Looking Back to Go Forwards: the Relationship Between Group A and Gen 2 Part 1

Since 1995, Australia’s premier touring car championship has been contested solely between four-door sedans with 5-litre V8’s under the bonnet. However, from 2017 V8 Supercars will implement its new White Paper plan, encouraging more manufacturers to join the championship by opening up bodywork and engine package options. With the next phase of growth for the sport drawing closer, we take a look at the past to see just who did what back in the turbulent Group A days and what today’s current crop of manufacturers and brands may do with the new Gen2 Supercar regulations.

Based on FIA rules (then in use in the European Touring Car Championship), the Group A touring car regulations covered the international era between 1985 and 1992. Featuring cars and brands from around the world including Mitsubishi, Toyota, Mazda, BMW, Volvo, Jaguar and Nissan, the locally produced Holden struggled to compete, leaving the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport (CAMS) to ban the Group A turbo and 4WD cars, and paving the way for the Ford Falcons and Holden Commodores to replace the international category.

The current ‘New Generation’ V8 Supercar, built to ‘Car of the Future’ regulations has also been criticised for requiring 5-litre V8s that cannot be used in any other racing series. The regulations have caused headaches for new manufacturers who don’t have any V8s in the production versions of their race cars, and who didn’t want to take up the unbranded engine option on offer from V8 Supercars. Forced to use engines from cars other than those that they now run in the series, new entrants Nissan, Volvo and Erebus Motorsport with its customer AMG E63 program have seen development costs spiral.

The biggest challenge for the technical group working on Gen 2 is to allow manufacturers to use different engines and body shapes while still maintaining the level of parity that the series currently relishes in. A control chassis will still be used and the cars will still be rear-wheel-drive but the engine specifications and body design are open for interpretation. A minimum production volume of 5,000 cars that are front-engined with four seats will be upheld for Gen 2, meaning no absurd homologation specials can be used.

In part one, we take a look at the two brands synonymous with Australian touring car racing, long-time rivals Holden and Ford …

With the introduction of Group A regulations in 1985, Ford drivers jumped from the Group C specification Falcon to the left-hand drive Mustang. Dick Johnson spearheaded the Blue Oval’s campaign, buying his Mustangs from German powerhouse Zakspeed. The Mustang was a coupe, using a 5 litre carburetted V8. Despite being underpowered, the Mustang was reliable, taking Johnson to second in the 1985 championship. In 1986, the rest of the field got faster while the Mustang remained unchanged, leaving Johnson sixth in the championship with a best result of fourth.

At the beginning of 1987, the new Ford Sierra RS Cosworth was introduced, replacing Johnson’s Mustangs. The Sierra was again a coupe but significantly lighter than the Mustang. It used a Cosworth-tuned 2 litre, turbocharged 4 cylinder engine. Despite better speed, reliability issues plagued his season, his only one win coming at Adelaide International Raceway.

1988 saw the debut of the Sierra RS500, a faster and more reliable version of the RS Cosworth. Johnson and new team-mate John Bowe dominated the season, winning eight out of the nine rounds, taking Johnson to his fourth championship and second place at Bathurst. 1989 brought the same dominance as 1988, Johnson and Bowe winning seven out of the eight rounds. Johnson won his fifth and last championship while the pair also won that year’s Bathurst 1000.

In 1990, Johnson only narrowly lost to Jim Richards, the New Zealander having switched to the all-conquering Nissan Skyline GT-R halfway through the season. The RS500 won five out of the eight rounds in the hands of Johnson (two wins), Colin Bond (two wins) and Peter Brock (one win). 1991 saw the RS500 complete the season winless as the GT-R dominated the season.

For 1992, the GT-R was forced to add more ballast as well as reduce boost pressures to improve parity within the series. This allowed the Sierra drivers to claw their way back in the title race. Despite four RS500 wins from nine rounds, it was again the all-wheel-drive GT-R that won the championship. John Bowe won three rounds while Glenn Seton won a solitary round at Symmons Plains. It was to be the last year before Group 3A was introduced, pitting Ford’s Falcons against Holden’s Commodores.

Ever since 1980, Holden has used its flagship Commodore sedan as their weapon of choice in Australian touring car racing. When the “big bangers” Group C formula folded at the end of 1984, Holden simply converted the VK Commodore it was using at the time to run within the Group A regulations. Holden struggled for the eight seasons of Group A, simply not being quick enough to keep up with the other manufacturers. Poster boy Peter Brock scored its only win in 1985 at Sandown (but still finished the year third in the championship).

The VK was given updates in 1986 following Brock’s push to homologate a special Group A SS road car with the changes flowing on to the race cars. Brock, again wrestled the VK to the top step of the podium at Surfers Paradise Raceway. Allan Grice and Graeme Bailey drove the VK to victory in that year’s Bathurst 1000 with Grice also setting the first 100 mph lap for a Group A car in qualifying.

1987 heralded the arrival of the VL Commodore, the replacement for the ailing VK. Despite having a faster car, no Holden driver was able to win a race in the year’s championship. However, the World Touring Car Championship round at Bathurst later that year saw Peter Brock, David Parsons and Peter McLeod win after the Rudy Eggenberger Sierra’s were disqualified months later.

In late 1988 the newly formed Holden Special Vehicles division released the Commodore SS Group A SV, an improvement on the base VL Group A car. Tom Walkinshaw Racing developed the car with the aim of getting closer to the pointy end of the pack by increasing downforce as well as decreasing drag. Despite not winning any races during the season, Larry Perkins and Denny Hulme notched up a 1-2 finish at the end-of-year Formula 1 support race.

In 1990, Allan Grice and Win Percy surprised the paddock when they won the Bathurst 1000 in a Commodore, defeating the Sierras and Skylines. The VL was succeeded by the VN in 1991 but with no success. Perkins reverted to the VL in 1992 and won that year’s Sandown 500. Both the VN and VL were used at the beginning of the Group 3A era until 1996.

2017 Plans
Given Holden and Ford’s withdrawal from local production by 2017 and Ford Australia’s withdrawal of funding for motorsports from the end of 2015 shows that the change to Gen 2 regulations can’t come soon enough. The opening up of the technical regulations, however, could tempt the Blue Oval back with the dying Falcon being replaced by the new Mustang, now eligible to race in the series, powered either by the current V8, V6 or possibly even the 4 cylinder Ecoboost unit.

No official announcement has been made in regards to the future of Holden’s V8 Supercars program, but it could stick with the Commodore or adopt the Camaro, most likely sticking with the Chevy V8. However, Simon McNamara, head of Holden Motorsport, has revealed that the manufacturer may move towards a V6 turbo set-up, similar to what Cadillac will be using in its GT3 program.

Look out for the second installment of our two-part feature focusing on the other three manufacturers that helped write the history of Australian touring car racing, coming tomorrow.

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