Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Greatest Racing Eras – Group A Touring Cars (1982 - 1994)

The start of the 1992 Australian Touring Car race at Mallala (Image: IBC Holdings)

Starting a new series of blog posts, I’m taking a look at some of what I consider to be the greatest eras of motorsport. They’re also my favourites as well, in case you couldn't tell. First off, we start with the great Group A touring car category.

Ah, tin-tops. Everyone who’s anyone and a motorsports fan loves touring cars. It’s really a great way of relating back to what you drive in real life. Watching now, you see a Civic, Vectra, 3 Series or Leon and recognise it instantly, even see it on the roads today, unlike GT racing where those kinds of vehicles exist but aren’t commonly seen on the roads. Modern day touring car racing definitely has its roots, and I believe one of the major contributions to it was the Group A era.

The FIA introduced Group A for both rally and touring cars in 1982, the same time that Group B was conceived (which we’ll cover in another blog post). But for the tourers, it marked a replacement to Group 2 for modified touring cars, while Group N took over from Group 1 for standard touring cars. The regulations stated a minimum of 2500 road versions of the chosen vehicle had to be manufactured in order for it to homologated according to the Group A rules.

The European Touring Car Championship adopted the class first in 1982, followed by the ever popular and world-renowned British championsip a year later. At first, cars such as the V12 Jaguar, BMW 635CSi and Rover Vitesse which were the early big guns across Europe. 1984 saw the new tin-top phenomenon sweep to Germany, with the 635 asserting itself as the dominant vehicle of choice, while the Tom Walkinshaw-run Jags took the Euro title. Japan and Australia caught the Group A bug in 1985 with the BMW continuing its success in the Far East, while Volvo set about conquering Europe with the 240 Turbo, claiming Euro and German titles. Australia had Holden and Ford battling together with Volvo and BMW with giants such as Peter Brock, Dick Johnson and Jim Richards.

By 1987 the FIA decided to stage the first ever World Touring Car Championship which also saw the emergence of 2 legendary machines – the BMW M3 E30 and the iconic Ford Sierra RS500. In their Texaco livery, the Rudi Eggenberger-tuned Fords ran away with the Teams title while Italian Roberto Ravaglia claimed the name World’s Best Touring Car Driver in his M3. But after just 1 season, the series was scrapped due to the FIA fearing it would take away money from Formula 1, the premier racing series in the world, and so they discontinued it on the count of being too successful!

The biggest shake up in the class’ history came when Nissan began a program running the R32 Skyline GT-R, with four-wheel-drive and over 600hp. From it’s first race in 1990 at Winton Raceway, it was clear that the opposition had good reason to be very worried. It competed in the Spa 24 Hours and took a victory in 1991. But by this time, the Sierra and M3 had been the main forces in Group A events across the world. Now it was time for the Japanese to step it up a notch. The governing bodies could see the advantage it was gaining and allowed power gains for the other cars while the GT-R was told to put on weight.

1991 was their first full campaign and it was a straight walkover, with Jim Richards taking his second straight title ahead of teammate Mark Skaife. The Holden Commodore, Sierra and M3 fought as best they could, but could not overthrow them. So for 1992, seeing that despite adding as much weight as they could to the Nissan, the final verdict was to scrap Group A at the end of the season. Nissan managed to go out on a high with Skaife winning the GT-R's 3rd straight title, while Jim Richards took its last ever win at the Australian GP support races at Adelaide. By this time the world’s championships had moved on. The BTCC had switched to their own 2-Litre formula in 1991, and the end of 1992 Germany got rid of it too for their own 2.5L format. Slowly but surely, the category was dying out, and Japan's touring car series was the last to let go at the end of 1993.

While it was great fun while it lasted, those who were around in that time cannot forget how glorious the racing was. My favourite championship of the era had to be the Aussies. Growing up, I watched video tapes of the 1990 ATCC and Bathurst 1000, instantly planting memories of some great cars and racing. Since, I’ve been able to look at the ‘91 and ‘92 series and look back with great pleasure. The Nissan GT-R of 1990-1992 has now stuck with me as one of my favourite cars of all time. As has the Holden Commodore VL of 1990. Also, who can forget the RS500 and the M3? All 4 were the main weapons of choice in Australia and it was a series that became a main contributor to my love of tin-tops.

Would I like to see something similar return in the future? Depends. If they can get it right, then it’ll be a hit. But I think right now the current touring car series formats, such as the S2000 class for BTCC and WTCC and Germany and Australia coping fine with their own championships. So the touring car world is moving along nicely now, but I feel that it probably couldn’t get back to the hype and the intensity that it reached during this magical time of tin-tops.

Next time – The monsters of Group B rally


Anonymous said...

WTCC is not bad, they just have to get rid of diesel cars & DTM needs a third manufacturer but given the current state of affairs I'm afraid this year could spell yet another sabbatical similar to what happened in the 1990s.

I have to say I prefer modern touring cars myself - BTCC is fun. Been to a few PTCC races (Portuguese championship). Best memory is Chevrolet Lacetti, it's a shame they got rid of it, fantastic presence on the track.

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