There was time in the late eighties and embryonic nineties when, if you happened to be a BTCC driver with any desire to win a race overall, you could only realistically pick one car.
That car was the Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500, a snarling turbocharged beast of a machine that became almost synonymous with the Group A era in the series.
From 1988 to 1990 the non-Ford runners in Class A of the BTCC dwindled from the ’88 smorgasbord of Nissan, Toyota, Holden, Rover and even Maserati (the Turbo model being one of the least unlikely touring cars ever), until 1990, the final year of Group A rules in Britain, when the RS500 reached saturation point – every car in the class an example of the Ford – as drivers leapt wholesale to the car.
But the Sierra was not always the dominating force in British, and indeed world touring car series.
The Sierra’s first foray into touring cars came with the Sierra XR4TI, a car that while promising was squarely in the middle of the Group A field. Soon the Ford challenge was taken up by the Sierra Cosworth, with drivers Andy Rouse and Guy Edwards becoming the first to regularly use it during the 1987 season.
But while the car was competitive, it was not the domination which deep down Ford desired. Rouse and Edwards were still on par with the aging Rover Vitesse, driven by a BTCC debutant by the name of Tim Harvey, and on some tracks even the comparatively tiny BMW M3.
However, that was all to change in 1988, as Ford were planning something that would revolutionise the Group A rules.
To understand the birth of the RS500 you have to delve deep into the rules that formed the foundation of the FIA’s Group A. As you would expect with Touring Cars, being a production car based formula, a minimum number of road cars need to be made in order for the FIA to homologate the car for racing. That number (originally) was a reasonable 5,000.
However, the rules also offered manufacturers the ability to produce ‘evolutions’ on the standard car. Unlike the main model only 500 of these ‘evolution’ designs needed to be built (note – built, not necessarily sold, there are stories of many of these cars being cannibalised for spare race car parts and only being sold as standard models) for the FIA to allow the car to race.
It was these ‘evolution’ rules that Ford set about exploiting.
With this in mind Ford teamed up with Reudi Eggenberger and his eponymous Swiss racing outfit. Eggenberger had previously run the works outfit for Volvo, fielding turbocharged 240 models, and with the Volvo beginning to show its age against the Sierra and the other newer cars they took their knowledge to Ford, debuting with the XR4TI in 1986.
Eggenberger saw the potential in the car as they graduated to the basic Cosworth in 1987 and began working with the car maker on something that would soon dominate touring car racing.
A raft of changes were applied to the standard Cosworth. Aerodynamics front and back were improved, a second, lower spoiler added to the iconic huge ‘whale tail’ on the rear and a larger front bumper giving the car a completely different look to is predecessor. An enlarged Garrett supercharger was fitted to an improved version of the engine, and voila, the RS500 was born, named for the 500 (exclusively right hand drive) road-going models produced, rather than the number of horsepower the car spat out which was comfortably over that marquee figure before the cars left the racing scene.
The car broke competitive cover late in 1987, immediately sweeping to pole positions and race wins in the European series as the black and red liveried Texaco backed Eggenberger Sierras engrained themselves into the memory of everyone who saw them race.
With these successes already under the RS500’s belt, 1988 saw the car reach Britain with a vengeance.
The RS500 charge was led by Andy Rouse, whose own team had been among the first teams to adopt the new car in ’87’s European races. His dominance was plain to see. The first race of the 1988 saw Jerry Mahoney take the RS500’s first win in the BTCC in his Arquarti liveried car, but Mahoney’s place in history was over shadowed by Rouse for the remainder of the season. Already a three time champion by 1988 Rouse won all but two of the remaining races in 1988.
The only meaningful challenge to his dominance came from the rare visits of the Eggenberger machines, fitting a handful of British rounds in when their commitments in Europe allowed them. Steve Soper would win one round, at Thruxton, before coming out second to Rouse at both Brands Hatch and Donington. Eggenberger would also enter the final round at Silverstone, one time F1 driver Gianfranco Brancatelli taking the chequered flag for the Swiss outfit.
However, that competition was enough to see Rouse miss out on the overall championship, and the same was to happen the following year.
Gone was the Eggenberger challenge for 1989, but to the fore came domestic challengers. Robb Gravett and Mike Smith (a man last seen piloting the ‘telecopter’ on BBC’s The One Show) running for the Cartel NEC backed Trakstar team the pair founded together with cars brought from Australian legend Dick Johnson. BTCC stalwart Dave Brodie in his own car and Laurence Bristow and Tim Harvey, driving in Labatts colours – another of the era’s iconic liveries – and Rouse built cars.
All would take wins during 13 race season which included Rouse coming out on top a four way battle in arguably the best touring car race the Birmingham Superprix (a track rather grandiosely described as “the Monaco of the Midlands” and the only venue when “the mosque receding into the background” was a legitimate line of commentary) ever produced. Gravett had led early before Tim Harvey nudged him into the barriers at Halford’s Corner (actually a left hand hairpin, the wrong way round a roundabout) to take the lead.
Harvey led Rouse, who relentlessly hounded the dark blue car, eventually reprising Harvey’s move, tapping the Labatts man wide at the hairpin to take the lead.
By season’s end Rouse had added another five wins to his Birmingham triumph, and once more took Class A honours, though only a slender four point margin over Gravett who had won four races during the year. However, once more the multiple class rules saw the RS500 men lose out to the lower classes in the overall points standings, John Cleland taking the championship in a Class C Vauxhall Astra.
1989 saw the RS500 become too successful for its own good. Faced with the gigantic leap in power the machine had given Ford an almost unassailable margin over their rivals in an ever thinning field of European Touring Cars, the FIA sounded the death knell for Group A, electing for a single class of 2 litre unturbocharged cars, the basis for the Supertouring machines that would see the BTCC through the 90s.
But almost determined to give the car a proper send off the BTCC allowed the RS500 and its Class A brethren a final year in 1990, alongside a second class for the first of their successors.
Much of the field of ’89 reconvened, though in a reduced grid both Rouse and Gravett spending much of the season in single car teams, the latter after Cartel pulled their sponsorship money, curtailing Mike Smith’s BTCC career, and seeing Gravett run in an almost entirely bare Sierra for the year.
Despite this Gravett reigned supreme. He won nine of the thirteen races, winning the overall title by a whopping 27 points, giving the RS500 its only title on British soil, just as the rules left the huge brutish, machine behind.
1991 saw the 2 litre cars compete in a single car class, the Sierra Sapphire becoming the Ford of choice for the new rules, both Gravett and Dave Brodie trying to run the car to success, though both failed miserably, losing out to the independent Sierra Cosworths and limited RS500s that had been entered in the first year.
RS500s and the old Cosworths continue to be raced in national series, notably in dirt and grass track racing, but long gone are the golden days when the Ford Sierra Cosworth RS500 was the best touring car in the world.
Photo Credits: Peter Still, BTCC.net, BRDC Archive