I will be King
You will be Queen
Will drive them away
We can be Heroes
Just for one day
We can be us
Just for one day
If ever a song was just written for a car, David Bowie’s Berlin Wall inspired “Heroes” would fit like a glove on the Porsche 911 GT1-98.
This week marks the beginning of some intense coverage of the GT scene here on SpeedHunters. Rod will, no doubt, bring you all up to speed on that but I thought I would jump into the time machine and go back to 1998, please join me.
By Porsche’s towering standards this project was a failure but on two days in June 1998 it scaled the heights and achieved motoring immortality. An outright win at Les Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans in Porsche’s 50th Anniversary year will do that for any car.
What inspired Porsche to build this supercar?
The FIA GT Championship was launched in 1997 and became an instant hit with BMW, Mercedes Benz, Panoz, Lotus and of course, Porsche all taking to the tracks. The story of the year was that of a titanic struggle between AMG Mercedes and the Schnitzer BMW McLarens.
Porsche were really nowhere in the 1997 season. Their car had a steel chassis taken from the 911 assembly line, it was heavier and less stiff than the carbon fiber McLarens and Mercs.
I looked at the 97EVO car back when SpeedHunters paid a visit to the Porsche factory at Leipzig.
Something must be done. After all, Excellence was expected.
As mentioned, 1998 would mark the 50th anniversary of Porsche’s founding, so the Board felt compelled to support Motorsports Boss, Herbert Ampferer when he proposed an all new car to take on the growing opposition. The result was a state of the art carbon fiber monocoque mated to the ex 956/962 3.2 litre, flat six turbocharged engine. A new six speed sequential transmission designed by Porsche themselves controlled the 600+ bhp, there was ABS but no traction control. The great Norbert Singer was responsible for the project and in particular the aerodynamics. If there was a compromise it was that the car was designed to race on all types of tracks, whereas the Toyota GT-ONE only had to consider the challenges thrown up by the Le Mans 24 Hours.
The rules at the time demanded that a road going version of the car be homologated and Porsche duly complied registering a car with the UTAC in Luxembourg.
So that is how I found myself on a cold Easter Sunday Morning in the former East Germany at the delightful Oschersleben Motorpark. I was the Championship’s Official Photographer back then, hence the publicity shot. The contempt that Mercedes showed for us, or perhaps just me, is illustrated by Bernd Schneider failing to wear his driving gloves, making mockery of the picture. I doubt if that would have happened on an official Daimler shoot.
Porsche had also changed their driver line up with the old guard of Thierry Boutsen and Hans Stuck being shown the door. For the new project Jorg Muller and Uwe Alzen would take #8. Allan McNish would share #7 with Yannick Dalmas.
At Oschersleben the Porsches were quicker than the V12 Mercedes CLKs in Qualifying and also the initial stages of the race but both Porsches suffered driveshaft failures leaving the spoils to AMG Mercedes. 1-0 to Stuttgart.
Both Porsche and Mercedes ran second teams, Zakspeed handling the 911 GT1 98 cars but they were never on terms with the factory.
Round Two of the 1998 FIA GT Championship was in the slightly more clement surroundings of the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit. Here at the start McNish takes off with David Brabham giving chase in the Panoz. Once again Porsche’s race turned to the brown stuff, as the Scot, holding a comfortable lead, suffered engine failure. Alzen then had a clash with Brabham, receiving a 30 second penalty from the Stewards. Another victory for Bernd Schneider and Mark Webber and AMG Mercedes, the margin at the flag being 8 seconds……………..
The Le Mans 24 hours came next and a triumph for Porsche over the combined might of Mercedes, BMW, Nissan and Toyota
More of how the race unfolded, this time from the Nissan perspective can be seen HERE.
The ironic thing from a Mercedes point of view was that the trusty V12s that had hitherto swept all before them, were replaced by a V8 unit that was faster and held to be more reliable. Both CLK LMs retired before dusk on Saturday, victims of engine failure after problems with the hydraulics on the power steering system.
Victory at Le Mans salvaged the season for Porsche but the speed of the new Mercedes was ominous, it was going to be a load of hard yakka during the second half of the year for the guys from Weissach.
The post Le Mans results make grim reading, a further 8 losses to the AMG Mercedes mob. There was not much to choose between the teams at Suzuka or Laguna Seca, especially when McNish carried the fight to the CLK LMs but he was punted off in Japan by Ricardo Zonta and to add insult to injury the marshals towed the Mercedes out of the gravel first costing the Porsche an additional 5 minutes. It was that kind of year.
Porsche needed a new engine, the Mercedes had better punch out of corners and it managed the Bridgestones better than Porsche’s Michelins. As Norbert Singer put it, “Towards the end of a stint, our tyres would be losing grip at a faster rate, which you could see in a study of the lap times. Our drivers were equally good, or better, our chassis was also quite good and we were good on aerodynamics. Our engine was not sufficiently flexible in on/off throttle out of slow corners and there are two of those at Donington, our worst track.”
It was a long hard slog against superior opposition. The score by the end of the FIA GT Championship was a whitewash, 10-0 to Mercedes.
If that was not enough there was one last twist in the tale of the 911 GT1-98. Yes, made famous on YouTube, Yannick Dalmas took off and flipped the car while coming down Road Atlanta’s back straight while leading the inaugural Petit Le Mans.
Somedays you can’t catch a break.
The GT1 class based FIA GT Championship changed to GT2 class only, so the 911 GT1-98 had nowhere to race. In any eventuality Porsche were planning to go racing with an open prototype powered by a new V10 normally aspirated engine. After one shakedown test, the project was canned by Dr Wiedeking, CEO of Porsche. The budget would be used to finance the development of the Cayenne and who, commercially speaking, could argue with that decision? But what about the company’s soul, abandoning top line racing to build a truck? What do I know about anything?
It proved to be Faustian pact, Porsche grew ever richer, especially on the Cayenne revenues and during 2006 through to 2009 tried to buy Volkswagen. The bid failed, largely as a result of the determined opposition of Ferdinand Piech, who was responsible for the Porsche 917. Investigations rumble on in Germany into the methods used to leverage the unsuccessful bid.
So that leaves the Porsche 911 GT1-98 as the last Le Mans winner for the company, it was Norbert Singer’s last throw of the dice for the top table and, as usual, he came out ahead of the opposition.
After all who remembers who won the FIA GT Championship in 1998 compared to those who recall the Le Mans 24 Hours of that year?