It is received wisdom amongst the cognoscenti who infest the La Sarthe department of France each June that it takes three attempts for a manufacturer to win the big race, Les Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans. Ask Peugeot who will tell you through gritted teeth of the blood, toil, sweat and tears expended in pursuit of victory, that was finally achieved earlier this year. It is not enough to be fastest around the track, you have be strongest as well. Ask Nissan or Toyota, who despite being the favourites on numerous occasions, are still waiting for victory number one. It took BMW four years to get to the top of the pile at the last knockings of the 20th Century, or maybe not. What? Either you win or you don't.
No this is not about class wins that the Munich marque started scoring even as far back as 1939. This continued in the 70s and 80s with CSL and M1 models to the fore in the junior categories. In 1995 McLaren entered the French classic for the first time and scored a famous victory with their F1 GTR. This was powered by one of BMW's finest V12s, however for reasons largely based on marketing considerations as I remember, there was no mention of BMW anywhere on the flotilla of cars from Woking that dominated that race. More about this epic feat in another feature to come.
For 1996 BMW decided that they would get in on the act, purchasing three chassis from McLaren and entrusting two of them to Team Bigazzi to challenge for top spot at Le Mans. However one sportscar regular had different ideas. Porsche was not happy with Formula One teams coming on to their playpen and winning. So they decide to move the goal posts and ended up shifting them halfway round the planet. The Porsche GT1 was a purpose built GT racer, not a development of a road car as was supposed to be the principle at the time. Still when you start with a 911 Turbo and your opponents use an F1 GTR as the base, some pretty desperate measures are called for. There was still a cunning element to the plan though as Porsche allowed Reinhold Joest to run an old prototype, based on the final 3.5 litre Group C Jaguar chassis. It had the legs on the Porsche GT1s in the same way that they ran away from the F1 GTRs and F40s, so Joest scored another win against the factory. The McLarens were left to scrap about the minor places. This was not acceptable to the Bavarians, time to get serious.
1997 saw an escalation of the GT wars. From the wreckage of the BPR and the ashes of the ITC a phoenix rose in the form of the FIA GT Championship. There were werks entries from AMG Mercedes, BMW McLaren, Panoz, Lotus and of course Porsche. How that all came to end in tears will be the subject of another piece by me. The AMG squad dodged Le Mans so it was game on between Porsche and BMW with Nissan just behind. In a reversal of the form book shown in the FIA events, Porsche had the upper hand in France, crusing to a dominant 1-2 till Bob Wollek binned his 911 GT1 early on Sunday morning. The Ralf Kelleners' example caught fire down the Mulsanne Straight and who was around to pick up another win, yup Reinhold Joest's prototype. Even by Porsche's standards it was an extremely cunning plan. Fire also accounted for two of the three Gulf Team Davidoff McLarens but the survivor finished second and won the GT crown. The Team BMW Motorsport entries both took the flag, one third and the other was delayed so it was still unfinished business at La Sarthe as far as BMW was concerned.
1998 saw BMW take a complete change of course. Furious at the changes in road car homolgation rules that handed a big advantage to AMG Mercedes in the FIA GT Championship during 1997, they abandoned GTs in favour of prototypes and left McLaren for their current Formula One partner, Williams Grand Prix Engineering. The result was an efficient if somewhat conservative car that lacked the cutting edge and envelope pushing seen in the AMG Mercedes CLK-LM or Toyota GT-ONE efforts. Nevertheless it lined up as fastest of the prototype cars in a field that saw works efforts from Toyota, Mercedes, Nissan, Porsche and Panoz. The race will be remembered for the early and public retirements of the Mercedes CLK-LMs caused by a problem in the power steering oil pump. Just as bad in reality was the BMW performance, with wheel bearing failures causing their two cars to be withdrawn from the race. The winner? Porsche 911 GT1-98, the factory had also taken over the running of Joest's old prototype, "improved" it and made it slower, a truly cunning plan. At least it meant that Porsche could celebrate its 50th birthday in style.
For BMW things were getting beyond a joke, this is not how they go racing, so for the 1999 Le Mans' challenge it was all change. There was the sense that it was now or never as plans for a full entry to Grand Prix racing were taking priority in the forward corporate planning in Munich.
Charly Lamm and his Schnitzer outfit were pulled back to run a new operation, including taking the team over the Atlantic to run at Sebring, the first event in the American Le Mans Series. This became the established formula for eventual success at Le Mans, go the Central Highlands and shake down the car and crews, literally and away you go. BMW, Audi, Bentley and Peugeot have all gone down this track with results for all to see. The V12 LMR won the 12 Hours classic to get the project off to the best possible start.
Also new to the operation was ex Grand Prix star, Gerhard Berger, newly installed as BMW's Competitions Director and he changed to driver line up to reflect the new sprint ethic that was now the reality of endurance racing, even at Le Mans. In came JJ Lehto, Joerg Muller, Yannick Dalmas to join Tom Kristensen, Pier-Luigi Martini and Jo Winkelhock, a mix of experience and speed that would be a match for any line up in the pitlane.
I witnessed first hand the levels of effort that BMW would make in their quest for victory at La Sarthe. I was invited to the driver training camp in the Dolomites seeing how the fitness training for the squad was related back to the requirements of driving a prototype flat out for 24 hours.
To get Joerg or JJ to do any form of exercise that did not involve driving would be something of a uphill struggle, I caught both of them using lifts in direct contravention of the rules, they both still owe me for keeping quiet. However, Vincenzo Tota managed to get a series of tasks that in some way replicated the business of driving, here JJ wrestles with a weighted steering wheel, next to him the drivers practiced in pairs jumping in and out of a open car.
All manner of exercises, physical and mental were given to the squad, they were going to be prepared, just like the cars.
What of the race? See this spot tomorrow.