Ever since its inception in 1982, the glorious FIA Group C sportscar racing category had flourished into an international powerhouse. Under these regulations cars were limited only by a maximum amount of fuel allotted each race. Otherwise there was a great deal of engineering freedom. As the world started recovering from the dark oil-starved days of the late 1970’s, manufacturer interest in sportscar racing grew exponentially.
Soon Group C was home to an incredibly varied array of factory-backed 1000 horsepower monsters. By the late 1980’s industry titans like Porsche, Toyota, Aston Martin, Mazda, Lancia, Nissan and Jaguar all fielded drastically different interpretations of the ideal endurance racer. Some used massive naturally aspirated behemoths, others tried their luck with extremely overboosted smaller powerplants. Straight fours, V6’s, flat-6’s, V8’s and V12’s, all found a place on the grid. In short, there was something for everyone. This resulted in the World Sportscar Championship gaining massive public appeal, making it rival even Formula One in popularity.
As the decade drew to a close, WSC showed no sign of stopping its rise to the top. This development had the officials at Formula One scratching their heads. It wouldn’t be long before the “pinnacle of motorsport” would see itself overtaken. Something had to be done to stop Group C. Looking for a way to address the issue, Bernie Ecclestone contacted his old friend Max Mosley.
Together with Mosley, Ecclestone had successfully taken control of Formula One’s television rights in 1978. Since then Mosley had become a high ranking FIA-official, next in line to replace the tyrannical Jean-Marie Balestre. After some deliberation, the duo decided on radically changing Group C’s celebrated engine formula to mandate the exclusive use of F1-specification engines.
While they were at it the cheaper Group C2 support category was eliminated under the pretense of a perceived lack of reliability. This left only the major manufacturers in the former Group C1, which Ecclestone figured would have the resources to build their own F1-engines.
According to Ecclestone’s plan, the immense cost of the new engine formula and a completely illogical race calendar with races halfway across the world would wear away at any entrepreneurial privateer teams, causing them to stop racing due to a lack of funds. At that point the WSC would fold from a lack of entries, leaving the major manufacturers with expensive F1-style engines and nowhere to race them…but Formula One. With the nefarious scheme thought out, the FIA announced the new rules for the 1990 season.
Amidst this volatile situation one plucky privateer was getting ready to make its debut in Group C racing. French racecar constructor Norma Auto Concept had been founded in 1984 by Norbert Santos and Marc Doucet. The company focused its efforts on producing prototypes for the French Hillclimb Championship, but was ready to enter the big leagues for 1990.
This initiative lead to Norma designing a new car for Group C. The new chassis consisted of a traditional carbon-fiber composite monocoque, and built around the traditional 3.3L Cosworth DFL V8 endurance engine. While the car was being designed, the FIA announced its new engine plans, which left Norma in a bit of pickle. Despite their very limited budget, they would now have to search for an F1-engine to power the new car.
Their search for the cheapest engines available lead them to Moteurs Guy Nègre. This French engine builder set up by a former Renault-engineer had exactly what Norma needed. In 1989 MGN tried to capitalize on the regulations change in Formula One, which ended the turbo era and originated the naturally aspirated 3.5L concept. Seeing a lucrative opportunity, Négre set out to build an engine to sell to small Formula One teams.
In a complete contradiction to traditional engine design as practiced by Cosworth, Judd and Yamaha, he decided to build an unconventional W12 engine. He divided the cylinders over three banks of four, each set 60 degrees apart and using a common crankshaft. Guy Nègre reasoned that the W12 offered the compactness of a V8 and the power of a V12, marrying the best of both worlds. Now fully committed to the crazy, he also installed chrome-plated rotary valves to increase the engine’s high rpm capabilities.
This innovative concept utilized small cylinders with spaces cut out in them, working in a similar fashion to the rotor in a Wankel-rotary engine. As the rotary valves weren’t being slammed up and down by like traditional poppet valves operated by springs, they did not suffer from “floating“. When a normal engine sped up to dizzying speeds the springs would not be able to keep up, leading to the valves going out of sync with the engine’s combustion cycle and ruining performance.
Guy Nègre’s design did away with this problem, and also significantly lightened and simplified the cylinder heads. There was no need for an intricate camshaft-based valve-train operating multiple valves per cylinder on top of the engine. This also brought down the engine’s already questionable center of gravity. Nègre’s finished design reportedly reached 12.500 rpm, some 1000 revs higher than its rival customer units from Cosworth and Judd. Furthermore Nègre claimed 630 horsepower, again beating out every single aftermarket offering.
Sadly, Guy Nègre’s howling mad Formula One venture went nowhere, as no team was willing to pick up the incredibly ambitious unit. Without a car to put it in, he shelved the outlandish W12 until Norma knocked on the door. Enthused by this second chance, Nègre worked with Norma to adapt the alien engine to the Norma M6 chassis.
Although the MGN-engine had simplified low-profile cylinder heads, it couldn’t overcome the fundamental flaws in its layout. Using three cylinder banks meant the unit had both the properties of a V8 and a straight four engine, making it incredibly top heavy in any case. Compared to a common V8 it was also incredibly complicated and very hard to work on. The incredible unit was mated to a Hewland DGB 5-speed manual transmission. Complete with W12 the M6 weighed in at 793 kg (1748 lbs), 43 kg (94 lbs) over the minimum weight limit.
Despite the concerns over MGN’s peculiar technology, Norma pressed on to enter the M6 into the 1990 24 Hours of Le Mans. There they would find they were one of the few 3.5L entries present, as the major manufacturers had lobbied the FIA for more development time on their new engines. This resulted in the engine changes and banning of C2 being postponed to the 1991 WSC season.
Norma’s car was one of only three 3.5L cars present for the event. Its direct competitors were two brand new Spice SE90C’s, powered by the venerable Cosworth DFZ V8. The rest of the top-flight C1 field still featured the old kings of Group C. Norma’s budget battle-ax would have to face off against giants like the Jaguar XJR-12 LM, Toyota 90C-V, Lancia LC2 SP90, Nissan R90CP/R90CK and a vast armada of Porsche 962C’s in countless variations.
It was clear from the outset Norma would probably not be able to keep up with the savagery of the old guard. First order of business was to at least qualify the experimental car for the race. To achieve this, Norbert Santos took up driving duties himself, supported by the experienced Noël del Bello (FRA) and rookie Daniel Boccard (FRA). Despite the unproven nature of both the strange engine and their chassis, Norma was in good spirits. This race would surely mean the company’s big break into the mainstream.
The team were all revved-up and ready to go, but in a sad twist of fate, engine really wasn’t. After a few sputters and pops it was clear the extra-terrestrial motor had little interest in starting at all. Mortified, Norma’s mechanics began a furious search for the root of the problem.
Hours went by, but the stubborn W12 refused to budge. In the end the concerns about the intricate foreign technology turned out to be completely correct, as nobody on the Norma team had a clear idea of what the hell they were actually dealing with. As the qualifying session wound to a close, the car hadn’t moved an inch under its own power. With no time set the M6 was excluded from the starting grid, leaving Norma to pack its bags and head home.
After this dismal failure the M6 project was shelved entirely, and the car was eventually sold off to Noël del Bello. Undeterred by the awful experience of 1990, Del Bello proceeded to fit the car with a 3L Alfa Romeo V6 to compete in ACO Category 4. Category 4 was set up as a safe heaven for C2 survivor cars after the ban in 1991, allowing them to keep competing at Le Mans.
In this configuration the car was entered into the 1992 24 Hours of Le Mans. Sadly it never actually showed up at the track, ending the M6’s short career for good. Sometime after Norma bought the car back and hung it from a wall in their factory as morbid decoration, reminding them of the horrors of 1990.
The Norma M6 MGN W12 was a product of an alliance between a tiny budding manufacturer and a struggling mad engine genius. In the middle of a political war between Formula One and the World Sportscar Championship, Norma Auto Concept tried to get a foothold in the glamorous world of top level endurance racing. At the same time, eccentric engine builder Guy Nègre saw a chance at Formula One slip through his fingers.
The marriage that resulted from this situation was not one of love, but of sheer necessity. Nègre wanted to show the world his bizarre rotary valve W12 engine, and agreed to supply it to Norma. Unfortunately, for all its engineering brilliance, the MGN-unit failed to do one very essential thing: start. Like the W12, Norma’s WSC career failed to take off. The company would not return at Le Mans until 1995 with the Buick-powered M14, three years after Bernie Ecclestone’s effectively evil plans had indeed crumbled the World Sportscar Championship into dust.