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by Larry Roberts

December 05, 1998

I doubt if there are many Americans who would fail to recognize the three-pointed star logo of Mercedes-Benz. Whether it's mounted on the grille of the large and stately, 12-cylinder S600 sedan or the upright and practical ML320 sport/utility vehicle, the M-B emblem is the symbol of automotive quality and prestige.

But starting in 1997, the emblem also become the mark of invincibility in the stratified world of international Grand Touring (GT) endurance racing. Its CLK-based endurance racers have won the championship two years in a row and look to repeat the feat in 1999.

Mercedes fans will recognize the CLK designation as the code name for the company's super-smooth luxury GT coupe that can be had with either a a V6 or a V8 powerplant. A very nice car, and very well adapted to long-distance, comfortable cruising.

But the CLK-LM, like its CLK-GTR predecessor of the '97 season, is as different from its road-going namesake as a Kentucky Derby winner is from a plow horse. The CLK-LM is a purpose-built race car that just barely conforms to the loosest definition of a road-going street machine. It's built by the factory's own performance shop, AMG, and was designed and built for one purpose: to win the Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) GT championship. And that is just what it has done twice, and it has become almost unbeatable in the series.

It wasn't too long ago that sports and GT car endurance racing (a very popular spectator sport in Europe) was somewhat in disarray. In 1994, three European promoters, Patrick Peter, Jurgen Barth and Stephanie Rachel, formed the BPR organization to promote a Continental endurance series called the Global Endurance Cup. It was moderately successful, but lacked the TV and spectator support that the wildly successful Formula One racing enjoyed. In a move that most journalists considered a strong-arm take-over, the FIA announced its own GT endurance series and BPR immediately closed up shop.

The primary bailiwick of the FIA is the supervision and exploitation of international Formula One Grand Prix racing and it's single-seater, open-cockpit cars are generally considered the pinnacle of racing technology. Parenthetically, it's worth many millions of dollars in television and promotional money to England's Bernie Ecclestone, the head of the Formula One Association. Eventually, it occurred to FIA president Mike Mosley and Ecclestone that an FIA-sanctioned series for GT cars would generate the same kind of enthusiasm and brand loyalty in endurance racing fans that's found in Formula One enthusiasts.

When the FIA GT series was announced early in '97, the BMW-powered McLarens were touted as the future stars of the events with the plethora of Porsche teams a very close second. The AMG Mercedes CLK-GTR (the forerunner of the current cars) was hardly mentioned by the motoring press.

But when the fourth event in the series was held at Germany's Nurburgring in June of last year, the ostensibly new Mercedes team entered for the first time. Not only was it competitive but took the top two places and came close to taking third as well. This was followed by a string of Mercedes victories that on occasion resulted in top-three- place finishes for the cars. Mercedes won the inaugural FIA GT championship handily and its top-placed driver, Bernd Schneider, won the driver's crown.

The 1998 season was an even better one for the AMG Mercedes CLK team. It won all 10 events to take the championship crown again with driver's top honors going this time to Mercedes driver Ricardo Zonta.

Next year may be a more difficult one for the AMG Mercedes GT team. Several new teams will be fielding teams. Lister Cars of England will be competing with Jaguar-powered Storms, for instance.

But judging by past performances, AMG and Mercedes no doubt have new innovations in store for their star-quality CLK racers for next year.