by Steve Erlichman
New season, new track and new cars
The 1998 FIA GT race at Homestead replaced 1997 host Sebring. Homestead was built by Miami GP founder Ralph Sanchez as a home for CART Indycar and NASCAR. The two mile oval incorporates a road course that is somewhat uninspiring (as most rovals are) even though there is a little bit of elevation change with a nice downhill righthander in the center. Total circuit length is 3.5km.
The speed of the GT1 cars was quite impressive but not as impressive as the F16s doing touch and go landings at Homestead Air Force Base just outside turn 4. The planes continuously banked steeply over the speedway while making as much noise as possible. Pilots waved from their cockpits as they did the banked turns about 200 feet off the ground.
The new season brings changes in GT1
The FIA GT Championship had seen some changes since the 1997 season. The McLaren F1 GTRs were gone and BMW pulled their support from the Bigazzi team to concentrate on their new Williams-designed LeMans prototype. The GTC McLaren team did not make the trip across the Atlantic to Homestead.
Porsche designed an all new GT1 car for 1998. The car was no longer based on the road going 993 series 911’s front end. Instead it had a full carbon tub with radical bodywork that looked very much like a full prototype. The engine was the familiar 3.2 liter twin turbo flat-6. Porsche also built two new GT1/98s for its customer team Zakspeed.
Mercedes-Benz AMG started the ’98 season with the V12-powered CLK-GTR that took both the ’97 Teams and Drivers championships.
Two CLK-GTRs were also allocated to the Persson Team (a former DTM partner). The Persson cars featured great decoration with the bodywork a medium blue showing a cutaway of the 6.0 liter V12 on the engine cover. The entire car looked like an official Mercedes Benz Parts box with the Mercedes Original Teile sponsorship.
A pair of Panoz GTRs returned to the series entered by the DAMS team although Lotus did not return for the 1998 season.
GT2 lines up strong too
The GT1 field was reduced for 1997 but GT2 was still strong with lots of Porsche 911 GT2 Evos from teams such as Konrad, Seikel, Roock, Haberthur and Freisinger. ORECA was back with their Vipers and a strong driver lineup. Adding color to the GT2 field were the two Marcos LM600s entered by Harold Becker’s Dutch team. There was also a Saleen Mustang entered by GP Motors but due to an accident in practice it did not start the race.
Mercedes changes cars mid-season
Mercedes-AMG parked their CLK-GTRs after winning the Silverstone 6 Hour. They were replaced by the new CLK-LM built for LeMans 24 Hours. It was an updated version of the 1997 GTR and featured a V8 based on the road going S-Class engine. It was lighter and more responsive than the monster V12 when shorn of its turbos and enlarged to 5.9 liters .
Debuting a brand new car at LeMans was brave. Bernd Schneider put it on the pole for LeMans although an engine issue put him out after only 19 laps. The second Mercedes soon followed.
AMG decided that the CLK-LM would be the weapon to defend their FIA GT Championship despite the humiliation at LeMans.
Two cars each from the factory Porsche and Mercedes teams, plus two each from Persson, Zakspeed and DAMS filled out the GT1 field at Homestead. GT2 was mostly 911 GT2 Evos. The Chamberlain team entered an additional Viper and Marcos added two of their cars to the mix.
One of the Zakspeed 911 GT1s crashed heavily in practice and did not start the race. This reduced the GT1 starting field to just 9 cars.
Mercedes on pole
Bernd Schneider put the number 1 CLK-LM on the pole for the 500km race and the GT2 pole was taken by Pedro Lamy in the number 51 ORECA Viper. A field of 26 roared past the green flag and headed into the infield turn one.
The race was uneventful with only one caution period. The number 2 Ludwig/Zonta CLK-LM was the winning car and the podium was filled out by the Porsche 911GT1/98s of Muller-Alzen and McNish-Dalmas.
GT2 winners were the ORECA Viper of Lamy-Beretta with the Roock Racing 911 GT2 Evo of Hurtgen-Ortelli in 2nd. The Marcos of Euser, Becker and Vann finished 3rd. Eighteen cars saw the checkered flag after 3 hours of racing in the Florida sunshine.
The final race of the season was at Laguna Seca and again Mercedes-AMG clinched their second Teams and Driver’s Championships with Klaus Ludwig and Ricardo Zonta. Indeed the Mercedes-AMG squad won every race in the 1998 Championship. The ORECA squad also repeated their GT2 Championship with the Beretta/Lamy Viper.
This would be the swan song for GT1 in the championship. The GT1 cars would be eligible to run one more year (at LeMans only) in 1999.
The 1999 Mercedes-AMG squad really pushed boundaries with their all new (but aero flawed) CLR. This resulted in three blow-over accidents at LeMans and the withdrawal of the entire team from the race on safety grounds.
1999 was the final year of the FIA GT Championship with a diminished field because GT1 cars had been banned.
The ORECA Viper squad would make it three GT2 Championships in a row in 1999. The ORECA Vipers continued to race at LeMans, in Grand-Am and ALMS series’ here in the U.S. and the Vipers won the 2000 Rolex 24 at Daytona overall.
I’m glad I attended the 1998 FIA GT race at Homestead. It’s been the only race I’ve seen at the track.
For more about the 1998 FIA GT championship, click here.
For more racing history, click here.