At the risk of sounding like a hyperbolic, superlative-abusing fool, the Group C races at Silverstone Classic are a true highlight of the historic racing season, especially Saturday evening’s twilight event which is a magnificent spectacle.
Watching some of the most evocative and revered machines in sportscar history duke it out as darkness descends is an unforgettable experience, and one that evokes fond memories of when these chest-reverberating monsters rocked Le Mans.
The double helping of Group C goodness took on a greater significance at Silverstone Classic this year as the greatest era of sportscar racing celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2012, an occasion marked by the appearance of three Martini Lancia LC2s – the first time since the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1983.
Just as 1980s fashion was all about big hair and ridiculously over-sized shoulder pads, so the sports-racing cars of the period were on an equally lavish scale, as manufacturers including Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz and Porsche competed to outdo each other in the power, speed and style stakes.
Arguably the most eye-catching livery of the time belonged to that of the Lancia LC2 with its Martini Racing stripes. On looks alone it was a serious challenger to the potent Porsches with their Rothmans colour scheme; in terms of results, however, it was an underachiever.
The Italian factory team entered the fray at the start of 1983 when the Gianpaolo Dallara-designed beaut made its racing debut at the Monza 1000Kms event, which set the tone for the career of the car that many regard as being a glorious failure.
The Piercarlo Ghinzani/Teo Fabi car took pole position by the better part of a second. Ghinzani, who was still a couple of months away from his Grand Prix debut, then enjoyed some glory at the front of the field during the race, but disaster struck on lap 23 when his left-rear Pirelli exploded.
“The construction of the (Pirelli) tyres ended up being not strong enough, because there was a misunderstanding in the level of downforce the cars would be generating,” recalls Ghinzani. “That was why it was a big issue at Monza where there were many high-speed corners.”
As a result of what happened at Monza, Lancia switched tyre supplier to Dunlop for the following round at Silverstone and the rest of the season. Running crosspiles on a car designed for redials, however, undoubtedly hindered their competitiveness.
The LC2 would be continuously honed and tweaked, with developments focusing on aerodynamic performance and extracting the most from the twin-turbocharged Ferrari engines. But all too often the Italian prototype would prove fragile, with engine management systems regularly letting go and the V8 powerplant having a somewhat unruly tendency.
It struggled to finish races in its debut season and was still struggling to finish them, at least cleanly, three years later. There were victories along the way, but each of its three successes were in some way tainted.
There was, for example, no works Porsche team present at Imola for the seventh round of the 1983 European Endurance Championship when the LC2 broke its duck, and Ricciardo Patrese and Alessandro Nannini’s win at the Kyalami 1000Kms in 1984 came against weak opposition as there was just one other Group C car on the grid, which encountered problems.
Crucially, Lancia switched from Dunlop to Michelin tyres in 1985 and performance gains quickly followed, culminating in the third (and final) victory at Spa when Bob Wollek and Mauro Baldi took the flag ahead of an army of Porsche P62s.
Unfortunately, joy was in short supply as the race ended prematurely following Stefan Belof’s fatal shunt and as a result, the LC2’s only ‘proper’ victory has done little for the reputation of the car, and Lancia’s Group C effort is remembered more for its failures – well, retirements – than its successes.
Nevertheless, the LC2 remains one of the most illustrious and respected vehicles in motor racing history. So it goes without saying that the rare sighting of three of these flawed stunners running at Silverstone last weekend was an awesome – if short-lived – spectacle.
Saturday evening’s 30-minute race began in spectacular fashion as a first corner melee resulted in three retirements, including that of the Duncan McKay-owned LC2, being driven by Robin Ward.
Approaching the quick right-hander, Ward tapped the Spice SE90C of David Mercer into a spin which Kent Abrahamsson duly tried to avoid, but ended up beaching his Nissan R90CK in the gravel trap.
Ward, meanwhile, was on a collision course – in reverse – with the now stationary Mercer, whose buttocks undoubtedly clenched firmly together when the Lancia mounted his Spice and caused significant damage to both vehicles, enough to retire Ward’s LC2 for the remainder of the weekend.
But all was not lost in the Martini Lancia camp, as Roger Wills made a quick getaway from fourth and threaded his way up to second – behind Gareth Evans in the 1989 World Sports-Prototype Championship winning Sauber-Mercedes C9 – by the time they entered The Loop on their first occasion.
With every passing lap Evans increased his lead and was visibly quicker than Wills down the Wellington and Hangar Straights. A brief glimmer of hope appeared on lap 12, when Evans was sent into a spin at Stowe, having made contact with Russell Kempnich’s Porsche 956 as he came to lap the backmarker.
But such was his advantage he was still able to take the chequered flag a couple of laps later, the best part of five seconds ahead of Wills, who matched his second place finish in the previous round at Le Mans.
Missing from the race was the Peugeot 905 which Nic Minassian was due to get behind the wheel of. The car was withdrawn from both races due to a faulty slave cylinder and, never one to miss an opportunity; Ruper Clevely swapped places with the former Peugeot factory driver who drove his LC2 in Sunday’s showdown.
And what an astute decision it was too, as Minassian vaulted from eighth to third by the time he reached Brooklands for the first time, with Belgian Herve Regout in the evocative Jägermeister Porsche 962 ahead of him and the previous day’s victor, Evans, taking his usual spot at the front of the field.
It took Minassian a while to find the Silverstone groove in the LC2 – his first time in the vehicle – his pace half-a-second slower than that of Evans and Regout, but he always remained within striking distance.
The leading duo put on an epic display of wheel-to-wheel combat, but as they became embroiled with backmarkers as the race entered its final phase, Minassian pulled out a string of personal best laps, weaving through traffic like he was in an asteroid field and demoting Regout to third on the final lap.
Two successive second places – three, if you count Wills’ Le Mans finish – in this year’s Group C Racing series proves that the Martini Lancia LC2s are formidably quick in the right hands. Of course, it does help that they now compete in much shorter events than those during their heyday, especially given the LC2’s reputation for guzzling fuel and lacking in stamina.
At least now, during its twilight years, the Martini Lancia LC2 can finally lay claim to having the speed, the looks and the ability to beat the all-conquering Porsches in a straight fight. Time to reassess its legacy?