America's Most Pointless Le Mans Car Is Back

A Cadillac LMP-02 at Le Mans in 2002.
A Cadillac LMP-02 at Le Mans in 2002.
Photo: Getty Images

When you compete at the biggest sports car race of the year, you go there with a purpose or you might as well not go there at all. Audi set out to prove diesel could work as a modern kind of engine. It worked. (Maybe too well.) Ford set out to prove that corporate America could crush Europe again, just a few decades after World War II. It worked and they just made a movie about it. And in the turn of the millennium, Cadillac set out to prove, uh, something. It didn’t go great.

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Cadiilac LMPs in 2000.
Cadiilac LMPs in 2000.
Photo: Getty Images

The Cadillac LMP program ran for three years, 2000, 2001, and 2002, before GM abruptly pulled the plug on the thing having never even podiumed at La Sarthe. The General “unceremoniously canceled the program at the end of 2002 stating their goals had all been met,” as the excellent racing tech site Mulsanne’s Corner put it.

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Cadillac LMP-01 in 2001.
Cadillac LMP-01 in 2001.
Photo: Getty Images

To say the project was an abysmal failure would be a little bit vague. It finished worse than the rival programs of both Panoz, the absolutely most hard-headed Le Mans program in American history, and the Chrysler LMP project, which I don’t even know if Chrysler remembers at this point.

The Cadillac LMP was a bit of an odd duck, as it was a follow-up program to the Corvette Le Mans effort, even started by the same American Indy and sports car racing specialist Riley. The Corvette program quickly became legendarily good, both in that it was a dominating force for Le Mans wins in the actual sports car class below the prototypes, and in that it ran giant front-engine pushrod V8 cars that bellowed and sounded like nothing else in Europe at all. It waved the flag pretty well.

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Illustration for article titled Americas Most Pointless Le Mans Car Is Back
Illustration for article titled Americas Most Pointless Le Mans Car Is Back
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Illustration for article titled Americas Most Pointless Le Mans Car Is Back
Promo images of the Cadillac LMP-02 and... a mid-engine Corvette or something? I can’t recall. Photos: GM
Promo images of the Cadillac LMP-02 and... a mid-engine Corvette or something? I can’t recall. Photos: GM
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The Cadillac program did not stick with the idea of a lot of gumption and endless corporate resources could turn something old fashioned into something cool. The Cadillac didn’t use a pushrod V8, it had a twin-turbo quad-cam one. It wasn’t front-engine, it was mid-engine. It didn’t look like nothing else, it looked anonymous.

Contrasting that to, say, the wonderful front-engine Panoz prototype that never took over Le Mans results but captured its imagination, the Cadillac had no real chance to succeed. Even if it had won outright, it would have been by following the same basic formula as everyone knew could win. Look at the Peugeot 908. It beat Audi, but nobody really remembers it because it just... looked like an Audi, was built like an Audi, sounded like an Audi, and might as well have been one to any casual observer. There was nothing great about the Cadillac LMP program, aside from that there was very little that was good about it.

But apparently its final and best iteration is back on track, reportedly after 17 years away. This is the LMP-02 version, with design work by Nigel Stroud who penned the immortal Mazda 787B. Euro trackday and testing day specialist 19Bozzy92 caught the car on camera sharing Paul Ricard circuit with a bunch of other retired race cars (the Ferrari 333 SP among them), seemingly the start of a longer return:

(Since I’m pretty sure you’ll ask about that Cadillac, that was its first outing on track after 17 years of inactivity. It had some ECU issues so it wasn’t running at its best and you’ll notice some bad misfiring sound from the twin-turbo V8. It will be ready to race again in the future) ;)

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I can’t wait to see this spectacularly sisyphean car back out on track, reminding the world that there’s no good idea that GM can’t screw up.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

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DISCUSSION

I wouldn’t call it pointless. It was a good car with some interesting tech. Cadillac was making DOHC 32V V8s for years with the Northstar family and they claimed the race engine had its basis on that. They even installed a night vision heads up display, but apparently it was so distracting that drivers just ended up turning it off anyway.

But, it was a good effort. The real problem was that this was competing with an even-more-dominant-than-the-diesels LMP Audi. Audi annihilated everyone with the R8 with its sub 4L twin turbo and, more importantly, direct injected gas V8.

They were the first ones to use a modern, electronically controlled direct injected V8 in big time racing competition and it was utterly dominant. For those who don’t understand the concept, direct injection allows you to run either or both very high compression and turbo boost without pre-ignition since fuel can be injected directly into the combustion chamber and at the very last second.

The sanctioning bodies which the R8 competed full time (ACO for Le Mans and ALMS in the U.S.) kept on putting smaller and smaller air restrictors on the Audi, and it just didn’t matter. It kept on outperforming its competition by a significant margin.

I remember watching a race in 2004 or 5 at Portland where the lead Audi repeatedly got penalized for punting other cars off the track, at some point even going a lap down, it seemed like 2 or even 3 times they came back from the penalties to challenge for the lead again because that’s how much faster they were than everyone. Insane.

I was already turning into a VW/Audi fan at the time and seeing Audi come to dominate with new technology that was absolutely applicable to their future road cars just helped cement that for me. Audi started making road-going FSI/TFSI engines by 2004 along with VW, the R8 LMP race car had it in 2000, when it began its utter domination.

With that TFSI-powered R8, Audi won Le Mans every year but one from 2000 through 2005. And the one race they didn’t win was by a Bentley team, which was fully owned by VW/Audi by then and the race car was basically a closed top version of the Audi R8 LMP car anyway...

As usual with GM, that Cadillac LMP program was really starting to show some promising signs, and that’s precisely when GM killed it. At the same time, GM was having huge success in the GT1 class with the Corvette program, they probably figured that was better to continue sinking money into something that was already winning. But, seeing Cadillac go head to head with Audi on track certainly didn’t hurt the brand’s image. They were in the middle of attempting to give themselves a more sporting/performance image to attract a younger crowd that the Germans had long been getting. The CTS-V certainly helped turn their image around in that regard, and they raced that in SCCA World Challenge competition successfully too.

The Cadillac LMP was not a bad/pointless car, it just had near impossible to beat German competition that had found a hugely successful way to squeeze more performance out of an engine. The other thing that helped was it appeared to be built like a tank. Can’t recall how many times I saw the R8 get into skirmishes and the body damage would be minimal compared to whatever they punted. Plus, Audi’s mechanics at the track are very, very well trained and the car was designed pretty modularly for replacing huge sections of car quickly.

Audi would do drills with their mechanics frequently and it was astonishing to see this army of men swarm a car in the garage, everyone with an already figured out job and just banging out repairs stupid fast. The most infamous was early on in the R8's successful run, Audi knew the transmission was a weak point for them. They designed the transmission to come out with the whole rear body work and suspension attached, and then replace the entire “module”. They did have a transmission failure on one of their cars at Le Mans one year and the transmission along with that whole rear section of car was replaced in under 4 minutes. Let that sink in.

The ACO quickly banned replacing the entire transmission after that, and said transmissions must now be repaired. i.e. you can swap the gearset, but could not change the casing.

It seemed the R8's transmission reliability improved after that point anyway. But when they started with the diesel in 2006, they knew the transmission would be a weak point again since that V12 torquemonster of a diesel had over 800 ft-lbs of twist. So, they designed the transmission to be very fast and easy to swap the gearset.

Guess what happened? One of the R10 TDI transmissions failed at Le Mans in 2006... gearset was swapped in 10 minutes and car was back on the track.

THAT’s what Cadillac was up against. In an endurance race, especially a 24 hour one, a car that is not only reliable, but if it does have an issue, is fast to repair especially when the team takes the time to drill mechanics on any and every possible scenario that could happen during the race. That intense focus on preparation and training of EVERYONE on the Audi race team absolutely helped them in blowing everyone else out of the water, even when Peugeot had the obviously faster car in that 2007-2011 diesel battle, it often didn’t matter because the Audi’s were more reliable and could be repaired faster when they did break during a race.

That’s what Cadillac was up against in the early aughts... I wouldn’t call their efforts pointless, they were just up against competition that stepped the game up in every aspect and brought it to a level not seen before.