CFM: The 1997 Le Mans 24 Hours – A Review
Published at Chequered Flag Motorsport on 16th June 2007
The 1997 Le Mans 24 Hour Race will go down as one of the toughest, most exciting and most significant editions of the annual endurance race. The race went down to the last hours, with many twists, turns, and stories to tell.
Before the event had started in earnest, pre-qualifying had been marred by a tragic turn of events. 21 year old Sebastien Enjolras, driving a Welter Racing prototype, was killed in a huge accident at the kink on the flat-out section between Arnage and the Porsche Curves. The one-piece bodywork broke, and Enjolras lost control. His car flew into nearby trees, and he was killed on impact. A promising talent, he had been competing in French F3 alongside the likes of Oriol Servia, Stephane Sarrazin and Marcel Fassler. Interesting his career had been marred by allegations of drug-use. Nonetheless, his demise was a tragic one, and thankfully no one has been killed at the race since.
Eighties F1 stars, Michele Alboreto and Stefan Johansson, aided by young Tom Kristensen, took pole for the 24 Hour, in their TWR Porsche. The car had won in 1996 in the hands of Alex Wurz, Manuel Reuter and Davy Jones, and was naturally the favourite.
Other favourites included the Porsche 911 GT1s, fresh from the FIA GT Championship (where they had their engines restricted). The car driven by Hans Stuck, Bob Wollek and Thierry Boutsen was 2nd on the grid, ahead of the Nissan R390 of Eric van der Poele, Riccardo Patrese and Aguri Suzuki. Behind them in 4th was the BMW-backed FINA-sponsored McLaren F1 GTR of JJ Lehto, Steve Soper and Nelson Piquet. The Lehto/Soper combination had been leading the FIA GT Championship, and Lehto had won the 1995 race in a similar car.
Further down there were plenty of Porsche GT1’s – Collard/Kelleners/Dalmas were in the 2nd works car; the BMS Scuderia Italia car of Martini/Pescatori/Hermann; the Evans/Gachot/Bouchut Kremer Racing car; the Roock car driven by McNish/Wendlinger/Ortelli; and the Schubel Engineering car of Lamy/Goueslard/Hahne.
There were 2 other Nissans – Brundle/Muller/Taylor and Kageyama/Hoshino/Comas. Other McLarens came from Team Lark (Tsuchiya/Nakaya/Ayles), Gulf Team Davidoff (Gounon/Raphanel/Olofsson, Gilbert-Scott/Sekiya/Bellm and Goodwin/Nielsen/Bscher) and the 2nd BMW Motorsport car (Kox/Ravaglia/Helary). There was also a Ferrari 333 SP in contention – the Moretti/Papis/Theys car – and a volley of Lotuses, Listers, and Courages, all with a sniff of a good result.
There was the feel-good story – the Panoz Esperante GTRs. Wealthy American businessman and car enthusiast Don Panoz had commissioned top designer Adrian Reynard to design a GT1-spec sportscar. Powered by a Roush-prepared engine, it looked like a contender, especially when the 3 cars were split between well-known French team DAMS (running Lagorce/Boullion/Bernard), and sports car experts David Price Racing, who secured lots of publicity with the involvement of British TV presenter and one-time touring car driver Noel Edmonds. He wasn’t driving – just refuelling. The driving was left to the formidable line-up of Wallace/Weaver/Leitzinger and McCarthy/Brabham/Bundy. But all through development there had been problems with the engine, which had proven unreliable, and the Wallace/Weaver/Leitzinger car only just scraped through pre-qualifying. Even in qualifying, it took the withdrawal of the Goodwin/Nielsen/Bscher car after a fire to get it onto the grid. The McCarthy/Brabham/Bundy car was only allowed in thanks to the stewards after it too hit problems in qualifying. Would they last the 24 hours? Would they last 12?
There was even a return for BRM with the P301 prototype run by Pacific Racing, but the Pareja/Toivonen/Salazar line-up was only good enough for a lowly 34th on the grid. There were two Porsche Kremer K8 prototypes as well – these were rebuilt versions of the legendary Porsche 962 but minus the roof. Lots of time had passed since the 962 was the car to have, and one failed to qualify for the race.
There was also a great battle in the lower categories. The army of Porsche 911 GT2s were fighting Vipers, Marcos Mantaras and Ford Saleen Mustangs for the GT2 category. It was shaping up to be a classic race. 48 starters and you can never count one out.
At the traditional start time of 4 o’clock, the pace car pulled in from in front of the cars for the start to let the growling beats loose down the straight. The Joest Porsche pulled in front of the chasing Porsche GT1 and Nissan. In the hectic early laps, when most of the races’ overtaking is usually done, the Joest pulled out a lead. It was the fastest car out there, but it was at a disadvantage in that its fuel reserves were smaller than that of its rivals, particularly the Porsche GT1s.
However one of those, the Roock Racing car, made an early exit when Allan McNish, in his first Le Mans, lost control due to a puncture and hit a concrete wall. The BRM was another early casualty. The engine blew after just 24 minutes. But at the front the pace was fast and furious. After a double-stint in one of the Nissans, Martin Brundle commented “this isn’t much like an endurance race. Everyone is completely flat out”.
After over two hours the Joest began to drop back as it was forced to make more stops for fuel. The Lehto/Soper/Piquet McLaren briefly took over before the water line split. The Brundle/Muller/Taylor Nissan blew a clutch, whilst South African George Fouche stuck his Lister in the wall at Arnage on his 1st lap in the car. The Stuck/Wollek/Boutsen Porsche GT1 was now the overall leader. Veteran Bob Wollek was in an ideal situation to take his first win in 27 attempts. In GT2 the Vipers of Archer/Ayari/Duez and Beretta/Gache/Dupuy were comfortably out front.
The Nissans were slowly falling apart heading into the night, with overheating causing the oil coolers’ soldered joints to melt. It was looking very likely the Japanese marque wouldn’t be taking the win. That looked to be heading to Germany and Porsche. But which car would it be? Meanwhile, the Andretti/Andretti/Groulliard Courage was in the garage, so Mario wasn’t going to complete the Triple Crown this time. However in GT2 the picture was less predictable. Soheil Ayari crashed the leading Viper, which promptly burst into flames just after he got out. The Beretta/Gache/Dupuy car now led GT2.
Not long after, there was another big crash. Akihiko Nakaya of Japan crashed the Team Lark McLaren for the second time, and this one was big enough to put it out of the race. The order at the front remained unchanged through the witching hour. However in GT2 the closest car to the lead Viper, the Porsche of Jarier/Chereau/Leconte broke its transmission. Also in the pack, the Kremer K8 blew its engine, and the only Courage not hit by problems hit them – electrical problems at that. Later, back at the front, the 2nd-placed Porsche GT1 dropped behind the Joest with a brake disc change, although the Joest needed the same repair job not long after, swapping positions with the Porsche again. The second Lister was withdrawn not long after with a damaged monocoque – none of the drivers owned up to it. Problems for Nissan too – the third car was now overheating.
32 cars were now left in the race by 3 o’clock, which had now elevated the GT2-leading Viper to an impressive 12th place overall – bear in mind, though, that it did used to be a GT1 car. The Soper/Lehto/Piquet McLaren had now recovered to the top 10, and the McCarthy/Brabham/Bundy Panoz was now 13th. All 3 were still going, although the Wallace/Weaver/Leitzinger car had had problems with the fuel reserves and a cracked windscreen. However, things weren’t so sweet for Lotus – gearbox failure put the only Hethel car out of the race.
The Panoz dream was shattered soon after when the lead car’s Ford engine blew on Mulsanne. Then the DAMS car repeated it when it suffered the same fate. That left the troubled Wallace/Weaver/Leizinger DPR car as the only one left still going. In the race for the win, not just to finish, the Joest was now a lap down on the lead Porsche. The Viper’s lead was even bigger – 6 laps. Nissan weren’t having such a good time. Tom Walkinshaw, who was running the team (along with involvement with the Joest car – not to mention Arrows in F1 and Volvo in the BTCC at this time). The van der Poele/Patrese/Suzuki car was withdrawn for cannibalism, but then Jorg Muller damaged that car, putting that out too.
Soon after, the Viper began to look fallible – an electrical problem knocked its lead down to 3 laps. The problem then worsened at daybreak, handing the lead to the 911 GT2 of Neugarten/Martinolle/Lagniez. It was the first time Chrysler had lost the class lead all race long. The front order remained pretty static, until 7:48am. Wollek, leading a race it looked almost certain he would win for the first time, spun off. The impact with the barrier broke the driveshaft. Game over.
The other works Porsche, the Collard/Kelleners/Dalmas car, inherited the lead with the Joest in 2nd. Then there was more drama – the Neugarten/Martinolle/Lagniez car lost a wheel, handing the lead to the similar Pilgrim/Ahrle/Eichmann car. The struggling of Andretti/Andretti/Grouillard was finally withdrawn with suspension damage shortly after.
Having recovered from a disastrous evening, the Lehto/Soper/Piquet BMW McLaren was now up to 7th place, a respectable effort from the former F1 drivers and touring car ace. But it all came to nothing with a crash. This allowed the surviving Panoz into the top ten. However, Noel’s dream of finishing the race came to an end shortly after with, yes, you guessed, another engine failure. The Pilgrim/Ahrle/Eichmann Porsche blew a turbo and resultantly lost the lead back to the Neugarten/Martinolle/Lagniez car. At the head of the leaderboard, the Joest was now catching, with problems with the injection system. By 1 o’clock there was less than a minute between the leading pair. Would the reliability pay off for the reigning champions?
It would. With Kelleners on board, the leading car came to a fiery halt on Mulsanne. Amazingly, that wouldn’t be it. The 4th placed Gulf McLaren of Gilbert-Scott/Sekiya/Bellm was also “en-Gulf-ed” (I’ll get me coat) by flames not much further on. Kristensen now led in the Joest, well ahead of the Gounon/Raphanel/Olofsson and Kox/Ravaglia/Helary McLarens. This remained the order to the finish, with Joest scoring back-to-back wins in the great race. Behind the leading trio the top Courage was 4th, the best of 3 finishers from the French manufacturer. Gianpiero Moretti nearly didn’t bring his Ferrari home, though, with two spins in the last five minutes. However, he composed himself to bring the car home 6th of just 17 finishers. The Neugarten/Martinolle/Lagniez Porsche took GT2 honours, despite the three-wheeling adventure earlier on and the speed of the Vipers, the best of which finished 14th, 29 laps behind the winners.
1. Alboreto/Johansson/Kristensen – Joest Porsche TWR WSC95 – 361 laps completed
2. Raphanel/Gounon/Olofsson – McLaren-BMW F1 GTR – 360
3. Kox/Ravaglia/Helary – McLaren-BMW F1 GTR – 358
4. Cottaz/Policand/Goossens – Courage C41 – 336
5. Hahne/Lamy/Goueslard – Porsche 911 GT1 – 331
6. Theys/Moretti/Papis – Ferrari 333SP – 321
7. Clerico/ Belloc/Pescarolo – Courage C36 – 319
8. Martini/Pescatori/Hermann – Porsche 911 GT1 – 317
9. Neugarten/Martinolle/Lagniez – Porsche 911 GT2 – 307
10. Pilgrim/Ahrle/Eichmann – Porsche 911 GT2 – 306
Tom Kristensen had had a dream debut at the Circuit de la Sarthe. However the next two years would only yield two retirements with BMW. But a switch to Audi in 2000 was the start of a run of domination that lasted six years. Five wins for Audi in the R8 and another in the Bentley EXP Speed 8 in 2003 mean that the Dane is the most successful driver in the history of the race. The run ended in 2006 with a 3rd place in the new R10, with the other car taking victory. It remains to be seen whether Tom will compete this year after his huge DTM crash at Hockenheim, but barring further mishap he will almost certainly be back in 2008 at the latest.
For Michele Alboreto, it would be his only win. He too went to Audi in 1999, but he was in the other car for both. He was testing in preparation for another assault on the race at the Lausitzring in 2001 when he was killed in an accident on the long distance test oval caused by a failure on the car. Despite this tragic setback the R8 project continued, racing on in Michele’s memory.
Stefan Johansson also followed Joest to Audi but it only gave him a 3rd place in 2003. Last year he raced for Jan Lammers’ Racing For Holland team and this year will be competing alongside Hayanari Shimoda and Tom Chilton for Arena Motorsport. He will also be racing in the new Speedcar Series, a new Asian stock car series that also features the likes of Jean Alesi and Johnny Herbert
Whilst Noel Edmonds hasn’t returned to Le Mans (thank God) Panoz thankfully have. The American team kept plugging away with little success until last year, when the orange Team LNT Panoz Esperante won GT2. This year there are 2 similar cars on the grid as the small British team look to retain their title.
Bob Wollek’s story would also end in tragedy. 2nd in 1998, he would never win before being killed in Florida after being run over whilst cycling.
The Porsche 911 GT1 would win, though. Allan McNish, Laurent Aiello and Stephane Ortelli took the win, after which Porsche withdrew. There was then the year of the flying Mercedes, 1999, when the BMW V12 LMR won. After this began the Audi winning streak, only stopped by Bentley, a company in the same group as the German marque. But for 2007, there is a new challenger – Peugeot are back with the 908, and a host of well-known names, including F1 champ Jacques Villeneuve and Champ Car champion and F1 hopeful Sebastien Bourdais on board. Pescarolo, the main challengers over the last few years, will also be there, as well as the smaller privateer teams. There are also big battles expected in the lower categories, with Aston Martin and Saleen trying to end the Chevrolet Corvette’s winning streak in GT1. It’ll be the most fascinating Le Mans 24 Hours for a long time.