In his masterpiece, The Waste Land, TS Eliot asserted that "April is the cruellest month".
Back in 1997 it must have seemed so to those of us anticipating the opening round of the FIA GT Championship to be staged at the HockenheimRing. For the teams there were days without end as they struggled to get their new cars ready for the contest, parts to be assembled, tested and refined and hopefully, made fast and reliable. April had been a cruel time at Hockenheim in Aprils past, 1968 saw the world's top driver, Jim Clark, killed in a minor race at the flat out German circuit. For those with access to the inside track it was evident that a similar fate could befall the FIA GT Championship even before an engine had fired up or a wheel had turned.
As ever it was a dispute over the small print.
The official yearbook from 1997 gives a definition of what a GT car was, presumably this was approved by the FIA prior to publication. I quote…………….
A Grand Touring car is an open or closed automobile which has no more than one door on each side, has no more than four seats, is fully legal for road use and has been modified to ensure suitablity for speed races on circuits or closed courses. A GT car is a road car adapted for racing and not a racing car adapted for the road……….the car must be genuinely designed and built for use on the road. To ensure the validity of the rule the FIA further insists that all cars taking part in the GT Championship must be properly homologated for road use……….
Pretty clear then, even a simple soul like me can see that you take a road car and tune it up and go racing. Ok you might not take the base model food shopping but you can see where the line is drawn. Or can you?
Some of the more restless of you will be wondering what the old fool is banging on about, let's get racing, come on!
All in good time. In order to build a road car, even one destined primarily for the tracks, and get it homologated by the relevant authorities there are certain choices that would not be taken if you were aiming to build a pure race car.
There were other conditions to be met, once again, Gordon Murray. "To comply with the regulations as written we had to build a new road car, sell one a month before the first race, have dealers, brochures and parts back-up for it. I went to Ron (Dennis) for a budget to do just that and actually started the wind tunnel programme before I'd got the go-ahead."
April's cruelty to the FIA GT Championship back in 1997 was two fold. Quietly the FIA altered the regulation demanding full homologation prior to the start of the season, setting a deadline of the last day of the year instead. Utterly ridiculous, what sanctions would the FIA be able to apply to the likes of Mercedes Benz if the road car did not fully comply with the rules? Ask for the trophies back, re-bottle the Champagne? Madness, madness. The change did not only help Stuttgart but also Panoz and Lotus.
The second cruelty was immediately apparent when the AMG Mercedes CLK GTRs took to the track. The low ride height and visibly high levels of downforce showed that this was the car that would dominate GT Racing if allowed to run unchecked. Drivers of the calibre of Schneider needed no encouragement and gave us lucky photographers plenty of chances to get sparks…………..we like sparks and flames……………
In case any of you are wondering why I am labouring this point, I will bring you the words of The Great Man or Norbert Singer, who in his long career led Porsche to 16 Le Mans' victories. His opinions are treated with the greatest of respect in this side of the sport.
"The Mercedes underwent no homologation until the end of the 1997 season and it was very strong from the beginning. I was not happy about this. There were features on the race car that were not found on the road car homologated in December. Mercedes did not actually care about production and built the car it wanted to race."
"This is not what anyone had in mind for genuine GT cars and in reality Mercedes killed the GT1 category because they made things that were not suitable for the road. Our GT1, we were satisfied, was fully compliant with the spirit of the regulations."
From this it is clear that the anger coming from Porsche and BMW was not as a result of 'sour grapes' but from the sense of injustice. Having built cars to a set of rules only to find that the rules are altered at a late stage handing a rival a clear advantage is a good method to drive manufacturers away. A cunning plan indeed.
Normally such political undercurrents undermines the racing, as is evident in Formula One much of the time in recent years. At Hockenheim the track action was gripping from the start and remained so all the way through the season. However there were plenty of other changes, not all for the good.
There was a distinct difference in atmosphere from the open paddocks of the BPR days, now the impressive hospitalty suites that all the manufacturers had were closely guarded by security, none more diligently than AMG Mercedes and it was pretty clear from the start that riff-raff such as I were especially not welcome.
BMW were much more accomodating and by some mistake I was invited to dine with them on the Friday prior to the race in the presence of BMW's Head of Motorsport, Karl-Heinz Kalbfell. The table full of Brits had Steve Soper allocated to it and he cheerfully informed us that "Helery's coming"………explaining the abscence of JJ Lehto from the gathering with the news that JJ had chicken pox and was unlikely to race.
That would have suited Bernd Schneider and Mercedes very well but the next day during qualifying JJ was in the car and the only one other than the AMG driver to get under the two minute mark, though some 7/10ths down. The race was a very different question as JJ outbraked the German into the first corner and was gone. Both Mercedes ran into problems, Schneider with a brake problem, Nannini had a starter motor failure. Despite this bad result for the AMG team, the rest of the paddock were very worried as mechanical failures such as those do not occur again with Mercedes. Perhaps the greatest concern lay with those who had spent buckets of Deutschmarks on a customer 911 GT1. The Werks cars were three seconds off the pace with the others even further adrift. The changes to regulations had favoured normally aspirated large engines such as found in the Mercedes and BMWs, that and the banning of ABS systems had hobbled the Porsche.
The race turned out to an easy win for Lehto and Soper with two Gulf Team Davidoff picking up the other podium places.
JJ Lehto was arguably the fastest driver in the field during 1997 and with the set up abilities and all round skill of his co-driver, Steve Soper plus the excellent Schnitzer team behind them, these pair were to give AMG Mercedes a fight for the title that the relative performances of the cars should have made impossible. Their team mates, Peter Kox and Roberto Ravaglia could not match them, only scoring one victory, that at Silverstone, where conditions were so bad that the race was red flagged. Another lap and it would have been a Schneider/Wurz victory. It was only a matter of time before the Mercedes steam-roller would take control.
That outcome was delayed while we all went off on a strange trip to the Thunder Race held round a narrow street circuit in the middle of Helsinki. It was, without doubt one of the weirdest places I have ever been for a race. The grid had contracted severely in numbers down to 23 starters from the 47 seen at Hockenheim. The reasons were varied, from the proximity of the Le Mans 24 Hours to the proximity of the walls around the absurd track. The FIA made all sorts of noises about fines for those who had failed to show up but in the end sent them bits of paper with warnings on………………..scary.
Qualifying was unique in my experience with thousands of well refreshed Finns cheering on JJ Lehto as he struggled to keep up with the AMG armada, the noise was like a football match and could be heard above the engines. On his last possible lap he snatched pole position to the disbelief of Mercedes. "I am sorry. I have scratched the sides………" he said to Charly Lamm, boss of Schnitzer who was surveying the damage caused by the walls to both sides of the F1 GTR.
After that amazing performance kharma was with the Finn and you just knew he was going to win on his home turf. Lehto sped off at the start like a scalded cat and then the Mercedes both struck trouble, a gearbox issue slowing Nannini and Wurz clattered the wall after misjudging the space while lapping Thomas Bscher. So a famous victory for the Finn and his British sidekick with AMG missing another opportunity to assert their superiority.
While AMG retreated back to Stuttgart to work on the balance of their season the rest of us headed for France and the 1997 Le Mans 24.
While AMG were missing, there were additions to the GT1 class. Two Lister Storms were entered but neither managed to finish.
Much more likely to trouble the scorers was a trio of Nissan R390s. Built on behalf of the Japanese by Tom Walkinshaw Racing, they posted the fastest time during the qualifying weekend. However relations between TWR and the ACO scrutineers were fragile at best and a dispute that resulted in a last minute repositioning of the exhaust system led to the retirement of two of the three cars, a missed chance for the Nissan team.
Finally Porsche's season looked as if it would be rescued by victory at the Great Race. Able to run appreciably faster than the other GT1 cars and longer than the 1996 winning Joest TWR prototype the two 911 GT1s were cruising to a 1-2 finish a lap to the good, when first Bob Wollek had a driveshaft fail and that pitched him into the barriers and out of the race. Further heartbreak for Weissach would come when an oil fire put the other car out two hours before the end of the event. The prototype sailed on to another famous win.
The contingent of six McLarens in the race did not come through unscathed. Two Gulf examples were sidelined through oil fires but the third in the hands of Anders Olofsson, Pierre-Henri Raphanel and Jean-Marc Gounon managed to get the runners up spot and be top dogs in GT1, easily the high point of the GTC Motorsport 1997 season.
Two weeks after the French classic, we were all back at the grindstone, trundling around the Nurburgring. The time that AMG saved by not going to France had been put to good use and now they brought out a third car to aid their Championship aspirations. The F1 GTR was outclassed and JJ and Steve were fortunate to finish third a lap down, the tide had swung Mercedes' way.
Next round at Spa Lehto turned in a typical performance to snatch pole from the superior Mercedes trio but they were confident that the race would be a different proposition. Even if JJ sprinted off at the start it would only be a matter of time.
For Gulf Team Davidoff things could hardly be more different. On the first lap Jean-Marc Gounon got into a shoving match with Boutsen's Porsche and spun out of control into John Nielsen in the second Gulf car, then the third F1 GTR got involved and effectively all three GTD McLarens were out on the spot. Shooting for Gulf Oil that year I was at Eau Rouge for lap 1 and was mightily confused when I failed see any of three cars appear again. When I got back to the pits it was clear that World War 3 had broken out, I made myself scarce……………
Back on the track the predictable, unpredictable Spa weather created wet conditions that left the CLK GTR's un-drivable on their Bridgestones, so JJ left them for dead at a rate 5 to 10 seconds per lap, amazing. Soper climbed aboard with a lap in hand but then started to lose time hand over fist himself as the F1 GTR suffered a terrible vibration. The undertray had broken up but then the offending piece fell off and the vibration stopped. "The handling was evil, but I wasn't going to let JJ's hard work go to waste" said a relieved Soper after he just managed to hold off a charging Bernd Schneider to take the win.
That was the high point of Team Schnitzer's season, two remarkable driving performances on a classic track.
The next three rounds, A1 Ring, Suzuka and Donington each saw Schneider take victory as the CLK GTR finally asserted its superiority. Of course there would be further controversy as he was allowed under some previously obscure FIA rule to jump from one car to another during the race and still score full points. This was probably the tipping point for BMW in regard to their continued participation or not in the future FIA GT Championships.
After a dominant AMG performance at Donington, more of the same was expected of Schneider when the circus hit Mugello. However during the race and well in the lead he got caught up in someone else's accident with a back marker and was out on the spot, the rule allowing him to change cars had been shelved. So our two heroes were thrown a life line which they snapped up to take an unexpected victory.
So it was all down to the final two rounds, both in North America. The first at Sebring, saw another Lehto pole position but Soper starting the race tagged the rear of Schneider dropping them both down the order, then the rains came to mess up the order and near the end JJ had to pull off and retire when the car engine bay caught fire, only maths kept the title hope alive.
For the final round at Laguna Seca BMW hedged their bets splitting up Lehto and Soper to maximise their chances. Lehto's luck had run out and a fractured water pipe in the warm up probably caused the engine to fail early in the race. Soper managed to slot his car up to fourth by the first hour but then his new partner, Roberto Ravaglia spun and was hit by another car, game over.
AMG Mercedes took the Manufacturers' Title and Schneider the Drivers. BMW took their team and went off to build a prototype to try and win outright at Le Mans
BMW at least played by the rules, of course AMG would maintain that they did too…………..not a view commonly held in the paddock at the time. For 1998 it would only be Porsche and Mercedes and then even Porsche left, the GT1 was over before it started.
Anyway it's all history now but the 1997 campaign by Team BMW Motorsport and the McLaren F1 GTR was a fantastic one to be a witness to and I was lucky to be there.