Race 1999

The final Le Mans 24 Hours of the millennium is also the hardest race to call for some time. With five major manufacturers looking for victory Adam Cooper assesses this year’s main entries.

Every year people say that the Le Mans 24 Hours will be the best race ever. While those who saw Ford GT40s or Porsche 917s in action might disagree, there’s no doubt that the Vingt Quatre Heures is continuing the return to strength it began four or five years ago.

As always, the key is the ongoing interest of the big manufacturers. Five are taking up the challenge, namely Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Toyota and Nissan. Come Sunday evening, at least four will go home as losers. That’s assuming one of the non-works efforts doesn’t surprise everybody; the Ford-powered Panoz was sensationally fast in pre-qualifying on May 2. All entrants can take heart in the knowledge that, for once, they don’t have to beat Porsche. After three wins in as many years – two with Joest’s open car and one with the works GT1-98 – the Stuttgart marque is taking a breather. Like its rivals, Porsche is not quite sure which way the wind is blowing. The question on everyone’s lips is this: open or closed sportscar or GT? All the manufacturers have had to solve this conundrum. In fact newcomers Audi found the decision so tough that they decided to build both…

With the FIA series now solely for the slower production-based cars, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest has been free to juggle its rules. Class structures have been rejigged, and the quick cars all compete in the same `Prototype’ category. The ‘GT1′ name has been dropped; if a car has a roof, it’s called an IMGTP’, and if it doesn’t, it’s an LMP’. Meanwhile the production cars have two separate classes, called ‘LM GTS’ and ‘LM GT’.

Within the prototype category, the open and closed cars run to broadly similar rules, which is why the decision is so hard. The 900kgs weight limit is the same, and the fuel tank size is now the same. Previously the open cars had smaller tanks, and had to pit more often, giving the GT1s a huge advantage in race conditions.

One man who knows both sides of the story is veteran designer Tony Southgate, who is currently in the Audi camp. He oversaw the Ferrari 333SP, the car which heralded the current breed of open sportscars and was later responsible for the Nissan R390. So how do the two concepts compare on the track?

“Now that the sportscars have the same fuel tank, they’ve come much, much closer to GTs,” Tony explains. “They also have rear diffusers, which gives them about 10 per cent more downforce. Some cars now have F3000 type roll-hoops, which gives them a little less drag than before.

“Generally the GTs have a little less drag, so they should be quicker on the straight. They are slightly more efficient, although it’s not night and day. However, they use 14 per cent smaller tyres, so theoretically they should be slower round comers. GTs also have bigger engine restrictors, so they have more power.

“Personally I prefer sportscars because they are much easier to make. You don’t have doors falling off. It’s also easier to reach the weight limit compared with the GTs, where you’ve also got a whacking rollcage and all that sort of stuff.”

It’s not hard to see why the manufacturers have had a tough time deciding between the two concepts. At least the aesthetics question is no longer an issue; any attempt to pretend that the GTs are related to road machines has long since been abandoned.

The boundary was crossed last year by the Toyota GT-One, a car which owed rather more to designer Andre de Cortanze’s earlier Peugeot 905 than the idea of a road-going racer. It was as fast as it looked; Martin Brundle led until hampered by gearbox problems, while the second car overcame delays to reclaim the lead, only for Thierry Boutsen to retire with 80 minutes to go. The third-string car did at least make the flag, albeit in eighth place. A regular presence at the Sarthe since the mid-’80s, the marque should have beaten Peugeot back in 1993, but for a fateful decision to race with untested transmission parts.

This year Toyota has to win, since a victory will help to kick start its planned F1 programme. Built by TTE in Cologne, the car is an update of the previous model, and as such it is a fairly proven package. Brundle was quickest in pre-qualifying, albeit by a slender margin, but the ease with which the cars ran competitive times did not go unnoticed. Despite its restrictors, the 3.6-litre V8 turbo is thought to be one of the strongest in the field.

“Just about everything has been refined and improved,” says Brundle. “Although it looks pretty similar to last year’s Toyota, it’s had a major aerodynamic re-design. The brakes are better, the gearbox is better, the engine’s got more power and we’ve done a massive amount of work on the tyres.”

Mercedes dominated the FIA series last year, and returned to Le Mans for the first time since the Sauber days of 1991, when its squad included a certain Michael Schumacher. Although the CLK-LM was quick – Bernd Schneider put it on pole – endurance testing was minimal, and Merc paid the cost; both entries were out in the first two hours. It was a half-hearted effort, and the management was none too impressed.

“We just did a had job,” says motorsport boss Norbert Haug. “You can quote me on that. We hope that doesn’t happen again. The AMG guys are probably among the best, but on this occasion they got caught out.”

This year it’s very different. With no FIA series to serve as a distraction, Mercedes has left nothing to chance. The new CLR is a much sleeker machine, 10cm lower than its predecessor. Extensive testing at Roger Penske’s Fontana track in California has made it close to bulletproof. And it has some quick pilots; old hand Schneider is backed up by a team of sharp youngsters which includes former Lotus F1 man Pedro Lamy, F3000 ace Nick Heidfeld, and Macau-winning Scot Peter Dumbreck.

BMW boss Gerhard Berger wants to win the race before F1 takes priority next year. Last season the Williams-engineered LM98 was simply too slow, and it proved never to be a serious contender for victory. Wheel bearing failures led to the early withdrawal of both V12 machines. This year’s car is a big improvement, and proved its reliability whenJJl Lehto, Jorg Muller and Tom Kristensen won the Sebring 12 Hours in March, albeit against weaker opposition than they will face at Le Mans. ‘The marque has put it faith in the crack Schnitzer team, having used the Italian Ratanelli outfit last year, and that will raise the ante.

“Schnitzer is very experienced,” says Hans Stuck. “The other good thing is that now only two languages are involved. The testing has shown that we are a lot further ahead than last year.”

Nissan got all four of its R390s to the flag last year, with the best-placed a respectable third, four laps down on the winners. But unlike the cars ahead, it ran faultlessly; in other words, the Japanese machines were way off the pace.

The company did not extend its two-year deal with Torn Walkinshaw, and has dumped the whole programme to start afresh. Changing tack is something of a Nissan trademark; in the last dozen years it has come to Le Mans with March and Lola Group C cars, an IMSA 300ZX, its own production-based Skyline GTR, and latterly the TWR-developed R390.

Nissan’s new partner is G-Force, the company best known for its Indy Racing League chassis. Appropriately enough the R391 uses a 5-litre version of the IRL engine, which runs under the Infiniti badge Stateside. The team is under the full control of Japan’s NISMO, who won the Daytona 24 Hours in 1991.

Some thought this all-new project might be a major blunder, but G-Force has produced a very neat open car. It was late appearing, so reliability is a major issue, and on pace the car trails its rivals. Only two of the new cars have been entered, but Nissan has also extended works support to one of the turbocharged C52s fielded by veteran French constructor Yves Courage.

Audi has made a big commitment to Le Mans. Its prototype has been in development for some time, and in need of some expertise, Audi hired Southgate as consultant.

“When I arrived on the scene they had three of these things lying around. It was a question of updating and developing them and I mucked in a bit on that. I’d only been there about two minutes when they said what we really want is a GT. It’s all been a bit mad really. The engine, gearbox, rear suspension and brakes are the same, but the rest is totally new.”

The closed R8C has been entrusted to Audi’s former BTCC team, under Le Mans expert Richard Lloyd. The car did not run until late April, and is far too new to make a real impression. The open R8R is a better bet; a Mk2 version finished on its debut at Sebring in March, while the Mk3 appeared at pre-qualifying.

“We are a year behind Toyota, Mercedes and BMW,” says Michele Alboreto. “But we proved in Sebring that we have a very reliable car. We might not have the quickest car on the track, but we really expect to finish.”

Among the non-works cars, the Panoz is sure to create the biggest stir. The familiar GT car is superseded this car by a bizarre-looking Spyder, which made its debut in the American series in mid-April. The 6-litre pushrod Ford V8 is looked upon very favourably by the rules; a generous restrictor makes it the most powerful car in the field, and a potent weapon for qualifying. A lower rev limit will slow it in race trim, but David Brabharn, Jan Magnussen and their colleagues could spring a surprise.

The top class is completed by various cars from the rapidly expanding ISRS series, including a pair of Ferrari 333SPs entered by Jean-Pierre Jabouille, several examples of the new Lola B98/10 (one with a potent Judd V10), and two Riley & Scotts. Two of last year’s BMWs, run by Dave Price, back up the works squad.

So who’s going to do it? It would be hard to bet against Toyota, given the team’s stunning debut showing last year, but one should never discount the might of Mercedes…