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Musings on the Past

Mercedes-Benz CLR – The most disastrous Le Mans car in history

We are three-quarters into 2020 and it is only now that this year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans gets underway. It was originally scheduled for June but postponed when the cough heard around the world started getting around. Speaking of things that didn’t go according to plan, let’s wind the clock to 1999 and examine the Mercedes-Benz CLR. The follow-up act that completely undid Mercedes’ formidable reputation and sullied its predecessor’s name.

Making its mark in sportscar racing

The Sauber-Mercedes C9 remains as Mercedes’ only post-1950s Le Mans winner

Long before Mercedes-Benz began its domination of Formula One, the company was stamping its authority in endurance racing. In 1988, Mercedes partnered with Sauber to campaign in the World Sportscar Championship with the clean-cut Group C-spec C9. The partnership brought home a silver for the 1988 season. Whereas a season title and a Le Mans trophy followed in 1989.

The Sauber-Mercedes C11 missed out on a shot at Le Mans glory in 1990

Despite its success, Mercedes wouldn’t taste Le Mans glory for the rest of the Group C period. While the C9’s successor, the C11 won races and the 1990 World Sports Prototype Championship title, Le Mans was not part of the calendar. Its 1991 entrant, the C291 was so disastrous that Mercedes pulled out of the championship to focus on its Formula One foray.  

Making a return to the field

It wasn’t until 1996 when the International Touring Car Championship (ITCC) found itself in the weird position of having every manufacturer, except dominant Mercedes, pull out from the 1997 season. As such, the ITCC was cancelled after the 1996 season, leaving Mercedes with funds and engineers, but nowhere to race.

The 1994-1996 AMG-Mercedes C-Class DTM dominated the sport like no other

Enter the new FIA GT Championship, which adopted the successful BPR Global GT Series that featured modified production sportscars. This, of course, was a natural progression from Mercedes’ involvement with the DTM and ITCC. Only this time instead of Alfa Romeo and Opel, they would be going up against Ferrari and Porsche. Game set and go.

The winning formula

The car Mercedes came up with for the 1997 season was a racing legend, the CLK GTR. Even its gestation made the CLK GTR look like a miracle child.

It was said that Mercedes built two prototypes in 128 days. And to validated its components, the team rebodied a McLaren F1 GTR as a test mule. Despite a poor show at the season opener, the CLK GTR went on to dominate the inaugural season, taking the driver’s and constructor’s titles.

Mercedes bought a McLaren F1 GTR from a privateer team to use a development mule. It has since been sold and reconverted back into a McLaren F1.

For the following season, Mercedes upgraded the CLK GTR to the CLK LM, underlying its intentions to return to the Holy Grail of endurance racing. The new car was lower and more aerodynamically optimised for high speeds expected at Le Mans. Despite dominating the GT Championship again and qualifying on pole at Le Mans, the CLK LM’s C9-derived engine frustrated Mercedes’ Le Mans campaign.

Flatter and sleeker, the CLK LM won races, but engine troubles robbed it of Le Mans glory

Nevertheless, with 17 race wins out of 22 races, two driver’s and constructor’s championship, Mercedes wanted more. They wanted that elusive Le Mans win. The only problem was, like Mercedes’ dominance in ITCC, nobody in the CLK GTR’s GT1 class wanted to sign up for the for 1999 season. In a moment of déjà vu, with Mercedes’ name alone, the FIA GT Championship struck out the GT1 class.  

Second chances

Thankfully for Mercedes’ Le Mans dream, the Automobile Club de l’Quest (ACO), which organises the 24 Hours of Le Mans, created a new category known as the LMGTP. A mix of GT1 and LMP prototype class, which allowed entrants to be full-on racing prototypes dressed in production car garb.

Mercedes grabbed the LMGTP opportunity to create the ultimate Le Mans prototype, the Mercedes-Benz CLR. With no globe-trotting championship and other circuits to consider, Mercedes designed the CLR around the Circuit de la Sarthe’s long high-speed straights. The finished product, which looked like a squashed CLK GTR, certainly looked the part.

Considering the company’s track record at dominating the GT1 category, many were confident that 1999 was going to be Mercedes’ with an entry that looked more like a wing than a car. That last part will become crucial come the Le Mans weekend.

The moments that broke Mercedes

Mercedes didn’t even have to wait until race day for things to go awry. In practice, a then-rookie Mark Webber flipped his CLR during a flat-out run to the Indianapolis corner. With no eyewitness or photographic evidence, many in the pits didn’t believe Webber’s airborne account.

Luckily for Webber, he emerged unharmed while his team qualified tenth for the race. Unluckily for him, during the warm-up lap, his CLR took to the skies again while going down the Mulsanne straight. Mercedes, unable to put two and two together, pressed on with the race with the remaining two CLRs.

The team called aerodynamic guru Adrian Newey, who at the Canadian Grand Prix at that time with the McLaren-Mercedes F1 team, for advice. Newey told them to withdraw the cars immediately, but his advice fell on deaf ears.

It wasn’t until five hours into the race, on lap 76, that the unedifying sight of Peter Dumbreck’s silver arrow having its turn at shooting for the stars was beamed into sets around the world.

Not wanting to relive memories of Mercedes’ tragic past of flying Le Mans cars, the team pulled its sole remaining CLR out of the race and packed up. The 1999 campaign was such a disaster that the company president was said to have vowed never to return to Le Mans. Further hammering was done to Mercedes’ pride when BMW took the top honours 19 hours later.

The Flying Arrows

Because of Mercedes’ dogged focus on maximising downforce and minimising drag for the Circuit de la Sarthe, the designers effectively created a huge wing. As the video below goes into greater detail, the designers created an ideal Le Mans winner on paper. However, things don’t usually work that way when the tyre hits the tarmac.

However, the Mercedes-Benz CLR’s failure not only tarnished Mercedes’ image, but it also marred its predecessor’s impeccable track record. Type “Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR flying” into Google and you will get Dumbreck’s somersaulting CLR. Even today, many still believe that it was the CLK GTR that was responsible for the stunt at the Mulsanne.

A case of mistaken identity

CLR (left) retained the CLK LM’s (right) styling cues

This mistaken identity is part-schadenfreude, part-cover up. Watching a team that had so thoroughly dominated the GT1 class and the ITCC fail so spectacularly is the very definition of schadenfreude. However, it wasn’t as though many could tell the CLR apart from the CLK LM.

Unlike the CLR, the CLK LM was designed to compete on a variety of tracks

A lot of that had to do with the CLR keeping much of the CLK LM’s styling elements. It is only when you look up close at the grainy television images that you’d notice its squashed appearance. Though it wasn’t as though the CLR had enough screen time to cement itself in people’s collective memory.

Then there was the case of Mercedes pulling out of the race and effectively disavowing the CLR’s existence. It was said that the sole surviving CLR was quickly sold off and now resides in a private collection. With Mercedes-Benz preferring not to mention the CLR, there was nobody to correct that wrong assumption. Thus, leaving many to believe that the CLK GTR had problems staying grounded.

Why is the Mercedes-Benz CLR so bad?

For as long as there is racing there will always be cars that will fail to win or finish. However, none has screwed its makers over quite like the CLR. Sure, the tragic 1955 Le Mans disaster was far worse with numerous spectator deaths and killing motorsports in Switzerland.

But Mercedes’ role in the 1955 crash was that of an unwitting player. And the crash did little to tarnish the legacy of the 300 SLR, arguable Mercedes’ most important race car.

The Mercedes-Benz CLR, coupled with the team’s refusal to accept what was going on, on the other hand, did far worse. Not only did it permanently bury Mercedes’ Le Mans dreams, but it also undid all the triumphs and groundwork its predecessors made. As far as sticking to the plan goes, it is one hell of a debacle when the opposite is achieved.