Which era of motorsport you consider to be the best probably has as much to do with your age and when you first discovered it as anything else, as let’s face it, nostalgia is a powerful thing. That being said, it’s also doubtless true that not all motorsport eras were created equal and that some were better than others, and while we’d never be so brazen as to go on record as proclaiming it the greatest of all time, the nineties were one hell of an entertaining decade from a global motor racing perspective.
As to which particular brand of mid-nineties motorsport was best, well, we wouldn’t like to say, largely as there was so much to pick from! Indeed, so varied, competitive and brilliant was the era that we’ve decided to give you a rundown of some of our favourites, with a standout moment from the given category/championship/formula for good measure.
If the eighties were the decade of ground-effect and forced induction Formula One, the nineties saw the last of the big power, big capacity NA screamers. V8s, V10s and V12s were par for the course, as was mind-boggling technology, much of it banned in subsequent years for being too costly and complex.
It was also varied, with any number of different drivers in with a potential shot at victory on a round-to-round basis, which isn’t something you could ever level at the F1 of 2019. It doubtless helped that the decade also gave us a number of once in a generation talents, the nineties beginning with Senna, Prost and Mansell, and concluding with Schumacher and Hakinen.
There is of course another, far darker reason the nineties is well remembered in F1 terms, and that’s the machinations of the 1994 season and the championship’s visit to Imola. The horrific crashes of Barichello, Ratzenberger and Senna (the latter pair fatal) served to make this most glorious of eras, somewhat bittersweet.
As for which particular moment best encapsulates F1 in the nineties, that rather depends on personal perspective, though this footage of Senna and Mansell battling for the Monaco Grand Prix win is right up there with the best.
Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft
Mansell’s 1992 championship was won at the wheel of the FW14B, the first F1 car to embrace technology like active suspension, anti-lock brakes, traction control and a semi-automatic gearbox, all of which would be banned from F1 within the year. Not that the banishment of such high-tech systems was total, they were merely re-employed elsewhere, and the DTM of the era was perhaps the best example of this.
The adoption of the FIA’s Class 1 Touring Car rules saw the DTM become the envy of the tin-top world between 1993 and 1996, with ex-F1 drivers and would-be F1 champions vying for honours in some of the most evocative race cars of the decade – the Opel Calibra, Alfa Romeo 155 TI and Mercedes C-Class. All were powered manic, 2.5 NA V6s with the ability to rev to high heaven, with power sent to both axles via an increasingly trick assortment of differentials and drive-shafts. The level of technological sophistication on offer was matched only by the spectacle these cars brought about, with close, hotly contested racing up and down the grid and on some of Europe’s most demanding tracks, including the Nürburgring.
Sadly for all concerned, the costs associated with Class 1 touring car racing meant that this iteration of the DTM was inherently unsustainable, and it wasn’t long before the car makers began to voice their concerns. It all came to a head in 1996, when the series collapsed in dramatic fashion thanks to the costs associated with competing in a newly expanded, now global series. Rounds in South America and Japan prompted concerns from Alfa Romeo and Opel, neither of which actually sold their cars in Japan.
The DTM (or International Touring Car Championship as it was known come the end of its life) collapsed inwards at the end of the 1996 season, with Alfa and Opel leaving and the series folding shortly after. It was a sad end, yet those 4 seasons are among the best remembered in DTM’s long and storied history.
This footage gives a good idea of how and why the DTM was so special in this era, not least as it’s from the 1993 season and its visits to the Nurburgring Nordschleife.
British Touring Car Championship
Super Touring regulations helped make the nineties one of (if not the very) best era in touring car racing. It gave rise to grids stuffed with big-budget, pro driven cars with a clear, tangible visual link to the road model which inspired them, and the racing was famously close.
The vague visual link between race and road car was at the very heart of the BTCC’s popularity in this era, even if the appearances were purely superficial. It meant that come the peak of the Super Touring era in the middle of the decade, spectators got to witness a grid full of rep-mobiles, each with 300bhp and the ability to rev to the heavens, normally driven by a world class driver and more often than not exhibiting the sort of ‘elbows out’ racing touring cars do best.
It no doubt helped that many of the cars themselves looked effortlessly cool, running as they did on 18in or 19in wheels and with loads of tuck: it’s the sort of look you’d never be able to do justice on a road car, certainly without rendering it all but un-driveable.
Selecting just one moment from the Super Touring era is tricky given the amount of stunning footage to choose to from, though Tarquni’s drive from the back of the grid in his Alfa Romeo 155 in Donington 1994 was easily one of the finest of the era.
World Rally Championship
The World Rally Championship enjoyed one of its (many) golden eras in the nineties, the championship finally emerging from the long shadow cast by the tragic demise of Group B in 1986. Group A rules formed the basis for the WRC for much of the decade, only being replaced by the new, World Rally Car formula from 1997.
Group A was great for WRC fans, primarily as it demanded that car makers produce and sell 5000 (later 2500) road going homologation specials before they could compete, hence models like the Escort Cosworth, the Lancia Delta Integrale and the rash of performance Imprezas and Evos. It had never been easier to purchase a car with a direct, mechanical link to those being driven in anger by your WRC hero, as evidence by a generation of would-be McRaes, ‘Burnsies’ and Sainzes.
It became increasingly tricky to convince car makers to invest in the creation of costly, barely relevant homologation specials as the nineties ticked by, even with the drop down to just 2500 units. This gave rise to the World Rally Car formula, a way of allowing those car makers without the inclination or expertise in all-wheel drive road cars to go rallying, which was how the WRC concluded the decade with entries from Skoda, SEAT and Hyundai.
The downside to the introduction of the Word Rally Car formula was the corresponding drop in homologation specials as the decade wore on, and it wasn’t long before classic 555 Imprezas and Evo IIIs were relegated to museum or private collection status.
Sports Cars endured a tumultuous period in the nineties, the decade beginning with the final flourish of the Group C era and concluding with the hyper specialised GT one. The era in between was nothing if not tumultuous, with much squabbling between car makers, circuit owners and the powers that be, the FIA. It was only in the latter portion of the decade that Sports Car racing as a category reattained a semblance of stability.
The opening years of the decade were blighted by the FIA’s decision to force those Works Group C teams to adopt the new, F1-spec 3.5L V8 NA engines. This was seen by many as a cynical ploy to force said Works teams (Mercedes, Peugeot and Jaguar in particular) to give up Sports Cars for F1, and while this was a partial success, it did decimate the Group C grid within a few short seasons. Jaguar’s XJR-14 and Peugeot’s 905B were spectacular, no doubt about it, but they were short lived.
The highlight in the gulf between the demise of Group C and the establishment of the GT1 era in 1996 was probably Mazda’s victory at Le Mans in 1991, at the time the only Japanese car firm to have won at La Sarthe.
The nineties also saw McLaren sweep all before it with the amazing, Gordon Murray designed F1. The car, designed to be the ultimate embodiment of race technology for the road, was never intended to have a circuit career, and as such it was to the surprise of many that the F1 became one of the most potent racers of the decade. Here’s some stunning footage of the McLaren F1 GTR doing its stunning, V12-powered thing.