The championship evolved from a small collection of the most important sportscar, endurance and road racing events in Europe and North America with dozens of gentleman drivers at the grid, to a professional racing series where the world's largest automakers spent millions of dollars per year. The official name of the series changed throughout the years, however it was generally been known as the World Sportscar Championship from its inception in 1953. The World Sportscar Championship was, with the Formula One World Championship, one of the two major world championships in circuit motor racing.
Among others, the following races counted towards the championships in certain years:
- Mille Miglia 1953-1957
- Carrera Panamericana 1953-1954
- Targa Florio 1955-1973
- 24 Hours of Le Mans 1953-
- 24 Hours of Daytona 1966-1981
- 12 Hours of Sebring 1953-
- 1000km Nürburgring 1953-
- 1000km Monza 1963-
- 1000km Spa 1963-
- 1000km Buenos Aires 1954-1972
- 1000km Fuji 1983-1988
- Norisring 200 Miles 1984-1988
1953 to 1961
In the early years, now legendary races such as the Mille Miglia, Carrera Panamericana and Targa Florio were part of the calendar, alongside the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the 12 Hours of Sebring. Manufacturers such as Ferrari, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, and Aston Martin fielded entries, often featuring professional racing drivers with experience in Formula One, but the majority of the fields were made up of gentleman drivers (Privateers) in the likes of Nardis and Bandinis. Classes were split into GT (closed cars) and Sports (open cars), and were further divided by engine displacement. The Ferrari works team were dominant throughout the decade, a result of Enzo Ferrari's determination to bring prestige to the name. The Mercedes-Benz work team pulled out of the championship after 1955 due to their crash at Le Mans, while the small Aston Martin factory team struggled to find success in 1957 and 1958 until it managed to score win the championship in 1959. Notably absent from the overall results were the Jaguar works team, who did not enter any events other than Le Mans, despite the potential of the C- and D-Types.
1962 to 1965
In 1962, the calendar was expanded to include smaller races, while the FIA shifted the focus to production based GT cars. The World Sportscar Championship title was discontinued, being replaced by the International Championship for GT Manufacturers which was awarded in three engine capacity classes.
1966 to 1981
- See also European Sportscar Championship for more details
Starting from 1966, the S (5 L sports cars ) and P (prototypes) classes were the most competitive, and cars such as the Ferrari 512S, Ferrari Prototypes, Ford GT40, Lola T70, Chaparral, Alfa Romeo 33, Porsche 906, Porsche 908, Porsche 917 and Shelby Cobra battled for supremacy on classic circuits such as Sebring, Nürburgring, Spa-Francorchamps, Monza, Targa Florio and Le Mans, in what is now considered the Golden Age of sports car racing.
In 1972 the Group 6 Prototype and Group 5 Sports Car classes were both replaced by a new Group 5 Sports Car class. These cars were limited to 3.0 L engines by the FIA (a move that some cynics believed was made to benefit the French Matra team), and manufacturers gradually lost interest. The new Group 5 Sports Cars, together with Group 4 Grand Touring Cars, would contest the FIA's newly renamed World Championship for Makes from 1972 to 1975. From 1976 to 1981 the World Championship for Makes was open to Group 5 Special Production Cars and other production based categories including Group 4 Grand Touring cars and it was during this period that the nearly-invincible Porsche 935 dominated the championship. Prototypes returned in 1976 as Group 6 cars with their own series, the World Championship for Sports Cars, but this was to last only for two seasons. In 1981, the FIA instituted a drivers championship.
1982 to 1992
- See also European Endurance Championship for more details
In 1982, the FIA attempted to counter a worrying climb in engine output of the Group 5 Special Production Cars by introducing Group C, a new category for closed sports-prototypes (purpose built racing cars) that limited fuel consumption (the theory being that, by limiting fuel consumption, engine regulations could be more relaxed). While this change was unwelcome amongst some of the private teams, manufacturer support for the new regulations was immense. Several of the 'old guard' manufacturers returned to the WSC within the next two years, with each marque adding to the diversity of the series. Under the new rules, it was theoretically possible for normally aspirated engines to compete with the (expensive to maintain) forced induction engines that had dominated the series in the 70's and early 80's. In addition, most races ran for either 500 or 1000 km, usually going over three and six hours, respectively, so it was possible to emphasize the "endurance" aspect of the competition as well. Group B cars, which was a GT class, were also allowed to race, but entries in this class were sparse, and Group B cars disappeared from the series, with sports-prototypes dominating the championship.
Porsche was the first constructor to join the series, with the 956, but soon several other makes joined the series, including Jaguar Cars, Mercedes-Benz, Nissan, Toyota, Mazda and Aston Martin. As costs increased, a C2 class (originally named C Junior) was created for privateer teams and small manufacturers, with more limits to fuel consumption. In this lower class, most cars used either the BMW M1 engine or the new Cosworth DFL, but, like in the main class, a variety of solutions were employed by each individual manufacturer. Alba, Tiga, Spice and Ecurie Ecosse were among the most competitive in this class. While the Group C formula had brought manufacturers back to the sport, it was again Porsche - with its 956 & 962 Group C line - that continued their domination of the sport.
For 1986, the World Endurance Championship became the World Sports-Prototype Championship.
Although the Group C formula was a success, with regular crowds of 50,000 or more, 350,000 at Le Mans (better attendance than contemporary Portuguese and Spanish GP's), the FIA introduced new rules for 1991 at the behest of FIA vice president Bernie Ecclestone; 750 kg machines with contemporary normally aspirated engines, which were purpose-built 3500cc racing units. The new classification, known as Group C Category 1, was designed to mandate Formula One engines. Although power was generally less than existing Group C cars (around 650Bhp compared to around 750Bhp upwards) the new cars are considered to be the among the quickest sportscars ever. However, the take up of these new regulations was slow and only a handful of Category 1 cars were ready for the 1991 season. Consequently the FIA also allowed cars complying with pre-1991 Group C rules to contest the championship (as Group C Category 2 cars) during the one transitional year. They were however seriously handicapped in terms of weight, fuel allocation and grid positions. For 1991 the championship took on yet another new name, the FIA Sportscar World Championship and the new 3.5 litre rules took full effect for the 1992 championship with the old Group C cars no longer included.
The new generation of WSC racing engines, stated intent of reducing costs and providing more competition, quickly proved highly suspect, costs rose massively as works teams developed cars capable of qualifying around half way up a grand prix grid; despite 200 Kilos more weight. Manufacturers again abandoned the sportscar series, realising that they now had an engine suitable for F1 but were paying even more for development of their sportscar programs because of the more open nature of sportscar aerodynamics. In particular, Mercedes and Peugeot elected to either concentrate on or move to F1. The more exotic engines were unaffordable for teams like Spice and ADA, thus after the manufacturers left the top class of sportscar racing, the series essentially collapsed. A lack of entries meant the 1993 season was cancelled before the start of the first race.
In 1994, the World Sportscar Championship title would return, this time in the hands of the International Motor Sports Association in North America for use in the IMSA GT series. The name would be used for the series' top class of prototypes until 1998 when the series ended.
In addition, 1994 also signaled the return of an international GT series after an absence of over a decade with the introduction of the BPR Global GT Series. The success of the series lead to a friendly takeover by the FIA in 1997, becoming the FIA GT Championship. Prototypes were mainly absent from European tracks (Le Mans being the sole notable exception) until 1997, which saw with the creation of the International Sports Racing Series which evolved into the short-lived FIA Sportscar Championship in 2001. The FIA now maintains GT and prototype racing separately, these cars running together only on ACO-sanctioned events. In 1999, Don Panoz gained permission from the ACO to use its extensive rulebook and founded the American Le Mans Series featuring sprint and endurance races across North America. The 24 Hours of Daytona would be granted to the Rolex Sports Car Series, which provides a more similar format to IMSA GT, despite being of no affiliation with IMSA.