You don’t have to delve too deeply into the history of motor racing to unearth a slew of un-raced gems; machines designed to best the world but denied the chance to prove their worth, either through poor circumstance, the rapid evolution of the motorsport landscape they were intended to compete in, or simply because their maker no longer deemed competition worthwhile.
Here are some of our favourites.
The Mercedes-Sauber concern spent much of the late Group C era battling with Jaguar, then Peugeot for endurance honours, in the process helping to launch the career of one Michael Schumacher. The C292 of 1992 was intended to be a return to form after a number of seasons spent in the sports car wilderness, and there’s every chance that it would have done just that.
The C292 was to be powered by a 3.5l flat-twelve, an engine far more refined than anything found in earlier Sauber projects and evidence of the ever-growing influence of Mercedes money on the team. It sported a suite of advanced TAG software, and could rev all the way to 13,000rpm and produce a thumping 685bhp in the process. All of this was wrapped in a lightweight, aero-honed bodyshell, one with lashings of presence. There’s no doubt that it would’ve been effective.
But the C292 never got the chance to prove either its worth or its potential, with Mercedes opting to pull the plug on its sports car programme in the lead up to the 1992 season. It was another body blow to the Group C formula and hastened its demise some months later, meaning we never got to see what the ultimate Mercedes-Sauber racer was capable of.
Audi Quattro Group S
Audi found itself increasingly hobnailed by its resolute commitment to production derived rallying as the eighties progressed, and it wasn’t long before the all-conquering Quattro, the car which had done more than any other to redefine what a rally car could be and could do, was rendered nothing more than an also-ran by the march of progress.
The issue was that the front-engined Quattro was no longer capable of besting the more specialised Group B offerings, chiefly the Peugeot 205 T16 and Lancia Delta S4. Both were space-framed, mid-engined, and gave little to no concession to the fripperies of road car design bar bearing an outward resemblance to the production model they were intended to promote.
Audi’s engineers were only too aware that the day of the front-engined Quattro – be it a Sport or an E2, was now very much done and dusted, and that the only route back to the top was to produce a mid-engined version of the Quattro. It therefore fell to Roland Gumpert and a small band of engineers to produce a mid-engined Quattro protoype, something done in secret, away from the prying eyes of the word…and even Audi’s top brass, all of who detested the idea of the Quattro rally car losing its link to the road going variant.
Gumpert and co even got so far as testing the new, more capable car, with Walter Rohrl driving it behind the Iron Curtain in Cold War Czechoslovakia. The two-time world champ was pleased with the results, noting that the new car was far, far less prone to understeer than any of its front-engined siblings, and there’s every chance that it could’ve returned Audi to the sharp end of the WRC order…had VW Group top brass not discovered the existence of the 3 prototypes and demanded them crushed.
Alfa Romeo ProCar
Billded as a replacement for the successful BMW M1 ProCar series of 1979 and 1980, ProCar would have offered more of the same, albeit with everything turned up to eleven. It would have featured purpose built, space-framed race cars with F1 spec NA V10s, clothed in composite body panels designed to replicate those found on ordinary, mass market saloons.
The cars would have been driven the F1 drivers of the day in the hours immediately preceding the Grand Prix, which would have all but guaranteed spectacularly close, contentious racing up and down the grid.
As is the case with everything F1-related at the time, Bernie Ecclestone was involved. The Machiavellian Brit had just made the jump from team owner to F1’s commercial rights holder and as such had no qualms about offloading Brabham to Alfa Romeo at the beginning of the 1988 season.
The Italians had only recently pulled out of the F1 game and were therefore at something of a loose end, while their recent experience (combined with the chassis nouse of Brabham) meant that they were well placed to create a ProCar prototype, one based upon its range topping 164.
Debuted at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in 1988 the Alfa Romeo ProCar caused quite a stir. The space-framed, lightweight (750kg light) silhouette monster sported a mid-mounted V10, an engine originally intended for use by the Ligier F1 team and reportedly good for an easy 600bhp. The 0-60 dash could be achieved in under 3 seconds, while the top speed was mooted to be about 212mph.
As to what happened and why the series never came to fruition, we can blame the cold, hard reality of economic strife. This was the late ’80s, remember, and Alfa Romeo was hardly flush with cash – and that was before the looming recession hit home. A lukewarm reception from other, would-be ProCar constructors post-Monza display was the final nail in the coffin, and the category was quietly shelved at the end of the season.
Spit, it transpires, is one of the most effective drivers of motorsport – just ask Enzo Ferrari. Il Commendatore’s eponymous team had struggled to make an impact on F1 in its turbocharged era, but come the mid-eighties there was mounting evidence to suggest that Ferrari’s forced induction programme had turned a corner, which was a shame – as this was precisely the time the FIA/FISA began vocalising its plan to first reduce, then outlaw turbocharging in F1.
Incensed, Ferrari threatened to pick up his toys and leave F1, announcing his intention to take his team – the most famous in the world and a powerful marketing tool for any motorsport series – to CART instead. This would’ve been a coup for American open-wheel racing…and a damning blow to F1. It would also give Ferrari an opportunity to win one of the few glaring omissions on his firm’s motorsport CV, the Indy 500.
It’s hard to gauge how serious the threat actually was, though Ferrari was serious enough to build a potential car to test the concept, the 637S, and also to send the boss of the F1 team Marco Piccinini on a fact-finding mission to the USA. Gustav Brunner was enlisted to design the would-be Indy winner, and the car which emerged was neatly styled, compact and impressively aero-focussed.
The new car demanded an equally new engine, eventually christened the Tipo 34. This was a 2.6l turbocharged V8 in line with CART regs, albeit with the exhaust manifolds snaking out from the middle of the ‘V’ itself, with the cavernous, 29PSI turbo mounted flush to the transmission. Power was rumoured to be between 680 and 715bhp depending on boost.
The 637S was a neatly designed and carefully designed car, so much so that it gives added weight to the thought that Ferrari might well have been serious about following through with his threat. Enzo even had the Tipo 34 fired up when FISA’s representatives visited Maranello in 1986, a canny way of ramming home just how far along the Ferrari CART programme actually was.
In the end though, it came to nothing: Ferrari backed down and agreed to shelve the CART programme, though only after FISA had permitted his team to continue using its beloved twelve-cylinder engine.
Alfa Romeo SE048SP
Another potential Group C project denied the chance to shine, though this time due to internal Fiat Group ‘politicking’ as much as budget or dissatisfaction with the rules themselves. The group had been represented in Group C’s early years by Lancia, but the Turin arm’s dominance of the WRC as the eighties gave way to the nineties prompted a re-think.
Enter Alfa Romeo, fresh from a disappointing spell as an F1 team and seeking to bolster its sporting reputation with a spell in sports cars. The mooted return of Alfa Romeo to sports cars coincided with one of the biggest changes in Group C, the decision by the powers that be (and, rumour has it, at the insistence of F1’s Bernie Ecclestone) to force all teams to run naturally aspirated 3.5l engines. This would all eventually come to pass, and Group C racing would bite the dust in 1992, though not before Alfa Romeo had developed the stunning SE048SP.
Alfa had initially planned to use its Tipo 1035 V10 for the programme, the same Tipo 1035 engine it had developed for the Ligier F1 team and then used for its aborted 164 ProCar, but it proved ill-suited to the demands placed upon it by endurance work, as demonstrated by the resultant rash of valve train explosions! Not even Abarth’s legendary Claudio Lombardi could cure the engine of its tendency to throw belts willy-nilly, and as such the team was forced to ask its Ferrari parent company for an alternative, the Tipo 036 V12.
With the engine at last sorted and made reliable over anything longer than a sixty lap sprint, attention turned to the chassis to house it. This evolved into an elegant carbon fibre monocoque and a body dominated by a giant air-box, plus the classic Alfa Romeo roundel picked out at the front. The whole car tipped the scales at 750kg and put out a claimed 680bhp.
It was all beginning to look worryingly likely to come together as Alfa Romeo hoped…until Fiat pulled the plug in the autumn of 1990, the parent company citing the muddying of the Group C rulebook and a desire to take Alfa Romeo touring car racing as the chief reasons. Whatever the real reason, the result was the same; the world was denied the chance to see the most beautiful sports car of the Group C era in full flight.
Toyota Corolla Super Tourer
For a brief period from the mid to the late nineties, the BTCC was the best supported national championship on the face of the planet. The Super Touring concept had lured a veritable who’s who of car makers and British fans reaped the benefit, with grids filled to capacity with fully Works funded and supported teams, many making use of F1 grade technology and even employing former F1 drivers.
Into the melee stepped Toyota – or at least it got close. Toyota’s BTCC success had tailed off as the nineties progressed, and though it tasted championship success with the a succession of Carinas in the early part of the decade, it was clear that a clean-sheet design would be required if such heady heights were to be scaled once more.
Such a car was possible, if only for a short period in 1997. Andy Rouse, one of the most successful drivers in BTCC history and the architect of the original Mondeo tin-top programme, submitted a plan to produce a Super Touring variant of the then new E110 shape Corolla, and you’d have to consider it to have been a dream ticket for Toyota. After all, RouseSport knew precisely what it took to turn a so-so road car into a winning touring car.
So what happened? In a word, budget. Rouse had always intended the Corolla to sit at the more affordable end of the Super Touring spectrum, a means for independent and privateer teams to get onto the grid. This made a great deal of sense to most but not Toyota in Japan; the factory stonewalled, dragged its heels and generally made the entire process immensely difficult for all concerned with the Rouse operation.
Even support from Toyota UK made little difference, and come the end of 1998 it was becoming clear that the Corolla project was destined to fail, and this despite a working, functioning race car having been produced. Rouse himself walked away from the project at the end of the year and the sole car built was sold to a racer in New Zealand.
Proton Putra WRC
As the BTCC Super Touring bubble began to burst, so the WRC was entering a purple patch of its own, this one brought about by the adoption of the new World Rally Car regulations in 1997. This coaxed a number of car makers with little to no experience of rallying to take the plunge and get involved, with Skoda, Seat and Hyundai all joining the fray.
The trio of newbies could so easily have been a quartet, and indeed this would’ve been the case had Proton not got cold feet at the last moment. Keen to take a leaf from Subaru’s book and burnish its image via WRC success, Proton charged Prodrive with the task of turning its Putra (actually a reheated Mitsubishi) into a World Rally Car. This made a great deal of sense, as not only did the Banbury concern have recent experience of turning an automotive nonentity into a rallying powerhouse, it had also taken to supplying ‘off the peg’ components to other, would-be WRC champions.
The Putra wasn’t without its advantages in terms of WRC potential, what with its compact dimensions and proven Mitsubishi running gear, most notably the iconic 4G63T – the same basic engine as found in the then dominant Evo rally cars. It also gained a trio of differentials, the centre one being of the fabled ‘active’ type, and a prerequisite for WRC success come the end of the nineties.
The similarities between the Putra and Prodrive’s other WRC creation, the Impreza WRC98, were all too apparent, with the two cars even sharing the same six-speed sequential, not to mention a very, very similar outline. That this should be the case wasn’t all surprising when you consider the scale of the challenge faced by both parties, but it almost certainly caused more than a few difficult questions for Dave Richards and co when they were summoned by their Subaru paymasters.
As to why the Putra WRC never made it onto the special stages of the world, well, that’s up for debate, what with the programme having been quietly shuttered at the end of 1998 without so much as a comment from either party. We can’t know for sure for sure of course, but it seems highly probable that the complexities associated with Prodrive building a WRC car for Proton, one intended to compete against both Subaru and Mitsubishi (effectively the Malaysian concern’s ‘parent’), played a decisive role.