One of the most competitive manufacturer fields ever assembled at Le Mans set the backdrop for the latest instalment in Autosport's series of favourite races. As STUART CODLING recalls, it was a race of drama from the morning warm-up until the chequered flag as BMW's tortoise saw off an array of hares
Rampaging battles between manufacturer teams in every class. Airborne Mercedes. A race that went to the canny and the cautious rather than the swift - but was no less dramatic for panning out that way. As the flag fell on the 1999 Le Mans 24 Hours it was like the closing moments of Hamlet, when Fortinbras toddles onto a stage littered with corpses and wonders what on earth he's just missed.
The final year of the past millennium was arguably the high-water mark for manufacturer involvement in sportscar racing as Toyota, Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Nissan and Panoz contested the top-level prototype classes. Audi brought two different types of car, as did Nissan, which complemented its pair of Nigel Stroud-designed R391s with a Courage C52.
Add in a pair of privately-entered 1998 BMW LMRs and a few ageing Riley & Scott Mk IIIs, a DAMS Lola and even a Ferrari 333SP, and the prototype class was so plump there was barely room for the less rarefied divisions. The 15-car GTS class was a direct battle between Chrysler and Porsche, each of which had works-backed teams as well as privateers, while just four cars were granted entry in GT, all Porsches. One of those was run by Champion Racing, which went on to win the 24 Hours outright in 2005 with Audi.
Increased levels of professionalism meant less space for the semi-amateurs, but the ACO still reserved entries for those stalwarts such as Chamberlain Racing, which had contributed to full grids even in the lean years following the demise of the World Sportscar Championship. Mitigating against that increasing professionalism, this author was present on behalf of Le Mans & Sportscar Racer magazine, a niche product published by Haymarket, which also owned Autosport and ran Radio Le Mans at that time.
It was a traditional 'perk' for the sales teams to go on a jolly to Le Mans, which is perhaps how this author became entangled in a doomed attempt to blag a credential-less Rick Parfitt Jr (now a successful musician and British GT champion, then an Autosport classified ads salesman) through the gates. Sadly the officials were determined to uphold the status quo...
Toyota's GT-One was easily the fastest car in the field, as it had been the previous year until gearbox failure eliminated all three cars. I was later informed that among the eccentricities of designer Andre de Cortanze (below, right, with Allan McNish) was an occasional tendency to order all personnel out of the garage so that he could deliver a solo pep talk to each GT-One's transmission.
Whatever, the speed of the Toyotas - and the confidence they clearly inspired in their drivers - through sweeping corners such as Indianapolis took the breath away. When I mentioned this to Martin Brundle, who was sharing the #1 Toyota with Emmanuel Collard and Vincenzo Sospiri, he just grinned and nodded, "Quick there, isn't it?"
Each of the leading teams boasted a generous roster of past and future Formula 1 drivers and the pace throughout practice was suitably frenetic - until Thursday night, when word began to circulate of a mysterious accident out on track. Mark Webber's Mercedes CLR was making its way back to the garage on a flatbed. One of those peculiar hushes settled upon the press room, as it often did in those days when immediate access to information was more sparse.
The TV cameras had missed the accident. None of the many photographers around the circuit had captured it either - but one had witnessed it while slotting a new roll of film into his camera. Webber's car, running behind one of the open-top Audis on the flat-out run to Indianapolis, had flipped and landed back on all four wheels.
Mercedes denied this - motorsport boss Norbert Haug dismissively informed the photographer that he was mistaken. The blanket policy of delete, dismiss, deny extended to the team's treatment of Webber himself.
Running in Boutsen's slipstream over the crest on the run towards Indianapolis, Dumbreck's Mercedes took off and spun through the air like an errant frisbee, crashing through the trees beyond the barrier
"It was then that I realised that the team did not accept my version of what had happened," he wrote, some years later, in his autobiography, Aussie Grit. "Their response? 'No, that couldn't happen, the car couldn't possibly flip end over end.'"
The CLR was an edgy short-wheelbase, long-overhang design which relied on underbody aerodynamics to achieve downforce. It always looked a handful on track, porpoising like crazy under braking, but Mercedes pressed on regardless. Only after another crash, this time caught on camera during Saturday morning warm-up, and with Webber at the wheel again, did it add dive planes to the remaining two CLRs which went on to contest the race.
So the dominos were falling even before the race began. Nissan too had lost a car, after a stuck throttle pitched Eric van de Poele's R391 into the barrier at Tertre Rouge 45 minutes into the first qualifying session. The Belgian suffered a back injury so debilitating that he did not race again that year.
The atmosphere, then, was febrile as the race proper got under way. Regardless of the incidents of the previous few days - or indeed that a full 24 hours of racing lay ahead - the frontrunners got stuck into it straight away, as if it were a sprint event with but a handful of laps remaining. Bernd Schneider was gunning his CLR around like a rallycross car, leaping chicane kerbs and scattering gravel in his wake as he duelled with the Toyotas of Brundle and Thierry Boutsen.
Schneider even took the lead at the first round of pitstops as the mid-afternoon heat took its toll on the GT-Ones' fuel injection system. Boutsen, first to pit, was slow away as his car spluttered; Brundle and Schneider then pitted simultaneously next time around, and the Mercedes shot through the diminishing gap between the pitwall and the Toyota as Brundle coughed his way out of the pit box.
BMW was outpaced but its pair of V12 LMRs had fuel economy and a sharp Schnitzer pit crew on their side. Left behind over the course of a stint, they would edge back towards the leaders again after managing one more lap than their rivals, followed by a rapid turnaround.
Still further in arrears, Audi seemed an irrelevance on its Le Mans debut, having diluted efforts on its already delayed R8R programme by making a late decision to develop a closed-top car for the GTP class as well. Tony Southgate had been brought in to consult late on, but with the R8R he was merely polishing a turd.
The lunatic call from on high to build another car (prompted by dithering over whether the rules balancing might favour GTPs) meant the late Richard Lloyd's Audi Sport UK concern was given roughly six months notice to develop the R8C from a blank sheet. Neither of the two R8Cs would make it to the finish while attrition would aid the Joest-run R8Rs to third and fourth, several laps down.
As daylight dwindled all eyes remained focused on the battle for the lead as the cycle continued: time and again the Toyotas would assert themselves over the Mercedes while out on track, only to be pegged back by slow getaways from the pit box.
Running almost in isolation from these duelling marques, the #17 BMW of Jorg Muller, JJ Lehto and Tom Kristensen moved into the lead in the third hour as fuel economy and slick pitwork elevated it into contention.
The entire complexion of the race changed as night began to fall. Brundle's car, having briefly slipped out of the lead battle while Collard was at the wheel, lost half an hour in the pits to a hydraulic leak. A recalcitrant gearbox prompted Ralf Kelleners to make an unplanned pitstop after taking over the sister car from McNish. The third Toyota, with its all-Japanese driver line-up, had slipped to the nether regions of the top 10 after Toshio Suzuki failed to match the early pace of Ukyo Katayama.
A slow pitstop had stymied the Schneider Mercedes when Pedro Lamy took over but the second car, now driven by Japanese Formula 3 champion Peter Dumbreck, was harrying the Boutsen/Kelleners/McNish Toyota for second place when disaster struck. Running in Boutsen's slipstream over the crest on the run towards Indianapolis, the Mercedes took off and spun through the air like an errant frisbee, crashing through the trees beyond the barrier.
I recall the moment precisely because I was watching it on a large-screen TV, having sneaked off to cadge some food at the General Motors hospitality village, where the manufacturer was celebrating its imminent return to La Sarthe with its Chevrolet and Cadillac brands by rolling out the welcome mat to all and sundry. Indeed, someone had only recently thrust a glass of exquisitely chilled chardonnay (come on, these were the 1990s) into my hands.
Boutsen struck the barrier hard enough to suffer a fractured vertebra - a career-ending injury - and it took an hour and a half for him to be extracted from the cockpit
Aghast at the spectacle unfolding on the screen, I abandoned the chardonnay and scurried back to the paddock. There I watched with amusement as Haug, with a gaggle of reporters and photographers in hot pursuit, failed to gain entry to his own garage as the shutters came down, leaving him no option but to face the music. Mercedes prudently withdrew its remaining CLR.
After nightfall, and a long safety car intervention, Brundle's charge back into contention came a cropper - perhaps as a result of riding one kerb too many, or running across one of the sharp stones ejected from a gravel trap - when a tyre blew out mid-way down the Mulsanne.
Brundle was lucky not to smite the barriers more heavily but, while the car seemed relatively intact, its rear suspension and undertray dragged and tore as it crawled agonisingly slowly on three wheels to Arnage. There its headlights extinguished as its pilot was forced to capitulate.
That left the Boutsen/Kelleners/McNish Toyota scrapping for the lead with the Lehto/Muller/Kristensen BMW, though by now their stops were out of sync and they were circulating at a distance from one another.
Shortly before the half-way mark, perhaps an hour or so from dawn, Boutsen was lapping the Estoril Racing Porsche when its driver, French amateur Michel Maisonneuve, misjudged his approach to the Dunlop Bridge and tapped the Toyota into a spin. Boutsen struck the barrier hard enough to suffer a fractured vertebra - a career-ending injury - and it took an hour and a half for him to be extracted from the cockpit, during which time the field was neutralised behind the safety car.
By dawn, 1995 winner Lehto was confident enough to say, "We're not pushing now. From now on it's about getting to the finish." But shortly before midday a roll-bar link worked loose in the rear of the BMW, perhaps as a result of too much kerb-hopping earlier on, and jammed the throttle open. Lehto speared into the barriers at the Porsche Curves and had to be lifted from the car, blood pouring from a gashed knee.
Would this bring the drama to an end? No. With the 'hare' cars now all eliminated, the 'tortoises' came into play. The sister BMW driven hitherto with utmost caution by Yannick Dalmas, Pierluigi Martini and Jo Winkelhock now assumed the lead ahead of the all-Japanese Toyota crew, who now picked up their pace.
When Katayama took the wheel at what was planned to be the #3 GT-One's penultimate pitstop, Toyota figured that if he pushed hard enough he could emerge from his final stop a minute behind the BMW with half an hour remaining. Accordingly, he went for it, setting the fastest lap of the race.
But it was not to be. At 3pm Katayama was passing the scene of Dumbreck's earlier accident when his left-rear tyre exploded and his car slewed towards the barrier at 200mph. Just 18 months out of Formula 1, Katayama was still pin sharp: he gathered the slide and limped back to the garage on three wheels.
Earlier that lap Thomas Bscher, the gentleman owner-driver of one of the privateer 1998-model BMW prototypes, had squeezed Katayama onto the kerbs at the Nissan chicane. Toyota was quick to finger him for the blow-out, but Bscher said he had been slowing down for the corner in plenty of time because his clutch had gone.
"I wasn't trying to help Schnitzer," he harrumphed. "They don't need my help."
Thus Toyota was thwarted in its quest for Le Mans victory, not for the first or last time, within an hour of the chequered flag. A jubilant Martini took his BMW for a second lap of honour, while Dalmas joined Olivier Gendebien and Henri Pescarolo in the four-time winners club.
Katayama finished a lap down in second, a further four laps ahead of the third-placed Audi. Behind came various shades of walking wounded: the second Audi prototype, veteran of several gearbox changes; Bscher's clutchless BMW; a Courage; the lead Panoz, which had been a podium contender until gearbox problems intervened in the early hours; and the sole remaining Nissan entry, the Courage chassis.
If the other classes were damp squibs - only three GTs started and in GTS, a works ORECA-run Viper finished a leisurely seven laps ahead of its sister car - the battle up front had been epic enough.
Le Mans is usually brutal on everyone - including, now, those who report on it. In 1999, with the luxury of working on a monthly, I filed my report on the Tuesday. Last time at Le Mans, in 2017, I was part of a four-man Autosport team in which each of us covered a class live for the web, while composing hourly reports, and the roster allowed for a single four-hour sleep block. No sloping off for comestibles and a glass of wine these days...