Tag Archives: FIA GT Championship

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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. They were determined to promote Formula One at the expense of endurance racing, only Le Mans was strong enough to survive. The final 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 and BRM but they were too little, too late.

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.

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, with the regulations on engine power favouring normally aspirated entries, and 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 8 cars to privateers who also found that they were bog slow, 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 the disaster. Some 6 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. Against the strongest opposition (BMW, Mercedes. Toyota and Nissan factory efforts) 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 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 Muller 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

 

Simply Red

2000 JB General

Sometime early in 2000 I got a call from the Stéphane Ratel Organisation requesting my attendance at a test session at Valencia, something special was going to be revealed and their regular ace snapper, Peter Fox, was off at a Grand Prix. So I got the chance to hang out of the back of a car and burned through a few rolls of film with the elegant 550 and the mighty Marcos LM600 with Cor Euser at the wheel (who else?) as my subject – happy days.

The new Ferrari 550 Millenio looked the bollocks but turned out to be bollocks in the performance stakes. Stéphane had invested in the new car through GT Racing Developments along with the driver Jean-Denis Délétraz but their efforts came to naught.

2000 JB General

Stéphane still regards the money lost on the project as well spent as it encouraged Ferrari and others to get involved in GT1 racing, thus cementing the recovery of the Championship that had nearly foundered in 1998 when AMG Mercedes whitewashed Porsche in an expensive, one-sided contest. The Ferrari 550 Maranello would have to wait a few years for its day in the sun when finally Prodrive got to grips with the project at the request of Frédéric Dor. Victories at Le Mans and Spa 24 plus an impressive list of other successes for the last of the racing front-engined V12 Ferraris all sprang from the unpromising beginning one day in Spain.

John Brooks, August 2016

Full of Eastern Promise

The attention of the endurance sportscar world  has been rightly focused out East this weekend, to the majestic Fuji Speedway, nestling in the shadow of Mount Fuji. My mind drifts back to the last century and the previous FIA sportscar race in Japan, the enticingly titled Pokka Sweat 1000 Kilometres.

Sweat was indeed much in evidence during that event, run in baking hot conditions with nasty August in Japan humidity, a photographer’s lot was not a happy one. Another whose lot was less than joyous during that era was Porsche AG, as the AMG Mercedes steamroller beat them like a gong for the whole of the 1998 FIA GT Championship. Suzuka was no exception and the lead CLK LM, with favoured son Bernd Schneider and his side kick Mark Webber in the cockpit, won easily by two laps.

The AMG pair were aided in this convincing victory by the blunder in the early part of the race by one of their team mates, Ricardo Zonta. Zonta was duelling for second spot with the Porsche 911 GT1 98 of Allan McNish (who else?) and used one of the GT2 Porsches driven by Claudia Hürtgen to assist with late braking, the result when the dust cleared was that all three cars were beached in the gravel trap. To add insult to injury the marshals got Zonta on his way first, leaving an incandescent McNish to wait his turn. The race was over as a contest, barring misfortunes for #1 AMG.

The incident cost the Porsches a couple of laps and Zonta later received a drive through penalty for his misjudgement, though this did nothing to restore the time lost by McNish.

While the Wee Scot was matching Schneider’s lap times before the incident it required something of a leap of faith to imagine that this could be maintained by Yannick Dalmas and Stéphane Ortelli over the 1000 kilometres. In the end the lead Porsche finished a lap down on the #2 Merc to grab the final step on the podium.

The second entry from Weissach suffered a number of misfortunes that first blunted, then eventually ended their challenge for the podium. Mid-race Bob Wollek had contact with a slower car in the chicane and drove the short distance into the pits against the flow of traffic to check the damage. As I wrote at the time, this eccentric piece of driving incurred the ire of the Stewards who awarded him a three minute Stop and Go penalty. That observation incurred the ire of “Brilliant Bob” when he later read it and he threatened the magazine with legal action, even by his standards he was especially touchy that summer.
Jörg Müller finished the day for #8, when once again there was contact with another car in the final chicane. This time it was Geoff Lees in Thomas Bscher’s McLaren F1 GTR who was hit by the Porsche, both crews enjoyed an early bath, Nul Points Reykjavik.

The rest of the GT1 field had a pretty nondescript afternoon, the Persson Mercedes CLK GTR pair showing their 1997 pedigree, finished 4th and 7th, while the singleton DAMS Panoz thundered round to 5th. The Zakspeed Porsche 911 GT1 98 duo could only manage 6th and 8th.

The GT1 category had a fin de siècle feel in the heat and humidity of Japan that year, exaggerated by the rumours that the FIA GT Championship, 1999 style, would be for GT2 cars only. Having invested heavily in this form of competition, Mercedes Benz were keen to go racing somewhere other than Le Mans in the following season. A month or two later we were all dragooned into a press conference in beautiful downtown Miami-Homestead Speedway. Stéphane Ratel was at his charismatic and visionary best, revealing the proposed FIA International Prototype Championship that would pit Mercedes against Porsche and possibly Toyota, Nissan and Audi. The factory contingent would be padded out by a motley crew of GT1/GT2 survivors and prototype inductees who would be press ganged in from the newly formed International Sports Racing Series. The problem was that there were not enough of the true believers, heretics and cynics were found at every turn.

Mango’s Barmy Army in the ISRS may have earned their title many times over, but even daft as they were, they would not fancy a regular drubbing from the Silver Arrows, no matter how good or guaranteed the start money was. Look at how AMG annhilated the Porsche Werks effort in ’98, the score ended up at 10-0 in Stuttgart’s favour. Porsche’s Le Mans prototype project was about to be  killed off by Dr. Wendelin Wiedeking, the CEO, who preferred to invest the cash in Porsche’s new light truck range, the Cayenne. Those of us with true grit gave him the raspberry at the time but he had the last laugh when the multitudes with questionable taste queued round the block to pay full price for this odd vision of a Porsche. PT Barnum really knew what he was talking about. Toyota had another cunning plan in mind in their quest to spend riches of Croesus on mediocre motorsport, go to Formula One. Nissan fired TWR after Le Mans 1998 and then realised that they were bust in all but name, so motorsport went out the window. Audi were in no hurry to tangle with their German rivals, reasoning that they had much to learn about the sport of driving long distances fast. So the IPC was a dead duck almost from the start and then the newly formed ALMS became the potential target for AMG and Mercedes. The aviation disasters at La Sarthe the following June extinguished that dream.

All of which meant that the GT2 battle was under increased scrutiny, as this was our probable future. The contest, such as it was, had three elements Chrysler Vipers versus the factory blessed Roock Porsche 911 GT2 and Cor Euser in his fierce Marcos LM 600.

The reality was that the 911 GT2 was beyond any further significant development, the Marcos was quick with the fearless Euser at the wheel, less so when the money men were in the hot seat and the Oreca run Chryslers were an absolutely better package than anything else.

At the start Cor did his usual thing jumped into the lead, irritating the Viper pair, but it was just a matter of time and so it proved with #51 just edging out #52 to give Chrysler a 1-2. Zonta’s indiscretion stuffed the lead Roock 911’s race and behind that it was just a gaggle of GT2 Porsches making up the numbers.

A few locals had rocked up to excite those who enjoy diversity on the entry list. The Kunimitsu Takahashi Honda NSX-S was actually faster than the Vipers in Qualifying, a result, no doubt, of a collaboration with Dome, but the engine blew early in the race.

The other respectable performance, speed-wise, from the Japanese contingent was the Toyota Supra LM that was also quicker over one lap than the Oreca entries, but it struggled to make an impact during the race.

In the end home grown honours were taken by a rather plodding Nissan Sylvia.

From the adrenaline climb that GT Racing had enjoyed from 1995 to 1997, the 1998 season was flat and rather expensive. It could not continue, especially as no one was keen to take on AMG Mercedes, and the North American market was about to offer exciting opportunities, the first Petit Le Mans was just round the corner. But that, as they say, is a story for another day.

John Brooks, October 2012

 

 

 

 

Eternal Caravan of Reincarnation

Even as I spotted the potential shot while driving round the perimeter road at Brno, my mind was chasing a link with something I had seen before. While reviewing the files later on the laptop I had my eureka moment, it was the album cover for Caravanserai, Santana’s 70’s masterpiece. The opening track was a musical expression of this other world where light bends and dazzles. Tom Rutley, Neal Schon and  Michael Shrieve’s composition still holds the attention absolutely some four decades down the road. Art that has stood the test of time.

My own effort is but a pale attempt to imitate and capture that sense of magic and wonder. One can but try…………….

John Brooks, August 2012