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1987 Sauber-Mercedes C9 Group C

  • The very first example of the C9, among the most successful and recognisable Group C cars of them all
  • A Works Sauber Mercedes entry in the 1987 and 1988 FIA World Sportscar Championships and retained by Peter Sauber in his museum
  • Winner of the 1988 German Supercup championship in the hands of the World Sportscar Champion Jean Louis Schlesser
  • The recipient of a painstaking two-year comprehensive restoration, undertaken with a view to creating the quickest, safest and most reliable historic Group C car
  • Accompanied by a comprehensive spares package including a M119-spec engine
  • Sold
  • Chassis no. 87.C9.01
  • Vehicle Location: United Kingdom

The halcyon days of Group C

Are there any words more evocative to a motorsport buff than Group C? It was an endurance racing era for the free radicals – a loose framework of rules designed to encourage designers and engineers to push the technological envelope further than it had ever been pushed before. Group C harnessed the newfangled wizardry of ground effect, which manipulated the very air we breathe and pushed speeds to the boundaries of physics.

Plucky privateers stood every chance of upsetting the major manufacturers. Grids and grandstands alike were bursting at the seams. And as a result of all of the above, every household brand name you could think of adorned the soap bar-shaped cars in a kaleidoscope of striking ways. It was motorsport at its most unadulterated and excessive. This was the 1980s, after all.

 

The Sauber Mercedes C9

If Porsche dangled a carrot for the rest to chase in the formative years of Group C, Mercedes-Benz gobbled it up with the Sauber-built C9. The wedge-shaped hurricane-inducing Silver Arrow resulted from an unlikely marriage between Mercedes-Benz and Sauber, the tiny Zurich-based motorsport outfit founded by Peter Sauber.

An evolution of the C8, the C9 was the result of a simple recipe but one which utilized the very best ingredients. An incredibly rigid monocoque chassis built from lightweight aluminium. Rear dampers mounted longitudinally so as to reduce the ride height and ergo the centre of gravity. A wind-cheating body with a complex maze of concealed dams, ducts and tunnels. And the pièce de resistance? The mighty five-litre twin-turbocharged two- and four-valve M118 and M119 Mercedes engines, specially built and tuned in Stuttgart. The engines were undoubtedly the C9s’ trump card. Despite producing as much as 800HP in qualifying specification, they revved to a relatively low 7,000rpm, thus reducing stress and increasing reliability and efficiency.

The C9s were fast. Insanely fast. On the Mulsanne Straight during qualifying for the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1989, the C9 of Mauro Baldi, Kenny Acheson and Gianfranco Brancatelli clocked a scarcely believable 248mph. Nobody could touch the C9s during the 1989 FIA World Sportscar Championship. The Silver Arrows won eight of a possible nine races, missing out only at Dijon because of an issue with the Michelin tyres. Unusually, the 24 Hours of Le Mans was not a part of the top-flight endurance championship that year. But suffice to say, the C9s dominated in France, too, crossing the finish line first, second and fifth.

 

This Sauber Mercedes C9

The Sauber Mercedes C9 we’re honoured to be offering for sale in chassis number ‘C9.87.01’, the very first example produced. There was to be no motor show tour or press drive for the radical new model, however. Duty called. Swiss-German pride was at stake!

This C9 was earmarked for both the FIA World Sportscar Championship and the domestic German Supercup in 1987. For the top-flight international rounds, ‘C9.87.01’ raced under the semi-Works Kouros Racing Team banner. Sauber had secured a lucrative sponsorship brand from Kouros, a fragrance deal in the Yves Saint Laurent family, in addition to direct support from the Mercedes factory in Stuttgart.

During the six races it contested in 1987, this C9 was driven predominantly by Mike Thackwell and Henri Pescarolo with the race number 61. Born in New Zealand, Thackwell was a versatile driver with a wealth of experience in sports cars and single-seaters, including Formula 1. Pescarolo is a man who needs no introduction. The undisputed godfather of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Frenchman has contested the endurance classic a staggering 33 times, winning outright on four occasion. Crucially, all four wins were scored before the 1987 season.

Racing at the very highest level of international endurance racing, this Mercedes-powered C9 competed at the most history-steeped venues of the world: Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps, the Nürburgring and most significantly, Le Mans. At the Circuit de la Sarthe, Thackwell and Pescarolo were joined by the Japanese driver Hideki Okada.

Ahead of the Le Mans weekend, the Saubers were reportedly the paddock’s dark-horse bets for victory. And those bets remained in great shape following qualifying – the numbers 62 and 61 Kouros Racing Team entries lining up seventh and eighth, respectively. Alas, Thackwell, Pescarolo and Okada’s race was thwarted by a transmission issue after 16 hours and 123 laps of running.

For this car’s final event of 1987, the ADAC Bilstein Super Sprint at the Nürburgring, the Frenchman Jean-Louis Schlesser (nephew of the great Jo Schlesser) was invited to drive. It proved to be a stroke of genius on Sauber’s part. Against the likes of Hans-Joachim Stuck, Bob Wollek and Jochen Mass, Schlesser tore to an exquisite victory, crossing the line over 10 seconds ahead of Stuck’s Works-entered Porsche 962C.

 

The 1988 season

As Sauber’s Kouros sponsorship deal concluded at the end of the season and Mercedes’ top brass played a game of musical chairs in Stuttgart, so the team was rebranded Sauber Mercedes. If the Kouros Racing Team was a Works-assisted effort, Sauber Mercedes was an all-out factory assault. Mercedes even drafted in AEG-Olympia, the electronics giant it owned, as the title sponsor. The resulting circuit board-inspired livery for the C9s ranks, in our opinion, as one of the coolest of them all.

With a new DTM programme anchored around its 190E 2.3-16 saloon kindled at the same time, Mercedes’ new management in Stuttgart clearly recognised the benefits motorsport could bring, both from a technological perspective and a commercial one. They only had to look at their next-door neighbours over at Porsche, who’d dominated the Group C formula with their 956/962 prototypes, to appreciate that.

After his fantastic showing at the Nürburgring at the tail end of 1987, Jean Louis Schlesser was made a permanent fixture behind the wheel of ‘C9.87.01’. This Works C9’s FIA World Sportscar Championship duties were limited to practice sessions at Jerez, Jarama, Monza, Silverstone and Le Mans. For these vital knowledge-building sessions, Schlesser shared the car with Mauro Baldi, the Italian driver who’d famously go on the win the FIA World Sportscar Championship in 1990 with Sauber Mercedes. Famously, he’d also win both the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring.

Focus for this car was instead given to the 1988 German Supercup championship, which Schlesser would tackle single-handedly. The season comprised five rounds: book-ending events at the Nürburgring and races at Hockenheim, the Norisring and Diepholz in between. Schlesser showed exceptional pace throughout the campaign, winning at Hockenheim, the Norisring and Diepholz. In finishing fifth in the finale in the Eifel mountains, he clinched outright victory in the championship – an incredible feat given the might of the opposition.

With its work complete in Europe, there was one final event for ‘C9.87.01’ to contest: the 360km of Sandown Park in Australia – the curtain closer on the 1988 FIA World Sports-Prototype Championship (the Group C class of the FIA World Sportscar Championship). For the first and only time in its competition career, this C9 wore the race number of its Works sister car, 62. Its two drivers down under were Mauro Baldi and the Swedish Formula 1 legend (and 1997 Le Mans winner) Stefan Johansson. The duo finished second overall, ironically behind the man who’d written ‘C9.87.01’ into the history books: Jean Louis Schlesser.

 

Post competitive life

By no means were this car’s factory duties over, however. The year 1989 would see the introduction of the new Mercedes M119 engine, with its four valves per cylinder and aluminium cylinder heads. This chassis was the very first to be fitted with the ultimate-spec engine and was reportedly used for extensive test and development ahead of the 1989 FIA World Sportscar Championship, most likely in the hands of the great Jochen Mass.

Owing to its significance as the very first C9 built, this car was honourably retired at the end of 1989 and retained by Peter Sauber in his personal collection/museum. ‘C9.87.01’ was refinished in the iconic silver livery in which the C9s dominated the 1989 season – an ode to the memory and success of Mercedes’ all-conquering Silver Arrows of the past. Resplendent in its silver gown, this car made one final public appearance at the 2014 Geneva Motor Show, as part of an exhibition showcasing the most famous cars to have won at Le Mans.

 

A restoration of epic proportions

‘C9.87.01’ was acquired by its current owner directly from Peter Sauber in 2015. A discerning German collector with a keen sense of duty when it comes to preserving ultra-significant competition cars and sharing them with the world, he took the decision to comprehensively restore this Sauber Mercedes C9 with a view to creating a lightning-fast, bulletproof and incredibly safe Group C prototype with which to win the world’s greatest historic motorsport events around the world.

Who better to explain the gravity of this exhaustive project than the founder of the company entrusted with carrying it out, Nigel Medcalf of the renowned UK-based race preparation specialist Moto Historics?

“This was an enormous project which took us over two years to complete from start to finish. We worked to the client’s brief from the outset – he wanted a car which was safe, beautifully set up, reliable and accompanied by a comprehensive spares package.

“To begin with we carefully and methodically disassembled the car, ordering and labelling every part, including the spares which were already with the car. Every component was then sent for crack testing. Once they were signed off, we realised we had a spare set of corners, so built them up as far as we could to establish if anything was missing.

“We discovered there were two right-hand lower wishbones, for example, but no left-hand pieces, so we had a set fabricated. Likewise, we found that the front uprights were cracked, so we sent them away to be digitally scanned so we could refabricate them from aluminium. As with all the parts we fabricated for this Sauber Mercedes, and there were a lot, they were made to look identical to the period parts. Our mission was to build a car that a period Sauber mechanic could look at say was spot on. There were no compromises.

“Next we removed the M119 engine which was in the car and gave it to our friends at INIT Racing to be stripped, inspected and rebuilt. Some of the guys at INIT formerly worked with Ilmor Engineering, which was responsible for building Mercedes’ Formula 1 engines during the McLaren-Mercedes era. As such, they had connections with the factory in Stuttgart and we were able to consult directly with Mercedes on a number of the C9’s particulars.

“This proved especially useful when we decided to reverse engineer and build a complete replica of the engine based around a M119 block, crank and heads I had acquired. We machined everything to ensure the engine was identical to the original. The amount of work was mind-blowing – it took 18 months alone to complete and we had to go to great lengths to ensure everything was spot on. That meant building the oil pumps by hand, creating tooling to make silicon pipework and commissioning a company in Japan to refabricate the belts, which have a very specific tooth pattern. Likewise, so much went into the cylinder heads and the Nikasil-coated block.

“The gearbox was stripped, inspected and rebuilt, including all the spare ratios. Once we got down to the tub, we engaged a company we know which specialises in aircraft crack testing to come and inspect it. Then there was the methodical period of putting everything back together, initially on the original corners with which the car arrived. There were so many headaches to overcome – take the wheel bearings, for example, which we had to refabricate and took eight months alone!

“For ease of use with today’s technology, we switched the ECU from a Bosch to a MOTEC system. However, we fitted it inside replica Bosch casing and had wiring looms made identical to the originals. The entire electrical system is indistinguishable from a visual point of view, but incorporates modern – and therefore reliable – technology. Finally, remedial work was made to the bodywork and the fragile floors were replaced. For preservation of the chassis, we also fabricated our own centre floor plank.

“We then conducted a number of wet and dry tests at Donington with Sam Hancock at the wheel. Once we were happy with the fundamental set-up of the car, we went to the Circuit de Catalunya near Barcelona, where Sam was really quick. Once we’d signed off on the car in its original configuration, we installed the spare corners we’d built along with the new engine and any other spare parts so we could sign off on those as well. The spares package, including the engine, is conveniently stored and ordered in a number of bespoke flight cases we had made, which streamlines everything at the racetrack and maximises efficiency. In every respect, this Sauber Mercedes is now on the button and ready to go racing. It would be a pleasure to continue running and looking after this special car for the new owner.”

 

From the driver’s seat

Having driven an enviably broad array of historic competition cars including a plethora of Group C prototypes, the British racing driver Sam Hancock is better qualified than most to comment on just what this Sauber Mercedes C9 is like to drive. So we’ll let him do just that…

“Naturally, I had my preconceptions and approached the Sauber very carefully. But what quickly struck me is that while it’s an intimidating car to look at and listen to and, to a degree, sit in, it’s actually an extraordinarily light and effortless car to trundle round in.

“You’ve got a fantastic uninterrupted view through the windscreen – so much nicer than a modern LMP2 car, for example, where the wheel arches steal your lateral vision. The gearbox is direct and strong and not difficult at all. It’s a quick punch from gear to gear, which is fantastic when you need to get down the box and the braking zones are so short.

“Of course, the car is ferociously quick. When you get on the throttle coming out of a slow-speed corner, the car will drift through first and second gear. But you quickly learn to pre-empt what’s coming and measure the throttle. While not as sophisticated as a modern LMP prototype, there is notable downforce, especially if you carry confidence in the fast corners. It feels extremely planted, with just a whiff of reassuring understeer.

“Our second test was at Catalunya. It was a dry day and the circuit was empty. The conditions couldn’t have been further from drizzly Donington. It’s testimony to Nigel and the team at Moto Historics that the car turned up and ran faultlessly for two days. It was absolutely brilliant and required virtually no set-up work – it was more a question of how quickly I could dial myself in! I feel confident in saying this car could hit any racetrack today and feel well balanced and in the setup window from the off.

“Climbing into a car which is that fast and over 30 years old and knowing that it’s been built so thoroughly with zero compromise for the mechanical integrity is as comforting as you can get from a safety point of view. It is an absolute monster. But we have to be careful about what language we use, because while it’s monstrously fast and capable, it’s not monstrous to drive.

“I can’t imagine a greater honour and privilege in motorsport than owning and racing this car. The sheer exhilaration is tenfold a modern prototype. Peak analogue driving pleasure. I have a huge appreciation of why these cars were so successful in period.”

 

In conclusion

We’ll let our very own Max Girardo have the final word on this ultra-significant Group C Silver Arrow. “Forget Group C – this Sauber Mercedes C9 is one of the most iconic sports-racing cars of them all. We’ve encountered all manner of historic competition cars, but we’ve never seen one as painstakingly restored, prepared and maintained as this one. The spares package alone is mind-blowing and difficult to comprehend. I echo Sam’s sentiments – that’s testament to the excellent team Moto Historics.

“The phrase ‘on the button and ready to go’ is bandied around a lot in our industry, but it’s absolutely apt in the case of ‘C9.87.01’. A Works Sauber Mercedes C9 offered directly from its single private owner. Unrepeatable is the word that springs to my mind. The historic Group C grids at the world’s most prestigious events are waiting. Le Mans Classic. The Monterey Motorsports Reunion. The Goodwood Members’ Meeting. I envy whoever has the privilege to share this car with the world and continue its winning story.”

 

Price Upon Application 

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