Unfortunate Son - 2003 Pagani Zonda GR

The noble art of GT-racing had experienced a massive resurgence in the second half of the 1990’s. Ever since the demise of Group 5 in 1982, the world of endurance racing had largely forgotten about the Grand Touring car. Under Group B GT rules, homologation was an overly complicated and monumentally costly affair, leading to no major manufacturers taking up the challenge.

Without big brands on board to build the cars, the category died in silence. Instead, teams and constructors had taken to running much cheaper Group C2 prototypes. As a result the GT would all but disappear from the world stage in favor of the closed top sportscars.

The cheap and cheerful C2 prototypes spelled the end for large scale GT Racing in the 1980's.

The cheap and cheerful C2 prototypes spelled the end for large scale GT Racing in the 1980's.

By 1993 however, the World Sportscar Championship had disappeared after an agonizingly slow slide into oblivion. New Formula One style engines, a chaotic race schedule and the banishment of the cheaper C2 prototypes had killed the incredibly popular series, and left the door open for the return of the GT. In 1994 BPR Global GT Series emerged as the premier endurance racing championship in the wake of the WSC’s painful death. Within this power vacuum, the series rapidly gained popularity.

The championship’s success lead to increased manufacturer interest, and annexation of the series by the FIA in 1997. The FIA GT Championship was born. Meanwhile the definition of a GT car had become very loose with the arrival of homologation specials like the SARD MC8-R, Porsche 911 GT1 and the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR. The 1998 FIA GT season saw a total domination by the German juggernaut, as it won ten out of ten rounds. The CLK’s relentless pace was so overbearing every other brand pulled out of the 1999 season, which saw the FIA forced to contest it under GT2 regulations.

The tyrannical Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR single-handedly ended GT1's first iteration.

The tyrannical Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR single-handedly ended GT1's first iteration.

For the new millennium, the FIA promoted GT2 to the top spot by imaginatively renaming it GT1. With this change the governing body hoped to restore order in the series. Soon manufacturer interest returned with entries from Chrysler, Marcos, Ferrari, Lister, Porsche and Chevrolet. As the new GT1 cars were a lot closer to their road going counterparts, it had once again become relatively easy to enter a new machine into international GT racing.

The new situation gave esteemed touring car and prototype racer Toine Hezemans (NED) a brilliant idea. Hezemans had earned his stripes in the 1970’s as a factory driver for Alfa Romeo, Abarth, Ford and BMW, winning the European Touring Car Championship twice (1970: Alfa Romeo GTAm, 1973: BMW 3.0 CSL), the 1976 European GT Championship (Porsche 934) and the legendary Targa Florio (Alfa Romeo 33/3) in 1971. His racing prowess was matched by a cunning business instinct, which lead him to knock on the doors of Pagani Automobili S.p.A.

The original 1999 Pagani Zonda C12.

The original 1999 Pagani Zonda C12.

Hezemans had seen the fledgling company’s exotic Zonda C12 model, and had been swept away by its spectacular looks. Realizing the door to the FIA GT Championship was wide open, he went to Horacio Pagani with a proposition to turn his road going masterpiece into a fire breathing racing weapon. Pagani was impressed with his professionalism, and improved of the plan to take the Zonda to the track.

During his racing days, Toine Hezemans had forged good ties with Mercedes-Benz, Pagani’s engine supplier. He remembered the planet-crushing speed of the CLK GTR, and suggested using his contacts to try and lease some of the GTR’s furious 630 horsepower LS600 6.0L V12 engines. The units had been sitting in storage at AMG ever since the car caused the cancellation of the original GT1 category in 1998, and were the perfect fit for the Zonda.

The disused AMG V12 engine was ideal for the racing Zonda.

The disused AMG V12 engine was ideal for the racing Zonda.

Horacio Pagani arranged for a meeting with AMG representatives. During the meeting the AMG-men were remarkably positive, giving Pagani and Hezemans enough hope to start the construction of the first ever Pagani race car. Although converting a road car to a GT racer had been made much easier since the 2000 regulation change, there was still a ton of work to do.

Even though the Zonda was a wonderful piece of engineering for the street, it had never been designed with motorsport in mind. Among the many modifications were central locking wheel hubs, a sequential six-speed gearbox and an entirely different rear subframe which allowed the engine to be placed farther forward to improve weight distribution. The car’s distinctive four-piped exhaust arrangement was abandoned for a less restrictive two pipe system to improve performance. As the pipes had been re-routed, the decorative trim normally surrounding them was instead used to house LED warning lights.

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As the team was working on the car, a devastating phone call came in from Germany. The positive meeting with AMG had failed to deliver results. As a matter of fact, the power guru’s were more than willing to supply the engines, but had been forbidden to do so by Mercedes-Benz. The automotive giant was not pleased with the idea of one of their bespoke racing engines being used in a private project.

Mercedes’ refusal to deliver the engines was a major blow to Toine Hezeman’s confidence. Left with no other option, he resorted to using the 6.0L M120 V12, the engine upon which the AMG LS600 had been based. In the Zonda this engine pumped out nearly 400 horsepower, which was nowhere near enough to be competitive in GT1. To get the units up to speed, Hezemans sent a couple over to German tuner Breuer. The end result was 580 horsepower, some 50 less than the factory AMG powerplants.

The short overhangs front and rear prevented the car from generating sufficient downforce.

The short overhangs front and rear prevented the car from generating sufficient downforce.

With the engine problem sorted, Toine Hezemans move to correct the car’s aerodynamic shortcomings. The Zonda possessed very short overhangs front and rear, which were great for looks but provided very little downforce.

Hezemans intended to elongated the car’s nose and tail sections to make it more stable at high speeds, but the passionate artist in Horacio Pagani vehemently protested at the mere notion of molesting his beloved machine. Hezemans tried to convince him with data from a wind tunnel test, but the Argentinian refused to budge. Pagani got his way, as the Zonda’s body remained untouched.

When the finished car made its way to the weighing bridge, he was shocked to find out the car still weighed 1150 kg (2535). Horacio Pagani had ensured him the street legal Zonda weighed 1225 kg (2700 lbs), which is how the Zonda had been advertised. This promised a sub 1000 kg (2204) car after the extensive weight reduction program. Feeling betrayed, Hezemans went to Pagani for an explanation. A heated discussion followed, after which Pagani allowed the Dutchman to weigh a standard Zonda to test his claims.

Hezemans rolled the car onto the scales, and was greeted by a reading of no less than 1375 kg (3031 lbs). this was 150 kg heavier than Pagani had claimed, and presented a major performance drawback. The team could not legally lighten the car any further. Couple to the rather underpowered engine, this meant they were stuck with a car that would accelerate slower, turn worse, brake worse and be much harder on brakes, tires and fuel than they had hoped for.

Despite the setbacks, Hezemans decided to assemble a new racing team around the car. He had a controlling stake in American outfit Carsport America, and chose to establish an Italian arm by the name of Carsport Modena. Driving talent came in the form of Anthony Kumpen (BEL) and son Mike Hezemans.

With Mike Hezemans at the wheel, the car was tested for the first time at Misano. The car was making all the right noises and went like a dream. The plagued team was relieved at the car’s encouraging pace, but twenty laps later their smiles would be turned upside down. The engine had suddenly disintegrated, losing all of its oil and bending all of its 48 valves. The breakdown came completely out of the blue, and left the engineers scratching their heads.

After some research, the team found out the works CLK GTR engines had seen the same catastrophic failures. The problem turned out to be related to the hydraulic timing chain tensioner. In a normal road engine this system worked perfectly, but the savagery of the quick-shifting sequential gearbox had completely overwhelmed it.

This caused the engine’s timing to go out of wack, the pistons to hit the valves and the engine to go up in smoke. AMG’s engineers had solved the fault by replacing the timing chain with a system of sprockets, but neither Hezemans nor Pagani had the resources to apply the same remedy.

Mike Hezemans getting out of the way of an Audi R8, Sebring 2003.

Mike Hezemans getting out of the way of an Audi R8, Sebring 2003.

Fitted with a fixed timing chain which robbed the engine of even more power, the Zonda was sent off to Florida for the 2003 12 Hours of Sebring. Held on an old military airfield with a variety of disastrously bumpy concrete and tarmac surfaces, the legendary event was notorious for its formidable car-breaking potential. If the Zonda could survive here, it would survive anywhere.

Mike Hezemans and Anthony Kumpen were joined by Ricardo Gonzalez (MEX) for the occasion, and were faced with an armada of more proven machinery. The Zonda was entered into the top flight ALMS GTS class, which included cars like the Chevrolet Corvette C5-R, Ferrari 550 GTS, Saleen S7-R, the Ferrari 550 Millennio, and Carsport America’s own Dodge Viper GTS-R. Unfortunately the Pagani lacked the pace to run with the rest of the GTS field, qualifying in 25th overall and last in class. The car’s lap time was a full three seconds slower than Carsport’s Dodge Viper, and six seconds slower than the pole-sitting Corvette. On race day the team’s experience was equally painful, as Mike Hezemans recorded an engine failure after just six laps.

The Zonda had an abysmal debut at Sebring.

The Zonda had an abysmal debut at Sebring.

With the horror show of Sebring over, the team regrouped in Italy and prepared for the Le Mans Test. This event was held a full month before the actual race to allow new teams to prove themselves, and give rookie drivers the chance to clock their mandatory night driving hours. Any cars or drivers deemed to slow to compete would be denied entry to the famous 24 hour event.

Le Mans Test, 2003.

Le Mans Test, 2003.

Mike Hezemans and Anthony Kumpen were joined by David Hart (NED) who also brought in money from his real estate agency. The trio could do little to make up for the car’s flaws however, as they could only manage a time good enough for 36th on the leaderboard. This dismal performance resulted in them dangling at the end of the GTS field once more. Nevertheless, the time had been good enough for the car to qualify for the main event.

Team Carsport Modena. From left to right: Toine Hezemans, Mike Hezemans, Anthony Kumpen and David Hart.

Team Carsport Modena. From left to right: Toine Hezemans, Mike Hezemans, Anthony Kumpen and David Hart.

A month later, it was time for the team to try and qualify for the race proper. For the first time in its short competition life, the Zonda GR managed to secure a grid position better than last. Clocking at time of 4:04.437, the temperamental Italian would start 31st and second to last in GTS, as the Scorp Motorsport Viper had been suffering from engine issues. The time was some eleven seconds slower than the GTS pole-sitting Ferrari 550 GTS (3:53.278)

The lack of pace had by now become familiar, but the team had another recurring worry. Practice and qualifying had taken the life of yet another Breuer-prepared V12. Frustrated with the appalling reliability of the car and left without usable engines, Toine Hezemans moved to install a brand new, but bone-stock 400 horsepower example.

Mike Hezemans in front of the lone Norma M2000, Le Mans 2003.

Mike Hezemans in front of the lone Norma M2000, Le Mans 2003.

He felt the car was embarrassingly slow already and wouldn’t finish anyway, so why the hell not? The team obliged to his demands and fitted the showroom model. A short test run on the adjacent airfield followed, during which the stock engine broke down as well. Hezemans remained determined to at least start, and instructed his crew to repair the car again. Eventually the car did make it to the grid, only to drop out after ten measly laps due to a gearbox failure.

Force One Racing attempting to qualify for the 2004 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Force One Racing attempting to qualify for the 2004 24 Hours of Le Mans.

After yet another crushing failure, Toine Hezemans pulled the plug on the project. The car was sidelined until former F1 driver Philip Alliot asked about leasing it for use in the 2004 24 Hours of Le Mans. Alliot was at the head of French outfit Force One Racing, and badly needed a car.

Hezemans agreed to supply the car to Force One, where it was given to Bruno Besson (FRA), David Hallyday (FRA) (son of famous singer Johnny Hallyday) and Anthony Kumpen. The team could manage no more than 41st position at the 2004 Le Mans Test, leading them to abandon the 2004 race.

In spite of yet another disappointment, Toine Hezemans had retained the Zonda GR and instigated another round of technical improvements and testing. Free from the pressures of a race schedule, his crew was able to sort out the engine, fit a superior X-Trac transmission and fit an extended tail section and larger splitter to counter the car’s stability issues. During a test session at Vallelunga the car was finally on the pace, but a massive crash by Anthony Kumpen swiftly put an end to the fun.

The Zonda GR in Czech ownership, Monza 2007.

The Zonda GR in Czech ownership, Monza 2007.

Now thoroughly sick of the car, Hezemans sold the Zonda to an unnamed gentleman from the Czech republic for a sum of €200,000-. Compared to the million euros the car had cost to build, this was loose change. But Hezemans just wanted to be done with it. He had spent over a year trying to get the stubborn car to work, but had all been in vain.

Nogaro, 2008.

Nogaro, 2008.

In Czech hands, the Zonda GR kept racing in local championships however, and continued to receive updates. Slowly but surely the car became completely unrecognizable, finally taking the form of a grotesque LMP-like monstrosity. Despite the Dr. Frankenstein practices the car has suffered, it still remains as the one and only official racing Pagani. As a result, its current owner has received offers reaching into the million in spite of its mutilated physique.

The Zonda GR wore many faces, Hungaroring 2012.

The Zonda GR wore many faces, Hungaroring 2012.

As a road car the Pagani was fantastic, one of the most beautiful cars I’ve ever seen, but as a racecar it was a total drama. the base car too heavy already, which leaves you unable to make it light enough. But the biggest problem was that we weren’t able to get those AMG engines. It was a great project, but all we got was misery and it cost a fortune. I lost 1.5 years of my life. I’ve spent nights awake worrying about it!
— Toine Hezemans.
The GR has progressively been mutated into a monster. Note the peculiar four exhaust arrangement.

The GR has progressively been mutated into a monster. Note the peculiar four exhaust arrangement.

The Pagani Zonda GR was an ambitious project dreamed up by an experienced racing driver an cunning businessman. Through his charm and no-nonsense attitude, Toine Hezemans managed to convince Horacio Pagani that racing was the way to go. Sadly he encountered problems early on after Mercedes refused to supply engines. Adding insult to injury, Pagani objected to modifying the body and lied about the car’s weight.

The end result was an underpowered, overweight, and aerodynamically inefficient machine which didn’t even stand a semblance of a chance against the established order. The project had been mired by setbacks and rushed into service, which lead to dismal performances and constant breakdowns.

Toine Hezemans and his crew had worked their hearts out for over a year, but the car seemed to be unwilling to finish a race. No matter what they did the Zonda refused to become competitive. One could almost say it felt rejected by its German parent. Pagani would never enter a car into any form of racing ever again.