It happens only rarely but when it does you know, just know, with absolute certainty that a car is right when you first look at it. One such instance was back at the beginning of 1997 when the McLaren F1 GTR "Longtail" appeared. The original McLaren F1 GTR was a thing of beauty and as such normally should have been left alone and not "improved", at least that would be conventional wisdom. However the dictates of competition meant that 'something must be done' so remarkably Gordon Murray sat down and produced a sketch that formed the basis of the road car. Why? The answers to this question will tell you why the 1997 incarnation of the FIA GT Championship arrived so quickly and why it died with almost as great a speed. But before tacking that thorny issue, let's just admire the lines of the final evolution of the greatest GT car ever built.
Whether in the BMW Corporate livery of Team BMW Motorsport or the evolution of iconic Gulf Oil Blue & Gold colours, now transformed into Gulf Team Davidoff with the addition of the upmarket tobacco brand, the revised McLarens looked even better than the originals.
Back some dozen years ago we all wondered what would the new "and improved" FIA GT Championship would bring as it succeeded the BPR Challenge that had revived the fortunes of GT Racing in Europe since its inception in 1994. What had started as a place where Stephane Ratel's mates could race their Venturis against Jurgen Barth's Porsche customers, aided by historic event promoter, Patrick Peter, ended as being the springboard for a new FIA Championship. The informality and relaxed nature of the BPR paddock made it a friendly place with hard racing being seen as a counterpart to good living or 'ambiance' as it was called. Dolce Vita indeed.
If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Looking on from the outside, the BPR Challenge in 1996 seemed to be gaining strength as fields grew ever larger (53 cars at Silverstone) but from within there were several problems that loomed large, making it almost impossible to continue on the same course. There were other external pressures and forces at work too.
During 1995 and the early part of 1996 the BPR Challenge was dominated by McLaren F1s and Ferrari F40s with Porsche pretty much nowhere………..at that time the management of Porsche would have considered that an unacceptable situation, so the Porsche 911 GT1 was conceived. Unlike the cars from Woking and Maranello this was a race car from the getgo (SpeedHunters has an article on the car ). It appeared first at the 1996 Le Mans 24 Hours, then at the BPR rounds at Brands Hatch, Spa and Zhuhai, dominating all three events.
There were pretty strong disagreements between Barth, Peter and Ratel (BPR) about letting the 911 GT1 run in the series. It did not help matters that Jurgen Barth was also working for Porsche Kundensport (Customer Sport). He was a former factory driver (as was his father, Edgar) who won Le Mans driving for them with Jacky Ickx in 1977. In fact Jurgen had been the first to drive the 911 GT1 on Porsche's test track at Weissach. No possible conflict of interest then.
It was clear to all on the inside that the BPR could not continue in the existing format, indeed I wrote an internet column at the time saying just that and a bit more, and got banned from the final race of the season in China for my pains. I did not think anyone would actually bother to read my article, much less care what an obscure photographer thought. To their credit both Jurgen and Stephane later admitted I was right at the time and we all get along fine now.
Running parallel to the BPR/911 GT1 saga was the issue of what to do with the 1997 FIA International Touring Car Championship or ITC. The ITC was an amazing competition with purpose built high-tech tin-top racers from Opel, Alfa Romeo and Mercedes Benz featuring a star studded line up of drivers. During 1996 it had 26 races at 13 events and was arguably the fastest FIA Championship outside of F1. The problem was that the costs of this form of racing was huge, massive and completely out of proportion to any measurable marketing return, so after one year Alfa and Opel said goodbye, leaving Mercedes holding the baby. You can almost hear the telephone conversation that autumn……………
Norbert Haug: "Bernie, can you help? I have persuaded the Board to spend the money on developing the '97 ITC car and now what? Come on work with me………."
Bernie Ecclestone: "Norbert, don't worry, I have an idea…………….now where did I put Ratel's business card?"
Bernie had control of the television packages and invited Ratel with Barth to organise the new FIA Championship. Peter was paid off and now runs the Le Mans Series plus some major historic events. GT Racing was about to become a factory level sport.
The plan to roll up the BPR with the remnants of the ITC to form the FIA GT Championship was arguably the best available in the circumstances, though the issues of cost/benefit analysis that had pulled apart the ITC were not addressed, perhaps BMW were thought to have deeper pockets than the ITC retirees. Maybe the plan was to get everyone used to stratospheric budgets in preparation for a Formula One experience. The cover of the 1997 yearbook is as good an illustration of the strengths and weaknesses of the Championship as I have seen, another great shot from my old mate David Noels. A fabulous grid of fabulous cars, a Mercedes trio leading the werks McLarens and Porsches, with Panoz, Lotus, Privateers and GT2 all in their wake. But underneath there were serious problems looming for the new Championship.
However we are getting ahead of the plot, a look at the major players in the cast would be appropriate.
McLaren's Gordon Murray explained the basic issues that drove McLaren to develop the 1997 evolution. "Porsche built a racing car and forced us to do it", the 'it' being the Long Tail. "But once the new Porsche had been admitted to the BPR races it was plain that the writing was on the wall. Our purebred road-going, production based cars with their long travel, high camber change suspension and limited downforce had been leapfrogged. We had to respond".
Porsche would argue that a mid-engined configuration and making a longer wheelbase were essential to make a steel monocoqued 911 derivative competitve, and that in any case they had obtained road type approval before commencing racing. Whatever the views held, the reality was that the 911 GT1 was a quantum leap over the original F1 GTR.
McLaren commenced a new production run for the F1 GTR and chassis 19R to 28R were put into the construction pipeline. Four would end up at Team BMW Motorsport, run by the Team Schnitzer. The drivers would be JJ Lehto and Steve Soper in one car and Peter Kox and Roberto Ravaglia in the other; Nelson Piquet and Eric Helary would join the line up for Le Mans.
The team was a full factory effort with additinal sponsorship from oil company Fina.
Aside from growing the long tail, there was a substantial increase in the ground effects generating downforce without giving away too much in drag terms. The weight of the car was reduced down to 915 kilos, a loss of 98 kilos or a staggering 10%. BMW contributed their part by reducing the size of the engine to a fraction under 6 litres, thereby increasing the size of the engine air restrictors allowed. These were substantial performance upgrades.
GTC Motorsport, who had run the Gulf Oil GB backed McLarens in 1995 and 1996 with much success, took on an extra car to form a three car team for the 1997 season. 1996 BPR Champion and top 'Gentleman' driver, Ray Bellm purchased 25R that he was to share with Andrew Gilbert-Scott for the first half of the season. The 1995 BPR Champion, Thomas Bscher, joined GTC with a new car for him and longtime collaborator, John Nielsen. The third chassis belonged to McLaren and was to be driven by Jean-Marc Gounon and Pierre-Henri Raphanel.
Both Schnitzer and GTC ran on Michelin tyres and the deal was from the start that there would be absolute parity of rubber supplied.
All pigs are equal……….but some are more equal than others………
The final regular McLaren competitor in Europe was Parabolica Motorsport with their elegant entry driven by Gary Ayles and Chris Goodwin.
Leading the charge against the Woking/Munich alliance was AMG Mercedes. They produced a pure race car, the CLK GTR. It featured a carbon fiber tub built by Lola Composites, with a full competition suspension system all topped off by a 6 litre, V12 engine that was light and powerful. The cars were run by the AMG team and initially the drivers were Bernd Schneider, Alexander Wurz, Alessandro Nannini and Marcel Tiemann. Later a third car was added with drivers of the calibre of Klaus Ludwig, Greg Moore, Bernd Maylander, Aguri Suzuki and even Ralf Schumacher.
Next challenger was a last minute full season programme from Porsche using a 911 GT1 that had been incrementally improved over the annual break compared with the radical changes to the McLaren and the pure race machine that was the CLK GTR. The car was well proven in 1996 and had an experienced crew of drivers, Hans Stuck, Thierry Boutsen, Bob Wollek and Yannick Dalmas. Run by Porsche Motorsport under the direction of Norbert Singer and Herbert Ampferer, they were expected to run as they had in 1996, they were in for an unpleasant surprise.
There were also a large number of customer cars sold to teams such as Roock, Kremer, BMS Scuderia Italia, Schubel and JB Racing. The glory days of 956/962 privateer Porsche taking on werks teams were invoked to generate sales and much was expected of these serious efforts.
Yes I know the picture shows a Champion car that ran only in the US, but that is all I have to hand right now.
New boys to the race tracks was Panoz GTR, an international cooperative with American money (Don Panoz) and power (Ford V8 tuned by Roush), a British chassis from Reynard and to run the factory car, top French team DAMS. There also were also two examples to be run by David Price Racing. No one knew quite what to expect from this thundering beast but it seemed to represent all the potential that a top line International GT Championship should have, power, innovation and just a touch of mystery.
From newcomers to famous returnees, two brace of Lotus Elises, one an Anglo-Dutch concern, the other Italian, all a bit dark horse.
The stage was set for a fantastic year of racing…..and what else………..the result? Call back tomorrow to find out.