IT’S LE MANS WEEK!!!! I’ve got a lot to pack in here this week after last week went to hell, so here we go!
When the rest of the world was bending over backwards to build wild rules-bending prototype coupes and call them “production based” in mad attempts to win Le Mans, BMW rather quietly hatched another plan. They called up a Formula One constructor, had them build a higher drag open cockpit roadster that fit tidily within the rules, painted it boring white and put a 6.0L V12 in it. You know, for fuel efficiency. Downright responsible.
Of course, it helped that the F1 constructor is none other than Williams Grand Prix Engineering, and that the V12 is an updated version of BMW’s almighty S70/2 from the McLaren F1...
By 1998, BMW had committed to their Formula One program with Williams, to begin in 2000. In the meantime, they worked together on the very creatively named V12 LM, this car’s predecessor, which ran in 1998 and failed miserably for a variety of reasons. Unfazed, they went back to the drawing board to create the LMR for 1999. It used the same basic mechanical package as the LM, that being the 580hp V12, X-trac 6-speed sequential transaxle, and pushrod suspension, but completely reworked the carbon & aluminum tub, cooling systems (a weakness on the ‘98 LM), and aero. It’s a pretty boring design on the face of it, but the roll hoop was unique in only covering the driver’s width, as Williams found a small loophole that allowed a single hoop instead of a full-width structure (as on the LM, and the TWR-Porsche I featured recently). This gave cleaner air to the rear wing, and at least mitigated the drag penalty of the open bodywork somewhat. The car came in well under the 900kg minimum, allowing ballast to be added in strategic locations to bring it up to fighting weight.
Four chassis were built, with #004 becoming the Jenny Holzer Art Car. Chassis 001 & 002 debuted at Sebring in 1999, run by Schnitzer under the factory banner, with 001's career coming to a premature end, as it crashed severely enough to render the tub irreparable. 002, however, would win the race, a good omen for Le Mans durability. This car, 003, made its debut shortly thereafter at the Le Mans qualifying trials, where it would only manage 24th. Good enough to make the show, at least. Come the next month at Le Mans, it would qualify 6th behind the Toyota GT-Ones, Mercedes CLRs, and one if its teammates. Drivers were 3-time winner (to that point) Yannick Dalmas, Pierluigi Martini, and longtime BMW man Joachim “Smokin’ Jo” Winkelhock. A very strong and experienced driver lineup, to say the least. Hans Stuck was also slated for the car, but would never drive it in the race. I’m pretty sure he alone could win Le Mans on a pair of roller blades, so that’s a shame. Qualifying that year was of course marked by the stunning backflips (yes, plural) of Mark Webber’s Mercedes-Benz, a warning of serious aerodynamic issues on the CLR.
After Webber performed another backflip for the crowd during warmup, the race itself began as a cat and mouse game between the Toyotas and Mercedes. The BMWs kept them at arm’s length and the team’s #17 car would grab the lead through the pit cycle due to their advantage in fuel economy. Our #15 would stay in close quarters as well, ready to pounce in the event the leaders faltered. And falter they did, beginning with Peter Dumbreck’s spectacular CLR moon launch at Indianapolis about 4 hours in. Fortunately he was ok, but Mercedes Benz elected to pull their remaining car as well, so the BMWs suddenly had two less faster cars to contend with. The Toyotas all suffered through the night, and come morning the BMWs were running 1-2, the #17 LMR leading #15 by 4 laps. This car would inherit the lead when JJ Lehto in the #17 suffered a stuck throttle and crashed heavily at the Porsche Curves. Toyota, as ever, did not give up after their setbacks, and had one red arrow left in their quiver. Separated by a lap, the LMR faced a late-race challenge from a flying Ukyo Katayama in his GT-One. Toyota’s Le Mans luck struck however, and he suffered a puncture (the last of several which hamstrung the Toyotas throughout the race) which put the BMW out of reach to the finish. BMW, Winkelhock, and Martini left with their sole overall Le Mans wins, Dalmas his fourth.
It’s worth mentioning that back in third place, 5 laps back, came another German that had quietly gone about its business, a portent of the future: None other than Audi’s R8R. We all know what happened for the following 15 years, and I have a car from that coming up later this week. This model is of course in 1:43 by IXO. As a BMW enthusiast since childhood, I’m happy to have added this to my collection of winners, but it’s a little disappointing compared to other IXO prototypes I have. You’ll notice the head and taillights lack definition, the mirrors are clumsy, and the grilles... arrgghhh the grilles! Stickers?!? Come on, guys. The bodywork doesn’t have the best definition either, but it looks fine on display.
Only four more days!! Can’t wait. More Le Mans machines tomorrow! Cheers to whomever came up with the “Le Mans like it’s 1999" tag here, I think I will , thank you very much.
Thanks, as always, to RacingSportsCars.com for their incredible archive.