(This marks the conclusion of the SuperCar's Supercar series, if you're just picking up, start with Part One.)
The problem of what to do in the wake of the acrimonious conclusion to the BPR Global Series was pressing. The obvious solution also became the answer to a number of other problems within international motorsport.
The FIA International Touring Car Championship had just imploded, a result of insane costs and little discernible return on investment. Alfa Romeo and Opel quit - leaving only Mercedes Benz, whom had a budget but nowhere to race. Bernie Ecclestone took a few minutes respite from running his Formula One empire and "suggested" to the the honchos who made up the management of BPR that they create a new GT series. This would accommodate most of their existing competitors and bring in others like, guess who, Mercedes Benz. Patrick Peter decided that he had seen enough of how the FIA did business and left to promote his own successful set of historic events. Stephane Ratel and Jürgen Barth threw themselves into the task with much enthusiasm, and soon we had the new FIA Championship for 1997.
The 1997 FIA GT Championship would be a major step up for all concerned from the BPR Global GT Series, with its spirit based in the gentlemen racer ethos. The new Championship would target hard-nosed factory teams with correspondingly high budgets. McLaren acquired BMW as a full partner for the third year of the F1 GTR race project. One of the more contentious rules introduced for 1997 was a requirement to have sold a road car version of the proposed racer at least one month before the start of the first race.
So the McLaren F1 GT was born, still based on a road car chassis it tried to answer the needs of the track more effectively than its predecessors. The "Longtail" featured body extensions for both front and rear that produced much more downforce and aerodynamic stability. After the single road car was completed, the racing versions were laid down for the list of customers. Without question it was one of the most elegant cars ever built, it looked just right from day one.
McLaren's Gordon Murray explained the rational behind the 1997 evolution. "Porsche built a racing car and forced us to do it", he was referring to the Long Tail. "But once the new Porsche had been admitted to the BPR races it was plain that the writing was on the wall. Our purebred road-going, production based cars with their long travel, high camber change suspension and limited downforce had been leapfrogged. We had to respond".
McLaren commenced a new production run for the F1 GTR and chassis 19R to 28R were put into the construction pipeline. Four would end up at Team BMW Motorsport, run by Schnitzer Motorsport and was a full factory effort with additional sponsorship from oil company Fina. The drivers would be JJ Lehto and Steve Soper in one car and Peter Kox and Roberto Ravaglia in the other; Nelson Piquet and Eric Helary would join the line up for Le Mans.
Aside from growing the long tail, there was a substantial increase in the ground effects generating downforce without giving away too much in drag terms. The weight of the car was reduced down to 915 kilos, a loss of 98 kilos or a staggering 10%. BMW contributed their part by reducing the size of the engine to a fraction under 6 litres, thereby increasing the size of the engine air restrictors allowed. These were substantial performance upgrades and no effort was spared.
GTC Competition would run three of the new cars, one each for F1 GTR stalwarts, Ray Bellm and Thomas Bscher and the third that was effectively the McLaren works entry to be driven by Jean-Marc Gounon and Pierre-Henri Raphanel. The elegance of the silhouette combined with the beautiful livery is without question automotive art of the highest order.
Porsche argued that in 1996 they had obtained road type approval in Luxembourg for the 911 GT1 before commencing their racing campaign. They strongly maintained that a mid-engined configuration, and a longer wheelbase, were essential to make a steel monocoque 911 derivative competitive. Whatever the views held, the reality was that the 911 GT1 was a quantum leap over the original F1 GTR and that it was going racing, so stop complaining and deal with the situation. Well...McLaren dealt with it by creating the Long Tail.
Of course this forced Porsche to make revisions to their 911 GT1, now referred to as EVO, the spending war had commenced. The Werks squad planned to run a pair of the updated machines, plus they sold a whole bunch of EVOs to what were soon to become unhappy customer teams. The source of the Porsche purchasers' discontent was the performance improvements of the other leading marques, in particular Mercedes and BMW/McLaren, they had spent a fortune to run somewhat off the pace. Frankly the customers were more than a little naive, the resources available to the two other German manufacturers dwarfed that of Porsche and as the saying runs in motorsport "You can't beat cubic Bucks!"
AMG Mercedes Benz arrived from the defunct FIA ITCC to field two, then three, brand new CLK GTRs. It featured a carbon fibre tub built by Lola Composites, with a full competition suspension system all topped off by a 6 litre, V12 engine that was light and powerful. It was a purpose built racer without compromises. The AMG Mercedes outfit had an all star driver line up comprising Bernd Schneider, Alessandro Nannini, Alex Würz, Marcel Tiemann and Klaus Ludwig plus cameo appearances from the likes of Ralf Schumacher.
Viewed from the outside (or even the Media Centre) the Championship was capable of really going places, the reality was more than a little different from this rosy picture. 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. Okay you might not take the base model food shopping, but you can see where the line is drawn. Or can you? 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. Compromises forced by reality rather than actual choices.
There were other conditions to be met, as Gordon Murray described. "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." Without any fanfare, 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? The change was justified by the FIA as it did not only help Stuttgart but also Panoz and Lotus whose own efforts were struggling and grid numbers were important. The bitterness that afflicted the final months of the BPR resurfaced and privately BMW decided that they would be off at the end of the season.
In case you are wondering why I am labouring this point, I will bring you the words of , 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 very cunning plan indeed and one that succeeded.
1997 started well for McLaren and BMW with victories in the first three rounds while the AMG squad suffered minor problems, their obvious speed was ominous though. The Porsches were hampered by engine regulations that favoured big normally aspirated units and not the turbocharged six cylinder found in the GT1 EVO, and in addition they were concentrating their efforts on Le Mans. Other factory teams from Lotus and Panoz were not really on the pace, in reality it was a battle throughout the season between the Mercedes trio and the BMW Motorsport McLaren of JJ Lehto and Steve Soper.
The McLarens were not front runners at Le Mans and two of the GTC cars went up in flames during the event as a result of engine fires. The factory Porsche 911 pair dominated till failing early on Sunday Morning, victory almost in their grasp. First Bob Wollek crashed out while two laps up, then the sister car also went up in flames, leaving the Joest prototype to take a successive victory at La Sarthe.
The FIA GT Championship continued with the title fight swinging backwards and forwards between AMG and BMW, given a particular edge by the late change to the homologation rules by the FIA. BMW were furious and remained resolved to quit at the end of the season. Not that it mattered by that stage, but AMG Mercedes did get a road going car registered in 1997, on 30th December I recall.
A late retirement at Sebring, the penultimate round, handed the titles to Stuttgart rather than Munich. On balance AMG had the faster car, but McLaren and BMW had pushed them all the way. It was a pity that there was rancour rather than respect, but the stakes were high and there were some colossal egos involved.
That was it for the factory involvement of McLaren and BMW in GT Racing, at least in the 20th Century. However there were a couple of notable results in 1998 from the two teams still running their privately-owned examples. Thomas Bscher and Geoff Lees defeated a good standard of entries to win the Monza 1000 Kilometres, the final international victory for the F1 GTR.
Perhaps even more remarkable was the fourth place overall for Steve O'Rourke, Tim Sugden and Bill Auberlen at Le Mans. Outdated by the development of factory teams from Porsche, Toyota, Nissan, BMW and Mercedes Benz, the F1 GTR ran without a fault while others failed or crashed out. It was, perhaps, a fitting conclusion to the story of McLaren and Le Mans.
As if that was not enough success in competition, there was one other record that McLaren snatched in 1998 - and that is when Andy Wallace was timed at 240.1 mph on the VW proving grounds at Ehra-Leissen, a world record speed for a production car.
The final numbers make interesting reading, McLaren produced 107 chassis, 7 were used as prototypes. There were just 64 F1 cars, 5 LM examples plus 2 GTs. 28 racecars were made, leaving a spare chassis, which I suspect has been used by now.
It is seemed unlikely that such a car, so at home on the road and so successful on the tracks, will ever be produced again, the spirit of this century is much less free than the last one. Anything as exuberant and almost hedonistic as the McLaren F1 will have an ever increasing section of the populace pursing their lips and being "offended". Even the trio of hopefuls exhibited at the 2013 Geneva Salon will never have a competition pedigree to back up their SuperCar claims, they will remain incomplete. You would have to look back to the Ford GT40 or Ferrari 250 GTO to find a similar breadth of abilities and achievements.
As to the McLaren F1, a lucky few will own such a car, the rest of us will stare in awe at this work of art and dream.................and hopefully get inspired.
Catch the first three parts of the Supercar's Super series:
Part One - McLaren, dominant in F1 and spurred on by the presence of teh Porsche 959 and Ferrari F40 conceives and builds what many consider to be the ultimate supercar expression, the McLaren F1.
Part Two - The F1 GTR was created and went on to influence the BPR Global Endurance Series and made a surprising victory at Le Mans 24 Hours.
Part Three - With McLaren's immense victories in 1995, the following year saw stiffened competition. Porsche was brewing the 911 GT1 and things were about to get messy.