Have a go hero: A GT1 legend's Group C one-off

A whole host of future stars had one-off outings in Porsche 962s as Weissach's all-conquering Group C racer reached the end of its competitive life. While Michael Bartels would never emulate Jean Alesi and Damon Hill by racing in Formula 1, his forgettable Donington 1990 cameo provided a taster of what would become a highly successful sportscar career

Have a go hero: A GT1 legend's Group C one-off

When strapped into a Maserati MC12, Michael Bartels was one of the most prolific drivers of the GT1 era, collecting four drivers’ titles between 2006 and 2010, and tallying three victories in the Spa 24 Hours between 2005 and 2008. But his career also straddled another famous era, the German having made his sportscar debut in a one-off Group C outing at Donington in the 1990 World SportsCar Championship.

Bartels had just missed out on being included in the famed Mercedes junior team established for that year, made up of the three best-placed drivers from the 1989 German Formula 3 championship.

Bartels won more races than champion Karl Wendlinger and Michael Schumacher, his tally of three matched only by Heinz-Harald Frentzen, but a poorer finishing record meant he finished behind the trio in the standings.

Still, Bartels appeared to have the best of both worlds in 1990 as his Marlboro-facilitated graduation to Formula 3000 - where he again came up against Frentzen and Wendlinger - was combined with a Porsche junior deal. That meant he was entered in selected Carrera Cup races and enjoyed plenty of seat time pounding around the Weissach test track, entrusted by famous engineers Norbert Singer and Roland Kussmaul with developing new parts for the venerable 962.

“It was a wonderful experience with these legends of engineering,” he says. “I was doing a lot of testing, I was hungry, young and I wanted to deliver. So I was doing a lot of laps - there was still a lot of engine mappings, how the boost was coming in. The factories were never stopping developing.”

The works connection meant Bartels was well-placed to make his Group C bow, and this was helped further by his double European Hillclimb champion father Willi’s “very tight connection” with 1984 and 1985 Le Mans-winning Porsche entrant Reinhold Joest.

“They grew up together and did the hillclimb races, they were really good friends,” says Bartels.

Bartels was rewarded for his efforts on the test track with an outing in Joest's Porsche in the Donington WSPC round in 1990

Bartels was rewarded for his efforts on the test track with an outing in Joest's Porsche in the Donington WSPC round in 1990

After engine failure had put paid to the previous weekend’s Birmingham Superprix, Bartels was called up by Joest to partner Jonathan Palmer in its #8 962 at Donington, driving the middle leg of a race in which Frentzen – the least-utilised member of the Mercedes Group C junior team – was also making his Group C debut.

Over a year on from Porsche’s last world championship victory, scored by Joest stablemates Bob Wollek and Frank Jelinski at Dijon, Bartels was all too aware that the event would likely be monopolised by Mercedes and Jaguar.

Sure enough, Palmer’s effort to be the best of the Porsches in qualifying was only good enough for eighth. Palmer ran seventh in the early laps, but slipped back to 13th with a lack of grip. Then it was Bartels’ turn.

"For me it was super, this experience of driving a world championship race on this level, even when it was nearly without any chance" Michael Bartels

“It was not easy!” he recalls. “I remember the whole weekend was with the headline, ‘Fuel consumption’ – it was lifting and braking, 30 metres before the corner! It was [necessary] to have the fuel consumption under control, not to stop another time. It was very difficult against the Mercedes and the Jaguar.”

An unscheduled stop with a suspected puncture that turned out to be tyre debris further scuppered hopes of a good result, eventually ending up five laps adrift of the winning Mercedes C11 of Jean-Louis Schlesser and Mauro Baldi. “Palmer continued to a disappointing 10th,” said Autosport’s report.

Wollek and Jelinski didn’t fare much better, finishing ninth on the road before the post-race disqualification of both Jaguars for using too much fuel lifted them to seventh.

“For me it was super, this experience of driving a world championship race on this level, even when it was nearly without any chance,” Bartels says. “Still you had to finish, to work with these engineers, with a manufacturer. But my main focus was in the direction of Formula 1.”

Bartels decided not to pursue Group C any further and attempted a switch to F1 before settling on a tin-top career that segued into GTs

Bartels decided not to pursue Group C any further and attempted a switch to F1 before settling on a tin-top career that segued into GTs

Photo by: Motorsport Images

It would prove his only appearance of the season as Bartels thereafter focused on single-seaters, with mixed success. After a lawsuit from ousted driver Giovanni Bonanno caused his First Racing F3000 squad to fold four races into 1991, Bartels attempted a mid-season F1 switch with Team Lotus.

But with minimal testing to prepare him and a huge shunt practice for the Spanish GP from which he was fortunate to escape unscathed, he never managed to qualify – although the team’s shining light Mika Hakkinen usually only scraped in with the other car.

Bartels scored four podiums in the next two seasons of F3000 but no wins – sliding off on oil when comfortably leading at Enna in 1993 – and a second crack at F1 with March for 1993 fell through when the team folded.

That prompted a switch to tin-tops, where Bartels swept both races of the International Touring Car Championship meeting at Diepholz in 1995, but it was in GT cars that he enjoyed his greatest success. He won the Nurburgring 24 Hours in 2000 before the floodgates truly opened in the Maserati MC12 era that reached its peak by winning the short-lived GT1 World Championship in 2010.

“I am now 53,” he says, “and I am very thankful right from my first go-kart experience until today that I could be part of all this.”

Bartels continues to provide customer support to MC12 owners, and thrashed one up the Goodwood hill in 2014

Bartels continues to provide customer support to MC12 owners, and thrashed one up the Goodwood hill in 2014

Photo by: Motorsport Images

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