Friday favourite: The V10 GT brute that conquered prototypes at Daytona
A perennial winner of 24-hour races at Le Mans, Spa and the Nurburgring, the Dodge Viper GTS-R even won outright against faster prototype machinery at Daytona. Olivier Beretta, who won four championship titles and scored three around-the-clock enduro wins with the car, explains what made it a winner
When Porsche won Petit Le Mans outright in 2015 with a 911 RSR GTE against hordes of prototypes, it was a homage to another great giantkilling feat performed 15 years previously.
Porsche’s feat had been achieved over a rain-shortened event - just 7 hours and 51 minutes of the originally scheduled 10 hours were completed at Road Atlanta - in abysmal weather that allowed its Michelins to shine over the faster prototypes’ control Continentals. But when the Dodge Viper GTS-R conquered the Daytona 24 Hours in 2000, it had been run to the full distance and a fluke could not be called into question.
Still, Autosport magazine’s report called it “one of the biggest upsets” in the event’s history as the quicker SR class prototypes dropped like flies with “an unprecedented catalogue of problems and incidents”. But the fact that three of the ORECA-run Vipers filled the top five positions (in total, there were five of the US-built cars inside the top seven) told its own story.
Victory for Olivier Beretta, Karl Wendlinger and Dominique Dupuy by 31 seconds over the leading factory Corvette, also in the secondary GTO class, was the highlight of Beretta’s long spell with the car he chooses as the favourite of his long career that graced Formula 1 with Larrousse in 1994.
He’d had a crucial role to play in the “totally unexpected” outcome, despite suffering with chickenpox; Beretta put in a double stint that gave the winning #91 car a pitstop’s advantage over its GT rivals after 10 hours and meant it was in position to capitalise when the leading Dyson Racing Riley & Scott MKIII’s engine began losing power in the final four hours.
But it was far from the only high point, as the Monegasque also collected two of his six Le Mans 24 Hours class wins (in 1999 and 2000), two American Le Mans Series titles (1999 and 2000), plus two FIA GT class titles (1998 and 1999) in a car that was “born with me”. Beretta was involved in its development from the outset and made it fit him like a glove.
“We started with something that was not reliable and very super-difficult to drive,” recalls Beretta, now part of Ferrari’s Competizione GT driver roster, of the 8.0-litre V10 brute. “We had the money at that time, the ORECA team did an amazing job, and I was there since the first day so the car was on the development around my driving style. In the end, it was not so difficult because the car is born with me.”
Beretta (right) took his first of six Le Mans class wins with the Viper in 1999
Photo by: Sutton Images
In a time before Balance of Performance, where the best-prepared crew and fastest car prevailed, the Viper was top dog. Beretta has vivid memories of ORECA boss Hughes de Chaunac organising tests of 30 hours or more “every month, from January to April” before Le Mans, “and for Daytona we were doing that before Christmas”.
“That was the things to do at that time if you want to make sure that you have the reliability with you,” he says. “In the beginning we were stopping after eight hours, after 15 hours. But at the end of the test, we managed to do 32 hours without stopping and we knew that all the pieces on the car were reliable. And that’s why the Viper at the end was unbeatable.
“We had so much endurance tests before the race and that was the force of ORECA, planning and spending a lot of time and money on testing in the winter. We were in Paul Ricard in February at zero, two degrees, running, running, running for 32 or 35 hours and that paid off.
“When you do Le Mans, you do some endurance [tests], but you don’t do what we did 20 years ago. I don’t see any team doing this kind of things today!”
"We managed to do 32 hours without stopping and we knew that all the pieces on the car were reliable. And that’s why the Viper at the end was unbeatable" Olivier Beretta
Beretta’s affiliation with the car hadn’t started on the brightest of notes. After four toe-in-the-water BPR Endurance outings in 1996, he’d finished third in class at the 1997 Daytona 24 Hours but an enormous 35 laps down on the GTS-1-winning Porsche. He and Philippe Gache had been the fastest GT2 pairing in that year’s FIA GT championship, but a series of minor glitches meant the title went down to the wire in Laguna Seca – where their season was marred by an erroneous pitlane speeding penalty handed down to Beretta.
The penalty gave the lead to the Roock Porsche Stephane Ortelli was sharing with title challenger Bruno Eichmann, who was set to snatch the crown, and necessitated ORECA to switch the order of its two cars. Through went the #52 Viper of Justin Bell into the second place he needed to claim the title, but it was for Beretta a bitter pill to swallow.
“At that time, they had the speed gun and the marshal made a mess between the #51 and the #52,” he recalls. “The team said to me: ‘You have to stop, you have overspeed on the pitlane’. And I said: ‘No way, no way’. I knew that I could not do this, because I was leading the race, so I didn’t have any pressure to exaggerate the pitlane and I was super-focused to not do it.
“At the end of the race, we looked back at the telemetry and it was the sister car who did it. So I lost the championship for something I didn’t do…”
After ignominiously losing the FIA GT2 title in 1997, Beretta held a vice-like grip on the series in 1998 and 1999, never finishing lower than second in the ORECA Viper
Photo by: Motorsport Images
But teaming up with Pedro Lamy for 1998, the Frano-Portuguese pairing was only beaten twice all year, finishing second on both occasions. Then in 1999 with Wendlinger, he successfully defended the title by finishing first or second in every race. When ORECA joined the nascent ALMS, Beretta was equally unstoppable as the Viper steamroller continued unabated.
Insight: Karl Wendlinger's favourite car
Beretta puts his Le Mans GTS class triumphs – both times with Wendlinger and Dupuy – “on the same level” as their outright Daytona win, although problems with the Viper’s fifth gear in the closing stages gave that result an extra edge.
“Daytona overall was totally unexpected at that time, and winning with the GT was something huge, especially against the against the Corvette at that time with the two big US manufacturers,” he says. “This race has been green for a long time until the end, so it was not like a race where you have safety cars and restart the race every hour.
“We were super-tense because we didn’t know at that time if the gearbox was okay until the end. Sometimes we need luck and that time, and that day, we had luck on our side.”
Luck had little to do with most of its success however. After ORECA switched its attentions to prototypes for 2001 with Chrysler, the Viper kept winning – Christophe Bouchut and Larbre claimed back-to-back FIA GT titles in 2001 and 2002, sweeping the Spa 24 Hours in both years too. The Nurburgring 24 Hours was another happy hunting ground for the Viper, with Zakspeed victorious in 1999, 2001 and 2002 – the latter two with Lamy at the helm setting the Portuguese on his path to a record five wins he still holds today.
However, it wasn’t the easiest of cars to handle. Beretta says the Viper was “physically quite hard” to drive, particularly because ergonomics could hardly be considered a priority. With no traction control to help with managing wheelspin and therefore preserve tyre life, plus a H-pattern gearbox that required careful downshifting to avoid locking the rears, Beretta is derived great satisfaction from managing the car’s quirks.
“Inside the cockpit was super-hot because there was no rules like today that if you overheat you get a stop-and-go,” he says. “Before, nobody cares! I remember we had the exhaust next to the seat, the engine on the front when we were doing Texas it was 43 degrees at 8pm inside the car. It was amazing how hot it was.
High cockpit temperatures was one of the Viper's downsides - but that didn't stop Beretta, Wendlinger and Dupuy scooping ALMS class honours at Surfers Paradise on New Years' Eve in 2000
Photo by: Motorsport Images
“We had a lot more to manage inside the cockpit than today. Today, you just don’t care about the gearbox, you just have to press the pedal, and you downshift, you upshift, you look at your light and you go. Before, you have to manage the H-gearbox, you have to manage the wheelspin, a lot the tyres because we didn’t have any traction control, we have to manage the inside of the cockpit because it was super-hot.”
Beretta won Le Mans four times with Corvette between 2004 and 2011 before his switch to Ferrari, including three in a row with Oliver Gavin and Jan Magnussen from 2004 to 2006. But it’s the Viper that is seared into his brain as the perfect match.
“When I switched to another car, like Corvette, the car was already developed so I have to adapt myself to the car,” he says. “So for me, it was much more easy to drive the Viper.”
Beretta went on to win Le Mans four times with Corvette, but says the Viper he was intrinsic to developing was best suited to his driving style
Photo by: Motorsport Images
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