We are now 30 years removed from the 1989 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which stands as the highest point of possibly the greatest era of modern sports car racing. And the car that sits atop that peak is an interesting one.
Mercedes is not exactly a vaulted name in the world of endurance racing. Benz loves promoting its F1 heritage, understandably these days, and sort of glosses over the sports car stuff. That’s also understandable. Its GT1 campaign is best remembered for flipping through the air. And before that it was a Mercedes at the heart of the most terrible disaster in motorsports history, the violently deadly 1955 Le Mans.
It was that horrifying wreck, not all that long after WWII, that got Mercedes to pull out from racing altogether. A self-imposed ban that held for decades. Until this thing.
The Sauber team wasn’t a dominant force through all of Group C. But as the 1980s was nearing a close, Mercedes stepped in from a mere engine supplier to a full team sponsor, the first official involvement of Mercedes since ‘55.
And the car Sauber-Mercedes produced was one of Le Mans’ great cars. The C9 was both aerodynamically simple and fiercely powerful, running a twin-turbo Mercedes “M119” V8, grunty but high-tech thanks to Mercedes raking in bucketloads of yuppie cash through the decade. It was the 1980s in which the (West) German auto industry really put itself into the modern age of design, and we saw that here in racing.
The C9 won out at Le Mans in 1989, the last year of the endless Mulsanne straight existing without a chicane. One recorded the fastest top speed in practice, 248 miles per hour. In the race cars diced three-wide at 230-plus.
I get why Mercedes doesn’t parade its Le Mans history around any chance it gets, but the C9 is a strong contender for the greatest of the great.