Joyless Jubilee - 2000 Cadillac Northstar LMP
Ever since the demise of the incredibly popular Group C category in 1993, international sportscar racing had been in a bit of a shambles. The World Sportscar Championship had imploded and disappeared, leaving a giant hole in the world of endurance racing. In the years that followed the closed-top format that had seen so much success was abandoned, and the focus shifted towards GT cars with the advent of the BPR Global GT Series.
As the GT1 category gained traction and became the pinnacle of the sport, the traditional prototypes were quietly kept on life support. In 1997 the International Sports Racing Series emerged as a refuge for a new specification derived from the American IMSA series, the World Sports Car. In practice these machines were little more than decapitated Group C cars with substantial power restrictions. Soon however, GT1 pushed too far and spiraled out of control. Maniacal monsters like the Porsche 911 GT1 and the Mercedes CLK GTR destroyed the category with their unrelenting pace, and suddenly the prototype looked set for a return.
The term Le Mans Prototype was first used at the 1994 24 Hours of Le Mans, shortly after the World Sportscar Championship had collapsed. However, the categories LMP1 and LMP2 still referred to outdated Group C machinery, as true LMP’s had not yet been produced. After the switch to WSC -derived cars in 1995 (denoted as SR1 and SR2) and the rise and fall of GT1, the Automobile Club de l’Ouest decided it was time for another change.
Wishing to start fresh for the new millennium, the ACO instated a new split between LMP675 and LMP900 for the 2000 season. The new categories were based on minimum weight and engine power. LMP675 was allowed to carry less weight (675 kg / 1488 lbs) but also less power. With LMP900, the emphasis was more on outright straight-line speed than handling and maneuverability, as they were allotted a 900 kg (1984 lbs) minimum weight but much more power. Contrary to the earlier class divisions, both LMP675 and LMP900 were intended to be able to fight for overall wins.
With the banishment of GT1 and the departure of dominant forces Porsche and Mercedes-Benz, the stage was set for an entirely new pecking order. Still, support from major manufacturers was lacking. Longtime contenders Panoz were ready with an exotic front-engined machine, and newcomers Audi refined their 1999 R8R into the world-beating R8. Apart from private chassis built by Reynard, Lola and Courage, the LMP900 category looked rather barren.
Luckily the new class soon received support from an unexpected angle. American luxury car maker Cadillac was looking for a way into the world most famous endurance event, and saw the new LMP900 era as the perfect opportunity to grab a surprise win. The company had been known as “The Standard of the World“ in its glory days, but since the dismal 1980’s they were most remembered for building uninspiring grey boxes driven by equally colorless and impossibly old people. By competing at the highest level of endurance racing, Cadillac hoped to reinvent itself for a younger buying public.
Cadillac had first competed at Circuit de La Sarthe as early as 1950, and had made quite the impression. Despite having little experience with the rigors of a 24 hour road race, the plucky team performed admirably. The French press immediately resorted to affectionately nicknaming Cadillac’s unusual racers.
The stock body Series 61 earned the moniker “Petit Pataud“ (Little Clumsy) and its heavily modified streamlined sister gained the much deserved “Le Monstre“. Together, the big Yanks completely won over the hearts of the French crowd. Now, 50 years later, Cadillac hoped to repeat that success.
Fond memories of a bygone era aside, the people at Cadillac realized being competitive in the new millennium would be a whole different ballgame. The company had little to no experience with modern chassis design, so it decided to employ the services of a man who did. Bill Riley of Riley & Scott had been responsible for the successful MkIII WSC sportscar, which had seen widespread use on both sides of the Atlantic.
With financial backing from Cadillac, Riley constructed its first fully carbon fiber monocoque chassis. Double wishbone suspension was found on all four corners, with the springs and dampers operating via Formula One-style pushrod actuators. The radiators were moved to the sides of the car to lower the nose and decrease drag. As a finishing touch, the body was fitted with a fully functional egg-crate grill connecting the LMP to Cadillac’s road cars.
Cadillac’s contribution to the project consisted of a heavily modified 4.0L Northstar V8. The unit was derived from smallest member of the engine family, the L47 Aurora found in the eponymous sedan made by Oldsmobile. Under that brand the engine had previously seen service in the Indy Racing League, where it produced a staggering 650 horsepower in normally aspirated form
For the LMP machine, Cadillac sought assistance from McLaren Racing Engines to make the engine better suitably for long distance racing. McLaren added two giant IHI turbochargers to the V8. Fitted with mandatory intake restrictors, power dropped to 575 horsepower at 7000 rpm, and 600 nm (442 lb ft) of torque at 6000 rpm.
A 6-speed sequential gearbox from specialists X-Trac ensured the power reached the rear wheels. In all the car sailed comfortably under the 900 kg barrier, allowing for the use of ballast to optimize the car’s weight distribution.
A total of five chassis were built for Cadillac, of which two would become official factory cars. The second pair was provided to French veterans DAMS, with the fifth seeing use as a crash tester and show car. The Cadillac team was to make appearances at the American Le Mans Series, while DAMS focused on the Sports Racing World Cup, the successor to the ISRS.
Cadillac spared no expense and assembled a strong team of experienced sportscar racers. Butch Leitzinger (USA), Andy Wallace (GB) and Frank Lagorce (FRA) occupied the first Caddy, and Max Angelelli (ITA), Wayne Taylor (RSA) and former F1-driver Eric van de Poele (BEL) the second.
The car made its debut at the 24 Hours of Daytona with Cadillac’s factory team. Blessed by the absence of both Audi and Panoz, the team looked in for a chance at a good finish. All that stood in their way were privately entered and rather outdated WSC-machines, including the Lola B98/10, Reynard 2KQ, Norma M2000, Ferrari 333 SP, an ancient Spice SE90 stemming from the Group C era, and a host of Riley & Scott MkIII’s.
The absence of factory teams failed to result in a very competitive grid position for Cadillac though. The #5 of Angelelli/Taylor/Van de Poele was the quicker of the two in 5th, while the second #6 Leitzinger/Wallace/Lagorce car lagged behind in 8th. Ironically, the top two was occupied by Ford-powered Riley & Scott MkIII’s. Neither Caddy was very successful on race day, with #6 dropping out with a broken gearbox, and #5 finishing 14th, 86 laps behind the winning Dodge Viper GTS-R.
Next up on the calendar was the grueling 12 Hours of Sebring. The event was traditionally seen as rigorous practice for Le Mans, as the harsh bumpy surface of the old military airfield was a notorious car-breaker. If your car finished at Sebring, it would most likely keep together at Le Mans.
The race’s reputation meant that the factory teams from Audi and Panoz were in attendance, as well as a frenzy of privateers and last year’s Le Mans winners, BMW. It was clear that Cadillac had their work cut out for them, but they would receive support from customer team DAMS. The French outfit raced only a single car however, piloted by former F1-driver Eric Bernard (FRA) and experienced sportscar racers Emmanuel Collard (FRA) and Christophe Tinseau (FRA).
Again the LMP’s pace was lacking in qualifying. The trio qualified in formation with Cadillac 10th and 11th and DAMS 12th. In the process they had been soundly beaten by Audi, Panoz and BMW. Nevertheless the race did have a positive result, as the factory Northstar of Angelelli/Taylor/Van de Poele finished in a commendable 6th place. The sister car had dropped out early on due to an accident, and DAMS suffered clutch failure shortly after.
After the disappointing showing at Sebring, DAMS prepared a second car for their assault on the Sports Racing World Cup. For the shorter races the team paired Collard and Bernard in #11, while #12 was staffed by Tinseau and newcomer Marc Goossens (BEL). The first round was held at Circuito de Catalunya in Barcelona. There, Collard/Bernard qualified an impressive 2nd on the grid behind a Ferrari 333 SP, while Tinseau/Goossens were down in 10th. During the race the cars would again fall behind however, finishing 7th (#12) and 8th (#11).
The next round at Monza proved more positive, as the team improved to 6th (#11) and 7th (#12). Sadly the faster of the two cars spun out of the race, but a storming drive by Tinseau/Goossens resulted in a fine 4th place finish. The result would prove to be the best for DAMS in the SRWC. Apart from two 5th places at Silverstone (Collard/Bernard) and the Nürburgring (Goossens/Montagny), the cars would never reach the top 10 again during the 2000 season.
The shaky start to the season put a dent into Cadillac’s Le Mans aspirations. Fortunately, the team enjoyed successful run at the Le Mans Test without mechanical issues and with reasonably competitive times. Ironically the DAMS cars were proving to be the faster duo. It didn’t really matte however, as all four cars qualifying for the race was all Cadillac wanted to hear.
Because of the vastly longer race distance, DAMS drafted Franck Montagny (FRA) to join Eric Bernard and Emmanuel Collard in #3. For the #4 machine, Danish racer Kristian Kolby was selected to accompany Christophe Tinseau and Marc Goossens.
Eventually the cars all qualified relatively well, with DAMS #3 surprisingly quick in 9th position. The #1 Leitzinger/Wallace/Lagorce factory machine followed in 11th, trailed by the #2 Angelelli/Taylor/Van de Poele (19th) and the second DAMS (20th).
Disaster struck almost immediately for the #4 DAMS, as Chrisophe Tinseau found his engine to be on fire after just four laps. The other three machines continued on their way, but weren’t without their own issues.
Eric van de Poele was the subject of some slapstick antics when he inadvertently hit a stray wheel rolling out from the Corvette pits. His Northstar LMP was otherwise undamaged, but the Belgian would change that by spinning off at the first chicane. As a result the nosecone and rear wing were smashed in, and valuable time was lost in the pits repairing the stricken Caddy.
On a decidedly less humorous note, Frank Lagorce experienced a terrifying tire blowout at over 300 kilometers per hour on the Mulsanne Straight. As if by a miracle he kept it out of the wall, but the explosion had badly damaged the rear of the car. Extensive repairs then dropped the Cadillac out of a very respectable 8th place.
Because of the trouble encountered by the factory team, the sole surviving DAMS car lead the Cadillac charge. Sadly, all three failed to break the top ten. DAMS managed a colorless 19th place 68 laps down on the winning Audi R8. The factory cars fared even worse, with #1 in 21st and 77 laps down, followed by #2 in 22nd and 81 laps down.
Following the horrors of Le Mans, DAMS resumed their unsuccessful SRWC season and Cadillac returned to the ALMS. A single car was entered for Max Angelelli and Wayne Taylor at round eight of the championship held at Portland International Raceway. The pair qualified admirably in 9th position, and eventually finished an encouraging 8th.
Cadillac closed out a lackluster 2000 season with Petit Le Mans, held at the wonderful Road Atlanta track owned by Don Panoz. All four cars were reunited for the event, and DAMS was once again the fastest in qualifying.
The #32 of Tinseau/Goossens was highest on the board in 8th, closely followed by #31 Collard/Bernard in 9th. The factory Caddilac’s once again lagged behind, with #19 Angelelli/Taylor/Van de Poele 11th and #9 Leitzinger/Wallace/Lagorce 12th.
For once the race went surprisingly well for the Cadillac contingent. Three out of four cars finally made it into the top ten. DAMS unsurprisingly finished ahead of the works cars in 6th with #32. However the factory cars were able to stick a lot closer this time, resulting in 7th for #19 and 8th for #9 despite a costly spin by Butch Leitzinger. The second DAMS had fallen back to 13th.
With their tough debut season over, Cadillac had come to the conclusion that success on the highest level wasn’t as easy as Audi made it look. The company realized a ton more time, money and physical effort would be needed to catch up to the relentlessly quick Germans. With this in mind they contracted renowned designer Nigel Stroud to extensively modify the Northstar LMP for the 2001 season.
The Cadillac Northstar LMP was an ambitious attempt at re-entering the world of endurance racing from one of the oldest manufacturers on the planet. Cadillac hoped to cash in on the 50th anniversary of their debut at the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans, and get rid of the dusty image it had acquired during that time.
Unfortunately the wide-eyed company swiftly discovered the brutal nature of modern endurance racing, and saw itself lag behind by a wide margin. Embarrassingly the works cars were continuously upstaged by the customer cars from DAMS, and lacked the pace to take the fight to the established brands. As a result Cadillac’s anniversary party turned into a disaster with none of its cars able to graze the top ten. The illustrious company refused to give up quite so easily though, and would press on for better results in 2001.