The Top 10 Most Dominant Race Cars of All Time
Motorsport is, like virtually any sport, a competition. Whether you’re trying to beat your own personal lap record at a track day in a Miata that’s older than you are, going wheel-to-wheel with the best in the business with the Formula 1 World Championship hanging in the balance, or any racing endeavor in between, the fundamental goal remains the same: Be the best. And the better your car, the better your chances of being the best.
The history of motorsports is filled with cars that clearly had a leg (Wheel?) up on their rivals. But rare are the race cars that could, weekend after weekend (and, occasionally, season after season), pummel all challengers into submission and leave manufacturer executives, team managers, series officials, race promoters and parity-loving fans alike banging their heads on the table while feebly moaning “Make it stop…make it staaaahhp…” Here are 10 such mobile demoralizers.
When Audi arrived in prototype sports car racing in 1999, few observers gave them a second look. After all, they wouldn’t be allowed to utilize the added advantage of quattro all-wheel-drive like they were able to in rallying, Trans-Am, IMSA GTO and touring cars. And it appeared that the company couldn’t even decide which direction it wanted to go with the program: It fielded both closed-top (the R8C, developed by Racing Technology Norfolk and run by Audi Sport UK) and open-top (the Dallara-built R8R, fielded by Audi Sport Team Joest) prototypes.
However, after the R8Cs struggled heavily at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Audi canned the coupe program and set about developing an improved R8R for the 2000 racing season. That new car – now known simply as the R8 – made its debut at the 12 Hours of Sebring; it finished 1-2 overall, a lap ahead of the third-place BMW V12 LMR. Three months later, it swept the podium in its Le Mans debut, and ended the year by winning the American Le Mans Series team and driver championship (the latter going to Allan McNish).
The R8 went on to take the ALMS title again every year from 2001 to 2005, and it won its final three races in 2006 to help Audi Sport North America to that season’s championship. Additional Le Mans victories also came in 2001, ’02, ’04 and ’05. What happened in 2003, you ask? The factory Audi program was taking a siesta that year, the idea being that it would improve the chances of corporate cousin Bentley topping the podium, which it dutifully did. But here’s the thing: The Bentley Speed 8 had a whole bunch of R8C and R8 bits under its British Racing Green skin, including the latest specification 3.6L twin-turbo V8. So yeah, the R8’s winning streak at La Sarthe was only semi-unbroken.
A perfect season is a rare feat in any sport, and it’s as rare as you can get in the history of Formula 1…because no team has ever done it. But in 1988, McLaren came oh-so-close with the impossibly-low-slung, Honda-powered MP4/4.
Developed by the Japanese manufacturer for just the ’88 season (as 3.5L naturally-aspirated engines would be mandatory starting in 1989), the RA168-E 1.5L twin-turbo V6 was Honda’s first powerplant for McLaren, who installed it in the ground-hugging MP4/4, which was designed by Steve Nichols and Gordon Murray (In fact, the low-line design was based heavily on the 1986 Brabham-BMW BT55, Murray’s clever but disappointing final effort for his then-employer.). The new car probably would have won a few races in the hands of the average F1 driver, but in the hands of Alain Prost and new recruit Ayrton Senna it was, for all intents and purposes, invincible.
Between the two of them, Prost and Senna won the first 11 races of the season, finishing 1-2 in eight of those 11. They also won the last four rounds of the championship, finishing 1-2 in half of those, bagging Senna the driver’s championship and McLaren the constructor’s championship. However, in between those runs of beating everyone else to a bloody pulp was the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. To the surprise of no one, the pair locked out the front row, with polesitter Senna timing in almost two full seconds faster than Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari in third. But in the race, it all went wrong: Prost’s engine popped on lap 34, while Senna was cruising to victory…until he came up to lap the Williams of Jean-Louis Schlesser (who was subbing for a sick Nigel Mansell) with three circuits to go. The two cars made contact in the narrow first chicane, with the McLaren spinning around and getting high-centered – and stuck – on the curbing. Thus ended McLaren’s chance to become the 1972 Miami Dolphins of F1. However, it did lead to one of the most fairytale finishes in racing history: Ferrari men Berger and Michele Alboreto came home first and second in front of a sea of delirious tifosi still mourning the passing of Enzo Ferrari a month earlier.
Lancia Delta HF Integrale
Given that Henri Toivonen and Sergio Cresto perished in a crash during the 1986 Tour de Corse in a Lancia Delta S4, and that crash prompted the immediate banning of Group B cars (and the cancellation of their Group S replacements, which were to have been introduced the following year) from the World Rally Championship, no one would have blamed Lancia for completely turning its back on the WRC – if not all of motorsports – much the way Mercedes-Benz did in the wake of the 1955 Le Mans disaster.
Instead, the Italian brand gallantly entered the 1987 season (run under Group A rules) with the mass-produced Delta HF 4WD, and won both the manufacturer’s championship and the driver’s championship with reigning titlist Juha Kankkunen, who was left rideless when Peugeot quit after the ’86 season. But at the third round of the 1988 season, Rally Portugal, Lancia debuted an even more fearsome weapon: The Delta HF Integrale. The fat-fendered hot hatch won on debut in the hands of Miki Biasion, and Integrales would win seven of the subsequent 10 rallies that comprised the rest of the season. Unsurprisingly, Lancia and Biasion took home their respective titles.
But rather than rest on its laurels, Lancia updated the Integrale late in the 1989 season by topping its turbocharged 2.0L inline-four with a new 16-valve cylinder head. Result? Double titles yet again for Lancia and Biasion. More manufacturer’s championships came in 1990, ’91 and ’92, while Kankkunen took another driver’s title in 1991. Yeah, the Delta HF Integrale made life pretty rough for non-Lancia pilots.
Porsche 956 & 962
Porsche wasn’t the first company to build a sports prototype that met the FIA’s Group C regulations, but it was the most successful. Seriously, no one else was in the same galaxy when it came to victories and championships. The three factory-entered, Rothmans-sponsored 956s swept the top three positions in the car’s first start at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1982, and they finished 1-2 the following year.
Come 1984, Porsche released a new derivative of the 956 called the 962 that satisfied IMSA GTP regulations here in the U.S. (namely a single-turbo engine rather than the 956’s twin-turbo setup, a tubular steel roll cage, and a longer wheelbase so the pedal box could be located behind the centerline of the front wheels rather than in front of it). Eventually, Porsche created a version of the new car for international racing called the 962C and, like the 935 before it, race teams and independent companies would build their own modified (and completely self-built) 956/962 variants. One such clone, a Dauer 962 Le Mans, exploited a loophole in the Automobile Club de l’Ouest rules that allowed it, with some modifications, to run as a GT car in the 1994 edition of the French classic. The two Joest Racing-run cars duly crossed the finish line in first and third overall, providing a fitting bookend to a dozen-year career that will probably never be matched.
Nissan Skyline GT-R (R32)
Throughout the 1980s, the FIA’s Group A formula for touring car racing led to not only some of the best tin-top racing the world has ever seen, but also some of the sweetest homologation specials ever to win on Sunday before selling on Monday. The original E30-chassis BMW M3, Ford Sierra RS Cosworth and the Mercedes-Benz 190E 2.5-16 Evolution all owe their existences to Group A touring car racing.
But there’s one member of this elite group that managed to make its rivals wish they’d never been born: The R32-chassis Nissan Skyline GT-R. The pavement-strangling all-wheel-drive and all-wheel-steering made best use of the twin-turbocharged 2.6L inline-six’s prodigious power (officially 276 horsepower in street trim, though the actual number was more like 310 horsepower), helping the first Skyline GT-R since the short-lived “Kenmeri” of the early 1970s lap the Nürburgring Nordschleife in a then-production-car-record eight minutes and 20 seconds.
But it was in the crucible of competition that the legend of Nissan’s four-seat supercar was born. Then again, there wasn’t much competition to be found! To wit: Every race of the Japanese Touring Car Championship from the opening event of 1990 to the final round of 1993 – 29 races in all – was won by an R32 GT-R. In fact, the Skyline GT-R essentially led to the demise of the Group A rules in JTCC, as they were supplanted by the FIA Class 2 (a.k.a. Super Touring) regs in 1994. The story wasn’t much different in Australia, where the car took Jim Richards to the championship in 1990 and ’91 and Mark Skaife in 1992. Richards and Skaife also won the Bathurst 1000 in dominating fashion in ’91 and ’92, by which time the GT-R had earned the nickname that has remained with it to this day in its present, standalone-model R35 form: Godzilla.
For most of its history, Indy car racing has been incredibly competitive, with no one car dominating for a very long period. One notable exception was the 1994 season, when Marlboro Team Penske campaigned the Ilmor-(formerly Chevrolet-)powered Penske PC-23. All told, the team’s three drivers – Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy and new-signing Al Unser Jr. – combined to win 12 of the season’s 16 races.
However, for the Month of May and the Indianapolis 500, the dominance exhibited by the Captain and his crew was on a whole other level. This was due to the fact that, although the Indy 500 counted toward the CART Indy car championship, it was actually sanctioned by USAC. And USAC allowed pushrod, two-valve-per-cylinder “stock block” engines to run with more turbocharger boost than CART did. However, the rules didn’t explicitly say that such an engine had to be based on a production road car engine. With this loophole in mind, Penske, Ilmor and a new third musketeer – Mercedes-Benz – developed a special 3.4L single-turbo OHV V8 to bolt onto the back of the PC-23 tub.
The engine – dubbed the 500I – propelled Unser Jr. and Fittipaldi to first and third on the grid, respectively, while in the race, it looked like Emmo was going to run away with his second-straight (and third total) win in the 500 until he walled it in turn 4 with 16 laps left. Little Al was there to pick up the slack for his teammates (Tracy had an altogether miserable Month of May.) and take the win en route to the 1994 Indy car championship.
McLaren may have missed out on an undefeated F1 season in 1988, but it’s not like it would have been the company’s first perfect season in racing. The year: 1969. The series: Can-Am. The Drivers: Company founder Bruce McLaren and his fellow New Zealander, 1967 World Driving Champion Denny Hulme. And, last but not least, the car: The McLaren M8B.
This Kiwi Orange beast was an evolution of the prior year’s M8A (The designated spare M8B was actually built around an M8A tub.), with key differences in the shape of the bodywork, a big Chaparral-like wing mounted on pylons directly over the rear wheels (though unlike the white cars from Texas, the McLaren’s wing could not be adjusted by the driver on track), and an updated all-aluminum 7.0L Chevrolet Big Block V8. Bruce won six of the season’s 11 races while Denny was triumphant in the other five, and in the final standings, the boss man beat “The Bear” to the championship by five points, 165 to 160. For comparison, the guy who finished third that year – Carl Haas Lola driver Chuck Parsons – banked 85 points over the course of the season, or just over half of Bruce’s total. Ouch, baby.
Porsche built many sports prototypes before the 917, but none of them enjoyed the kind of success, versatility or longevity that this flat-12-powered beast did. Granted, it wasn’t very good (to put things as charitably as possible) in its original 1969 form, but the revised 1970 models – the short-tail 917K and the optimized-for-Le Mans long-tail 917L – proved more than a match for its closest rival, the new-for-1970 Ferrari 512S. 917s won seven of the season’s 10 World Sportscar Championship races, including the marque’s first overall win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. The following year, 917s won eight of the 11 races held, including a second successive victory at Le Mans.
Sadly, beginning with the 1972 season, sports prototypes contesting the World Championship were limited to engines no bigger than 3.0L, meaning the 917’s globe-trotting career was over. But 1972 was also the year it managed to find a new home here in the U.S., specifically in Can-Am. The open-top, twin-turbocharged 917/10, fielded by Penske Racing with factory support, won six of the season’s nine events, breaking the McLaren chokehold on the series and giving driver George Follmer a Can-Am title to go with the Trans-Am title he won the same year. For 1973, Penske and Porsche rolled out the 917/30, featuring revised bodywork and a bigger 5.4L twin-turbo flat-12 that purportedly generated 1,100 horsepower at full boost. Mark Donohue drove the Sunoco-sponsored 917/30 to victory in the final six races of the eight race season en route to the championship, while Follmer and Charlie Kemp won the first two rounds in privately entered 917/10s.
So dominant were the “Turbopanzers” it was becoming quite clear to other competitors and the series organizers that Can-Am in its current form was unsustainable. The 1974 season was canceled after the fifth race, and the series went away for the next three years; when it returned in 1977, the cars were basically Formula 5000 single-seaters with fenders. Sometimes, it really is better to letgo.
After sticking with the once-formidable 72 for way too long and producing a couple of frankly wretched cars after it (particularly the 76), Lotus was finally back on the path to Formula 1 salvation in 1977 with the Ford–Cosworth-DFV-V8-powered, semi-ground-effect 78. The strong form carried over into the start of the 1978 season, but it wasn’t until the introduction of the 79 at the sixth round of that season’s World Championship at Zolder, Belgium that Colin Chapman’s drivers – Italian-American driving deity Mario Andretti and newly-re-hired Swedish star Ronnie Peterson – and Team Lotus really hit their stride.
Most of the 79’s success is attributable to the fact that it was the first F1 car purposely designed around the principal of ground effects. By contouring a car’s underside in the profile of an upside-down airplane wing, the whole car could essentially act as its own airfoil, effectively sucking itself closer to the pavement (thereby generating more downward pressure on the tires, thereby increasing grip) at speed. This not only allowed Chapman and his design staff to create a car that could corner better than any other car on the gird (with the exception of the won-one-and-done Brabham BT46B “Fan Car”), but the reduced reliance on the conventional front and rear wings allowed them to be shaped and angled in a manner that caused them to generate less drag than normal, which boosted the 79’s straight-line speed despite the 3.0L Cossie being slightly down on top-end power relative to the same-size 12-cylinder Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Matra mills and Renault’s groundbreaking 1.5L twin-turbo V6.
Andretti used the 79 to claim five victories that season in addition to his victory at the season-opening Brazilian Grand Prix in the 78, as well as claim a further seven pole positions. Peterson would qualify on pole twice and take the win in Austria. Ultimately, Lotus would win the Constructor’s Championship, while Andretti and Peterson would finish 1-2 in the Driver’s Championship. Alas, both titles came at a high price: Peterson lost his life due to complications resulting from leg injuries sustained in an opening lap pileup at the Italian Grand Prix. It sucked virtually all of the elation of realizing his boyhood dream from Andretti, and created a macabre kinship with the only other American world champion, Phil Hill: Both clinched their titles in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, and both lost their teammates due to accidents that occurred during the race.
Despite that sad postscript, it’s worth noting that the Lotus 79 fundamentally changed race car design forever. Subsequent F1 cars, Indy cars and sports cars were designed with almost as much attention paid to their undersides as their top sides. And while full-on ground effects have since been banned in just about every major series, all of the cars that did utilize them owe their existence to the 79.
Much was made of NASCAR’s switch last year from the blobfish-esque so-called Gen 5/COT Sprint Cup Series car to the vastly more stock-looking Gen 6 car. A similarly seismic shift took place at the start of the 1981 season, when the 115” wheelbase cars wearing obsolete bodywork (e.g. GM’s “Colonnade” A-bodies and Ford’s big Torino-based Thunderbird) were retired in favor of new 110” wheelbasechassis designed to reflect Detroit’s new downsized mid-size models such as the new GM A-bodies and the Fox-platform Thunderbird.
From this group of contenders, the Buick Regal quickly emerged as the (rather unlikely) dominant force. In the Daytona 500 (the first race where only 110” cars were allowed; the old cars had one last hurrah at the season-opener on the road course at Riverside, California, where they ran alongside their successors), Richard Petty used a Buick to win the race for the seventh and final time, while Darrell Waltrip cinched the first of his three Cup titles driving Junior Johnson’s Mountain Dew sponsored Regal No. 11. The 1982 season brought more of the same, with Buick repeating as manufacturer’s champion, Daytona 500 winner (with Bobby Allison in the No. 88 Gatorade Regal leading home six more Regals in the top 8 positions), and Waltrip repeating as driver’s champion.
Unfortunately, ’82 would be the Flint-based brand’s last season at the top; the following season saw sister brand Chevrolet roll out a Monte Carlo SS with an aero-friendly quasi-wedge nose, while Ford introduced a curvaceous new Thunderbird. Never again would Buick reach the highs it did in the first two years of the 110”-wheelbase era, and the division withdrew from the sport at the end of the 1991 season. Incidentally, Buick’s 1982 manufacturer’s crown was the last time a nameplate other than Chevrolet or Ford won that title.