Throughout the course of auto racing history, some vehicles have become almost synonymous with their respective series due to their near-unstoppable performance out on the race track. Mention the 1970 NASCAR Grand National season, and even the most casual of stock car racing fans will be struck with mental images of the rule-bending Plymouth Superbird, sporting an enormous rear wing and pointed nose which essentially caused NASCAR to temporarily chase Chrysler away from the premiere racing series in the United States. Bring up American Open Wheel racing prior to the extremely hostile split, and the Penske PC-23B – otherwise known as “the Marlboro car” piloted by Al Unser Jr. – adorns virtually every piece of memorabilia you can purchase online from the 1994 CART season. And though I’m not the biggest fan of MotoGP in this neck of the sim racing world, Valentino Rossi’s #46 Yamaha is professional motorcycle racing.
Representing an era of endurance racing where factory-backed teams were encouraged to build absolute monstrosities that stopped just short of horrifically maiming their occupants should they make an error behind the wheel, Mercedes’ collaboration with the Sauber F1 team, dubbed the C9, is the poster-child of Group C Prototype racing. Sending roughly 800 horsepower to the rear tires under a shell fifteen years ahead of it’s time, and sporting a simple retro livery that required precisely one crayon for any small child captivated by its brilliance to faithfully reproduce on a scrap sheet of paper, the Sauber C9 won all but one race on the 1989 World Sports Car Championship schedule.
Aided by the stellar co-driving of Jean-Louis Schlesser and Kenneth, Atcheson, German ace Jochen Mass piloted the car to victories in Jarama, the Nurburgring, Donington Park, and Autodromo Hermanos Rodriguez, while Mauro Baldi captured the top spot on the podium at Brands Hatch and Spa. After a tumultuous 1987 season spent ironing out numerous bugs in the brand new race car, and a patchy 1988 campaign highlighted by the Mercedes team’s withdrawal from Le Mans due to their lack of confidence in Michelin’s tire compound, Mercedes and Sauber ensured their third full championship with the C9 would render it useless for the competition to even bother showing up.
Unfortunately, this is not the car you’re allowed to race in Assetto Corsa.
Licensing deals can be a bit of a mess, and while there is indeed a Sauber C9 available as official content for Assetto Corsa – found within the first of three “Dream Packs” on the Steam marketplace – the version Kunos Simulazioni have modeled with the assistance of Sauber and Mercedes is a car that failed to score a single point throughout the 1989 season. The 1989 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was not considered to be part of the actual World Sports Car schedule, but rather a one-off exhibition race – a giant automotive festival of sorts. As a result, Mercedes brought a minimal-downforce variant of the C9 to a little town in France, destroyed the competition, set a trap speed record of 250 miles per hour – which forced organizers to construct two chicanes on the Mulsanne straight in 1990 to keep speeds at a safe level, and never ran the car again.
Now I’m all for Kunos going out and injecting a bunch of one-off odd-ball cars into Assetto Corsa, because it’s cool to learn about a piece of motor racing history through the plastic steering wheel attached to your desk rather than dry Wikipedia articles, but there’s just one problem: Le Mans is nowhere to be found within the vanilla roster of content, which makes the inclusion of the Le Mans-spec Sauber C9 almost completely pointless. The one track this car has been prepared to compete at, is not available in the game, and it’s going to suck everywhere else. To make matters worse, Kunos were able to acquire both renditions of Sauber’s primary competitor – the Porsche 962c – for use in Assetto Corsa. Given that you can actually turn competitive times in the high-downforce 962c, the Le Mans flavored Sauber C9 is essentially relegated to the status of a virtual trailer queen. It sits in the menu and looks nice on the car roster among several unexciting Alfa Romeo sedans and pointless Lotus roadsters, but it’s simply not a practical car to drive by any means. You’ll take it to the Nordschleife once, spin out, realize you can’t adequately dial in the setup for any of the locations in the game because the car simply doesn’t generate enough downforce to be effective, and permanently park it.
Veteran Assetto Corsa physics modder burrito set out to rectify the obvious problem. Drawing upon his experience from helping out with another fantastic third party release, the Ferrari F2002 – which is one of the highest rated mods ever uploaded for the game on RaceDepartment – burrito built a car that most Assetto Corsa owners agreed was desperately needed within the simulator. Claiming to receive permission from Kunos Simulazioni themselves, and requiring the first Dream Pack DLC for the car to load up properly in the game – while encouraging sim racers to support Kunos and take advantage of a Christmas sale – burrito used the groundwork Kunos had laid out in the Le Mans spec C9 to build what’s undeniably the best car ever made for Assetto Corsa. This is the Sauber C9 that should have been in the first Dream Pack.
Driving this beast evokes a feeling similar to your first trip to the local water park at the tender age of eight years old. You stare up at the older children in disbelief as they happily rush up the stairs and subject themselves to the perils of the tallest, steepest slide on the property, while it takes you a solid afternoon just to become comfortable with the attractions intended for your specific age group. This is the high-downforce Sauber C9 from burrito in a nutshell; you don’t just jump in and light the Nordschleife on fire – it’s a machine that takes time to learn and become proficient with. Never does the car exhibit unrealistic behavior – there’s simply so much under the bonnet, your own level of talent dictates how fast you go.
As someone who’s driven every type of modern GT3 entry under the sun within a host of relevant racing simulators, what shocked me about the Sauber C9 was how familiar it felt. Despite its legendary status both within the endurance racing world, as well as on other platforms such as Gran Turismo 6 and NASCAR Racing 2003 Season’s Redline GTP mod, burrito has captured the essence of exactly why Mercedes dominated the 1989 World Sports Car Championship schedule. The car was simply fifteen or even twenty years ahead of it’s time. While it’s a fair bit stiffer – and thus slightly skittish – compared to your traditional Audi R8 LMS or McLaren 650s, it feels as if Mercedes and Sauber were really looking into the future of what sports car racing would become in the early 2000’s. More often than not, the car is pretty planted, but occasionally you’re reminded that this car was constructed in 1987. Not every rhythm section is smooth sailing as it would be in a Ferrari 458 GT3, and the car’s reliance on downforce is immediately apparent when the front end occasionally washes out in some of the more technical sections of each circuit. As if your buddy sent you a shitty GT3 setup, the Sauber C9 is – in a word – manageable.
It also helps that the vehicle’s bodywork has been constructed in a way where you can see out the damn windshield, and your field of view is not obstructed by intrusive wheel arches as it would be in a 2016 Porsche 919 Hybrid.
As I’ve said earlier in the article, the Sauber C9 sends 800 horsepower to the rear tires, and is aided by a turbo charger straight out of 1987. Whereas a modern GT3 entry is not a rocket ship by any means, and accelerates in a constant, predictable manner, the C9 just keeps accelerating and really doesn’t give a shit if you’re ready for it. A McLaren 650s will lean out around the 240 mark and slowly build momentum until you enter the 260’s, but from the sheer acceleration of the C9, you know you’re destined to smash the 300 barrier long before exiting third gear. In the same manner that the controversial street drug fentanyl is for those who think heroin isn’t a hardcore enough experience, the Sauber C9 is almost a boss car for the field of GT3 entries in Assetto Corsa. When the car isn’t glued to the race track, and the digital speedometer isn’t shooting into the 260’s with relative ease, you’re forced to fight horrendous turbo lag – potentially the only aspect of the C9 which shows its age. Throttle control is key here, but it’s the kind of throttle control that puts a bit of hair on your chest; each time you come out of a corner victorious over the ancient turbocharger and temperamental set of racing slicks on the rear wheels, you learn a little bit more about who you are as a sim racer.
It’s not a car that bites; it’s a car that nips at you every so often, begging you to make a mistake. The good drivers wrap a nuzzle around its mouth and keep it firmly in line. The bad drivers end up in the wall.
I had to map a few buttons to my wheel so I could flip through turbo settings on the fly, because there are for sure times where the engine is beyond what’s necessary for the situation, and that’s what makes the C9 such an enjoyable drive. You can indeed hit the track with 60% boost and complete a set of moderately quick laps with little to no issue, because structurally it has a lot in common with mid-engine GT3 sports cars that most of you have already turned countless laps with due to their popularity. But the fun part is pushing for ridiculous lap times, cranking up the boost for sections you’re comfortable with, and dialing it back ever so slightly to preserve the engine and keep the rear end under control. There’s a strategy to it not seen in many other cars, where you can just unload and click off laps like nothing.
To my surprise, the performance of the car is also fairly accurate. The high downforce variant of the Sauber C9 is not an official Kunos creation, but a car engineered by burrito using the Le Mans-spec C9 characteristics as a base from the Dream Pack DLC, and allegedly given the thumbs up by Kunos themselves prior to its release on RaceDepartment. I took the high downforce C9 to the Nurburgring Nordschleife, and in qualifying trim clicked off a lap two seconds faster than Stefan Bellof’s real life world record, set in 1983 with his Porsche 956c.
While some may scoff at this comparison – the C9 was six years newer, never turned a competition lap at the Nordschleife, and never raced against the 956c – I was pleased to see that a newer Group C prototype was able to register what many would consider a legitimate hypothetical lap time for the Sauber C9, had the Nordschleife been on the World Sports Car schedule for 1989 in place of the newly-constructed GP circuit. Under realistic session settings, a 1989 Group C prototype was only a few seconds faster than a 1983 Group C prototype – as it should have been – and never exhibited any bizarre behavior that made me stare at the computer monitor in disbelief.
It’s really a fantastic car; the absolute perfect vehicle for those who love sports car racing, but feel modern GT3 entries have become a bit bland and boring – driven by rich motor racing enthusiasts rather than the highly skilled automotive fighter pilots of yesteryear. The high downforce Sauber C9, as originally created by Kunos and edited with permission by burrito of the Ferrari F2002 mod, is in my opinion the greatest car ever made for Assetto Corsa. This is Assetto Corsa at its best – a piece of auto racing history conveying all the subtle nuances of the real thing at competition speeds, from the comfort of your unique PC racing simulator setup.
Unfortunately, not everyone shared in my enthusiasm.
Shortly after launching the modified version of the Sauber C9 on RaceDepartment, which requires the Dream Pack DLC to function, and even encourages those who don’t currently own the content to take advantage of a Christmas sale and purchase it – essentially free advertising for Kunos Simulazioni – Stefano Casillo ordered RaceDepartment moderators to remove the file. The greatest car ever made for Assetto Corsa – and allegedly created with permission from the developers – was removed at the request of the developers after a little less than a day, because one of the staff members threw a tantrum. Casillo also implied that because of this, burrito would no longer be receiving any contract work to help out with future Assetto Corsa DLC packs.
Which is a shame, because burrito built something extremely special with his high-downforce Sauber C9, and the early comments left in his release thread on RaceDepartment convey the same message I’ve left in this article – this car is simply phenomenal, and a whole bunch of people are happy he created it.
Sadly, this is the price you pay with Kunos Simulazioni. Though burrito claims to have received permission to release the championship-spec Sauber C9 as a free add-on for Assetto Corsa, even going the extra length and requiring users to own the appropriate DLC package for the car to function in the first place, the car has been removed at the request of Stefano Casillo, and burrito has been scrapped from whatever partnership he had with Kunos Simulazioni behind the scenes.
I’m hoping there’s a different side to this story, and burrito really didn’t have the appropriate permission to release the car – maybe his buddy just made up a story because he wanted to see the project out in the wild as soon as possible – but as it stands right now, it appears as if Kunos Simulazioni essentially got upstaged by a modder who created an awesome fucking variant of an official DLC car that was otherwise useless within their game, and they weren’t happy about it.