it was also the variety that made CART so good. While the competing Indy Racing League went back to the heartland of oval racing, CART mixed it up. There were races on ovals, but also street circuits, races on airfields and races on traditional road courses. It was a proper all-round test of driving and people loved it.

But in the early-2000s the bubble began to burst. The cars were still cool and the driving close, but the IRL was cheaper, and broadcasters and teams both began to migrate, CART became Champ Car and eventually folded into the IRL to create the IndyCar series we now know. But for a decade in the 1990s, CART was everything.

Photograpy courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • F1

  • Indycar

  • Le Mans

  • Group C

  • WRC

  • BTCC

  • Super Touring

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