It was a case of ‘about face’ when an American hopeful asked Reynard to design its Le Mans contender; here both parties explain how the engine came before the driver
Words: Keith Howard. Photography: Michael Furman
If it was the Lister Storm which first demonstrated that a front-engined car could still hack it in modern sportscar racing, it was the Panoz GTR-1 which drove the point home. From the moment it first ran at Sebring in 1997, the ‘Batmobile’ was a thorn in the side of the establishment, just as, thanks to its distinctive sound and less than classically beautiful lines, it became a crowd favourite.
That a tiny sportscar maker from Georgia should bloody the noses of motorsport’s aristocracy was remarkable. That Don Panoz, whose son Danny ran the road car business, should oversee this was doubly so, as his motorsports CV was a blank. But Panoz was not a man to underestimate, or mess with. His pharmaceutical company had, among other things, invented the nicotine patch and he was a wealthy man.
So when the rules were manipulated to hamstring the upstart, Panoz did more than get mad. He got even, by licensing the Le Mans name and ACO regulations to run the first Petit Le Mans in 1998, and the American Le Mans Series from ’99. Thus the GTR-1 changed sportscar racing. Don Panoz and John Piper, technical director of Reynard Special Vehicle Projects which designed the car, talk about it below.
DP: “GTR-1 came about because I said to my son that he needed a race programme to promote the road cars. He said he didn’t have time, and I should do it. I said, ‘But I’ve only been to four races in the whole of my life.’ He replied, ‘Oh, you’ll deal with it.’ I wanted the car to be the same footprint as the roadster, and that meant a front engine. I didn’t know that there were other layouts to choose from. I then met Adrian Reynard, who had run across Danny at an auto show, and asked if he could do the job for us. He didn’t raise an eyebrow; in fact he said the package could be outstanding.”
JP: “Nigel Stroud and I went out to see Don Panoz in Georgia. He was insistent that, as Panoz only made front-engined road cars and he wanted the race car to promote the brand, the engine had to be in the front. Nigel and I looked at each other and wondered how on earth we were going to make it work. On the plane back we were literally scribbling ideas on napkins, and the more we discussed it the more excited we got. We weren’t sure that it would work, but it was a challenge; an opportunity to do something different.”
JP: “We had to get the engine far enough back for the front diffuser to work well, and we tried to achieve the best weight distribution for a rear-engined car. The limiting factor was the distance between the driver’s right buttock and the rear wheel. By getting the engine right up against the front bulkhead and putting the transmission in the back, with a propshaft between them, we were able to do it, and hang the rear suspension from the gearbox just as in a rear-engined car. We achieved about 44:56 front/rear weight distribution – we’d have liked 42:58 but that was the best we could do. What we didn’t know was how this would affect the car’s polar moment, or how the driver would cope with sitting so far back.”
JP: “It was a shame about the [Roush-prepared Ford V8] engine. I don’t think it was bad in itself, although it didn’t have the power or response of its competitors. We wasted a lot of time at the beginning with engine management issues, and I don’t think that Roush had fully appreciated how efficient an engine has to be at Le Mans. At the first Silverstone test we spent three days just trying to get the engine running on all eight cylinders. All through the first season there were engine problems, and when that happens you fall behind on chassis development. It was extremely frustrating.”
DP: “The criticism of the engine in the early stages is fair. Roush were using the Ford V8 in NASCAR racers which used carburettors, and still do. So I think that sophisticated engine management was more than they’d been exposed to.”
JP: “Nigel Stroud did a fantastic job of the aerodynamics. One of the major problems was cooling and he did a really good job of ducting the air over the front suspension, through the radiators on either side of the engine and then out through the body sides. That was quite a feat. There was a lot of playing with the duct entries – too far forward and we got lift, too far back and they didn’t work. The large bonnet was also a potential front lift problem, which is why it ended up such a beautiful (!) car – its shape was driven by Nigel’s aerodynamics. Having the cabin so far back also posed a problem for airflow to the rear wing, which is why we ended up with the duck tail. It was a great step forward, that.”
DP: “When DAMS ran the GTR-1 for the first time at Sebring, it set a track record. That was the start of the controversies with Andy Evans [president of the International Motor Sports Group and then-owner of Sebring]. He was in a Ferrari 333SP and radioed in that he’d been trying to pass our car and couldn’t. He then announced that they’d have to penalise us, on the radio for everyone to hear. We were penalised 100lb and told the order our drivers were to race in. Things got worse in ’98 when we went to Daytona and were penalised 300lbs – Michelin said that their tyres weren’t designed for the car weighing that much. That’s when I came up with the idea of starting the American Le Mans Series.”