Category Archives: Nostalgia

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The House that Frank Built

This week I had both an AGM and a Committee meeting for the Guild of Motoring Writers, the location for these affairs was the HQ of Williams F1. A very impressive complex located at Grove near Abingdon housing one of the great Formula One teams of the modern era.

Employing over 1,000 people on site, Williams Grand Prix Engineering has grown enormously from the virtual cottage industry set up by Frank Williams and Patrick Head over 40 years ago.

One of the major attractions for visitors is a chance to stroll down Memory Lane and see the fantastic collection of Grand Prix racers from the past four decades.

In addition to the single seaters, my attention was drawn to the BMW V12 LMR that triumphed at Le Mans in 1999. Memories, memories………………

John Brooks, May 2018

Keeping it in the Family

 

 

The name Brabham has played a pretty big part in my interface with the world of motor sport. My first Grand Prix, the 1970 British held at Brands Hatch should have been a victory for Sir Jack. He ran out of petrol on the last lap, allowing Jochen Rindt’s Lotus 72 to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Events a few months later when the Austrian was killed at Monza and eventually became the first (and hopefully the only) posthumous World Champion, gave that win a kind of legitimacy, no matter how cheesed off I was on the day.

Brabham became Bernie Ecclestone’s team. They were local to me and I adopted them and their buccaneering style. I then acquired a number of friends from the ranks of those who toiled for ‘The Bolt’.

Herbie, Harvey, Jerry, Robin, Roly, Charlie and others whose faces I can see but the mind cannot name.  I have been fortunate to share a beer or three with these guys in the past and learned a lot about the sport from them. Mechanics and engineers tend to be the most reliable of guides to what is really happening on track, certainly more so than clueless PR hacks such as I.

The association with the Brabham name continued with meeting Sir Jack’s son, David. He turned into one of the stars of endurance racing over the past 25 years, including the top step of the podium at Le Mans, living the dream I believe it is called. David was always one of the good guys, a pleasure to meet at the tracks, almost always with a big grin no matter how difficult things were going. A chip off the old block it used to be called.

Last week the latest chapter in this illustrious family’s history was revealed, appropriately enough at Australia House in London. To my frustration I was on the road heading towards Belgium and Spa while this launch took place but fortunately our Ace Photographer, Simon Hildrew, was there to catch the mood and the flavour of a great evening.

The focus of attention was the new supercar from Brabham Automotive, the BT62. This 700bhp track day only vehicle is the first evidence of a new power in the world of high performance cars. David Brabham is the driving force behind the new venture that is run out of Adelaide and backed by Fusion Capital.

The new car is squarely aimed at the territory occupied currently by the likes of the McLaren Senna. Powered by a 5.4 litre normally aspirated V8, the carbon fibre chassis and trick aerodynamics are evidence of the competition heritage that runs through the BT62. Michelin racing tyres, carbon brakes and an in-built jack system are further signs of the sporting dna.

The aim of Brabham Automotive is to create a road going version of the BT62 and then there is a goal to race at Le Mans but this is all in the future.

Complimenting the new car was a fantastic display of Brabham race cars and memorabilia.

And where there is a free drink you will find racing drivers and the media in numbers………..

 

Enjoy Simon’s great gallery and look out for the Brabham BT62 at a car show near you.

John Brooks, May 2018

Light Blue Touch Paper

The first rays of sunshine arrive from the East, over the Atlantic. For those still circulating at Daytona International Speedway it signals that they have made it through the dark………the Chequered Flag is almost in sight……

Not for everyone though, some will suffer the heartbreak of a late problem at the Rolex 24. Daylight is visible in the sky as James Weaver punches onto the Tri-Oval banking after the Bus Stop at NASCAR Three. Under acceleration the Ford V8 emits a blue flame, a signal confirming the damage to an exhaust valve, dramatically reducing power. A 27 lap lead over the pack would evaporate, as following the demise of the Cadillac SRP challenge, the Viper/Vette GT train gained a handful of seconds every lap. The clocked ticked away, the gap shrank, the maths played out and the inevitable happened, victory slipped from the Poughkeepsie team’s grasp. The only consolation to “the death of a thousand cuts” would come later in the season when the 45 points scored by James Weaver for staggering round to fourth place would give him the inaugural Grand-Am Drivers’ Title.

John Brooks, January 2018

Out of the Limelight

Back in the last century, the lights were not turned on at night in Daytona International Speedway during the sessions that the Rolex competitors ran in. When it rained as it did for the Test Days in early January ’99 matters headed to the dark side. However with a bit of luck you could get something different. This slide needs to be scanned again but it gives something of the flavour of standing on the gas out of NASCAR Two down the back straight and seeing the Bus Stop accelerating towards you, it took more than a bit of intestinal fortitude to keep poking the bear. That’s why I had a camera in my hand rather than a steering wheel of a Riley & Scott.

Let’s hope that these conditions remain in the past while the 2018 Rolex rumbles on.

John Brooks, January 2018

Analogue Racing

Twenty years ago this week I jumped on a plane and headed for Florida, destination Daytona International Speedway, It was the first phase in what I laughingly now refer to as a career in motorsport. Since the early ’80s I had combined a real paying job with the weekend vice of shooting races as a member of the media. I had witnessed the final stages of Ayrton Senna’s pre-F1 career, watched with awe as Group C flowered and was eventually destroyed by dark forces and followed the re-birth of endurance racing in the ’90s. I was hooked.

Now it was time to leave behind the comfortable existence of a monthly salary, an chunky bonus most years and a new BMW 7 or 8 series every four to six months. I was going to be a full time motorsport photographer following in the footsteps of those guys I knew in F1 who had made it to the Majors. They were doing very well, better than me or so they would have you believe. What they did not tell me was the the bit about the pain and penury, the uncertainty of where the next job or cheque would come from and the sheer grind of endless travelling for a living. All this while trying to keep clients and the bank manager happy.

No matter, I was gung-ho on my way to Daytona. My flight and a fee were being paid for by the charming Laurence Pearce of Lister Cars fame, it was always going to be like this I told myself…………roaming the planet on someone else’s dollar, creating art………Terry Donovan eat your heart out………..

I had shot in the USA the previous year when following the FIA GT circus to Sebring and Laguna Seca, now I was about to find out how things were really done in America.

The 1998 Rolex 24  was a race run in a time of great upheaval and transition, both on and off the track. On a broader scale the world was shifting on its axis from analogue to digital, the new-fangled internet and email was here to stay, and old farts like me would have to get used to it, embrace it even, Dot-Com was the buzz word on everyone’s lips. A new century beckoned and a totally unjustified optimism was all around, as if we had all bought into Donald Fagan’s vision:

A just machine to make big decisions,
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision,
We’ll be clean when their work is done,
We’ll be eternally free, yes, and eternally young

On the tracks the world was also going through a revolution, especially in the rarefied arena of endurance racing in North America. In the post-Andy Evans era, Daytona in 1998 was the first battleground in the looming conflict between the traditional powers, aka the France family, and the new broom, Don Panoz, controller of three tracks, and his plans for sportscar racing in North America that would evolve into the American Le Mans Series. We all know how that turned out in the end.

For a foot-soldier such as I this all seemed remote, all I could see was the beautiful Florida sunshine, a real contrast to the grey, soggy conditions back home. At the track there was the amazing banking, there were also a lot of fences and gates to negotiate and even more security guards to deal with, all dressed in blue, seemingly  with an agenda all of their own.

On track the cars were something of a throwback, the favourites for victory came from the various Ferrari 333 SP teams or the Ford-powered Dyson Racing Riley & Scott MK III pair. These fine cars would have been nowhere if faced by the top practitioners in Europe such as the Mercedes-Benz CLK LM or the Toyota GT-One who were in a different league of performance and, of course, budget.

Indeed from the European scene three Porsche 911 GT1s, a brace of Panoz GTR-1s and a Lister Storm GTL were on the Rolex 24 GT1 entry list creating a problem for the local officials who wished for the top step of the podium to be the property of the prototype class, cunningly renamed Can-Am. What relationship these cars had with the Group 7 legends of yesteryear was unclear but it made the PR guys feel warm and everyone pretended that it was absolutely logical.

Another PR canard doing the rounds at the race was the insistence that the 1998 Rolex 24 would be a re-run of the Ford v Ferrari battles of the ’60s, Phil Space and his mates in the old press rooms would have been proud. Like the Can-Am non-connection no one was fooled but we were all too polite to mention it.

Perhaps the whole paddock that year would have wanted to see Gianpiero “Momo” Moretti finally achieve a win at Daytona. He had first raced the 24 Hours at the tri-oval in the 1970 edition driving a Ferrari 512S no less. 28 years and fourteen attempts later he knew that time was against him but 1998 was as good an opportunity as ever. As Momo put it at the time, “With all the money I have spent at Daytona I could have bought a thousand Rolexes easily, but I wanted to win this race.”

His Ferrari 333 SP was run by the vastly experienced Kevin Doran and he had a stellar line-up with Mauro Baldi, Arie Luyendyk and Didier Theys, it was now or never.

Joining Momo on the grid, though a few rows back was another driver who had raced in the 1970 Daytona 24 Hours, Brian Redman. Back then Redman was a key part of the JW Automotive squad and the 1970 race was eagerly anticipated as it would see the first full contest between the Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s. Brian achieved the bizarre feat of finishing both first and second in that race as he drove the winning car of Pedro Rodriguez and Leo Kinnunen for a couple of stints while waiting for his own 917 to have its clutch replaced. The Finn was placed on the naughty step for ignoring team orders to slow down while enjoying a huge lead, his punishment was to witness Redman pounding round in his car.

In 1998 Redman joined 1990-Le Mans winner Price Cobb in a Porsche 993 Carrera RSR but there would be no fairy-tale for the veteran Brit, a broken gearbox on Saturday brought his career in 24 hour races to an end.

 

Opposition in Can-Am Ferrari ranks came principally from the Scandia Racing example crewed by Yannick Dalmas, Bob Wollek Max Papis and Ron Fellows. Dalmas took pole with a 1:39.195 lap, just shy of 130 mph average speed, this was a serious effort at winning outright.

Doyle-Risi Racing had left their 1996 Daytona-winning Oldsmobile-powered Riley & Scott behind in favour of a 333 SP, backing up Wayne Taylor behind the wheel were Fermin Velez and Eric van de Poele, another serious contender for overall victory.

There were arguably five serious Riley & Scott contenders, all Ford powered. Two from Rob Dyson’s crack outfit based at Poughkeepsie. #16 for James Weaver, Elliot Forbes-Robinson and Dorsey Schroeder as well as the Guv’nor, seen here at the wheel.

In #20 Rob was joined by Butch Leitzinger, John Paul Jr., and Perry McCarthy. Rob was keen to repeat his Daytona triumph of the previous year, his cars were always in contention down in Florida, in 1998 they started from 4th and 5th places.

Henry Camferdam enlisted Scott Schubot and Johnny O’Connell in his R & S MKIII, they started at a respectable sixth spot.

Michael Colucci ran a pair of Rileys in association with turkey-magnate Jim Matthews. Matthews was partnered in #39 by the ‘dream team’ of multiple champions Derek Bell and Hurley Haywood plus David Murry.

#36 had Eliseo Salazar, Jim Pace and Barry Waddell on driving duty with Matthews hedging his bets as an entry in both cars.

Back at the turn of the century some frankly weird contraptions would show up and ‘race’ at Daytona during the 24 Hours. This pioneering spirit was very much in the ‘run what you brung’ tradition and is somewhat missed in these politically and corporately correct times. In 1998 the Chevrolet Cannibal was oddball of the year, in fact there grounds for thinking that it would be oddball of any year.

1998 also saw the Mosler Raptor take to the tracks, designed it would appear by Captain Nemo, with the distinctive split screen. At home at Turn Three or 20,000 leagues under the sea…………….

Other left field entries would include the Keiler KII which was a development of a Chevron B71. Powered by the ubiquitous Ford V8 it was a good example of the can-do engineering spirit that ran through the North American racing scene in the last decade of the century.

As mentioned earlier the GT1 class should have provided stiff opposition to the leading prototypes. However the powers that be decided that a Can-Am car would triumph, so the regulations were changed, not for the first, or the last, time in Volusia County. The Panoz pair with an all-star line up of Eric Bernard, David Brabham and Jamie Davies in #99 and Andy Wallace, Scott Pruett, Doc Bundy with 1987 World Champion, Raul Boesel, in #5 should have been rattling the Ferraris and the Dyson squad in the speed stakes. However………….

The Porsche 911 GT1 trio should also have been there or there abouts, but USRRC, no doubt under instructions from above, had other ideas. Ballast was added and there were smaller restrictors if the GT1 had carbon brakes or electronic engine management – hello the computer age! – the final cut was reducing the fuel tank size from 100 to 80 litres to match the Can-Am cars. It was all a bit farcical and it fuelled the rivalry between Panoz and what was to become Grand-Am. The ‘not invented here’ attitude was alive and flourishing.

There was the usual pre-race ballyhoo, speeches, songs, prayers and parades. Former heroes rumbled round the track at a dignified pace, provoking this cop to bellow incomprehensible instructions to move which were largely drowned out by the engine noises, this despite being in a place that was allowed by our passes……….my way or the highway…………..it was easier to leave than try and argue.

 

A full grid of 74 cars took the start under blue skies. As I have learned with 24 Hour races, and the Rolex in particular, everyone heads off for the first corner with optimism in their hearts but it does not take long for the cracks to appear in even the best racers. One by one the favourites are hobbled to a greater or lesser degree, Daytona International Speedway has a deserved and hard earned reputation for being cruel to the aspirations of racers and their teams, the 1998 Rolex 24 would be no exception to this rule.

The race ran to plan for the leaders till the second hour. A Full Course Caution was spotted by Andy Wallace in the Panoz as he headed into Nascar Four and he lifted off just as James Weaver’s R & S was following him a full pelt, the resulting collision effectively ended both cars chances though both plugged away after extensive repairs, neither was running at the finish.

Doyle-Risi was next to stumble. First a pit official waved Eric van de Poele out of the pits even though the exit was closed, then the mistake was compounded by neglecting to inform Race Control, a two lap penalty was the consequence. Shortly after night fell the Belgian crashed out at the West Horseshoe, knocking out both himself and the Ferrari from the race.

The lead was taken on by the Scandia Ferrari with the #20 Dyson car giving chase. Around 04.00 on Sunday advantage switched to the latter as the 333 SP suffered first a sticking throttle, then the transmission caught fire, another leading contender was out.

This left Dyson on target for a successive victory but the Racing Gods had other ideas. The engine started to give concern and with about three hours to go matters came to a head with the car being forced into the pits while smoking and leaking fluids………..another dream dashed.

While Dyson were suffering despair the Moretti Ferrari was now in a lead that it would not surrender. Momo took the final stint, he had earned that right the hard way.

There were emotional scenes on the podium, a dream had come true, Momo had his Rolex. The Italian veteran would have an Annus Mirabilis in 1998 taking victory at both the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Watkins Glen Six Hours, throw in a top ten finish at Le Mans and it was time to leave the stage.

What of the other places? In spite of the best efforts of the USRRC to slow the GT1 entries they were there at the Chequered Flag, surviving the carnage that had engulfed the Can-Am runners. The Porsche 911 GT1 Evo of Rohr Motorsport finished second some eight laps down on the winner.

This was despite an all-star driver line up, almost an embarrassment of riches: Allan McNish, Jörg Müller, Danny Sullivan, Uwe Alzen and Dirk Müller enjoy the applause but no Rolex watches despite the podium and the class win, still rankles with a Wee Scot or so I am told. Not that any of us ever remind him, oh no sireee…………

Third spot was occupied by another Porsche 911 GT1, the Larbre Compétiton entry of Christophe Bouchut, Andre Ahrle, Patrice Goueslard and Carl Rosenblad………….a top class effort, much as we have come to expect from Jack Leconte’s outfit.

Porsche also took GT2 honours with the evergreen Franz Konrad guiding his squadron of gentlemen drivers to victory in the 911 GT2. Toni Seiler, Wido Rössler, Peter Kitchak and Angelo Zadra all did their bit in this fine result.

The final class winners were PTG and their BMW M3. Bill Auberlen, Boris Said, Peter Cunningham and Marc Duez climbed the top step of their podium at ‘The World Center of Racing’ to receive their trophies, no false modesty at DIS.

The eternally youthful Bill will line up for the factory BMW outfit this weekend, as will his fellow class winner from 1998, Dirk Müller. Dirk will be hoping that his Ford overcomes Munich’s finest.

What did I learn from the experience of my first Rolex? Well like most Europeans who go racing to North America I had the idea that we were more professional in Europe, with our F1, our Le Mans, our traditions. I soon realised that was complete bollocks, the driving, engineering and every other aspect of motor sport on that side of the Atlantic was the equal of anything over here. Just look at the record of Penske, Pratt & Miller, Chip Ganassi and see the facts as they are.

If some of the officialdom was dodgy or the decisions were difficult to understand then consider some of the horror stories perpetrated over here. If security was inclined to make things up on the hoof, then recall dealing with Belgian police, the CRS or any of the private security firms now involved……….I rest my case. It certainly opened my eyes and made my decision to follow the ALMS in the early years a certainty.

Did I learn anything else? Well don’t go drinking with Julian Bailey in an airport bar, we almost missed the flight home as we got well refreshed. We picked up the last call and boarded the plane to jeers of those who knew us, I think I slept well that flight. It was the first chapter in a grand adventure…………..maybe I am due a new one soon.

 

John Brooks, January 2018

A Midsummers Night’s Dream

A day full of reflection and contemplation, my mind drifts back to the summer of ’96. On track at 04.58 and shooting, I must have been keen back then. Keen and lucky if this shot of a 911 GT1 accelerating past the pits in pursuit of the Joest TWR-Porsche is anything to go by. Maybe you make your own luck, maybe your luck makes you. I don’t see much of this in prospect in our Brave New World of batteries and robots.

John Brooks, January 2018

Living In The Past

The slide from one year to another encourages us to reflect and recall the past both recent and distant. I am on a scanning mission at present and this moment from the 1996 Pre-Qualifying at Le Mans caught my eye while plundering the archive. Not just the F40 GTE and the F1 GTR catapulting on to the Mulsanne Straight in pursuit of a distant 911 GT2 but the riot of emerald green.

Simpler, happier times, or am I just dreaming?

To the readers, may I wish you and yours a happy and healthy 2018, anything more would be a bonus.

John Brooks, January 2018

The French Class

Driver shoots, don’t ya just love ’em? Herding cats would be easier and nothing has much changed in the 49-odd years since this scene at Le Mans. Even the scrum around local favourites still continues, the only thing missing is a selfie-stick………….but this bunch of drivers from the 1968 Alpine Le Mans team is also a bit special.

L to R as far as I can tell: Bob Wollek, Jean-Pierre Nicolas, Alain Serpaggi, Christian Ethuin, André de Cortanze, Jean-Luc Thérier, Jean Vinatier, François Castaing, Alain le Guellec, Jean Rédélé, Bernard Tramont, Jean Guichet, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Henri Grandsire and Gérard Larrousse.

They would win Grand Prix, Le Mans (driving and designing), rallies and many, many races, a very select bunch.

John Brooks, February 2017

 

Thirty Year Itch

The Daytona 24 Hours in 1987 was an almost exclusively Porsche affair in the leading GTP class, no less than nine 962s chased victory. Five of these were powered by a 2.8 litre flat six and the other four a 3.0 litre version of the classic Porsche unit, power was traded off for less fuel stops, a bit of a leap of faith at Daytona.

Leading the charge was Jochen Mass in Bruce Leven’s 962 posting a pole lap of 1:41.005. The German star shared the car with the owner and Klaus Ludwig. They led the first four hours or so of the race but contact while passing a back marker on the banking led to a big shunt and retirement.

Also in the wars early in the race was the other front row Porsche of Jim Busby sharing with Bob Wollek and Darin Brassfield. Valve failure after 89 laps put the BFGoodrich 962 out.

Three 962s were left at the top contesting victory. The American road-racing royalty of Rob Dyson, A.J. Foyt and Al Holbert each had a car capable of winning. Dyson shared with his regular co-driver Price Cobb and they were supported by Vern Schuppan.

Holbert, running the same #103 chassis that had been the winner in the 1986 race, was on a roll, chasing a third consecutive 24 hour win with co-driver Derek Bell, having triumphed at Le Mans the previous June. Initially Holbert did not plan to drive leaving that to Al Unser Jr., Chip Robinson and Mr Bell. The demands of the race would change that strategy

The legendary A. J. Foyt, twice a winner at the Daytona 24 Hours was looking for his third win, running with Danny Sullivan and Al Unser Sr. The race would come down a dog fight between the #1 and #14.

Best of the non-Porsches was the Chevrolet Corvette GTP-T710 of Sarel van der Merwe and Doc Bundy but they went out in the night with engine failure after running in the leading pack.

Another car that succumbed in the darkness to engine problems following a fire was the Jaguar XJR-7 of Bob Tullius, Hurley Haywood and John Morton after running as high as second.

Less impressive in the GTP ranks was the Zakspeed Ford Probe GTP of David Hobbs, Whitney Ganz and Momo Moretti. Not really competitive, they also disappeared in the night with engine maladies.

IMSA GTP Lights were the property of the factory entered Spice-Pontiac Fiero.

Bob Earl, Don Bell and Jeff Kline overcame electrical issues in the night to run out winners.

IMSA GTO class was hotly contested. The Roush Ford Mustang was chasing a hat trick of wins at Daytona. NASCAR star Bill Elliott ran with Scott Pruett, Lyn St. James and Tom Gloy.

More NASCAR talent was on show in the Protofab Chevrolet Camaro of Darrell Waltrip, Terry Labonte and Greg Pickett. They led the class at the halfway point but lost a wheel out on track and that was that.

Another strong Camaro was the Rick Hendrick-entered Peerless version for Jack Baldwin and Eppie Wietzes but they were another victim of engine issues.

Dan Gurney had a pair of Toyota Celicas, #98 for Chris Cord and Steve Millen, #99 had Ricky Rudd, Jerrill Rice and Juan Manuel Fangio ll on driving duties.

Problems late in the race struck both All American Racing cars with #99 retiring  and #98 clinging on to second spot despite rear suspension issues.

All of which propelled #11 to the top step of the podium. A sweet victory for the Roush Ford outfit.

Back at the head of the field things appeared to be going the way of Foyt’s 962 but there was not much margin in it. The Unsers engaged in an early morning Father and Son duel after which they had breakfast together. There were epic battles between the two teams and any advantage gained was soon pulled back.

Al Holbert had to change his strategy as both Al Unser Jr. and Chip Robinson were exhausted and Derek Bell needed time to recover for the final stint. Al jumped into the Porsche to take the fight to rival 962.

The race was decided in the final hour when the normally bullet-proof Porsche motor in the #1 car let go with 50 minutes left to run. Victory for the Holbert car, huge disappointment for Foyt’s outfit.

Second place fell to the Brun Motorsport 962 that had lost 14 laps in the first hour with a faulty weld on a pipe. Once that was fixed they began the long climb back from 54th place. They were the quickest car on track during the night, sometimes as much as five seconds a lap! Once the Foyt car stopped they were elevated to the podium just ahead of the Dyson 962 with the unfortunate Texan effort classified as fourth. It was a just reward for Walter’s team of Oscar Larrauri, Massimo Sigala and Gianfranco Brancatelli.

Messrs Holbert, Bell, Robinson and Unser Jr. celebrated a famous victory, a really tough race for them. The race was flat out from the start and the winning crew covered 753 laps breaking the previous record set in 1986 by 41 laps or 146 miles. The race average speed was 111.6mph, a champion performance by any standards.

 

 

A Champion Porsche

Over the years I have found that seeing old race cars for the first time in ages is a bit like bumping into an old flame or at least I imagine that’s what it might be like.  There is a natural tendency to don the rose tinted spectacles, remember the good times and forget the bad. Racing imitates Life.

A while back I was a guest of Porsche AG at their Leipzig Factory. Like all good hosts they made me feel very welcome and when they showed me up to the museum/display area it was an opportunity to meet up with some old friends, the Dauer 962, the TWR Joest WSC and of course the Champion Porsche 911 GT1 Evo, chassis 005.

The distinctive livery of Dave Maraj’s team is unmistakable, having graced many Porsches and Audis in endurance racing both sides of the Atlantic, culminating in a overall win at Le Mans in 2005 as well as multiple ALMS Championships.

Not only did I get to shoot the 911 but none other than Norbert Singer explained what made this car special.

But back to the 911 GT 1………..where did it come from? What caused this evolution of the iconic 911 to be created?

1992 saw the premeditated destruction of Sportscar World Championship by the FIA under the control of Mosley and Ecclestone, with some assistance from Ballestre and Todt. They were determined to promote Formula One at the expense of endurance racing, only Le Mans was strong enough to survive. The final FIA SWC formula of 3.5 litre engines cars and high tech machines proved way too expensive even for manufacturers and there were no cars for privateers to buy, despite a valiant effort from Lola, so the grids dwindled to single figures. There were projects from Konrad, Brun, Allard and BRM but they were too little, too late and grossly underfunded.

The impulse to race long distances as opposed to sprints still existed and, as ever, where there is a will there is a way. To the rescue came ‘Three Musketeers’ in the form of Stéphane Ratel, Patrick Peter and Jürgen Barth and they launched the BPR Series in 1994, having dabbled with GT Racing in the previous seasons. BPR was firmly aimed at the gentleman driver as opposed to factories, providing 4 hour GT races with 911s and Venturis as the staple diet on track, with the spice being provided by a Ferrari F40.

Barth, an ex Le Mans winner, was Manager of the Customer Competitions Department at Porsche, Peter was a well respected race promoter and Ratel was an executive/investor in the Venturi project.

In 1995 the BPR expanded in both numbers and importance with the début of the McLaren F1 GTR. Of course the arrival of the Woking super-car made the 911 somewhat second class even in the fearsome GT2 spec. A BiTurbo variant was explored but in reality there was no way that a 911 was going to get on terms with a F1 GTR with its carbon fibre chassis, mid-engined layout and central driving position. Finishing down the order is not what Porsche or their customers had come to expect, so as the saying goes “Something must be done”.

The solution was to create their own mid-engine racer, which had as much in it in design terms from the 962 as the 911, no matter what was said at the time. The front unibody and windscreen (derived from the current model 911 and taken from the production line) was attached to a steel sub-frame and behind that was a 3.6 litre twin turbo engine.

In reality the 911 was a proper racing car but in order to get the car homologated as a GT car a road going version had to be produced. This completely undermined the principles that BPR had hitherto been run on, ie. take a real road going GT and adapt it for the track, not homologate a racing car for the road. It would prove the undoing of a very fine race series.

Initially the plan was to run the car at the 1996 Le Mans with outright victory the aim. However the opposition was not just the slower GT cars such as the McLarens and F40s but also prototypes such as the Ferrari 333 SP and the TWR Joest Porsche WSC95.

The latter would prove to be too well run, too fuel efficient and too fast for the Werks GT. So the 911 GT1 had to settle second and third overall, triumphant though in the GT class.

After La Sarthe the fun and games really started. Porsche stepped up the pressure on the BPR to allow the 911 GT1 to race in BPR, Jürgen Barth’s position was somewhat compromised with his dual roles and conflicted loyalties. The existing teams, still reeling from the drubbing they had received in France, were adamant that the 911 should stay away, it was not eligible they argued and was outside the spirit of the regulations.

As a temporary solution, and in order to not destroy the 1996 title race, eventually the Porsche was allowed to start but would not be able to score points. At the first race after the decision held at Brands Hatch, Stuck and Boutsen drove away from the opposition as if in a different class, a feat that they repeated at Spa a few weeks later. It was a Sunday drive in the country with both pilots barely breaking into a sweat.

The atmosphere in the paddock grew increasingly rancorous and poisonous, a split was on the way. The BPR would lose Patrick Peter and mutate into the 1997 FIA GT Championship under the guidance of Messrs Ratel and Barth, where it flourished till 2009. There is an old saying warning those who desire something strongly to beware of getting what you wish for and Porsche Motorsport got that in spades for 1997. For my personal view of the events leading to the end of BPR have a look HERE

From the outside the 1997 FIA GT Championship was fantastic, factory supported GT racing featuring super-cars cars from Porsche, BMW, Mercedes, Lotus, Chrysler and Panoz. But there was a rotten core to all this, in theory a road car was to be built as the foundation for homologation of the race version but the time limit for presenting the road car to the FIA was eventually set at December some months after the Championship was decided. BMW were outraged at the advantage handed to their rivals from Stuttgart just as the season got underway.

As to Porsche, they did not fare so well either, with the regulations on engine power favouring normally aspirated entries. Despite a development to an Evo specification (at a significant upgrade cost!) they were not really competitive with the Schnitzer McLaren BMWs or the AMG Mercedes squad. Furthermore they had sold eight cars to privateers who also found that they were bog slow for a Porsche, and having spent a small fortune, collectively they were not happy bunnies.

So as ever Porsche looked to victory at Le Mans to rescue their season, a win in the French Classic covers a multitude of sins. The main opposition was again the prototype Ferrari 333 SPs and the TWR Joest Porsche plus a trio of Nissan R390s run by TWR. The tactics of the 1996 winners had been taken into account by the Werks, now the 911 GT1 had the speed and the fuel economy to handle the Joest car, did it have the reliability? The simple answer was no. Bob Wollek hit the barriers at Arnage with 8 hours to go while comfortably leading his team mate and the rest of the pack, a driveshaft failure caused that disaster. Some six hours later Ralf Kelleners was in cruise mode heading for the Chequered Flag when cresting Les Hunadières Hump swarf in the oil cooler caused a failure and the car went up in flames, leaving the way clear for a second Joest win. Incroyable!

The disaster of 1997 led to the development of the 911 GT1 98 for the following year. Initial reliability issues handed the AMG Mercedes team the first two races and thereafter with the introduction of the CLK LM it was a clean sweep for Stuttgart in the FIA GT Championship. At Le Mans however the reverse was the case. Mercedes and BMW were out before sunset on Saturday, Nissan were too slow,  leaving a straight fight between Porsche and Toyota. Against all odds Porsche triumphed………..who remembers the ’98 FIA GT Championship now?

The old 911 GT1s were stuffed into barns or sold across the Atlantic. In North America for 1998 there were a multitude of series and races sanctioned by SCCA, USRRC Can-Am and PSC that the 911 GT1 appeared to be eligible to race in. And this how I first encountered the Champion car, at the 1998 Daytona 24 Hours.

At that race there were two other 911 GT1s, an Evo entered by Jochen Rohr and a old spec car for Larbre Compétition. Late rule changes (imagine that at Daytona!) imposed on the GT1 class, and aimed at the Panoz GT effort, effectively excluded them from a real shot at overall victory. Politically it was expedient for a prototype to be the car driving into Victory Lane at the Daytona International Speedway and certainly not one of Doctor Don’s cars.

Despite there being three Ferrari 333 SPs and a brace of Dyson Riley & Scott Fords, all of whom had much greater pace than the Porsches, the GT1 nearly snatched victory in the time honoured tortoise/hare mode.

Late in the race suspension problems for the Moretti Ferrari 333 SP caused a few missed heartbeats but repairs were completed in time for the Italian to take a very popular win. Second place was the reward for the Rohr Motorsport outfit with their 5 driver (?) team of Allan McNish, Danny Sullivan, Jörg Muller, Dirk Muller and Uwe Alzen who finished 36 laps up on the Larbre 911 back in third. The Champion car retired with overheating issues – very un-Porsche like.

My next encounter with the Champion car was at the inaugural Petit Le Mans held at Road Atlanta in the fall of 1998. This race was to be the overture for the American Le Mans Series, which was so successful till 2013. The day-glow car was outclassed by the more modern GT1 cars such as the factory GT1 98 and the Panoz GTs but at the finish the old girl was still there up on the podium with a third overall and another class win. It had not fallen apart or flown unlike its more modern rivals.

And that might have been that, but Dave Maraj’s car reappeared at Sebring in 1999 to challenge for the GT class of the ALMS, except that the 911 GT1 Evo was judged to be a prototype and forced to compete with the BMWs, Audis and Panoz in the top class. So despite having Thierry Boutsen, Bob Wollek and Dirk Müller to steer the beast there really was no hope of a decent result, a fourth place was as good as it got in 1999.

1999 was the first season of the ALMS and like many Europeans I flew back and forth across the Atlantic as the races had a strong European element to them, the series was always been cosmopolitan by American standards.

Sears Point, Portland, Laguna Seca, Las Vegas – the circuits rolled on and on, the air travel getting less and less “Jet Set” as I clocked the miles clocked up but still #38 would be present in its dayglo warpaint. Even Allan McNish could not drag the Champion 911 on to the podium, it was time for retirement.

Except that it wasn’t, #005 reappeared at the 2001 Rolex 24 run by my old mate, Kevin Jeannette. His underrated son, Gunnar was lead driver, supported by Wayne Jackson, Mike Brockman and Paul Newman, yes THE Paul Newman. An oil leak forced the old girl into retirement and somehow she was shipped back to the factory for me to encounter some years later.

The Porsche 911 GT1 has come to symbolise a wild era in endurance racing, when the factories slipped the leash of the regulations to create some of the greatest Gran Turismos ever built. I am grateful to have been a witness to this period of excess.

John Brooks, January 2017