Escalation Game - 1997 Lister Storm GTL
Throughout motorsport’s rich history, the discipline of Grand Touring had been the home of lightly modified road going sportscars duking it out on the world’s racetracks. For decades this recipe remained untouched, even with the advent of prototype racing in the 1960’s.
The 1970’s however saw a complete escalation in the form of the extreme Group 5 silhouette racers, which corrupted the formula with highly modified widebody shells, furious turbocharged engines and massively wide tires. From 1976 to 1982 these monsters ruled supreme, but an industry-wide regulation change in 1982 killed off Group 5 and indeed GT-racing for the better part of a decade.
As Group C prototypes were much cheaper to build, homologate and run than production based GT-cars, Group B Road Racing never took off, and the discipline died a quiet and undeserved death. Fast forward ten years later, and the by then wildly popular Group C category suffered a similar fate.
A drastic rule change forcing in ludicrously expensive Formula One-style engines combined with an economic downturn slowly choked the World Sportscar Championship to death, leaving a pile of rubble in its wake after the 1992 season. From that rubble, GT-racing rose like a triumphant phoenix. Through a partnership between Porsche Cup organizer Jürgen Barth and Venturi Cup bigwigs Patrick Peter and Stéphane Ratel, the BPR Global Series took off in 1994.
The new championship returned GT-racing to its roots, while also giving it the comeback of a lifetime. With no other major endurance racing category around, and top level prototype racing still very much dead, BPR grew to immense heights.
At first the championship featured a motley crew of national Cup cars from Porsche and Venturi, but the series popularity drew the attention of major brands like Ferrari and McLaren, who wasted no time preparing customer racing versions of their exclusive supercars. By 1996, Jaguar, Alpine, Callaway Corvette, Marcos, Lotus and Morgan had all made an appearance in BPR-racing.
The increased manufacturer interest propelled the series forward, but it also made the companies competing even more cunning and ruthless in their attempts to win what was now a very high-stakes game. One such manufacturer was Porsche. Fed up with their hastily modified 993 GT2’s being outgunned by more competent GT1-machinery, the Germans decided to dig up an old clause in the FIA’s GT-regulations.
This stated any car competing in the series had to be based on an ordinary street legal production car, of which at least 25 examples had to be made. As a one of the better-funded firms, Porsche could afford to build 25 largely pointless road cars. With this in mind, the company set out to modify the 993-generation 911 into what essentially was a poorly disguised 962 Group C prototype. In a clear parallel to their 1994 Le Mans-winning partnership with Dauer, Porsche had once again taken full advantage of the lax homologation rules.
For the other teams competing in BPR, Porsche latest trick was very bad news. The 911 GT1 swiftly laid waste to the conservatively modified opposition upon arrival late in the 1996 season, leaving the writing on the wall. As Mercedes-Benz and Nissan announced similar plans for 1997, the remainder of the BPR Global GT field had to think of something to answer the growing threat of invincible homologation specials.
For small British firm Lister Cars, this meant they would have to find a way to completely reinvent their current car: the less than elegant Storm GTS. Since the GTS was based on a highly exclusive and terrifyingly expensive power cruiser, it had an incredibly hard time keeping up with the space-age 911.
The Lister name had an illustrious history in connection with GT-racing in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, as the company built bespoke racers often powered by Jaguar engines. After disappearing in 1963, the name was brought back by engineer Laurence Pearce in 1986, with a series of spectacularly fast tuned XJS-models as a result. In 1993, Lister Cars moved to build a car of their very own design, which became the extravagant Storm.
Keeping with tradition, the Storm was powered by a Jaguar engine, but it hadn’t simply been taken from the XJS. Instead, the gigantic 7.0L, 24-valve behemoth had been lifted directly from Jaguar’s successful XJR Group C program. It had powered virtually all Jag prototypes since 1985, and had taken two overall Le Mans victories (1988, 1990).
Thanks to the enormous displacement, the Storm was given the honor of possessing the largest V12 production engine since the late 1930’s. With 540 horsepower and a monumental 790 nm (580 ft lbs) of torque, the car was a force to be reckoned with. However, the impressive figures would not be enough tot challenge the savagery of the 911 GT1.
The 554 horsepower GTS-version which debuted in 1995 added little to the Storm’s grunt apart from a substantial 464 kg (1022 lbs) weight loss from 1664 kg (3,669 lbs) down to 1200 kg (2645 lbs). In order to keep up with the new generation of specialized cars, the Storm had to evolve even further.
Thanks to extensive use of carbon fiber in the chassis tub and the bodywork, overall weight was further trimmed down to a neat 1000 kg (2204) lbs, which brought the car in line with the feared 911. More drastic changes were seen on the outside though, as the car’s silhouette was completely redefined.
Gone was the imposing blunt front end, instead replaced by a large flowing nose with big dual headlights. Out back the stubby rear was replaced by a huge widened ducktail section supplemented by a super-size rear wing in a bid to decrease drag and increase downforce.
Additionally, the standard car’s Audi 80 taillights were replaced by four round examples taken from a humble bus. Intakes and outlets sprouted out from the car’s body in all directions to better manage airflow. The overall shape of the car now appeared much lower, wider and more purposeful than ever before.
For good measure, Lister stretched the V12 to within the fullest extent of the GT1 rulebook. The changes netted them a healthy 660 horsepower at much higher 6700 rpm, while the more aggressive setup sacrificed absolute torque for a total of 752 nm (555 lb ft). A six-speed sequential transmission made sure the revised fury reached the rear wheels.
Since Lister Cars was such a small company, it was given special dispensation by the FIA to run the new Storm GTLightweight, despite no production versions being sold on the market. In fact, the earlier GTS had received similar treatment, as the standard Storm had only sold four times.
The Storm GTL was ready in time for the traditional Pre-Qualifying Session for the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans, held two weeks in advance of the main event. The session was an opportunity for manufacturers to test their new cars, and for new drivers to rack up the necessary night driving experience to be allowed to start. Thirdly, it gave the Automobile Club de l’Ouest the chance to deny any car they deemed dangerously slow the right to start.
The Storm GTL would be up against an armada of second generation GT1-cars for the event, with Nissan bringing over the new R390 GT1, Lotus fielding the quirky Elise GT1, Panoz joining with the brutish Esperante GTR-1, Porsche racing an updated 911 GT1 Evo and McLaren featuring the F1 GTR Longtail, which sported similar modifications to the Storm GTL.
Despite the overbearing armada, Lister felt confident owing to their immensely strong driving team. For #45, former F1-driver and endurance specialist Geoff Lees (GB) was joined by veteran Le Mans racer Tiff Needell (GB). The sister car meanwhile enjoyed the services of GT-racer Jake Ulrich (USA) and former F1-driver and touring car ace Julian Bailey (GB). Lister’s confidence was duly rewarded, as Lees/Needell qualified 13th, with Ulrich/Bailey lagging behind in 26th.
While waiting for the two weeks between Pre-Qualifying and the actual race to pass, Lister sent Jake Ulrich and touring car star Ian Flux (GB) to Donington for the third round of the British GT Championship. Faced with a field full of GT2 cars and outdated GT1-machinery like the DeTomaso Pantera and Jaguar XJ220C, the pair took an easy win. A 48 second deficit to the second-placed EMKA RacingPorsche 993 GT2 driven by Steve O’Rourke (GB) and Tim Sugden (GB) confirmed the GTL was a major step forward from its predecessor.
Following the runaway success back home, Lister shipped two GTL’s to the French countryside for the main event: the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans. To cope with the length of the event, Geoff Lees and Tiff Needell were joined by Group C veteran George Fouché (ZA) in #45, while Jake Ulrich received company from Australian Touring Car Championship driver Mark Skaife (AUS) and Marcos-defector Thomas Erdos (BRA) in #46.
In qualifying the pair were very close, as #46 qualified a slightly disappointing 25th with a time of 3:49.563. The sister car managed to score a fastest time of 3:50.398 to grab 27th place, leaving the two GTL’s split by the David Price Racing Panoz of Perry McCarthy (GB), David Brabham (AUS) and Doc Bundy (USA).
Unfortunately the cars had been unable to counter the 911 GT1 for outright speed though, as the factory car of Bob Wollek (FRA), Hans-Joachim Stuck (GER) and Thierry Boutsen (BEL) took the GT1 pole with a time of 3:43.363, 6.2 seconds faster than the quickest Lister.
Perhaps predictably, the always grueling 24 hour race turned into a deception for Lister. Even though the qualifying performances had been reasonably positive for a new design, the real test for the cars would be to last the distance.
Sadly, this didn’t happen. Car #45 was out already in the early stages of the race on lap 21, following a spin by George Fouché which damaged the GTL beyond repair. This wasn’t the first and wouldn’t be the last excursion for Lister, as the sister car spun around twice before retiring with a fatal gearbox issue on lap 77.
Dejected by the abject failure at Le Mans, Lister turned its attention back to British GT. Jake Ulrich was once again partnered by Ian Flux. The pair scored four consecutive pole positions at Oulton Park, Silverstone, Donington and Brands Hatch, but were unable to secure another win. A best finish of second at Donington was all they could muster.
After the lackluster results in British GT, a single Storm GTL was sent over to the America to compete in round 8 of the IMSA GTS Championship held at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Driven by Julian Bailey and touring car driver Craig Baird (NZ), the car qualified and impressive third just 3 tenths from the pole-sitting Rorhr Motorsport 911 GT1 driven by Allan McNish (GB) and Andy Pilgrim (GB).
The team was able to retain the position to claim a podium one lap behind the Porsche. The next round at Pikes Peak resulted in an encouraging 2nd from pole position, proving the car’s winning potential. A string of disappointing British GT results later, Lister chose to close out the 1997 season with a pair of appearances in the American rounds of the new FIA GT Championship, formerly known as the BPR Global GT Series.
Mercedes-Benz’ new CLK GTR juggernaut had been busy sweeping away the field that season, leaving even the Porsche 911 GT1 confused in its wake. Unsurprisingly the Lister was far from competitive, despite Julian Bailey receiving support from former F1-driver Eric van de Poele (BEL). Both appearances ended with bitter retirements. A crash at Sebring and mechanical woes at Laguna Seca put a depressing end to the Storm GTL’s first season.
The 1998 season saw the last high-profile appearance of the Storm GTL, with Bailey/Needell/Baird taking part in the 24 Hours of Daytona. The trio qualified in 19th, 4.1 seconds behind the works Panoz of Eric Bernard (FRA), David Brabham and James Davies (GB), which qualified eighth. Sadly the team was out with ignition issues, with a 70th place classification as a result.
Following the drama at Daytona, the car returned to British GT. An attempt to qualify for the 1998 24 Hours of Le Mans was blocked by the organizers, as the team had scored an insufficient amount of points to be invited to participate once more. With that final straw the Storm GTL’s fate was sealed. The car was now consigned to competing exclusively in the British GT Championship. A major aerodynamic update followed late in the season, bulging out the front bumper to generate even more downforce.
Finally free from the pressure of top level racing, the car came into its own. A series of victories and podiums followed that year, before the update made the car even faster for 1999. Together with new teammate Jamie Campbell-Walter (GB), Julian Bailey won seven out of eleven rounds, comfortably netting them the 1999 Brotish GT-title with 20 points over the 911 GT1 of Magnus Wallinder (SWE) and the ironically named Geoff Lister (GB).
Since GT1 had already been outlawed in the FIA GT Championship that year, the BRDC followed the FIA’s lead and abandoned GT1 to focus on GT2 instead. With that, the GTL was finally outlawed and retired since it had nowhere left to race. In the process it became the last true GT1 champion in British history. The old girl had come good after all.
The Lister Storm GTL was an ambitious project born from pure necessity. As a tiny car maker, Lister had to adapt to survive in the face of a looming threat from highly specialized machinery built by far larger concerns. With the Porsche 911 GT1 giving the opening salvo, Mercedes-Benz, Panoz, Lotus and Nissan all joined in to duke it out in what was GT1’s most competitive season ever.
Lister tried furiously to make its overweight Storm into a real contender, but reliability issues and a demoralizing lack of pace quickly stifled their hopes of keeping up with the big boys. Despite the vast improvements, the GTL was in essence still a road car. Against the onslaught of factory GT prototypes, it never stood a chance.
The car proved more useful on the national circuit, where it managed to take the last major title in the original GT1 era, beating its former rivals in the process. Although it had been on the back foot from the start, in the end the cheeky Lister still managed to win the escalation game started by Porsche three years earlier.