Today's supercars like the Porsche 918, McLaren P1, and LaFerrari do not compete in motorsports. There was a time, however, when the fastest street cars challenged each other at the most important sports car race in the world.
I'm talking about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the now-famed GT series of the 1990s. From '94 through '98, GT cars ruled sports car racing, beating prototype cars for overall wins at Le Mans and filling up huge fields with cars that the public could buy. It was a brief revival of a classic era of motorsports, and it was killed off by one cunning manufacturer getting too good at what it did.
First, there was the BPR Global GT Series from '94 through '96. It filled a gap in sports car racing, which had been withering away since the FIA basically killed off the legendary prototype era of Group C in 1992. As people around the circuits remember, BRP Global GT was a relaxed kind of series — more of an excuse to race privately-entered Porsches than anything else. Informal as it started out, the series quickly grew into a complete powerhouse. At BPR's high point in 1996, as motorsports photographer John Brooks remembered, 54 GT supercars lined up for one race, representing 11 different car companies: McLaren, Lotus, Ferrari, Porsche, Marcos, Callaway, Venturi, TVR, Jaguar, Vertigo and Morgan. That then morphed into the FIA GT Series starting in '97. FIA GT ran until 2009, and then everything devolved into a gigantic mess of GT1, GT2, GT3, GT4, GTE cars.
We put up a class-by-class guide right here, though the long and short of it is that international sports car racing is focused on GT3 cars of Porsche 911s, V8 Astons, and all the junior midengine Ferraris and Audis and Lamborghinis around. Those are all well and good, but they're not really the biggest, baddest road cars around, like we got in the '90s.
But before we cover the '90s glory years, let's look back to the 1960s and '70s, where the later cars set their roots.
Back in the 1950s, you didn't really have a division between GT and prototypes. The governing body of motorsports, the FIA, declared that only road-legal cars could compete, so you could say that only GT cars raced and no prototypes were allowed. What constituted a road-legal car back in the '50s, however, was not exactly strictly defined. The cars that raced at the top of the field were basically all lightly-restricted prototypes.
Things changed in the early '60s, when the FIA created a formal division between special-built prototype race cars and very fast modified road cars. This is when the FIA created separate categories for prototype cars built in extremely limited numbers, and GT cars built from series production models. It was actually a bit of a complicated birth, with a number of protests from individual race track organizers and a few years of a doomed split-off series, and you can check out this excellent book on Alfa's contemporary sports car program for some more details.
There are two key points you need to know to understand the birth of ultra fast GT cars in the 1960s. First, to enter a top-level GT racing car, you had to prove to the FIA that you'd built at least 25 road cars for sale. Second, starting in 1967 the FIA started putting limits on the engine size of prototype cars, in an effort to keep racing speeds from getting too dangerous.
What this meant that if you wanted to win at a big endurance race like Le Mans, you could either build a just a handful of small-engined prototype cars, but if you could build 25 of them, you could get away with sticking a bigger engine under the hood. This is why Ford won Le Mans — the GT40 was built like a prototype car, but it was allowed a big five liter V8 because Ford had manufactured enough GT40s for them to count as GT sports cars. Porsche quickly got the message and switched from running a handful of three-liter 908 prototypes to building 25 copies of 4.5- and then 4.9-liter 917s.
[Homologation-special 917s outside the Porsche factory, 1969. Photo Credit: Porsche]
This big engine GT/small engine prototype distinction established in the '60s not only created legendary cars like the GT40 and 917, but it also defined exactly how things worked in the 1990s. Naturally, it took a few years for one company to really get smart about things.
The creation of a new GT racing series in the 1990s was a response to the heavy shift towards expensive prototype cars in the 1980s. Like in the 1960s, the rules governing the 1990s GT category were looser than those for prototypes, encouraging companies to enter cars like you'd see on the road. The early entries were stunning.
[A Lister Storm leads a Porsche 911 GT2 at Daytona 1996. Photo Credit: Getty]
There was the Lister Storm, a front-engined British revival of the old '60s brand. These cars had heavily worked Jaguar V12s up front and had huge power. Seven liters, well over five hundred horsepower and not quite six hundred pounds feet of torque.
[A Venturi 600 LM races at Le Mans 1994. Photo Credit: Getty]
There was the French Venturi, with their 400 GTR, 500LM and then 600LM cars. They had mid-mounted PRV V6s (like you'd find in a DeLorean), with twin Garrett turbos boosted up to 400, 500 and ultimately 600 horsepower. These things had fiberglass bodies and weighed right around the minimum regulated weight of 1100 kilos, but were never extraordinarily successful.
[Note the LM's new headlights, front and rear wings, and a hood vent. Photo Credit: Ferrari]
Ferrari ran the F40 as a racing car as well, with an LM model and a later Evoluzione variant developed by Ferrari's outside sports car racing, Michelotto. Supposedly, the F40 LM managed to get 850 or 900 horsepower out of its twin-turbo V8s in its ultimate iterations.
[Two 911 GT2 Evos at Laguna Seca 1997. Photo Credit: Getty]
Porsche built up their air-cooled 993 to probably its ultimate spec: the GT2 and later GT2 Evo, ran in '95. Twin KKK turbos gave 600 horsepower out of the 3.6 liter flat six at 7,000 rpm. There was dry sump lubrication, but still only two valves per cylinder. Weight was the minimum-allowed 1100 kilos, top speed with the huge wing, bulged fenders, and gigantic slick tires was an estimated 310 km/h.
[One of the seven McLaren F1 GTRs that ran Le Mans 1995. Photo Credit: Getty]
The first of two game changers for GT racing, the first to bring down the series, was the McLaren F1. Designed to be the best road car possible, Gordon Murray and his team at McLaren ended up with a car perfectly suited for racing. There was a hugely powerful 627 horsepower BMW V12 sitting in a stiff, light, carbon fiber chassis. It was actually McLaren F1 customers, not McLaren itself, that first wanted to go racing. McLaren claims that their buyers planned on racing the cars themselves, so the company figured they might as well do things properly with their own factory program.
Much as the F1 road car was a significant step ahead of its competition, the race car blew past everyone else in the field. Not just the field in its GT1 category, but in the prototype cars as well. The F1 won Le Mans overall in '95, its first attempt.
This wasn't just a win for the team, it was a win for the sport. The regulations that sought to bring GT racing back to Le Mans had worked perfectly, and people still remember the production McLaren's '95 victory over the faster, more fragile purpose-built competition.
[The winning Ueno Clinic-backed McLaren. Note all the BMW graphics. Photo Credit: BMW]
Porsche wasn't exactly happy about how things were going for them at Le Mans. The McLaren F1 (as well as the upgraded Ferrari F40 LMs) had made their 911s obsolete, and they needed something new. What they came up followed the letter of the rules, but broke them in spirit.
Just like they did in the 1960s, Porsche designed a prototype car and entered it in the looser GT category. They called it the 911 GT1, but the only thing '911' in the car was the steel front end. The twin turbo flat six engine came from their old Group C prototypes and the chassis was all new.
[This 911 GT1 finished third at Le Mans 1996. Its sister GT1 came second overall, first in class. The Porsche-powered TWR prototype in this picture won outright. Photo Credit: Getty]
You may be wondering how Porsche got away with racing a prototype car in a GT series. Well, at the time Porsche's Director of the Customer Competitions Department was Jürgen Barth. Barth had won Le Mans for Porsche back in the '70s, Barth's father had raced with Porsche, and Barth was also the 'B' in BPR Global GT. There may have been a slight conflict of interest there.
Porsche had to prove that the GT1 was a road car, so they made a (barely) street-legal version called the Strassenversion. Literally, 'street version.' How many examples did Porsche build in their first year? Two. Not only did they get away with calling that a road car, the organizers set the due date for the road car homologation after the conclusion of the championship. In a series meant for road cars turned into racing cars, Porsche was getting away with taking a racing car and dressing it up like a street car.
And man, it totally worked. In its debut 1996 season, the 911 GT1 walked away from all the other GT cars, even the McLarens. The GT1 drove like it was in a different class altogether.
What does that mean? Tiff Needell, then a presenter for Top Gear as well as a GT1 driver for Lister, actually did a road test of the car back when it was new. Here's that review on YouTube.
Tiff called the car powerful, but like a racing driver would, he got caught up in the setup. The gearing was too short for the circuit, the ride too stiff. That's what you get when you're working with an adjustable racing car. It's easy to get things adjusted wrong.
EVO's Henry Catchpole also drove one of these GT1s at Porsche's own test track and had a bit more of a road driver's perspective.
He was pretty much blown away. Compared to any prototype racer, the GT1 was par for the course. Compared to any other road car and it becomes hugely powerful, unbelievably direct, and completely absorbing.
In short, the GT1 drives like the prototype that it was.
Naturally, the other teams weren't exactly happy about this. In 1997, the 'P' in BPR left, the series turned into FIA GT, and the fall away from true GT cars began in earnest.
McLaren comprehensively revised the F1, first with small things. In 1996, for instance, the company convinced their sponsor Gulf Oil to let them change from a metallic to a solid blue, which weighed less. McLaren was getting closer to the Porsche's speed. Watch this incredible battle in the '96 Le Mans and you'll see what I mean.
Things got serious for McLaren in 1997, when they turned their GTR into a prototype-aping longtail. They cut an amazing 10% of the weight out of the car, a 98 kilo loss down to 915kg. They even had BMW cut the engine size from 6.6 down to 6 liters so they could use bigger air restrictors. I'll quote this line from McLaren's engineer/mad genius Gordon Murray to explain it all.
Porsche built a racing car and forced us to do [the Long Tail]. But once the new Porsche had been admitted to the BPR races it was plain that the writing was on the wall. Our purebred road-going, production based cars with their long travel, high camber change suspension and limited downforce had been leapfrogged. We had to respond.
Nissan, partnered with the reigning Le Mans champions at TWR, more conceptually copied Porsche's idea of a homologation special. Like Porsche, their road-car Skyline GTRs had been getting whupped in the GT category. Also like Porsche, they switched to building a prototype-style car with enough privately sold 'street versions' to homologate the car for GT1 racing.
[Nissan's R390 GT1 testing in '97. Yes, those are 300ZX headlights. Photo Credit: Nissan]
It was called the R390 GT1. Le Mans legend Tony Southgate designed the carbon fiber car with, again like Porsche, Nissan's old Group C prototype engine in the middle. It was an aluminum 3.5 liter V8 with around 640 horsepower in race trim, 550 on the street.
[The start of Le Mans 1997. Photo Credit: Nissan]
You can see the Nissan in this picture of the start of the '97 24 Hours of Le Mans. It's behind one of the TWR-Porsche prototypes that won the race, which is next to Porsche's revised 911 GT1 that would win in '98, which is next to Ferrari's 333 SP prototype. The Ferrari never claimed top honors at LM.
Year later, McLaren ended up buying the rights to this engine, and developed it into the basis for their current 12C and P1 cars. It's a small world.
[The extremely inset interior of one of the two road car R390s. Photo Credit: Nissan]
In any case, Nissan only built two road car versions of the R390, one of which has never left Nissan's ownership. That was still enough to qualify it for Le Mans and the GT1 series.
[Mercedes' CLK GTR program went on to dominate every race except the one it needed to win. Photo Credit: Mercedes]
The next name to get involved was Mercedes. Now, my source for most of this information is the great John Brooks, longtime motorsports photographer and official shooter for FIA GT racing. He can explain how Mercedes got into GT1 better than I can, so here's a quote from a Speedhunters retrospective he did years back. Yes, the king muppet bribery payoff FIA master Bernie Ecclestone shows up in this story.
Running parallel to the BPR/911 GT1 saga was the issue of what to do with the 1997 FIA International Touring Car Championship or ITC. The ITC was an amazing competition with purpose built high-tech tin-top racers from Opel, Alfa Romeo and Mercedes Benz featuring a star studded line up of drivers. During 1996 it had 26 races at 13 events and was arguably the fastest FIA Championship outside of F1. The problem was that the costs of this form of racing was huge, massive and completely out of proportion to any measurable marketing return, so after one year Alfa and Opel said goodbye, leaving Mercedes holding the baby. You can almost hear the telephone conversation that autumn……………
Norbert Haug [motorsports boss at Mercedes -ed.]: "Bernie, can you help? I have persuaded the Board to spend the money on developing the '97 ITC car and now what? Come on work with me………."
Bernie Ecclestone: "Norbert, don't worry, I have an idea…………….now where did I put Ratel's business card?"
Now, I may have given Porsche and Nissan some grief about how little homologation went into their homologation specials, but Mercedes completely outdid them both. Mercedes had Lola Composites build them an all-carbon chassis and AMG stuck a tuned 6.0 liter version of their M120 V12 in it. You may have heard this V12 humming at the front of an SL600 or bellowing from 7.3 liters in the back of a Pagani. It's the same basic motor.
[A view of the proportions and the complexity of the CLK GTR. Photo Credit: Mercedes]
Mercedes was so lax about homologation, they didn't even build their road cars to the same spec as the race cars. Even Porsche complained that Mercedes was breaking the rules, and that's saying something.
What the road-going Mercedes were was common, at least compared to the other GT1 homologation specials. Mercedes built at least a couple dozen of these things. They cost a shocking one million pounds, and that was just for the coupe. The Affalterbach factory also churned out six roadsters.
[The hilariously thrown-together interior of the CLK GTR road car. Photo Credit: Mercedes]
I've seen one of these things in person. The scale of the car, coupled with its tiny not-quite luxury interior and even tinier stubby gearshift is oddly hilarious.
Were they very good at being a road car? As this Top Gear test shows, no.
They're too wide, to rough, too tight, too loud, too race car to work as any kind of personal transportation. But compared to any other road-legal machine, they are unbelievably fast. Top speed knocked at the door of 200 miles an hour and the interior came with leather.
[Toyota at Le Mans, 1998. Photo Credit: Getty]
Toyota later followed in 1998 with their GT-One, a car designed with the sole purpose of winning at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. As you can see, it is as stunning a car today as it was over fifteen years ago.
[Note the fantastic cutouts on the inside of the front fenders. Photo Credits: Toyota]
If it wasn't clear already, the GT-One was just a prototype racer that only barely met the qualifications of the GT1 category. For instance, the organizers at Le Mans require that every car competing must have room for luggage in the car. It's a tradition, and a throwback to when all cars that raced there were functional road cars. Toyota did not have any luggage space in the GT-One, but they argued that their gas tank met the requirement. It had room for a suitcase, they convinced the organizers, if you emptied it out.
As you can imagine, designing and building prototype racers masquerading as road cars wasn't cheap. Budgets blew out of proportion, and by 1999, the serious Le Mans-winning efforts just spent their money making all-out prototypes. BMW just barely beat Toyota in '99 with their V12 LMR and then Audi began their era of domination still with us today. The had actually planned a GT1 version of the TT, but scrapped it believing some changes to the FIA's regulations favored open-topped prototypes over GTs.
But those few years when homologation specials filled the grids at Silverstone, Spa, La Sarthe and wherever else did give the world some absolutely fantastic racing.
Lotus pulled the V8 out of their Esprit GT1 car and crammed it into a stretched Elise in '97. It was a Hennessey Venom before the Hennessey Venom.
American racing magnate Don Panoz fielded the Panoz Esperante GTR-One, a batmobile of a car. It's front-engined, but the layout was so extreme you could almost call it a midengine car with the driver stuck behind the motor.
Porsche, Nissan, Mercedes, McLaren, Toyota — they all fielded factory teams trading wins back and forth, updating their cars as the races went on. Every year, each car came back revised and updated in some form of evolution.
The 911 GT1 lost all of its road-car components and when it won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1998, it was a prototype in everything but name.
The CLK GTR turned into the CLR LM in '98, losing its V12 for an even more specialized, even more powerful V8. That car won every championship race that year and only missed out on Le Mans. It never got the glory, it just pissed off all of its rival teams.
And the racing itself was spectacular. For evidence, look at the flips.
Porsche flipped at Road Atlanta in 1998, all caught on camera
and Mercedes flipped multiple times from practice through the race at the 1999 Le Mans. The very worst takeoff was down the Mulsanne Straight, when Peter Dumbreck took off and tumbled end over end into the forest lining the circuit.
These looked like crashes from an earlier era of motorsports, something like Lucky Hans' death-defying tumble at AVUS 1959.
No one was harmed, but it goes to show how these teams were absolutely pushing the boundaries of what they could do.
The series may have been killing itself with high costs, but it was great while it lasted.
[A Toyota GT-One belches fire at Le Mans '98. Photo Credit: Getty]
What's weird about GT1 is how great it was for the fans, and how doomed it was as a series. Every good element of a racing series was there:
great cars (not just powerful, but close to what you could get in a showroom)
This was a just like how things were during one of the last great eras of motorsports, Le Mans in the 1960s. The problem is that GT1 repeated the failures of the '60s — allowing the wonderfully entertaining but series-destroying loophole of homologation specials.
The cars got better and better, but they cost more and more until one team prices the series out of competition.
This sets up a conflict: the desires of the racing fan don't match up with the desires or the health of the racing series. It's a very worrying thought that great racing series are self-destructive.
How exactly the FIA could close that loophole I do not know. But I am fairly certain that they have the tools to bring the series back if they want to. I can hear the hybrid trio of the LaFerrari, McLaren P1, and Porsche 918 scratching at the door of Le Mans as we speak, wishing to challenge the old hat Audis with 900+ horsepower figures.
It might not last forever, but what a show it would be.
I highly encourage you to read through Speedhunters' archived retrospectives on 1990s Le Mans racing and the GT1 cars that ever so briefly dominated there. Longtime motorsports photographer John Brooks briefly served as the official shooter of the FIA GT series and he wrote the better part of these articles a few years ago. They stand up with fantastic pictures and on-the-ground insight.