There is something magical about the sheer power feat. open road combination. To put a car flat out and take it to its limits. If you mix it with racing, you get the most deadly, yet awe-filled racing you can ever have. This is exactly what the 24 Hours of Le Mans was all about in the late 80s.
Inarguably, one of the most spectacular era of motor sports started somewhere in the early-70s, but took off really in the latter part of the decade and shined its full glory in the 80s, revolutionizing what we know about engineering, limits of a car, a man, etc. All these are traced back to one single element added. Turbocharging.
Let’s take a little walk down to victory lane here. 1972 started off with a blast with an evolutionary redesign of the Porsche 917 for the Can-Am series, named the 917/30. Probably the most powerful car in the history of circuit racing, even by contemporary it was judged to be too powerful and dangerous to race. Sportscar racing in general started adopting turbochargers around the same period, but it really started blooming in the middle of the decade with the introduction of the last generation of FIA’s Group 5 formula and all classes above it. Silhouette cars lapping famous racetracks, closed roads in endurance challenges started drawing masses of people and clearly that was the way forward. Thus Group B and C was introduced for even more spectacles. It was that time when F1’s Brabham broke all engineering records in the series with their over-the-top 1000bhp/L turbo-charged engine design. Still, the fame of non-open-wheel racing cars was closing in. The short, five-year era of Group B in rallying left its mark on the sport forever. Group C cars took off really in fame when Group B was banned. People still wanted to see that raw power but it was even more exciting when these vehicles went head to head for as long as possible.
Then came three legendary years in Le Mans: 1987 through 1989. However, 1987 saw the first step of a beginning to an end – a chicane was installed in the Dunlop Curve, moving average speed of the event just below 200km/h. Cars were already too fast, it became quite obvious that the days (years) of the Mulsanne Straight were numbered, too. But until that there were three great races to compete.
1987 brought the dominance of the long-successful Porsche 962C, in fact a no-surprise event, only Jaguars came somewhat close. The 962 was the successor of the other goldmine of the German manufacturer, the 956. Originally designed for IMSA GTP class, the World Sportscar-converted variant was marked as 962C. All falling into place, these vehicles came out in a glorious ending.
1988 was much more exciting than that… and overly dangerous. The Mulsanne paved the way to Jo Gartner’s death two years prior, as top speeds become dangerously high while cars being overly fragile. Now, one of the WM Peugeots were modified under regulations to achieve the highest top speed ever there. It all came out in a 407km/h velocity. The race itself resurrected the prime years of Jaguar, as the Silk Cut XJR-9LM came in first, followed by a massive league of Porsche 962s as one of them met its bitter end by running out of fuel on track, losing great amount of time. The race was also the third ever longest sharing 397 laps with the 1971 and the 2010 event - post-Dunlop Chicane, pre-Mulsanne chicanes.
1989 was the climax of all Le Mans races up to that point, as Mercedes was officially returning to Le Mans after the tragic 1955 event, by backing the Sauber team. This time, one of them managed to reach 401km/h on qualifying without any modifications. Eventually they were ending up winning the event.
In 1990 the chicanes were installed on Mulsanne Straight and 20 years had to pass till the longest ever covered distance has broken… by a diesel. No flat out acceleration for a whole minute, no screaming pistons, only a gentle rumble. Magic of technology, work of art.