1997 Sebring FIA GT Race

Heavy-hitting teams with super cars

by Steve Erlichman

The 1997 Sebring FIA GT Race brought international endurance racing back to the U.S. for the first time since 1981. What brought top level endurance racing back to the U.S. after such a long break?

The rebirth of modern GT endurance racing took place in 1994 with the first BPR Global Endurance Series race. The name BPR stood for long time Porsche customer sport director Jurgen Barth, LeMans winning driver/race organizer Patrick Peter and racing director at Venturi cars Stefan Ratel. The three got together to keep endurance racing going after the death of Group C prototype racing. LeMans had done its best to keep their race alive following the demise of Group C. They even allowed prototypes to race as “GT” cars in 1994. The ACO/LeMans organizers let them run as long as at least one street version was built. But these were race cars adapted for the street.

What BPR wanted was road cars adapted as race cars. Costs were lower as teams used customer versions of race cars such as the Porsche 911 GT2, Ferrari F355, etc. This formula worked and the BPR series had much success from ’94-’96 when the manufacturers took notice.

Porsche wanted to compete again at the highest level of endurance racing. Porsche used the 993 generation 911 front end and the 962 prototype back end to create the 1996 911 GT1.

McLaren produced 64 of the F1 road cars (the first hyper car). In 1995 McLaren built a limited run of GTR racing versions and took them to LeMans. JJ Lehto, Masanori Sekiya and Yannick Dalmas won overall with another F1 GTR coming second. 

Both brands raced in the BPR series.

How they did it

BPR created a 2-class format for its series. GT1 for road car based racers. GT2 for homologated FIA GT2 class cars of which there were a bunch available. Porsche ran two 911 GT1s at LeMans in ’96 and finished 2nd and 3rd behind the TWR Porsche WSC Spider. McLaren F1’s were 4th, 5th and 6th.

With the success of this new breed of GT1 cars in both the BPR series and at LeMans, the FIA took notice and established an international FIA GT Championship for 1997. The new FIA GT Championship became a world championship since it went to the U.S., Japan, Finland, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Italy and England.

There would be eleven races for the 1997 season.

1997 Sebring FIA GT RaceEuropean manufacturers jump in with both feet

BMW took over the official McLaren squad. It was actually run for BMW Motorsport by Bigazzi Racing. They brought some big name drivers to play: Soper, Stuck, Lehto, Ravaglia, and Kox.

Porsche entered two Evo versions of their GT1 cars with drivers Wollek, McNish, Dalmas, Boutsen and Kelleners.

Daimler-Benz decided in November ’96 to move the resources used in the DTM to this new series but a car was needed. HWA created one of the greatest endurance race cars in history in just 120 days. The resulting CLK-GTR used a carbon tub built by Lola Composites and the venerable 6 liter V12 engine from the S600 road car.

1997 Sebring FIA GT RaceThe engine made a conservative 600HP, which was the power limit for the new series. A sexy body that resembled the newly launched CLK Coupe road car (complete with a Mercedes grille and 3-Pointed Star hood ornament) had all the looks of a prototype sports racer. AMG already had DTM Champ Bernd Schneider on the roster to which they added veteran Klaus Ludwig, ex-F1 star Alessandro Nannini, Bernd Maylander, Marcel Tiemann and Alex Wurz.

The requirement for the manufacturers was to build 25 road car versions of these GT1 racers. McLaren had already built 64 of the road going F1, 25 short-tail GTRs, and 15 long-tail LM models. Porsche built 25 GT1 Evos for the street and AMG-HWA built 20 CLK-GTR Coupes and 5 Roadsters. 

The Americans were not far behind

1997 Sebring FIA GT RaceBorn in the USA was a new limited production Ford-powered sports car from  pharmaceutical magnate Dr. Don Panoz. The car design came from the drawing board of Adrian Reynard. Two teams of GT1 Panoz GTRs contested the new series. England’s Dave Price Racing ran one team. The French DAMS squad was the second team. Drivers included David Brabham, Perry McCarthy, Eric Bernard.

Additional GT1 cars came from customer Porsche teams running the ’96 car. Two customer teams ran McLaren F1 GTRs, now in long-tail LM spec. Even Lotus got into the GT1 act with a wild Elise run by the GBF Team, a subsidiary of the Benetton F1 Team.

Chrysler decided for the GT2 class that a truck-based 8 liter V10 in their Viper would make a great endurance racing engine. A brace of Viper GTS-Rs were entered by the French Oreca team and Chamberlain Racing also entered a single Viper.

There were a bunch of teams running the Porsche 911 GT2 Evo. There was a Calloway Corvette and other brands such as Morgan, TVR and Marcos. etc. Race entries over 30 were the norm.

The 1997 Sebring FIA GT Race
1997 Sebring FIA GT Race

The new championship pitched up at Sebring International Raceway and we were there. The weather did not cooperate much as the heat was oppressive and there was a biblical rain storm early in the 3 hour race. JJ Lehto had placed his McLaren on pole with Schneider’s CLK-GTR next to him. Mercedes-AMG had added rising young Canadian Indycar star Greg Moore to their 3 car squad and he shared the #12 CLK-GTR with Alex Wurz. 

As 29 cars took the green flag Steve Soper’s pole-sitting McLaren tapped Schneider at the first turn and spun him. Nannini’s CLK-GTR inherited the lead. Schneider then tore through the field from the rear to assume the lead on the 19th lap, which he would not relinquish. The rain subsided and the heat returned. Twenty minutes from the finish an engine fire took out the Lehto/Soper McLaren. At the end of the 3 hours it was the Schneider/Ludwig CLK-GTR in 1st with the Kox/Ravaglia McLaren 2nd and the Panoz of Brabham and Bernard in 3rd. In fourth was the Dalmas/Wollek 911 GT1. Winners in GT2 were the Oreca Viper team of Beretta and Gache ahead of their teammates Bell and Archer.

The next round at Laguna Seca was the final race of the Championship. Bernd Schneider needed only to score 1 point to clinch his first international championship after five DTM titles. He duly won the race and the title. JJ Lehto was 2nd, his co-driver Steve Soper 3rd. Klaus Ludwig was 4th. AMG-Mercedes took the Teams title. 

The Oreca Viper team took the GT2 Teams title while Justin Bell took the GT2 Driver’s title. 

Epilogue

For 1998 the series lost the factory BMW McLaren squad but customer teams carried on. The Mercedes CLK-GTR evolved into the lighter V8-powered CLK-LM. Porsche evolved too bringing the famous Porsche 911 GT1-98 to the series.

The championship would again return to the U.S. with a race at Homestead Miami Speedway and again at Laguna Seca. It would be a playground for the Mercedes-AMG squad who won every race.

You can watch a video from the race here.

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Some great photos from the 1997 Sebring FIA GT Race