Long before hybrid, bio-diesel and electric engines, global sports car racing meant one thing; the world’s best drivers doing battle in some of its most outrageous machines.
The 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s produced what many consider the ‘golden era’ of sports car racing, with North America’s Cam-Am Series, the Group C period of the 24 Hours of Le Mans and World Sportscar Championship, and our very own Australian Sports Car Championship seeing now-legendary highhorsepower beasts roaming the racetracks of the world.
At the 2013 Formula 1 Australian Grand Prix, the stunning machinery will come together at Albert Park for the first time, showcasing the unique time in the sport’s history through the International Sports Car Challenge, organised by the Victorian Historic Racing Register.
Having hosted Formula 5000 and classic Australian Touring Cars in recent years, the VHRR will present three decades of sports car racing in 2013. McLaren, Porsche and Lola will take on homegrown produce from the likes of Elfin in a field expected to reach 40 cars, from Australia, Germany, New Zealand, North America and the United Kingdom.
“We’re thrilled with the way it’s come together,” enthuses Bob Harborow, VHRR committee member.
“The Victorian Historic Racing Register works to put a variety of different groups of cars in-front of the public each year at Albert Park, to showcase what racing in Australia and overseas has been like.
“We had a huge following with Formula 5000 and the Touring Cars, and we’re hoping for the same with the International Sports Car Challenge and its very eclectic group of cars.”
Cam-Am constructors enjoyed almost unprecedented freedom when producing their racecars, with engine and aerodynamic regulations largely non-existent. As a result, many of the lightweight cars produced over 1,000hp and were faster than those in Formula 1 at the time.
Motorsport heavyweights McLaren and Porsche both enjoyed periods of domination, while the likes of F1 World Champion John Surtees, Bruce McLaren, Denny Hulme and Mark Donohue all tasted success behind the wheel in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Across the Atlantic, the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France was the centrepiece of Group C racing and the World Sportscar Championship during the 1980s.
Introduced in 1982 and featuring 800hp qualifying engines, Porsche dominated Group C, bringing fans the legendary 956 and 962 in the process. Jaguar and Sauber, in conjunction with Mercedes before it entered Formula 1, also conquered the class.
The best in international sports car racing visited Melbourne twice as part of the World Championship in the 1980s, for races at Sandown Raceway. In a Porsche 956, Bell and Stefan Bellof won the 1984 race, while Jochen Mass and Jean-Louis Schlesser took a Sauber Mercedes C9 to top spot in 1988.
“I was at one of those Sandown races, and while they weren’t necessarily a great financial success, they were certainly exciting race meetings, to see the nature and calibre of European cars here in Australia,” Harborow recalls.
At the same time, Australia had its own thriving sports car championship. Over the course of three decades, it hosted the nation’s fastest racing and remarkable cars from Elfin, Matich, Kaditcha and VesKanda. Some of the best drivers seen in local motorsport won titles during its time, including Ian ‘Pete’ Geoghegan, Allan Moffat, John Bowe, John Harvey and Frank Matich, who also led the way as a constructor.
“The thing that stood out, for me, about that time, was the way Frank Matich developed his sports cars with the Repco engine,” Harborow says.
“The final iteration of that, the Matich SR4 was built as a potential Can-Am car that blitzed Australian sports car racing. In the end CAMS had to change the rules to prevent it from running. “It’s a beautiful car. He had a history of getting it right, in those four or five years in the 1960s, in the Australian scene.”
Combining the three distinct arms of sports car racing on one grid is set to result in a quality field, the type of which has been unseen in Australia since the Sandown races, and a unique spectacle for motorsport fans in general.
“It’s been a fair task, because these people normally don’t run together as a bunch, obviously, and we’ve got cars coming from around the world,” Harborow admits.
“But it will be worth it, it’s going to be a really exciting mix of the three groups. It will be interesting to see and make the visual comparisons between the cars as well, to find out how the lesser-handling Can-Am cars, with their huge grunt in a straight line, compare with the finesse of the Group C Le Mans cars.
“We’re looking at different derivations of sports cars, with unique strengths in different areas, competing in different areas, and that in itself should make a fascinating concept.”
Over half of the expected 40-car field are international competitors, including 11 from North America, six from the United Kingdom and two from Germany, along with a strong contingent of New Zealand competitors.
The fleet of traveling McLaren Can-Am cars includes the distinctive M8F ‘Batmobile’ and the M6B ‘McEagle’, the latter developed by revered American racer and engineer Dan Gurney. European sports car racing will be represented by the likes of the 935, 956 and 962 Porsches, the Matra 670B/C from
France and Alfa Romeo’s 12-cylinder T33.
“There’ll be Can-Am cars present from the first iteration right through to 1972 and 1973, which was the pinnacle of the class, along with V12 Matras from Le Mans and some Lola and March cars fitted with 900hp, 8.8-litre engines,” Harborow says.
“From Australia, we’ll have almost every generation of Elfin as part of the full history of Australian sports car racing from the time, while the legendary Spencer Martin will take on the internationals in a Ford GT40.”
A world away from the DRS, KERS, traction control and launch control systems of Formula 1, drivers in the International Sports Car Challenge will tackle Albert Park in two races, the points combining with races at the Phillip Island Classic a week earlier.
Fans will also be able to enjoy static displays of cars from the era and meet its stars, along with the opportunity to get up-close and personal with the unique machines before they hit the track.
“These cars are unbelievably different to anything else you’ll see,” Harborow says.
“We encourage fans to come down and walk through the dummy grid, before they go out onto the circuit, and actually experience these amazing cars when they fire up to go onto the circuit.”
Entry list – International Sportscar Challenge – Phillip Island
1968 Lola T160 Spyder 7070cc` Lilo Ben Zicron USA
1969 Lola T70 Cpe 5700cc Frank Lyons USA
1972 Graduate M8F 5000cc Phil Verwoert AUS (Vic)
1966 Elfin 400 4400cc Bill Hemming AUS (Vic)
1974 Matra Simca MS 2999cc Abba Kogan UK
1969 Lola T163 8000cc Aaron Lewis AUS (NSW)
1972 Lola T310 8413cc Peter Schleifer De
1971 McLaren M8F 8800cc Andrew Newell UK
1974 Elfin MS7 5000cc Rob Tweedie AUS (NSW)
1974 Matra Simca MS 670B/C 2999cc Rob Hall UK
1972 Rennmax Repco 3000cc Michael Gibson AUS (Vic)
1984 Porsche 956 2850T Russell Kempnich AUS (Qld)
1966 Lola T70 Spyder 5702cc Dan Cowdrey USA
1969 Genie MK10 5700cc A C D’Augustine USA
1987 Porsche 962 2850T Wayne Park AUS (Qld)
1987 ARGO JM19C Cpe 3900cc Jay Bondini AUS (Vic)
1968 Lola T163 6000cc Greg Mitchell USA
1970 Elfin 360 Repco 3498cc Steve Webb AUS (NSW)
1974 Sting 9000cc Scott Drnek USA
1968 McLaren M6B 5700cc Bert Skidmore USA
1968 MRC Repco 6500cc Ian Ross AUS (NSW)
1967 McKee Mk10 6718cc Norm Cowdrey USA
1966 Ford GT40 5375cc Spencer Martin AUS (NSW)
1973 March 717 8800cc Michael Lyons UK
1970 McLaren M8C 8800cc Henry Read De
1971 McLaren M8E 8100cc Duncan McKellar AUS (Qld)
1970 Lola T332C 5000cc Ian Clemants NZ
1965 McLaren M1A 4700cc Luke Warwick AUS (Vic)
1979 Lola T332C 5000cc Andrew Kluvver AUS (NSW)
1968 Lola T163 Spyder 7095cc Barry Blackmore USA
1968 McLeagle 7540cc Andy Boone USA
1966 Elfin Traco Chev 4998cc Peter Brennan AUS (Vic)
1965 McLaren M1B 5727cc Laurie Bennett AUS (Vic)
1978 Porsche 956 3200T Rusty French AUS (Vic)
1969 Elfin ME5 5000cc Trevor Lambert AUS (SA)
1965 McLaren M1B 5997cc John Bladon UK
1975 Alfa Romeo T33SC12 2993cc Joe Nastasi USA
1965 McLaren M1B 5300cc Paul Halford NZ