Sports car racing is a form of circuit auto racing with automobiles that have two seats and enclosed wheels. They may be purpose-built or related to road-going sports cars.
A kind of hybrid between the purism of open-wheelers and the familiarity of touring car racing, this racing is often associated with the annual Le Mans 24 Hours endurance race. First run in 1923, it is one of the oldest motor races still in existence. Other classic but now defunct sports car races include the Targa Florio (1906 - 1977) and Mille Miglia (1927). Most top class sports car races emphasise endurance (races are typically anywhere from 2.5 to 24 hours in length), reliability and strategy over pure speed. Longer races usually involve complex pit strategy and regular driver changes - sports car racing is seen more as a team sport than a gladiatorial individual sport and team managers like John Wyer, Tom Walkinshaw, driver-turned-constructor Henri Pescarolo, Peter Sauber and Reinhold Joest have become almost as famous as many of their drivers.
The prestige of Ferrari, BMW, Porsche, Lotus, Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, and Aston Martin derives in part from success in sports car racing and the World Sportscar Championship. Road cars sold by these manufacturers have in many cases been very similar to the cars that were raced, both in engineering and styling. It is this close association with the 'exotic' nature of the cars that serves as a useful distinction between sports car racing and Touring Cars.
The 12 Hours of Sebring, 24 Hours of Daytona, and 24 Hours of Le Mans were once widely considered to be the trifecta of sports car racing; driver Ken Miles would have been the only driver to win all three in the same year, but an error in the team orders of the Ford GT40 team at Le Mans in 1966 took the win from him, although he finished first.
Early evolution of sports cars and sports car racingEdit
In the 1920s, the cars used in endurance racing and Grand Prix were still basically identical, with fenders and two seats, to carry a mechanic if necessary or permitted. Cars such as the Bugatti Type 35 were almost equally at home in Grands Prix and endurance events, but specialisation gradually started to differentiate the sports-racer from the Grand Prix car. The legendary Alfa Romeo Tipo A Monoposto started the evolution of the true single-seater in the early 1930s; the Grand Prix racer and its miniature voiturette offspring rapidly evolved into high performance single seaters optimised for relatively short races, by dropping fenders and the second seat. During the later 1930s, French constructors, unable to keep up with the progress of the Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union cars in GP racing, withdrew into primarily domestic competition with large-capacity sports cars - marques such as Delahaye, Talbot and the later Bugattis were locally prominent.
Similarly, through the 1920s and 1930s the roadgoing sports/GT car started to emerge as distinct from fast tourers (Le Mans had originally been a race for touring cars) and sports cars, whether descended from primarily roadgoing vehicles or developed from pure-bred racing cars came to dominate races such as Le Mans and the Mille Miglia.
In open-road endurance races across Europe such as the Mille Miglia, Tour de France and Targa Florio, which were often run on dusty roads, the need for fenders and a mechanic or navigator was still there. As mainly Italian cars and races defined the genre, the category was called Gran Turismo, as long distances had to be travelled, rather than running around on short circuits only. Reliability and some basic comfort were necessary in order to endure the task.
Post-War Revival and the coming of the World Sports Car ChampionshipEdit
After the Second World War, sports car racing emerged as a distinct form of racing with its own classic races, and eventually its own World Championship. In the 1950s, sports car racing was regarded as almost as important as Grand Prix competition, with major marques like Ferrari, Maserati, Jaguar and Aston Martin investing much effort in their works programmes and supplying cars to customers; sports racers lost their close relationship to road-going sports cars in the 1950s and the major races were contested by dedicated competition cars such as the Jaguar C and D types, the Mercedes 300SLR, Maserati 300S, Aston Martin DBR1 and assorted Ferraris including the first Testa Rossas. Top Grand Prix drivers also competed regularly in sports car racing. After the accidents at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 1957 Mille Miglia the power of the sports prototypes started to be curbed and into the early sixties GT racing became more important internationally.
Growth of sports car racing at a national level - Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Japan and the USAEdit
In national rather than international racing, sports car competition in the 1950s and early 1960s tended to reflect what was locally popular, with the cars that were successful locally often influencing each nation's approach to competing on the international stage.
In the USA, imported Italian, German and British cars battled local hybrids, with initially very distinct East and West Coast scenes; these gradually converged and a number of classic races and important teams emerged including Camoradi, Briggs Cunningham and so on. The US scene tended to feature small MG and Porsche cars in the smaller classes, and imported Jaguar, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Allard and Ferrari cars in the larger classes.
A breed of powerful hybrids appeared in the 50s and 60s and raced on both sides of the Atlantic, featuring European chassis and large American engines - from the early Allard cars via hybrids such as Lotus 19s fitted with large engines through to the AC Cobra. THe combination of mostly-British chassis and American V8 engines gave rise to the popular and spectacular Can-Am series in the 1960s and 1970s.
In Britain 2-litre sports cars were initially popular (the Bristol engine being readily available and cheap), subsequently 1100cc sports racers became a very popular category for young drivers (effectively supplanting 500cc F3), with Lola, Lotus, Cooper and others being very competitive, although at the other end of the scale in the early to mid 1960s the national sports racing scene also attracted sophisticated GTs and later a crop of large-engined "big bangers" the technology of which largely gave rise to Can-Am but soon died out. Clubmans provided much entertainment at club-racing level from the 1960s into the 1990s and John Webb revived interest in big sports prototypes with Thundersports in the 1980s. There was even enough interest in Group C to sustain a C2 championship for a few years; at 'club' level Modified Sports Car ("ModSports") and Production Sports Car ("ProdSports") races remained a feature of most British race meetings into the 1980s, evolving into a "Special GT" series that was essentially Formula Libre for sports or saloon cars. After a relative period of decline in the 1980s a British GT Championship emerged in the mid-90s.
Italy found itself with both grassroots racing with a plethora of Fiat based specials (often termed "etceterinis") and small Alfa Romeos, and exotica such as Maserati and Ferrari - who also sold cars to domestic customers as well as racing on the world stage. Road races such as the Mille Miglia included everything from stock touring cars to World Championship contenders. The Mille Miglia was the largest sporting event in Italy until a fatal accident caused its demise in 1957. The Targa Florio, another tough road race, remained part of the world championship until the 1970s and remained as a local race for many years afterwards.
As the French car industry switched from making large powerful cars to small utilitarian ones, French sports cars of the 1950s and early 1960s tended to be small-capacity and highly aerodynamic (often based on Panhard or Renault components), aimed at winning the "Index of Performance" at Le Mans and Reims and triumphing in handicap races. Between the late 1960s and late 1970s, Matra and Renault made significant and successful efforts to win at Le Mans.
In Germany, domestic production based racing was largely dominated by BMW, Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, although sports car/GT racing gradually became eclipsed by touring cars and the initially sports car based Deutsche Rennsport Meisterschaft gradually evolved into the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft. Porsche started to evolve a line of sports prototypes from the late 1950s; noted for their toughness and reliability they started to win in races of attrition such as the Targa Florio and as they grew bigger (via the Porsche 910 to the Porsche 908 and finally the Porsche 917) the Stuttgart marque became first a competitor for overall wins and then came to dominate sports car racing - both they and Mercedes have made intermittent returns to the top level of the sport through the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Sports car racing has intermittently been popular in Japan - in the 1960s small-capacity sports racers and even a local version of the Group 7 cars as raced in Can-Am were popular; a healthy local sports prototype championship ran until the early 1990s and now the Super GT series provides high-budget exposure to manufacturers, with many international drivers appearing. The Japanese manufacturers have also been frequent visitors to the US sports car scene (Nissan and Toyota in particular during the heyday of IMSA) and to the European scene, in particular Le Mans, where despite many years of trying by all the man Japanese marques the only victory to have been scored by a Japanese marque was by Mazda in 1991.
The 1960s and 1970s - evolution of the prototype, rise and decline of sports car racingEdit
Powerful prototypes (effectively pure-bred two-seater racing cars with no real link to production vehicles) started to appear as the 1960s progressed, with world-wide battles between Ferrari, Ford, Porsche, Lotus, Alfa Romeo and Matra as well as other more specialist marques running on into the early 1970s. The competition at Le Mans even made it to the movie screens, with Steve McQueen's film Le Mans. This era was seen by many as the highpoint of sports car racing, with the technology and performance of the cars comfortably in excess of what was seen in Formula 1. Homologation saw many out-and-out racing cars produced in sufficient quantities to see them classed as production vehicles; the FIA responded by placing more restrictions on even the allegedly production-based cars and placed draconian limits on the power available to prototypes - these prototypes of the late 1960s/early 1970s were comfortably quicker than contemporary Grand Prix machinery and for 1972 they were constrained to run much smaller engines to F1 rules, often detuned for endurance. Group 4 GTs and Group 5 "silhouette" GTs again became the premier form of sports car racing, with prototypes going into a general decline apart from Porsche 936 domination at Le Mans and a lower-key series of races for smaller two-litre Group 6 prototypes.
A peculiarly American form of sports car racing was the Can-Am series, in which virtually unlimited sports prototypes competed in relatively short races. This ran from the mid-sixties to 1974 in its original form, but fell victim to rising costs and the energy crisis.
The ACO, organisers of the Le Mans 24 Hours, attempted to come up with a formula that would encourage more prototypes back to the race but would also be relatively economical - their Grand Touring Prototype rules in the late 1970s, based on fuel consumption rules, gave rise to two different varieties of sports car racing that were widely held to be a high point in the history of the sport.
The 1980s - Group C and IMSA GTPEdit
In Europe, the FIA adopted the ACO GTP rules virtually unchanged and sanctioned the Group C World Endurance Championship (or World Sportscar Championship), featuring high-tech closed-cockpit prototypes from Porsche, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Jaguar and others. In the USA, the IMSA Camel GTP series boasted close competition between huge fields of manufacturer-backed teams and privateer squads - the cars were technically similar to Group Cs but used a sliding scale of weights and engine capacities to try to limit performance. Both Group C and GTP had secondary categories, respectively Group C2 and Camel Lights, for less powerful cars, targeting entries by small specialist constructors or serious amateur teams.
The FIA attempted to make Group C into a virtual "two seater Grand Prix" format in the early 1990s, with engine rules in common with F1, short race distances, and a schedule dovetailing with that of the F1 rounds. This drove up costs and drove away entrants and crowds, and by 1993 prototype racing was dead in Europe, with the Peugeot, Jaguar, Toyota and Mercedes-Benz teams all having withdrawn.
The 1990s and beyond - rebirth and revivalEdit
In an attempt to provide a top-class endurance racing series to replace the WSPC, a number of GT series sprung up at national and European level, with the BPR series eventually evolving into the FIA GT Championship. IMSA GTP continued for a few more years but was replaced by a series for World Sports Cars - relatively simple open-top prototypes - which gave rise to cars such as the Ferrari 333SP and the Riley & Scott Mk 3, supported by GTs. As the 1990s progressed, these prototypes and others like them started to be raced in Europe and an FIA Sports Car series evolved for them.
The US series evolved into the American Le Mans Series; the European races eventually became the closely-related Le Mans Series, both of which mix prototypes and GTs; the FIA remains more interested in its own GT and GT3 championships, with the ACO's rules the basis for the LMS and ALMS. Further splits in the American scene saw the Grand American Road Racing Association form a separate series with its own GT and prototype rules aimed at providing cheaper, lower-cost racing for independent teams.
Since the demise of Group C (where Japan and Germany both had successful series of their own) Japan has largely gone its own way in sports car racing; the Super GT series is for very highly modified production-based cars; although prototypes are slowly returning to Japanese racing in the Japan Le Mans Challenge many of these 'prototypes' are little more than rebodied Formula 3 cars (although there has been a long Japanese tradition of such hybrids; a Grand Champion series ran for many years with rebodied Formula 2 and Formula 3000 cars, rather similar to the second incarnation of Can-Am).
Types of carsEdit
There are many kinds of sports cars that race but they can be broadly broken down into two main categories: Sports prototype and Grand Touring (GT). These two categories are often mixed together in a single race, such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Sports-Prototype is the name given to a type of car used in sports car racing and is effectively the next automotive design and technological step up from road-going supercars and are, along with open-wheel cars, the pinnacle of racing-car design.
The highest level in sports car racing these cars are purpose-built racing cars with enclosed wheels, and either open or closed cockpits. Since the World Sportscar Championship was conceived there have been various regulations regarding bodywork, engine style and size, tyres and aerodynamics to which these cars must be built. Sports-prototypes may be (and often are) one-of-a-kind machines, and need bear no relation to any road-going vehicle, although during the 1990s some manufacturers exploited a loophole in the FIA and ACO rules which meant cars racing in the GT category were actually true sports-prototypes and sired some road-going versions for homologation purposes. The Dauer-Porsche 962LM, Porsche 911 GT1-98, Mercedes CLK-GTR and Toyota GT-One were prime examples of prototypes masquerading as GTs.
In simplistic terms, sports-prototypes are 2-seat racing cars with bodywork covering their wheels, and are as technically advanced and, depending on the regulations they are built to, as quick as or quicker than their single-seat counterparts. Although not widely known sports-prototypes (along with Formula 1 cars) are responsible for introducing the most numbers of new technologies and ideas to motorsport, including rear-wings, ground effect 'venturi' tunnels, fan-assisted aerodynamics and dual-shift gearboxes. Some of these technologies eventually filter down to road cars.
In the ACO regulations, two categories of sports-prototypes are now recognized: P1 and P2. Cars competing in the P1 category must weigh no less than 900kg and are limited to 6000cc naturally aspirated and 4000cc turbocharged engines. 5500cc turbo-Diesel engines are also permitted in P1 - Audi scored Le Mans victories with such a car in 2006-7 and Peugeot returned to racing in 2007 with a car with a similar powerplant. P2 cars can weigh much less — 750kg — but are restricted to 3400cc V6 or V8 normally-aspirated or 2000cc turbocharged powerplants. In the European series in which endurance is a priority and P2s have been run largely by privateers, P2s have not challenged P1s for outright victories; in the American Le Mans Series with generally shorter races P2 has become the most active prototype category with serious involvement from Porsche and Acura and whereas P2 in Europe tends to involve races of attrition, in the US series the P2s, particularly the Porsche RS Spyder are often quicker round a lap than P1s, with the Porsche having scored many overall victories against the Audis in P1. The prototype rules for 2010 and beyond will encourage closed cockpits and a closer resemblance to road cars in P1; P2 will remain open-topped and aimed at smaller constructors and privateer teams. Lola plans to introduce closed-cockpit prototypes for 2008.
Daytona Prototypes are a product of the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series, and offer a different interpretation of the prototype theme. DPs, as they are often called, are closed-cockpit, purpose-built racing machines which are less expensive and (deliberately) somewhat slower than Le Mans Prototypes, which were becoming dangerously quick on the Daytona oval. Compared to the LMPs, DPs are sharply limited in terms of approved technology; for instance, they are required to be constructed of steel tube frames with carbon-fiber skins, rather than being carbon-fiber monocoques, and must use production-based engines. The intention of the DP formula was to provide a class in which tight technical regulations encouraged close competition and where budget would be relatively unimportant. DP chassis are subject to a franchise-like approval system in which only approved constructors are eligible, although this has led in 2007 to Lola and Dallara entering the 2008 series by taking over the rights of existing constructors (Multimatic and Doran respectively).
Grand Touring (from the Italian word Gran Turismo) racing is the most common form of sports car racing, and is found all over the world, in both international and national series. Historically, Grand Touring cars had to be in series production, but in the 1970s as modifications became more extreme the class split into Group 4 for production based cars and Group 5 for silhouette specials which were essentially pure-bred racing cars with production-lookalike bodies. GT racing gradually fell into abeyance in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, with silhouette cars continuing to race in IMSA races in the USA. When GT racing revived after the collapse of the world sports car championship in the 1990s, the lead in defining rules was taken by the ACO. Under the ACO rules, Grand Touring cars are divided into two categories, Grand Touring 1 (GT1, formerly GTS) and Grand Touring 2 (GT2, formerly GT). As the name of the class implies, the exterior of the car closely resembles that of the production version, while the internal fittings may differ greatly. GT2 cars are very similar to the FIA GT2 classification, and are 'pure' GT cars; that is production exotic cars with relatively few internal modifications for racing. The Porsche 911 is currently the most popular car in the GT2 class.
FIA divides GT cars into four categories called GT1 (formerly GT), GT2 (formerly N-GT), GT3 (recently introduced) and GT4. The GT1 and GT2 divisions are very close to the ACO rules outlined above, and again some crossover racing does occur, particularly in the GT2 class. The GT3 class is new and was introduced for 2006. These cars are closer to standard form than in GT2, and in most cases modifications are restricted to those found in one-make cups. GT4 is another new category for non-professional drivers in production-based cars with very few racing modifications - for example, no aerodynamic aids or body modifications are permitted.
Grand-Am has only one class for Grand Touring cars, allowing production-based cars somewhere around FIA GT3 in terms of modification, with less-powerful Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars allowed, to compete with purpose-built tube-frame "silhouette" machines reminiscent of the former IMSA GTO/GTU classes.
Technology Escalation and Control in FIA GT RacingEdit
While GT cars are at least in theory based on road going versions, some GT1 cars in the mid to late 1990s were effectively purpose-built sports-prototypes which spawned exotic production cars with homologation production limits of 25 cars (for small manufacturers, such as Saleen) or 100 cars (for major manufacturers like DaimlerChrysler). The original form of GT1 racing was dropped in 1998 because of rising costs. The GT1 class was for the purebred supercars and purpose-built race cars, such as the McLaren F1 GTR, Ferrari F40, Porsche 911GT1, Mercedes cLK-GTR, Toyota GT-One and Nissan R390 - while the first two were a derivatives of roadgoing sports cars, the German and Japanese contenders were pure-bred racing cars - virtually sports prototypes. Rising costs coupled with declining entries led to the death of this class, and it was replaced by what was then GT2 (FIA, which evolved into the current GT1) and Le Mans Prototype (LMP, by the ACO).
This process is due to happen again in 2009 as a response to cost increases in GT1 and GT2 racing: for the 2009 season, GT1 and GT2 as they currently stand will be abolished. Various proposals exist to control technology and costs, mainly by abolishing the existing GT1 class (again!) and creating new rules based upon the existing GT2, 3 and 4 classes.
There are currently three series of sports car races based on the rules in use at Le Mans, the American Le Mans Series in North America, the Le Mans Series in Europe and the Japan Le Mans Challenge in Japan. However, sports car racing in general extends far beyond these rules, encompassing the Grand-Am professional series in North America as well as amateur road racing classes in the Sports Car Club of America.
Amateur sports car racing throughout the United States is sanctioned by clubs such as the Sports Car Club of America. The SCCA's sports-racing classes include C and D Sports Racing, Sports 2000 and Spec Racer Ford, in descending order of speed and sophistication, as well as a number of production-based classes.
In Japan, the Super GT series divides cars into two classes, called GT500 and GT300. These cars are less restricted than their European and American counterparts, with cars often sporting tube frame clips and forced induction kits. Teams are also free to change engines with other models made by the manufacturer. The numbers in the classifications refer to the maximum power (horsepower) available to each class; this is achieved through the use of engine restrictors. Proponents of the series claim that the Super GT cars are the fastest sports cars in the world, while critics deride the cars as being outside the limits of 'acceptable' modifications. In recent years however, rule changes in both GT500 and GT1 (aimed at eventually allowing both classes to compete with each other in the future) have brought the cars closer to each other, although GT500 cars still have a notable advantage in terms of aerodynamics and cornering performance (enough to compensate for GT1 cars greater horsepower).
In Europe, most national championships (British, French, and the Spanish-based 'International GT Open' series) run under basically FIA/ACO GT regulations with some modifications to ensure closer racing, although some championships are more open to allow non-homologated GT cars to race. The Belcar series in Belgium allows silhouettes and touring cars to race alongside GTs, while the VdeV Modern Endurance allows small prototypes from national championships such as the Norma, Centenari and Radical to race alongside GT3 class cars. Britcar permits a wide range of touring and GT cars to compete in endurance races, and Britsports permits various kinds of sports racer.