In Project CARS 2, you can drive the cars that took the first 10 spots at 1998’s epic Le Mans 24 Hours. But can you change history and get one of the challengers across the line first?
Porsche, today, is the world’s most profitable motoring brand; back in 1998, though, for the automaker’s 50th anniversary, the balance sheets in Zuffenhausen were not quite as flush with cash; the company had yet to embark on the Cayenne Sports Utility Vehicle that would change the face of the brand, and as a factory, they’d been out of sportscar racing for almost a decade.
That all changed when McLaren won Le Mans with their GTR in 1995 under the newly introduced GT rules. Porsche sat up and took note. Here was an ideal opportunity to return to racing with their road-based 911.
Designing suspensions at their road car division was Norbert Singer, the engineer who’d been at the helm of all of Porsche’s Le Mans triumphs going back to their first win in 1970; it took little to persuade him to return to the fray to head-up development of the 911 GT1 program.
In 1996, Singer and his team assessed their road-going 911. It was, they soon realized, too heavy, too soft, and had nowhere near the grunt of the big BMW V12 in the McLaren. Worse still, Singer—who’d introduced ground effects to sportscar racing with the all-conquering 956/962 (coming to Project CARS 2)—was convinced that the engine at the back of the 911 would prove an unsurmountable roadblock for the 911: with the flat 6 hanging back there, ground effects would be seriously curtailed. There was but one option.
“We took a 911, cut it in half, and turned the back around to put the engine ahead of the rear wheels,” Singer recalled a decade later, in Motor Sport Magazine.
The same engine used back when Porsche ruled the world with the 962C—the 3.2-litre—was pushed mid-ship, and then inverted (which meant the gearbox had six reverse gears!), and the result was the world’s first-ever mid-engined 911 when the car was homologated for street use. This was also the first 911 to be water-cooled, replacing the air-cooled engines of lore.
In 1996, the 911 GT1 was ready for its debut at Le Mans. It won the GT1 class.
For 1997, the FIA decided to make GT1 their primary class, and introduced the FIA GT Championship. Their goal was to bring in more manufacturers, and that duly happened; Mercedes came, as did BMW, Lotus, Panoz, Toyota, Nissan, and others.
The rules, though, were punitive on turbos, leaving Porsche struggling all season against the normally aspirated V12 lump in the now-dominant Mercedes CLKs. An evolution of the GT1—the GT1 Evo—did little to help, despite upping the aero’ and downforce, and clocking in at over 326kmh (202mph) down the Mulsanne.
Porsche needed something more for a shot at the outright win at Le Mans in 1998 for their 50th anniversary—a win that could come only if they defeated the Mercedes CLKs. Which begged the question—what had Mercedes done to suddenly leap to GT dominance in 1997?
The front-runner: Mercedes-Benz CLK-LM
The Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR was the reverse of what the FIA had intended when they introduced the new GT1 category. The intent had been for road-based cars to be entered into racing, but Mercedes, taking advantage of a loophole, chose to do the exact opposite: They built a race car for the FIA GT Championship, and then, on the back of that, built the cars needed for homologation. In other words, what they had designed was a race car from the start, rather than a road car modified into a race car.
Mercedes had pretty much stumbled into GT dominance, too; the CLK GTR had come as a response to the end of the German DTM championship that had folded at the end of ’96, which had left Mercedes scrambling to find an outlet for their race program. The decision was then taken to turn their sports arm, AMG, to creating a new FIA GT Championship runner for the new GT regs.
Mercedes chose to shove a V12 into their new car, behind the cockpit, and covered the race-spec’ chassis with carbon fiber. Four short months after the initial blueprints were drawn up, two CLK GTRs were entered for the 1997 FIA GT Championship. It took two races to work out the car’s initial niggles, but by Silverstone, the CLKs were humming, and by the time a third CLK was entered for the Nürburgring round, the Mercedes had begun to dominate the series against the McLaren GTRs that had previously been the benchmark.
Six wins meant the championship was secured at Laguna Seca in the late summer of ’97.
With the GT Championship won, Mercedes began dreaming of bigger fish—winning the greatest sportscar race of them all, Le Mans, in 1998. The length of the race, though, meant Mercedes needed to alter their car significantly from the sprint-based CLKs. The biggest decision was to replace the V12—which they felt was not reliable enough for the 24 hours—with the old-and-trusted Group C V8 from the late ’80s. The body also needed to be altered to lessen drag and increase overall top speed, and all sorts of work was done to increase cooling to brakes and engine. The new car was named the CLK LM (for Le Mans), and this is the car that comes with Project CARS 2. Four cars were built for racing, one to meet homologation. Two were entered for the 1998 Le Mans 24 hours.
Back at Porsche, Singer began to understand the key to Mercedes’ success. Porsche, he realized, had been doing things the wrong way (albeit in the spirit of the rules)—they were building a race car on the back of their road car, but it was painfully obvious that success could come only from building a race car first, and then meeting the low standard of homologation. Porsche got to work.
Over in Japan, meanwhile, Toyota and Nissan were in the final process of finalizing their Le Mans runners for 1998, and they hadn’t missed the lesson learnt from the dominant Mercedes program.
The challengers from the Rising Sun …
Toyota had shifted its sportscar program in ’95 over to production-based GT racing. They had created a spec’ racer which was then homologated for road use—the Toyota SARD MC8-R that came with a turbo V8, and which proved useful in the GT Championship. Useful, but not a winner. For ’97, Toyota abandoned their plans for Le Mans in order to focus on building a new LM car for a shot at overall glory in ’98.
Like Porsche, Toyota—and their European racing division which, along with Dallara, was tasked with building the new race car—decided to take their cue from Mercedes. That meant they needed only to build one road car for homologation, and since that car would never actually be sold to a customer, it could be built without basic luxuries such as air con’, radios, air bags, or other weighty luxuries.
The second trick they used was even more creative. GT rules specified that cars had to come with storage space capable of carrying a suitcase. Mercedes used a cubby hole at the rear of the car (you needed to dismantle the diffuser to get to it, but it met the rules), which prompted Toyota to see how far the loophole could be exploited: they claimed—successfully—that their fuel tank, empty during scrutineering, was large enough to carry the required suitcase. The Automobile Club de l’Ouest (the ACO, who are in charge of Le Mans) had no choice but to grudgingly accept Toyota’s reading of the rulebook.
With that sorted, Toyota set to work creating their one-off racer, the GT-One (model TS020) that is coming to Project CARS 2.
The TS020 came, like the CLK, with a carbon fibre body, but rather than the normally aspirated V8 on the Mercedes, Toyota chose to run their turbocharged 3.6-litre V8 which showed not only much promise in the grunt department, but was also considered pretty-much bulletproof.
Over at Nissan, meanwhile, hopes were pinned for an overall win on the Nissan R390 GT1 (coming to Project CARS 2), developed from their ’97 mid-engined road car (though, again, only one example of that car was ever built). The R390 program came off the back of Nissan’s return to sportscar racing with their Nismo Skyline GT-R which had quickly gone south when Nissan learnt the same lesson Porsche and Toyota had learnt—a car that was built for the road, and then tuned for racing, had no chance against bespoke race cars.
In response, Nissan had turned to Tom Walkinshaw’s TWR concern, which was now tasked with building a new racer for Le Mans alongside Nissan’s race division, Nismo. First thing Nissan did was throw out the classic RB26DETT inline-6 from the Skyline and replace it with the lump that had powered the legendary Nissan R89C (which is also coming with Project CARS 2) from their glorious Group C years in the late ’80s.
This was a 3.5-litre V8 capable of 650hp in its new-fangled evolution. For the body, TWR entrusted the design to Nismo’s Yakuta Hagiwara, and Tony Southgate, who’d designed and been a consultant on both the Le Mans-winning Jaguar XJR-9, and the Ferrari 333 SP (both coming to Project CARS 2). The similarity between the Jaguar XJR-15 (an evolution of the XJR-9) and the Nissan R390 GT1 is not a coincidence: even the cockpit was almost a carbon copy of the Jaguar. The car was ready for Le Mans in ’97, but when it failed initial scrutineering, the quick fixes introduced to make the car eligible to race eventually sealed their fate, despite qualifying on pole for pre-qualifying.
For ’98, they increased the capacity for luggage (using a similar loophole employed by Mercedes), added a rear-diffuser, an enormous wing, a “long tail” for speed down the Mulsanne, and came ready to win.
The challenge from the USA
Back in the US, Reynard and Panoz had created a bespoke racer for the FIA GT Championship for ’97. Don Panoz, however, insisted that the new car had to have a close resemblance to his road-going Esperante, and that meant the engine—contrary to what Toyota, Porsche, Mercedes, and Nissan were doing—was placed ahead of the driver for the Project CARS-bound Esperante GTR-1 (it comes to Project CARS 2 with the Motorsport Pack).
The engine—a decidedly American Roush Racing-tuned Ford 6.0-litre V8—was dumped behind the front axle, which allowed the car’s centre of gravity to echo that of a mid-engined car. But that also created some unique design issues: with the cockpit pushed backward from the enormous nose, the car earned the name “Batmobile”. One road car was built for homologation, “bought” by Don Panoz himself.
The car was successful; in ’98 it would finish fifth in the FIA GT Championship, and for Le Mans ’98, Panoz would enter two Esperante GT-R 1s.
The challenge from the UK
McLaren were not sitting about on their laurels with their McLaren F1 GTR that had won Le Mans in 1995 against LMPs. Unlike the other challengers to Mercedes, though, McLaren was not in a position to create a bespoke racer to replace the GTR, and had to settle for an extensive modification program to get the GTR back to the front.
The McLaren GTR “Long Tail” coming to Project CARS 2 was the result. While the monocoque remained much the same as the F1 GTR, the real focus of attention from engineers at Woking was updating the aero’, and tuning the engine.
That meant the entire body was rebuilt in the windtunnel, and key to improving the aero’ was a longer nose and, of course, tail. The BMW S70 V12 was actually dropped to 6-litres to improve reliability while retaining horsepower in the 600 range. The 5-speed ’box was then replaced with a state-of-the-art 6-speed sequential. With that work done, McLaren built three F1 GTs for homologation.
Meanwhile, back in Zuffenhausen, Singer was done developing the Project CARS 2-bound 911 GT1-98. This was Porsche’s first-ever carbon fiber monocoque, and a car designed from the ground-up as a race car. Powerful and quick, it also bore all the hallmarks of a Singer-designed Le Mans racer—pace fused with reliability.
It’d been a long time since so many manufacturers came to Le Mans with a chance at an overall win. The race was set-up to be a classic.
Le Mans 1998
In front of 190,000 fans on June 6, 1998, the 24 Heures du Mans began with Bernd Schneider’s Mercedes-Benz CLK LM on pole. The Mercedes had been fast throughout qualifying, and was clearly the car to beat on race day. When the lights went it green, it quickly began gapping the field.
Not since 1952 had Mercedes-Benz had won Le Mans as a factory team (the Project CARS 2-bound Sauber C9 Mercedes-Benz effort being the last time they’d tasted overall victory a decade earlier), and it looked as if all the time and money spent by the competition to try to get on par with the CLK LMs would prove fruitless.
Until the impossible happened.
Before the fourth hour, both Mercedes cars were out. The V8s that had replaced the all-winning V12 from ’97 for the sake of reliability had both failed, and suddenly the race was wide-open.
The Toyota TS020s proved blisteringly quick, with Martin Brundle duly taking the fastest lap of the race on lap 89. On the 14th hour, though, the Toyota wrecked out of the race, leaving only Thierry Boutsen’s Toyota in the running, but that, too, failed on the 23rd hour (Toyota’s jinx at Le Mans has a long and storied history) with gearbox issues. That left the McLaren GTR Long Tails, and Nissan R390s to duke it out with the new 911.
After 24 hours of racing, though, it was Singer’s new 911 GT1-98 Porsche that took the checkers.
Reliability allied with speed had yet again won the day (and night) for Porsche.
In Project CARS 2, you can choose to mimic the 1998 Le Mans classic with the same weather, the same cars, and the same 24 hour race with the Porsche 911 GT1-98, Nissan R390 GT1, McLaren F1 GTR Long Tail, Panoz Esperante GTR-1, Toyota GT-One, Mercedes-Benz CLK-LM, and even the first of the LMP1 finishers, the Ferrari 333 SP that finished eighth.
You can also do much of the 10 round GT1 Championship of 1998 which included Project CARS 2-bound Le Mans, and Motopark Oschersleben, Red Bull Ring, Laguna Seca Raceway, Silverstone Circuit, and the Hockenheimring.
Can you alter the course of history?
The Panoz Esperante GTR-1 comes with the Motorsports Car Pack — Season Pass Exclusive. Pre-order now.