History of the World Sports Car Championship: Technology Pioneer in Important Eras
By source: Audi Sport
May 2, 2012, 22:14
For the first time since 1992 the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile, FIA, stages a World Championship for sports cars. In its heydays the predecessor of the new FIA World Endurance Championship (WEC) was frequently more popular than Formula 1. A look back over the World Sports Car Championship’s checkered history.
History is revisited when the starting flag drops for the WEC on March 17, because almost exactly 59 years ago, on March 8, 1953, the first running of a sports car world championship celebrated its premiere with the 12-hour race around the circuit in Florida. As a result, endurance racing also received World Championship status three years after Formula 1. The seven rounds in the debut season generally numbered among the toughest tests in automobile racing. Whoever prevailed in the races in Europe and North and South American wrote motorsport history. 1,000 kilometers on the world’s most demanding race track, the Nürburgring Nordschleife, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the five day long Carrera Panamericana across Mexico or the 1,000 mile Italian tour Mille Miglia – the races and their victors quickly attained legend status.
The new series immediately proved to be a complete success. Not only because several hundreds of thousands of spectators streamed to the race tracks. The championship was also extremely popular among the manufacturers. Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar or Aston Martin – the participants in the World Sports Car Championship, in which there was originally only a constructor’s title, represented the who’s who of the automobile industry. The fact that drivers like Alberto Ascari, Stirling Moss or Juan Manuel Fangio, the best Formula 1 drivers, also competed in sports cars contributed to the rapidly growing popularity of the series.
Faster than Formula 1
Up to 1965 the championship was largely dominated by Ferrari. The Italians clinched the title in every season apart from 1955 and 1959. When a new technology race started in the mid 1960s as new manufacturers entered and developments in the areas of tires and aerodynamics rapidly increased resulting in ever faster race cars, the automobile federation reacted: From 1968 it limited the previously unrestricted engine displacement of sport prototypes to three liters. Alternatively, manufacturers could field sports cars with a displacement of up to five liters, of which at least 50 examples had to be produced. When this quantity was halved in 1970, two sports cars, the Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512, were developed that were faster to a certain extent than Formula 1 cars. The battle between the two brands went down in motor sport history. At Le Mans in 1971 Porsche set a speed and distance record that was only broken in 2010 by the Audi R15 TDI. During the 1,000-kilometer race at Spa in the same year the winner’s average speed was 249.069 km/h – even today this race is regarded as the fastest sports car race ever. To slow down the cars the displacement was restricted to three liters from 1972 onwards. In the throes of reorganization in 1976 the sports car sector was split into two series by the FIA: into a World Sports Car Championship, which was cancelled again after two years due to a lack of participants, as well as a Manufacturers World Championship for the so-called Group 5 silhouette race cars.
The Group C with consumption formula generates new impetus
At the beginning of the 1980s when manufacturers’ interest for the Manufacturers’ World Championship also waned, the FIA proposed a series from 1982 onwards for so-called Group C prototypes. To make the championship interesting for as many manufacturers as possible the engine regulations permitted many different designs. However, to prevent engine power from escalating a consumption limit was introduced for the first time ever. In the years that followed the limit was constantly tightened. The regulations contributed to a new sports car boom, which attracted numerous manufactures, in the mid 1980s. Simultaneously it drove technical progress for the benefit of efficient drive concepts.
Expensive Formula 1 technology leads to demise of World Championship
When the engine regulations were aligned with those of Formula 1 at the end of the decade many manufacturers withdrew, however, because the new, high-revving 3.5 liter normally aspirated engines represented a step backwards and the costs almost spiraled out of control. After the 1992 season, during which less than ten cars started in some races, the Sports Car World Championship was not staged again with world championship status before its rebirth in 2012. The sports prototype renaissance is due to the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) and American businessman Don Panoz who, in 1998, founded the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) in which Audi proved so successful between 2000 and 2008. From the Intercontinental Le Mans Cup (ILMC), which was held for the first time in 2010, emerged the FIA World Endurance
Championship (WEC) which is co-organized by the ACO and FIA.
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