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GERMANS, JAPANESE BATTLE AT LE MANS

by Larry Roberts

April 02, 1999

Imagine the NASCAR Winston Cup series contested not only by Ford, Chevrolet and Pontiac but also by Dodge, Plymouth and Oldsmobile, all with factory backing and heavy incentives to win. This is the exciting situation coming to pass in international sports car endurance racing.

The upcoming 24 hours of Le Mans endurance race this June 12th through 13th is shaping up to be a battle of epic proportions. And if that phrase has a slightly Wagnerian overtone, it's justifiable. This, the 67th running of the French event, may be a battle-royal between four major German auto makers. BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi (owned by VW, incidentally) and Porsche have all signed up to vie for the checkered flag. At stake is not only the adoration of the quarter-million European fans who brave the cold and possible rain to watch the race in person, but the immense world-wide TV coverage that goes along with it.

If sports-racing cars bearing the name of Audi and BMW seem strange to you, you're not alone. For several years, the two automotive giants have been getting ready for this season of long-distance endurance racing. They have seen the promotional hay that their rivals at Mercedes and Porsche have been making. Porsche in particular has a racing tradition at Le Mans that goes back to the '50s, when the tiny Porsche Davids slew the supercar Goliaths and went on to win 17 times since.

The current-era racing successes of Mercedes only go back a couple of years, but having fielded a phalanx of its purpose-built CLK GT cars since '97, Porsche has had to be content with many top-five-only finishes. One of the main reason that Porsche won the '98 running of the Le Mans race is that no Mercedes CLKs were entered.

Cross-town competitors BMW and Audi have not been unaware of the advertising successes that accompany racing. BMW has supplied powerplants to racing teams in Formula One and endurance racing on and off for many years, but as well as I can remember, hasn't put its blue-and-white circular logo on a factory race car for a long time. It's backed private teams that compete in European NASCAR-like touring car racing, but hasn't run for the Big Banana - until now.

A warm-up for BMW came recently at the 12-hour PSCR American Le Mans series race at Sebring, Florida. The 6.0-liter BMW V12-powered LMR car won there in the dust and sand in its second entry into big-time racing. In third place three laps down was the new Audi R8R followed by a Porsche 911 GT1 two laps later. Another BMW was entered, but crashed half way through the race and a second Audi finished fifth.

At Le Mans, the four German giants will all be primed for success.

Sharp-eyed readers will note that no mention was made here as to what placed second at Sebring. Breaking up the Teutonic trio by taking second overall was one of our own domestic Ford-powered R&S (Riley & Scott) MKIIIs (the same car-builder commissioned to put together the proposed Cadillac Le Mans entry for 2001) only nine seconds behind the winning BMW after 12 hours. The Indianapolis-based R&S operation is too small and underfinanced to mount its own Le Mans attack, but that may change. Reynard Motorsports, British builders of the most successful chassis in American CART Champ Car racing and currently ready to enter into Formula One, is reported to be on the brink of buying R&S in order to have a "presence" in sports-car endurance racing. So although R&S won't be at Le Mans in '99, it may make the field a year or two later.

There are two other major companies making the Le Mans grid this year and both have a good chance of an overall win. Nissan and Toyota both have their own purpose-built cars and well-organized teams. Nissan in particular, has been a winner in this type of racing.

The 1999 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will be exciting, close and watched enthusiastically by European TV viewers. Unfortunately, the race has as much TV and media interest here as sand-lot baseball.

Humm! I wonder how much budget air fare to France and a ticket to the Le Mans infield would cost?