Stockholm Syndrome - 1996 Mercedes-McLaren F1 GTR Test Mule
Because of the immense popularity of the Group C prototype racing formula introduced in 1982, Grand Touring cars had become completely obsolete. The prototype machinery had slowly but steadily forced traditional GT-cars out of contention after the failure of the new Group B GT regulations, leading to a total absence of GT-competitors by the late 1980’s. In addition to the undeserved death of the category, this development meant that if something were to happen to Group C, the whole sport would descend into chaos.
Taking advantage of this fragile situation, Formula One boss Bernie Ecclestone created the circumstances for an extinction-level event. By adding expensive F1-engines and eliminating the privateer C2 class, he reduced the World Sportscar Championship powerhouse to mere rubble in just two short years, The monumental crater left by the fallen WSC was soon filled however, as with plucky privateers running mildly modified production-derived sportscars stepped up to fill in the gaps.
Through the combined efforts of Jürgen Barth, Patrick Peter and Stéphane Rate, several small national cup classes were combined in the new BPR Global GT Series in 1994. With the insane prototypes of the 80’s gone, all eyes were on the modified supercars duking it out in the BPR.
In just three seasons, the series gained nearly the same following as the Group C era had attained. As a result, the relatively humble championship quickly attracted the attention of high-profile manufacturers like Jaguar, Chrysler, Lotus, Ferrari, Porsche, McLaren and Mercedes-Benz.
During the rise of the BPR Global GT Series and the resurgence of GT-racing, German automotive colossus Mercedes-Benz had been busy toiling away at touring car racing. The company had been competing in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meischerschaft since 1985, and snapped up the title in 1992. That year would prove to be a pivotal one, as the cancellation of Group A gave rise to the new FIA Class 1 Touring Car formula.
Unlike Group A, the cars no longer needed to be strictly production based, and were limited only in displacement and aspiration. The Class 1 revolution saw incredibly intricate four wheel drive designs from Alfa Romeo and Opel take center stage, but Mercedes-Benz still managed to clinch the 1994 and 1995 titles.
For 1995, the DTM also featured an international variant contested outside of Germany. Inevitability this morphed the championship into the overly ambitious International Touring Car Championship, which promptly collapsed under its own weight due to costs spiraling out of control.
As the ITCC crumbled to dust, Mercedes was left with empty hands. Opel and Alfa Romeo had pulled out of the championship, leaving the Germans with nowhere to race. In response to this, the firm turned its attention to the rapidly developing BPR Global GT Series, and decided to engineer a long-awaited comeback to GT-racing. The illustrious brand had last competed on the GT-racing scene as far back as the mid-1950’s, before the Pierre Levegh’s infamously horrendous accident at the 1955 24 Hours of Le Mans forced a departure from motorsport in its entirety.
Not keen on starting from scratch, Mercedes and its technological partner AMG paid close attention to the brand new Porsche 911 GT1, which represented the one of the most extreme interpretations of the GT1 rules yet. In a similar fashion to the SARD MC8-R, the 911 employed a completely reverse design philosophy. Instead of converting a road going sportscar to racing spec, Porsche’s engineers had built a racing car that happened to be road legal. This gave the big uncompromising Porker a massive advantage over the competition, as it would be totally dialed in for the task at hand. Wisely, Mercedes elected to follow in their compatriots footsteps.
With the plans laid out, the company aimed for a debut in the newly formed FIA GT Championship, the logical successor to BPR Global GT Series. This presented a daunting task to the design team, as they only had six months to develop a fully race-ready car. With such a narrow window of time, the team tried everything to shorten development time.
For this reason the engine was based on the ordinary M120 6.0L V12, which was substantially reworked by AMG to produce the 600 horsepower LS600. With the power supply sorted, a six-speed sequential transmission was conjured up to transfer it to the road. So far development was going swimmingly, but soon there was a problem. The crew had very little time to construct a dedicated chassis for testing purposes, which meant they needed to search for a suitable vehicle elsewhere.
After some deliberation, Mercedes settled on trying to buy a used McLaren F1 GTR, the car which had won the final season of BPR. In contrast to the 911 GT1 and Mercedes’ planned racer, the original F1 GTR was nothing more than the world’s fastest car with some tweaks to make it fit for racing. The 1996-spec machine featured a host of improvements on that front, but couldn’t hope to keep up with the Porsche’s raw pace.
Despite this, Mercedes saw the McLaren as the ideal test mule. Like their car, the McLaren was powered by a 6.0L V12, although it was built by rival company BMW. The similar layout made retrofitting the F1 with the AMG engine relatively easy. Additionally, the car used a carbon-fiber monocoque chassis, a feature Mercedes was also planning to incorporate into the new weapon. Both traits were certainly beneficial to the company’s testing program, but most of all the Germans were looking for a way to effectively test the CLK GTR’s aerodynamic concepts on a racing testbed.
Eventually, the team succeeded in acquiring a 1996 F1 GTR from French squad Larbre Compétition. In spite of the budding relationship between McLaren and Mercedes in Formula One, the purchase of the Larbre car was done in complete secrecy to avoid upsetting the British firm. The chassis (#11R) had seen action in the 1996 BPR Global GT Series with Jean-Denis Delétraz (CH), Fabien Giroix (FRA) and Didier Cottaz (FRA), scoring a career highest of second place at the 4 Hours of Monza.
Upon arrival at Mercedes motorsport facility, the McLaren was completely stripped and fitted with the AMG drivetrain. The front and rear sections of the car were extensively modified as well to more closely resemble the profile of the coming CLK GTR. At the front a longer nose with a faux Mercedes-grill and and a plethora of air vents was introduced, while the rear section was transformed into a radical longtail creation featuring massive spoilers and weirdly stacked taillights.
After the mutation process had been completed, Mercedes took the cross-bred monstrosity to the Spanish capitol of Madrid. Just north of the sprawling city, the former F1-track Circuito del Jarama laid waiting for the piercing scream of a freshly built AMG V12. Former F1-driver Bernd Schneider was given the honors to conduct the first test with the new mule.
Schneider was one of Mercedes’ most experienced and fastest drivers, and had won them the DTM championship in 1995. His prowess propelled the grotesque abomination to within the 1:28 bracket, some two seconds faster than the pole time set by the Harrods F1 GTR at the 1996 BPR race. Just as overheating problems were becoming a concern, Bernd made a mistake and sent the car into the wall. The damage to the nose proved too severe to repair on the spot, and the test was over after four days. Word of the test reached the media, which forced Mercedes to stop using the Frankenstein-mobile.
Even though Bernd Schneider’s mishap had cut the test short, Mercedes had still gained enough data to push the project forward. The goal to start the 1997 FIA GT Championship was reached with time to spare, and the CLK GTR was free to terrorize the world of GT-racing, and eventually destroy the GT1 category altogether
Since it had outlived its usefulness, the McLaren-based test mule was discarded by Mercedes as the GT-program took off in earnest. Three years after the events at Jarama, the car emerged on the auction floor of RM Sotheby’s. The car had received a full restoration including a new BMW S70/2 V12, correct bodywork and its original Franck Muller Watch orange/black livery. In this immaculate condition, the F1 sold to a British gentleman who promptly had it converted for road use.
The Mercedes-McLaren F1 GTR test mule was the result of a pragmatic approach by Mercedes-Benz, which desperately needed a platform to test their new engine and aerodynamics package. With just six months to build a class-leading racing car, the Germans resorted to kidnapping the most successful competitor they could find. In complete secrecy the company bought the rival McLaren F1 GTR, and brainwashed it into thinking it was part of the family.
The car was completely assimilated, with its internal organs replaced by alien technology. Extensive body modifications made the car virtually unrecognizable to its former parent, further cementing its loyalty to a new master. Totally forgetting its roots, the mutated machine provided its malevolent creator with invaluable data, which was eventually used to lay waste to any and all opposition. By switching sides, chassis #11R had doomed the very existence of GT1-racing.