Friday favourite: The ultimate Group C turbo car that missed its main objective

Across his career Karl Wendlinger competed in a comprehensive range of the great and the good cars, but his pick of the bunch is the iconic Sauber-Mercedes C11 that he only raced on four occasions and yielded just one win for him

Karl Wendlinger isn’t short of quality candidates when it comes to choosing a favourite car from his career.

The Sauber C12 Formula 1 car of 1993, that he qualified on the third row at Imola and the Donington race seared into folklore for Ayrton Senna’s remarkable opening lap, was up for consideration. So too the Chrysler Viper he used to win the 1999 FIA GT title with Olivier Beretta, take two class victories at Le Mans and scoop the 2000 Daytona 24 Hours outright against prototype opposition. The Jetalliance-run Aston Martin DBR9, with which Wendlinger and Ryan Sharp beat the all-conquering Maserati MC12 six times across the 2007 and 2008 FIA GT seasons, also had an outside chance.

But instead, the Austrian picks a car in which he only made four race appearances between 1990 and 1991. Each of those came at a track new to him and against much more experienced team-mates that usually had the rub of the green, with only one win to show for his efforts.

Yet his choice of the Sauber-Mercedes C11 is an entirely logical one. The last giant of Group C’s turbo era, with 1990 the final year of the FIA World Sports Prototype Championship’s fuel-limited formula before normally-aspirated 3.5-litre engines took over for 1991, the C11 was the class of a field that featured works teams from Jaguar, Nissan, Toyota and Spice, plus a bevy of privateer-entered Porsches.

It won seven of the eight races it started (no C11 raced in the Suzuka opening round, Jean-Louis Schlesser’s practice accident forcing he and Mauro Baldi to begin their title-winning campaign in an identical C9 to that used by Wendlinger and Jochen Mass) and only engine dramas at Silverstone prevented a clean sweep.
But for Wendlinger, the car’s success is only one face of its appeal.

“It was the step into professional motor racing,” says Wendlinger, who insists his choice of the ultimate Group C turbo car has nothing to do with his current employment as an AMG brand ambassador. “Maybe why I like to remember this very much is because it was the step out of being a Formula 3 driver, cleaning the car and washing the rims, into a professional factory team. It was an important step and it was successful driving in a very competitive car, so this is maybe in general why this is my number one car.”

Wendlinger made just four starts in the Sauber-Mercedes C11. He drove the example pictured here to victory at Spa in 1990 with Jochen Mass

Wendlinger made just four starts in the Sauber-Mercedes C11. He drove the example pictured here to victory at Spa in 1990 with Jochen Mass

Photo by: Daimler AG

The 1989 German Formula 3 champion, Wendlinger was one of third of the fabled Mercedes junior team established for 1990 along with 1989 rivals Michael Schumacher and Heinz-Harald Frentzen.

Wendlinger would dovetail his Group C programme with nine Formula 3000 rounds for RSM Marko and face off against Eddie Jordan Racing’s Frentzen, while Schumacher returned to F3 for an ultimately successful second crack at the title. But as Frentzen prioritised F3000 in 1990 and only made a single appearance alongside programme mentor Mass, at Donington, it was Wendlinger and Schumacher who did the lion’s share of the driving with four WSPC rounds apiece.

Wendlinger made his debut at Suzuka in the C9, claiming second behind title-winning team-mates Baldi and Schlesser. He matched that result at Monza, albeit only just – Mass passing Martin Brundle’s Jaguar on the final lap – in the repaired C11 chassis that Schlesser had crashed in Suzuka following Mass’s second opening lap spin in as many races.

"The C11 was a very fast car, a very competitive car, but it was not so difficult to drive. The car had lots of downforce, especially on the rear axle. And if you were once a little bit too fast somewhere, then there was a slight understeer" Karl Wendlinger

Sitting out Silverstone, where debutante Schumacher was famously banned from starting for receiving outside assistance from crew members after stopping on track in practice, Wendlinger made a winning return alongside Mass at Spa after Schlesser/Baldi were delayed by engine problems.

Mercedes had missed the boat on ditching the wets they started on when the track became dry enough for slicks and switched strategy to a two-stop. Wendlinger would be tasked with chasing down Brundle’s leading Jaguar following its third and final pit visit, but when the XJR11 expired the Austrian was handed a 90-second lead over Andy Wallace’s Jaguar and stroked it home.

“Despite his inexperience, Karl did an excellent job over the final laps, keeping the gap to the Jag at a comfortable margin,” wrote Autosport’s Adam Cooper. “He crossed the line still 90 seconds to the good, having brought back the fuel after Mass had been a little over. This was a well-deserved win, for the Mass/Wendlinger pairing had put in storming drives at both Suzuka and Monza after Jochen’s respective spins.”

Wendlinger's only win in the C11 came at Spa but he credits it with helping him making the transition into a professional racer

Wendlinger's only win in the C11 came at Spa but he credits it with helping him making the transition into a professional racer

Photo by: Daimler AG

He'd have one more outing in the C11 that year, at Montreal, but costly time loss due to a right-rear puncture meant Wendlinger and Mass were ninth when the race was red-flagged before 75% of the distance had been completed. A manhole cover had caused a fiery accident for Porsche privateer Jesus Pareja.

“The C11 was a very fast car, a very competitive car, but it was not so difficult to drive,” says Wendlinger, who was engineered in 1990 by ex-Porsche man Walter Naher. “First of all, the car had lots of downforce, especially on the rear axle. And if you were once a little bit too fast somewhere, then there was a slight understeer – which is easier to correct than an oversteer.

“The engine was really comfortable to drive, very good pickup, nice rev-band to drive with, good torque, good power, so it was in total – car and engine was a very good compromise.”

Wendlinger explains that the C11s ease of use wasn’t merely the product of Mercedes electing to go with an easy-to-drive set-up for its inexperienced junior driver, but an innate feature of the car.

“It was how the car was, definitely, because there were not really big set-up works on this car,” he says. “They arrived on the race weekend, spring rates were fixed more or less. Of course you always had to adjust a little bit the rideheight of the car, depends a little bit on the bottoming of the car, then maybe a little bit of tow and anti-rollbar setting and that was it.

“In general, the nature of the car was very basic and solid handling, with lots of downforce on the rear-end. The balance was good because there was lots of downforce on the rear-end, playing a little bit with the understeer.”

Wendlinger credited the C11's driver-friendly handling and set-up as key to its success

Wendlinger credited the C11's driver-friendly handling and set-up as key to its success

Photo by: Motorsport Images

The C11’s replacement, the C291, was dogged by unreliability during the 1991 season and only finished two of its eight races, Wendlinger and Schumacher winning the Autopolis finale. Wendlinger reckons it shared the same traits as the C11 in terms of balance and handling, though suffered with poor engine drivability.

But there was one last hurrah for the C11 in 1991 at Le Mans, after Mercedes had withdrawn from sportscar racing’s jewel in the crown in 1990 amid politicking following the event’s removal from the world championship. That had allowed Jaguar’s XJR11 – also the beneficiary of the Silverstone engine woes in 1990 – to claim the big prize.

Most expected that Mercedes would pick up where it had left off in 1989 in winning with the C9 and sure enough it proved the most competitive package – the example Baldi and Schlesser shared with Alain Ferte leading comfortably with three hours to go – but fell just short.

PLUS: The greatest cars never to win Le Mans

Wendlinger has never driven a C11 subsequently, though did sample a C9 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed “with rain tyres on, so just a demonstration run” and completed “maybe 10 or 15 laps” aboard a C291 for a German collector at Paul Ricard in 2016

“In 1991 at Le Mans I think it was the fastest car on the grid,” says Wendlinger. “Unfortunately it was not reliable...”

A broken water pump drive belt – that also drove the alternator – caused terminal damage to the engine while Ferte was three laps to go the good, and opened the door for Mazda to become the first Japanese manufacturer ever to win Le Mans.

PLUS: How overlooked Mazda produced one of Le Mans' greatest shocks 

Wendlinger, Schumacher and Fritz Kreutzpointner had led for a time too before Wendlinger had spun into a tyre wall on an out-lap, requiring the nose and rear wing to be replaced. Reliability problems, a gearbox and overheating resulting from the unnecessarily anodised bracket that also caused the lead car’s failure, meant the junior car was a distant fifth.

Wendlinger and co-drivers Schumacher and Kreutzpointner could only manage fifth after a crash and reliability woes having led at the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours

Wendlinger and co-drivers Schumacher and Kreutzpointner could only manage fifth after a crash and reliability woes having led at the 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours

Photo by: Motorsport Images

“In the last hours of the race I think we had to come in I think after eight laps maximum to fill some water in the radiators,” he says.

Wendlinger has never driven a C11 subsequently, though did sample a C9 at the Goodwood Festival of Speed “with rain tyres on, so just a demonstration run” and completed “maybe 10 or 15 laps” aboard a C291 for a German collector at Paul Ricard in 2016.

“But never the turbo engines again on a proper way, fast around a circuit I never did since 1991,” he says with a hint of longing that suggests he’d rather like the chance to drive his favourite car once more.

The 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours remains the last time Wendlinger has driven the C11

The 1991 Le Mans 24 Hours remains the last time Wendlinger has driven the C11

Photo by: Daimler AG

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