• Hold Onto Your Jaws: A Sauber Mercedes C9 Has Hit The Market

This Group C monster comes from a time when doing 210 mph on the Mulsanne Straight was commonplace

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Throughout the years, the world of racing has given us plenty of iconic liveries to fawn over, from the gold-and-black beauty of the JPS Lotuses run by Colin Chapman’s team to the iconic light blue threads of the stock cars raced by Richard Petty in NASCAR. An equally famous single-color comes from Germany and it adorned not one but multiple teams, namely the ’Silver Arrow’ livery. The Sauber-Mercedes C9 stands as the first ’Silver Arrow’ of the modern era, a car so dominant at one point that it drew justifiable parallels with the original silver bullets from the ’30s.

Those silver cars, be it the rear-mid-engined Auto Unions or the prodigious Mercedes-Benz machines of Rudi Uhlenhaut, were the pride of Germany in between the two World Wars and were painted silver as that was the country’s national racing color, the same as green was the national racing color of Britain and red was that of Italy. With the advent of sponsorship in the ’60s, national colors took a step back but, when Mercedes returned to top-level racing in the late ’80s, it sought to bring back some of that old-timey appeal. This is one of the cars that carried those famous colors in 1989.

The Sauber Mercedes C9 is one of the rarest Group C cars

Hold Onto Your Jaws: A Sauber Mercedes C9 Has Hit The Market
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At one point in history, in the not too distant past, rule-makers hit the jackpot with a prototype formula so successful that it filled the entire grid for the fabled 24 Hours of Le Mans. This was an astonishing feat considering prototypes were expensive, purpose-built machines built as the quicker, more exotic alternative to the production-derived grand tourers. At Le Mans, as well as at other venues around the world, the prototypes and the GTs would share the same turf but would fight their own battles. Usually, it was the slower GTs that made up most of the grid with only the really rich privateers or a handful of factory-backed teams able to run the prototypes. In the ’80s, however, the status quo changed dramatically.

Hold Onto Your Jaws: A Sauber Mercedes C9 Has Hit The Market
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You see, following the fuel crisis of the mid-’70s, racing purpose-built sports prototypes was a seemingly dead business model for just about any major automaker. The only guys that kept going at it in what was then Group 6 - a category for two-liter and three-liter open-top prototypes - were what Enzo Ferrari described as ’garagistas’ in the ’50s. They were small companies like De Cadenet or Mirage that only built race cars and could barely break even doing so. Amongst these ambitious constructors was also Sauber, a Swiss firm established by Peter Sauber that was churning out two-liter sports prototypes powered by Ford-Cosworth engines.

Hold Onto Your Jaws: A Sauber Mercedes C9 Has Hit The Market
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By '76, though, Sauber signed a lucrative deal with BMW whereby the Bavarian automaker would provide Sauber with its highly successful M12 2.0-liter, inline-four engine.

The switch to BMW power came a long way in helping Sauber establish itself as a strong contender in the 2.0-liter sub-class in Europe and, as Sauber and BMW grew closer together, the Swiss company even built the Group 5 version of the famous BMW M1 in 1981. By then, both Group 5 and Group 6 were on their last legs as the FIA decided to introduce a new prototype class in 1982.

Hold Onto Your Jaws: A Sauber Mercedes C9 Has Hit The Market
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Stemmed from the lessons learned by the ACO with the GTP class, the Group C class allowed teams to build closed-cockpit prototypes powered by either naturally aspirated or turbocharged engines. The rulebook was thin and, since these cars were allowed to generate under-body downforce by way of venturi tunnels, it was envisioned that they would become really fast in a short period of times - something that was to be desired by 1981 when the ultra-modified Group 5 GT cars had become about as fast as the quickest Group 6 prototypes, diluting the core idea of a multi-class structure that had been adopted for years in the World Championship and at Le Mans.

Hold Onto Your Jaws: A Sauber Mercedes C9 Has Hit The Market
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From the get-go, there were many takers for the Group C formula but only Porsche was genuinely prepared and its trifecta of Rothmans-sponsored 956 swept the floor at Le Mans and filled the entire rostrum at the end of the day. Porsche would go on to dominate Group C for years despite the fact that many rivals tried to beat them. Among those left frustrated in the wake of a newfound Porsche stranglehold was Sauber that built its own Group C contender in 1982, the Cosworth DFL-powered C6.

The performance of the car only allowed Sauber to hope for some anonymous finishes among the mid-fielders but even those were often out of the team’s grasp as the C6 proved woefully unreliable. While Sehcar (Sieger & Hoffman), the company that assembled the monocoque, kept developing the C6 into 1983 and had a stab at installing a 3.2-liter BMW turbo engine in it, Sauber decided to design an all-new Group C christened the C7.

Akin to Sehcar, Sauber too went back to BMW power as it sampled the M88 3.5-liter inline-six.
Hold Onto Your Jaws: A Sauber Mercedes C9 Has Hit The Market
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The engine was reliable and the car finished ninth overall in its maiden outing which took place, coincidentally, at Le Mans. The result was quite remarkable given that the driving roster was made up of inexperienced Americans and a Colombian, Diego Montoya. After one more outing in Japan, where the car again finished inside the top 10, it was sold and raced for a couple of seasons in IMSA although it did take part in the 1985 Mosport 1,000-kilometer race which was part of the World Championship at the time. A seventh-place finish proved the package was still sturdy - even under the stress of running a Chevy V-8 - but by then Sauber was already racing the C8.

Hold Onto Your Jaws: A Sauber Mercedes C9 Has Hit The Market
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The new prototype featured an aluminum monocoque designed by Leo Ress which was hidden underneath a much more slippery body with an extended rear deck. The oomph came not from BMW, nor from Ford-Cosworth for that matter, as Peter Sauber decided to hand-pick Swiss engine tuner Heini Mader as his supplier. Sauber had built up what was, then, a covert relationship with Mercedes through Ress. While also designing both the C7 and the C8, Ress’ main gig was with Mercedes in the road car department. He describes the deal between Sauber and Mader as a way to hide the fact that Mercedes was directly involved in supplying the Swiss team with a turbocharged version of the M117 V-8 engine.

Hold Onto Your Jaws: A Sauber Mercedes C9 Has Hit The Market
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The engine should’ve made its debut in the middle of the C8 at Le Mans in 1985 but John Nielsen crashed the unique chassis on the Mulsanne Straight inflicting so much damage to the monocoque that Sauber sit out the rest of the season. When it was back, however, it sported an all-new livery adorning a heavily improved C8. The colors were those of Kouros, a Yves Saint Laurent brand that agreed on a two-year sponsorship deal mediated by Jochen Neerpasch. As it happened, the former BMW Motorsport boss would lead Mercedes-Benz’s return to racing alongside Sauber in the very near future.

The C8 wasn't the fastest car out there and a double DNF at Le Mans didn't bode well for Mercedes' future aspiration especially since it was the engine that failed on the Nielsen/Thackwell car.

Next time out, however, it all came good and, in a two-heat race at the Nuerburgring, Mike Thackwell and Henri Pescarolo scored Sauber’s maiden Group C victory after the two Works Porsches tangled with each other in spectacular fashion.

The following season saw the introduction of the gorgeous C9. It was almost a new car as it shared the basic monocoque design with the C8 although many improvements were made to add stiffness. Changes, too, were made to the rear suspension that now featured a horizontal layout mounted longitudinally to the car as opposed to the vertical one of the C8. The oil-water radiator was moved to the nose of the car from its original position in the sills behind the doors. This meant that the huge NACA ducts on the doors could be removed thus reducing air turbulence either side of the cockpit.

Hold Onto Your Jaws: A Sauber Mercedes C9 Has Hit The Market
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The C9 was fast straight out of the box but a runner-up spot in qualifying for its first race, the Silverstone 1,000-kilometer yielded nothing when the suspension broke. This was the theme of 1987 as the C9s were rapid on all circuits but failed to complete the job due to mechanical problems. Mike Thackwell even put the C9 in pole at the daunting Spa beating the Jaguar team in the process but the car once again retired. Meanwhile, Tom Walkinshaw and the Jags walked away with the title while Porsche scored its last in a string of six consecutive Le Mans wins

Hold Onto Your Jaws: A Sauber Mercedes C9 Has Hit The Market
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In 1988, Mercedes was finally all in and not just behind the scenes. The giant from Stuttgart made its motorsport comeback after a 33-year-long hiatus by undertaking a twin-fangled program: on the one hand, it would run AMG-tuned 190Es in the DTM and, on the other, a pair of Sauber-built Mercedes C9s in the World Sports Prototype Championship. The machines would sport a revised look because Mercedes subsidiary AEG-Olympia stepped in. In the first race of ’88, the Jerez 800-kilometer, Schlesser, Baldi, and Mass won from pole but there were doubts over Mercedes’ seriousness since only one of the two factory entries had materialized and this didn’t change at either Jarama or Monza.

But, with three pole positions in the bag, one win, and two second places, it seemed like Mercedes-Benz was able to threaten Jaguar with only one bullet in its gun.Finally, at Silverstone, the sister car showed up driven by Baldi and Weaver. Schlesser and Mass drove the ’main’ C9 that took pole and finished second. While the third consecutive runner-up finish was by no means a bad result, Mercedes lost every time to the same car: the No. 1 Jaguar of Eddie Cheever and Martin Brundle. To add insult to injury, Le Mans was up next and Sauber’s record at Circuit de la Sarthe wasn’t especially enviable.

Hold Onto Your Jaws: A Sauber Mercedes C9 Has Hit The Market
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While Tom Walkinshaw Racing brought three of the revised XJR-9s, all powered by that mammoth of an N/A V-12, there were only two Mercedes C9s. Also there were three 962s entered by Porsche which was sure to make its last appearance as a factory team withdrawing its support for the 962 at year’s end. Making up the numbers in the flourishing top class were Nissans, Toyotas, a brace of private 962s, an older Sauber, a Yves Courage-built Cougar-Porsche, and even an ancient Lancia LC2. All of the above were rolled onto the grid on Saturday afternoon apart from the Works Mercedes prototypes.

A tire had popped at high speed causing a major code brown for Klaus Niedzwiedz in practice. Michelin couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t happen again and, as such, Mercedes decided to withdraw from the race. Thereafter, however, the fortunes of the Mercedes team turned around and, of the six remaining rounds, the C9s won four. A lot of the success could be attributed to David Price who was brought in to manage the outfit to free up Ress who was holding both a managing position within the squad as well as being the lead designer.

With two cars in each of those six races, Mercedes scored its first double podium finish at Spa with a 1st and a 3rd and, at Sandown in Australia, the first Mercedes 1-2 finally happened. However, some retirements hindered the team and Jaguar’s Brundle won the title ahead of Schlesser and Baldi because he was victorious in the two rounds (Fuji and Brands Hatch) that Sauber didn’t win. Come 1989, Mercedes would take no prisoners.

Back in the ’30s, the W125 established itself as the golden standard in Grand Prix racing and only the never-before-seen talent of Auto Union’s Bernd Rosemeyer denied Mercedes of a whitewash in 1937. 52 years later, no rivaling team could boast with a Rosemeyer after Bellof, the driver that most resembled Rosemeyer, had perished four years later at Spa. As such, there was no stopping the Mercedes-Benz steamroller and, while the WSPC was healthier than ever, the Silver Arrows won all of the races but for the Dijon upset staged by the plucky Joest Porsche outfit. Porsche’s lone WSPC win of 1989 - it would prove to be the manufacturer’s last - was a bit like Ferrari’s win in F1 the year before: a nice change of pace but nowhere near enough to topple the dominance of Mercedes.

A key part of Mercedes' armory in 1989 was the new, 32-valve M119 V-8 that punched out those huge, flat, torque curves while only revving to ~7,000 rpm.

But, as they say, teamwork makes the dream work and Mercedes was as prepared as it was ever going to be in 1989. The seven WSPC wins (Schlesser took the title) were complemented by a 1-2-5 victory at Le Mans ahead of the richest Group C field ever assembled. You could argue that, finally, Mercedes had managed to erase the awful memory of 1955 and this car, chassis #89-C9-A1, was the backup car throughout that golden season.

As the number suggests, #89-C9-A1 was the first of the cars built for the 1989 season but it never ran in anger. Team Mercedes instead elected to enter its race-proven ’88 cars (chassis 02 through to 05) and the ’89 chassis stood in the back of the garage all year long, alone and, you could argue, unloved. After that, it ended u in Tom Wheatcroft’s amazing collection that was displayed for decades at the now sadly disbanded Donington Museum.

In 2017, the car was purchased by its current owner that’s now selling it through ROFGO. As it happens, the car was sold to its current owner sporting the scarred bodywork of the Le Mans-winning car. While not fully verified, a swap seems to have happened post-Le Mans 1989 and this car now wears the winning car’s clothes. During its last ownership, the car underwent a nut-and-bolt, no-expense-spared restoration done by BBM Sport in the UK (formerly Chamberlain Motorsport).

We don’t know how much this 800 horsepower monster is worth but you can be sure it’s worth a few Ferrari F40s or, in other words, many, many millions of dollars - despite the fact that it lacks the pedigree of one of the C9s that were actually raced and that have actually won in period.

Source: All Images Courtest of ROFGO Racing

Michael Fira
Michael Fira
Associate Editor and Motorsport Expert - fira@topspeed.com
Mihai Fira started out writing about long-distance racing like the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans. As the years went by, his area of interest grew wider and wider and he ever branched beyond the usual confines of an automotive writer. However, his heart is still close to anything car-related and he's most at home retelling the story of some long-since-forgotten moment from the history of auto racing. He'll also take time to explain why the cars of the '60s and '70s are more fascinating than anything on the road today.  Read full bio
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