I’m angry. I’m not angry because coronavirus has kept us all inside for weeks and my favourite week of the year, the Le Mans 24 Hours – a controversial opinion for someone who works at Goodwood I know – has been postponed. No, I’m angry because you all keep getting it wrong. People are wrong on so many things in this world. But they are egregiously wrong on the subject of the Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR.
Why you’re wrong about the Mercedes‑Benz CLK GTR
You see, the CLK GTR is an awesome car. Perhaps the very apex of GT1 development in the late 1990s. The car that was so good in fact that it, and the following CLK LM, which I will get onto in a bit, basically killed GT1.
What the CLK GTR is not, is the Mercedes-Benz CLR. And therefore what it is also not, is a car that flipped at Le Mans. We get so many comments on videos, pictures, or articles about racing CLKs, making hur-hur jokes about the CLK GTR ‘flying’ or being ‘great if you want to fly’ that it’s getting tiresome pointing out how wrong people are. In very simple terms, the CLK GTR never flipped, nor did the CLK LM. Their successor, the CLR, flipped. It flipped more than once in fact.
What makes this worse is that the CLK GTR/LM and CLR are not even built to the same regulations. The older cars (GTR and LM) are GT1 cars, built to a set of rules that required road car relationships. The CLR is an LMGTP car, a car which has some vague notion of road heritage through its lights and grille, but which to all intents and purposes is a prototype.
Let’s start at the very beginning. The CLK GTR was Mercedes-Benz’s return to sportscar racing for the first time since the Group C days. The popularity of the BPR Endurance series, filled with racing versions of road cars that people loved (McLaren F1 GTR, Ferrari F40 LM, Porsche 911 GT1) enticed Mercedes back after the old DTM (Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft) and ITCC (International Touring Car Championship) had folded in 1996. Merc had a bunch of engineers twiddling their thumbs and BPR had been taken in as an official FIA series to become the FIA GT Championship. Rather than racing Alfa Romeo and Opel, Mercedes now had a chance to go after the likes of Porsche and Ferrari.
The very first CLK GTR prototype was a McLaren F1 GTR longtail with modifications. If you search there are pictures of this unicorn around. It was eventually crashed in a test, and is now an F1 GTR again (more’s the pity we say). But it took Mercedes just 128 days to complete the first two proper prototypes. And just a few months after the DTM had folded the first CLK GTRs were lining up on the grid for the 1997 FIA GT season. What happened next makes the GTR one of the true sportscar greats.
Until this point FIA GT/BPR had been going great, with an awesome mix of cars battling it out around the world. Then the CLK GTR turned up. In 22 races over two seasons it won 17 races, two teams titles and two drivers’ championships. It was one of the most dominant motorsport performances of all time, matched perhaps only recently by Audi’s utter ownership of Le Mans in the 2000s or Mercedes (again) in the F1 hybrid era.
After winning the title for the first time the team decided that the Le Mans 24 was also on the cards. So for 1998 they developed the CLK LM. It ditched the stunning M120 6.0-litre V12 that the GTR used, Mercedes believing it not up to the rigors of a full 24 hour race. Instead they used the M119 5.0-litre V8 that had previously been found in the Sauber C9 and C11. The C9 being the last Merc-badged car to win Le Mans. Like its sister car the LM was immediately fast. Qualifying on pole for its debut race (the ’98 Le Mans 24). But then it all unraveled. The V8 engine didn’t have the bullet-proof reliability Mercedes had expected. Both cars were out within the first few hours of the race.
In 1999 no one wanted to compete against the CLK GTR in the GT1 class of the FIA GT Championship and, after Mercedes were the only team to enter, the class was ditched. Mercedes had, in a way that feels very similar to F1 in the 2010s, turned up, blitzed the field, and killed the class.
GT1 was dead then. With the FIA GT Championship now run exclusively for GT2 cars, the ACO, the body which runs the Le Mans 24, elected to develop a new class. Called LMGTP it was a sort of mix between GT1 and the ACO’s fledgling LMP prototype class. Similar to the hypercar class regulations that are set to come into existence soon (who knows when) this meant the cars could look like road cars, but still be full racing prototypes underneath.
Thus the CLR appeared to the public in February 1999. Looking like a CLK GTR that had been on an extreme diet, the CLR was sleek, and low. Very much the prototype racer rather than a road car design.
Le Mans was to be the cars debut – there was no longer really any other races for Mercedes to race its top-level sportscars in. Most of the old GT1 manufacturers had slunk away with the end of GT1. But Toyota remained, determined to finally win the big race with its stunning GT-One/TS020. Audi was also on the scene, running two very different cars to two different sets of regulations. A very German way of prepping for a decade of domination by testing which class would actually survive. Porsche, the winners in 1998 had left to develop a car to LMP regulations (a car that was killed by Audi’s involvement). BMW had joined the fray a few years earlier, and were chasing victory with an LMP car and a stellar driver lineup including one-time Le Mans winner Tom Kristensen (whatever happened to him?).
And that was where disaster struck for Mercedes. Some inside the team began again to wonder if the Le Mans 24 was a cursed race for them. 44 years after the Le Mans disaster ended Mercedes’s racing programmes almost for good and banned motorsport in some countries, the three-pointed star’s cars were again causing extreme concern. First the CLR suffered a suspension failure at the traditional Le Mans test day, nothing massive to worry about. Then in practice the programme began to unravel. Mark Webber was piloting the No.4 car behind the Audi R8R of Frank Biela on the way from Mulsanne Corner to Indianapolis when he found himself rotating end over end. The car had taken off when he pulled out of the Audi’s slipstream.
Sportscars taking off is nothing new and wasn’t then. Sure it worried the team, but it had happened before. Porsche’s 911 GT1 had done it at Road Atlanta for example. Webber was OK and the team pushed ahead. The No.4 car was unable to qualify but the No.5 was to start the race in seventh and the No.6 in fourth. Then it happened again. To the same driver, but in a different place. In morning warm-up Webber crested the hill on the famous Mulsanne straight and the nose of the car went. This time it landed on its roof and skidded to a halt into the run off area. The no.4 car was withdrawn from the race and Webber walked away from Le Mans, at this point apparently for good. Mercedes were now seriously worried. So worried they even called Adrian Newey, who worked for the Mercedes-engined McLaren team at the time, to see if he had any thoughts on how they could modify the CLR to prevent more incidents.
The other drivers were consulted. Christophe Bouchut said he had concerns about the nose lifting, but his team-mates Nick Heidfeld and Peter Dumbreck, and the three drivers of the third CLR said they hadn’t felt the same problem. The CLR would race with new dive planes and fenders to try and increase front downforce at the expense of top speed. And then came the race, lap 76, Dumbreck somersaulting off the track into the trees live on television, an incredible escape and the withdrawal of the final CLR.
The CLR had ended Mercedes’ sportscar programme. It had cemented a reputation so bad that Mercedes did not want to return. And it had cursed a legendary machine to be constantly associated with a failure it never shared.
The CLK GTR won nearly 80 per cent of the races it entered. It dominated GT racing and deserves to be remembered for that for the rest of time. The CLR, as cool as it looks, was a failure and should be remembered that way. But the CLR is not a CLK GTR or CLK LM. So please could we all start remembering that? Even if you do it just for me.
Images courtesy of Motorsport Images.
Which do you prefer: the CLK GTR or the CLR?
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