After the Champagne (or whatever fizzy stuff they use in Monterey) had been washed away, it was a matter of what direction do we take from here for AMG Mercedes Benz? They had cars, drivers and budget, where could they race for the 1999 season? The FIA GT Championship was going to run to GT2 rules, so that avenue was closed. Stephane Ratel held a meeting with the teams and other interested parties while we were out in Homestead, proposing the FIA International Prototype Championship. This would hoover up the open top cars from John Mangoletsi's ISRS and add them to the various manufacturers' programmes for the new LMP and LMP GTP categories that would run at Le Mans in 1999.
That particularly cunning plan foundered with the announcement from Porsche that it would can its prototype project in favour of building trucks. Also Mango's Barmy Army did not fancy getting a regular drubbing at the hands of the werks entries, the only possible outcome of a Ferrari 333SP encountering a Mercedes Benz CLK LM, so they were staying put waiting for that particular ship to hit the rocks. There was also the small matter of Don Panoz and the fledgling American Le Mans Series.
Ah yes, we had witnessed the birth of what was to become the ALMS in October 1998 when the inaugural Petit Le Mans was run at Road Atlanta. For premium brands such as Mercedes Benz and BMW (with Audi waiting in the wings) the opportunity to strut their stuff in front of the "Wine and Cheese" set in the most important car market of them all, was pure catnip.
Certainly AMG Mercedes Benz had their eyes on North America, as their charming Motorsport Supremo, Norbert Haug, put it. "We are channelling most of our efforts towards Le Mans, after which we will compete in selected international races later in the season. These will be perhaps in the American Le Mans Series………….."
But before any trips to the car manufacturers' Eldorado, there was the small matter of a visit to a provincial city in France……………
The edgy, extreme approach that Toyota had taken with their GT-ONE had set Mercedes thinking that a more radical approach was required if the job was to get done at La Sarthe. They were correct in this analysis as lap times fell dramatically from the 1998 levels, five seconds chopped off the pole time as an example. With Audi joining Toyota, Nissan and BMW every margin would be explored.
A new car was produced by AMG, the CLR. It was drastically lower than the CLK LM and had greatly reduced frontal, which of course reduced drag. The whole approach was low line as reflected on the new bodywork. Uncluttered by sponsorship logos car was elegant to contemplate.
There was another big change with the weight being reduced by 50 kilos, one major gain being the replacement of the steel rollcage with an integrated carbon fibre unit, giving greater strength and rigidity, it would get tested to the maximum during the race week..
The transmission had a new magnesium casing, more weight saved and the engine was an uprated version of the previous all-conquering (well except Le Mans) V8. All the lessons learned on the CLK LM were incorporated into the CLR.
A sea change had come to endurance racing, which had been largely confined to privateer efforts during the 90s. The arrival of the factories in 1998 and 1999 brought the highest standards of engineering and technology to the track.
I have explored some of the background changes in my feature on BMW 1999 Le Mans winner.
There was a big test programme (over 40,000 kilometres) for the car at Fontana Speedway in California, no prying eyes, and at Magny Cours where 24 hour simulation tests were run.
Mercedes Benz was ready to repeat their 1952 victory at the Le Mans 24 hours.
A three car team was entered with a top drawer selection of drivers. #4 Jean Marc Gounon, Marcel Tiemann, Mark Webber. #5 Christophe Bouchut, Peter Dumbreck, Nick Heidfeld. #6 Franck Lagorce, Pedro Lamy, Bernd Schneider.
Bouchut looks pensive while everyone waits for the session to start.
It was obvious even to a non-engineer such as myself that this car was on the limit. Taking this shot as Peter Dumbreck piles into the Porsche Curves during Wednesday I was aware of the car porpoising, at least that's what I thought it was, it was a real handful. The front end appeared to be slapping the ground and the whole affair looked far from stable. Still what did I know?
Thursday's practice and qualifying saw things start to come unglued in the AMG Mercedes camp. The cars were struggling to stay with the Toyotas on pace and were being matched by the BMWs. Then around 7.30 a report came in that Mark Webber in #4 had become airbourne and almost flipped on the run down to Indianapolis.
Norbert Haug explained to the mob assembled in the media centre that it was a freak accident but both car and driver would be fit and ready for action on Saturday. As no one had really seen the accident who could be sure? There were mutterings in the fringe areas where I dwell, this problem was not going away anytime soon. Of that we were agreed. We could only wait and see how things would pan out.
When Saturday Comes……………everything will be fine. How many football managers have brazenly asserted that with one hand out of sight, fingers crossed? Then their team of donkeys have been stuffed 5-0…………….
Mark Webber took his CLR out on to the track to run in the Saturday Warm Up, did not complete a lap, as once again he reached for the sky and flew just after the Kink on the Mulsanne Straight. There was no sweeping this under the carpet as press and TV were present. Would Mercedes withdraw given the nature of the accident and the sensitivities resurrected? Le Mans 1955 was still fresh in the minds of those who experienced the horror. What had caused this catastrophe? Whatever the answer, Le Mans was over for Mark Webber and #4. At least he was OK physically and as can be seen on the Grand Prix tracks these days it did not affect his form.
For the two of you who have not seen this accident already, you can see it here
Looking for divine inspiration? Hans Jurgen Matheis, manager of the AMG team contemplates the alternatives. Race or not?
What can be done to prevent a flying circus?
A few hours later, to the astonishment of many observers the surviving pair of CLRs were wheeled out onto the track to participate in pre-race ceremonies.
The cars now sported winglets at the front, which according to the press release from Mercedes increased downforce by 25%………..25% of what was not disclosed but the sharper amongst us spotted that statistical weasel.
Later it emerged that the senior drivers had been asked whether they would race and they had said yes. They were told not to follow another car too closely, especially in the areas where there was sudden gradient changes. The team and drivers convinced themselves that the problem was specific to the #4 car.
It was not sort of engineering driven solution that one had associated with a company of Daimler Chrysler's standing. Certainly those who sanctioned the participation of the team without definitively establishing the causes of the blow overs were taking a big risk
Whatever, the cars would start.
And so they did, Schneider in #6 taking the battle to the Toyotas in the opening stints. Here he disputes second place with Boutsen.
Just behind these two, Bouchut had his hands full with Kristensen's BMW.
Schneider was absolutely flat out, cutting the Ford Chicane regularly, trying to stay on terms with the faster Toyotas of Brundle and Boutsen. No margin for error.
I was trudging back to the Media Centre a few hours into the race, using the access tunnel connecting the pits with the ACO Tower. I was nearly knocked over by a German TV Crew racing to get over to the pits. I picked up the pace and followed them. They were trying to get access to the Mercedes pitbox. Something had happened.
They would be out of luck. What they had seen on their monitors has become famous as the unfortunate Peter Dumbreck's CLR was about to overtake a Toyota he took off, flipped and ended up in the trees.
You've all seen it again and again but for those of you who need a fix, try here.
No one could doubt there was a serious problem, the remaining CLR was immediately withdrawn and the shutters came down.
The positive was that Peter was also unhurt, the revised safety structures had done their jobs.
While Mercedes had the most public problem, this kind of incident was not confined solely to them. Yannick Dalmas' Porsche had done the same at Road Atlanta the previous year. Bill Auberlen was to repeat that feat in the BMW V12 LMR a few months later.
The rules needed to be changed and they were, making this kind of blow over a thing of the past. Recently there have been a few accidents when cars have got sideways at speed and been lifted up but nothing quite on the scale of the Mercedes/Porsche/BMW incidents. Anyhow that is a different problem to address.
That was the end of the Mercedes Benz sportscar/endurance programme. Toyota and BMW were also soon to leave, all bound for the greener pastures of Formula One. Wonder how that panned out for them?
Looking back one can understand the reluctance of Mercedes to even acknowledge their CLK/CLR times, a bit unfair as they were fabulous cars and in different circumstances could have been as feted as the 300 SLR, that car did not win at Le Mans either.
It was said at the time that they would never return…………..I would not put money on that.
Time is a great healer and this year they have announced their GT3 SLR programme……….never say never.