The SuperCar's SuperCar - Part Three
After the euphoria of victory at Le Mans, there was the more mundane task of finishing the 1995 BPR season. There were two McLaren teams in contention for the title led by the early race winner, Gulf Oil sponsored F1 GTR of Ray Bellm and Maurizio Sandro Sala. Closing in fast was the Thomas Bscher and John Nielsen car which combined consistency with speed, and overtaking the pair in terms of pace was the Harrods McLaren now with ex-F1 driver, Olivier Grouillard joining sportscar ace, Andy Wallace. As fine a pair of gentlemen drivers Bellm and Bscher were, they could not match the performance levels of the two pros in the yellow F1 GTR. So of the final five races after Le Mans, three were wrapped up by Grouillard and Wallace, in the Harrods McLaren, with the title going to Nielsen and Bscher as they outscored Bellm and Sandro Sala. The McLaren F1 GTR had swept all before it during its debut season, winning 10 out of the 12 rounds of the BPR Global Challenge, and dominating at the race prized above all others, Les Vingt Quatre Heures du Mans. Truly for Woking 1995 was an Annus Mirabilis ("Year of Wonders" for those non-versed in Latin). All of which would be a hard act to follow, but 1996 would see the F1 GTRs back and in winning form. There were two brand new cars at the Gulf-backed GTC Competition, a new livery and a new driver, James Weaver. Having narrowly lost the BPR title in 1995, they were anxious to make amends in the new season, Ray Bellm never took defeat easily and was soon racking up the miles tyre testing. The 1996 edition of the F1 GTR was updated in light of the lessons learnt during the previous season, mainly to make the car more user-friendly - but there was also a diet that took 38 kilos off, plus a revised front splitter and aerodynamics. The two DRP run cars that had featured prominently in 1995 were updated also, so that as the season approached the ranks of McLarens were at full strength. And they would need to be, as factory efforts from Lotus and Viper were joining the numbers of those running in the BPR, and rumours came from Germany that a new Porsche was on the way................ BMW decided to get in on the act also, having merely a background role in the 1995 successes. They bought two cars for Team Bigazzi to campaign on their behalf, but in reality they were was a little late to the party. The advantage had shifted from Munich to Weissach................... Prior to the Le Mans 24 Hours, the first four rounds of the BPR went to the usual McLaren gang, on the surface the status quo prevailed. Still there were strong rumours about the latest Porsche, it would be a bit special or so it was whispered. Porsche had been outraged in 1995 that their icon, the 911, was being soundly beaten by the upstart British marque - sportscar racing was Porsche territory and something must be done. Suggestions that increasing the power would solve the problem were soon discounted, what was needed was a mid-engined racer that could compete in all-around performance. The Great Man, Norbert Singer, who had been involved in every Porsche win at Le Mans, was tasked with sorting out this problem and restoring the natural order of things. His answer was the Porsche 911 GT1. The front unibody and windscreen (derived from the then current model 911) was attached to a steel subframe. Behind that was a familiar motorsport-derived 3.6 litre twin turbo engine and a racing transmission. In reality the car was a proper racer, but there was a hitch. If it wanted to compete in BPR, 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 the other way around. This would quickly prove to be the undoing of a very fine race series. As might have been expected, the 911 GT1 appeared in time for Le Mans and was immediately over five seconds a lap faster than the F1 GTR squadron. So Woking’s teams were reduced from pace setters to "also rans", left to hope that Porsche would suffer some sort of calamity on the way to victory. That calamity actually happened. Porsche, with typical efficiency, had taken out an insurance policy in the form giving a pair of TWR Porsche WSC 95 prototypes to Reinhold Joest’s team to back up the 911’s in case of emergencies. Unfortunately they were faster than the new GTs and, with the great Joest team behind them, they beat the factory cars (a small consolation for the McLaren teams). While Porsche claimed the win as their own,everyone knew the cars were originally built by TWR and used during the 1992 Jaguar Group C programme. 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 the series. Jürgen Barth’s position was somewhat compromised with his dual roles and loyalties, being a race promoter with BPR and Customer Competition Manager with Porsche AG. The existing teams, especially those with McLarens, were still reeling from the drubbing they had received in France. They were adamant that the 911 should stay away from the BPR, 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. It was bordering on farce as all the parties tied themselves in knots trying to justify whatever position they favoured. This turned into tragedy, when Soames Langton, a popular figure in the paddock and typical of the talented amateur driver that was the bedrock of the series, was badly injured in the penultimate round of the BPR at Nogaro. He sustained head injuries and never recovered. There was already a truly poisonous atmosphere in the paddock, and with the addition of Langton's injury, the BPR was as stuffed as the local geese before racers left that paddock in the South of France. So, McLaren, in the form of Bellm and Weaver’s Gulf sponsored car, took the title - but the dispute over the eligibility of the Porsche had destroyed the BRP. What would 1997 bring?