Awful Aftertaste - 1998 Bitter GT1 Chrysler
The 1990’s were a turbulent time for the world of endurance racing. Ever since the 1960’s the sport had been dominated by bespoke racing prototypes without any sort of link to production cars. This category exploded in popularity with the advent of Group C in 1982, but a series of shockingly bad management decisions spelled the end for it and the immensely popular World Sportscar Championship at the end of 1992.
Following the collapse of the WSC, a largely forgotten discipline rose up from the wasteland. Thanks to the efforts of Porsche Cup organizer Jurgen Barth and Venturi Cup big shots Patrick Peter and Stephane Ratel, traditional production-based Grand Touring racing took center stage after decades in the shadows. In 1994, their BPR Global GT Series started with an eclectic mix of Cup machinery, but swiftly gained the attention of famed sportscar builders like McLaren, Jaguar, Ferrari, Lotus and Porsche.
Because of the ever-increasing interest from major car makers, the grid grew and BPR Global GT developed into a massively popular championship. However, with bigger players came much bigger budgets. This financial freedom lead Porsche to move for the nuclear option after their hastily updated 993 GT2 Evo was humiliated by the McLaren F1 GTR and Ferrari F40 GTE.
Annoyed by the car’s lackluster performance, the German firm defied the spirit of GT-racing by exploiting the rulebook to the fullest extent. Through careful study of the homologation rules, Porsche deduced it only needed to produce 25 road going examples of a given race car, and they could take as long as they liked to build these cars.
With this recipe, they reversed the concept of a GT-racer by making a racecar first and a road car second. The end result of this mantra was the 911 GT1, a thinly veiled rehearsal of the similarly controversial 1994 Le Mans-winning Dauer 962 Le Mans.
The car was nothing more than the cockpit of a 993 shell welded to the chassis of a 962 Group C prototype. Predictably, the mutated monster annihilated its humble production-based opposition. Although it arrived late and was still relatively fragile, the 911 GT1 created a precedent for all GT1-machines to follow.
To small British brand Lotus, the 911 GT1 spelled disaster. The company was already struggling to keep up with their Esprit model, and now had to go to even greater lengths to catch the new Teutonic tyrant. Instead of giving the Esprit some steroids, Lotus turned to the cutesy Elise for its new challenger.
The little roadster was given a roof, the 550 horsepower 3.5L Type 918 twin turbo V8 from its bigger brother and a couple of buckets of HGH, causing it to morph into the spectacular GT1. Through a link to GM, the car could also be specced with a modified 608 horsepower 6.0L V8 based on the Lotus-developed Chevrolet LT5 also found in the original Corvette ZR1.
Unfortunately the car was ambitiously rubbish. Two Lotus-powered and two Chevrolet-powered cars were built, cumulatively recording 21 retirements in nine races in the newly rebranded FIA GT Championship. A lucky 5th place at Helsinki for GBF UK’s Mauro Martini (ITA) and andrea Boldrini would remain the car’s best eve result.
The Elise’s disastrous campaign forced Lotus to end their involvement with GT1 racing, leaving two Chevrolet-engined cars to wallow away in storage. One man didn’t take too kindly to this situation however, and approached Lotus with an offer to buy the pair. This man was Mike Hezemans (NED), who had campaigned the car as a works driver during the fateful 1997 season.
Mike tipped his father, famous race driver Toine Hezemans, about the opportunity and together they bought the entire inventory of Lotus’ GT1 division to start a completely new project. Hezemans identified the main problem with the Elise was a sub-standard aerodynamics package and woefully underpowered engines. Banking on the strength of the chassis, the Hezemans team decided the car could be a serious contender with the key flaws fixed.
Armed with the two chassis, an extensive spares package and even body molds, Toine Hezemans set ought to find winning performance with a budget of only 1 million dollars. By comparison, the new Mercedes-Benz GT1-effort was rumored to cost as much as 35 million. Hezemans filled three semi trucks with his new property, and headed for Eindhoven, The Netherlands.
There, in their small workshop, the team began the arduous task of modifying the plagued Lotus. Chief mechanic Hans Willemsen directed a two-man team, consisting of Peter Claasen and Mario van Beek. While Toine Hezemans was busy ordering some 356-T6 8.0L V10 engines from his old friend Bob Lutz at Chrysler, the three men were tasked with adapting the Elise’s bodywork.
Owing to the much larger V10, the car’s chassis had to be stretched substantially. This coincided with Hezeman’s plans for the body, which would sport larger front and rear sections in order to generate more downforce. Lotus designer Martin Ogilvie was drafted in for a few days to realize this concept in a more professional manner,
In order to facilitate the molding of new body sections, Toine Hezemans established a relationship with Van Ham Kunststoffen (Plastics), the company responsible for the construction of DAF truck cabs. Hans Willemsen remembered a construction method he had used to fashion Can Am spiders for Keke Rosberg back in the day, which he utilized to create the new nose and tail sections for the Elise chassis.
As the body was reaching completion, the mechanics started work on fitting the huge V10 into the chassis. Eventually the behemoth was safely attached to the original Hewland six-speed sequential gearbox.
With 620 horsepower now on tap, the car was only marginally more powerful than the old Chevrolet-powered Lotus, but the Chrysler unit more than made up for this with bulletproof reliability and mountains of torque. New radiators, exhausts and electronic systems were conjured up to accommodate the Viper-engine, severely eating away at Hezemans’ modest budget.
In the meantime, the team had sold the second car to a German contingent, who agreed to building the car themselves in Hezemans workshop. The group occupied an apartment directly above the workshop. When the car was only 80% finished, the pizza and chicken wings fanatics disappeared to an undisclosed location.
By this time Toine Hezemans had cleverly worked around the issue of homologation by calling another good friend, German independent car builder Erich Bitter, responsible for elegant machines based on Opel mechanicals. The reworked cars could no longer be entered as Lotus, so Bitter agreed to lend his name to them in an effort to appease the FIA.
For their own car, Team Hezemans recruited Formula One veteran and 1988 Le Mans winner Jan Lammers to drive alongside Mike Hezemans. Meanwhile, the Germans assembled a crew of three consisting of Rainer Bonnetsmuller, Manfred Jurasz (AUT) and Stefan Hackl.
Both teams moved to the second round of the 1998 FIA GT Championship, which took place at Silverstone. While on the way there, Hans Willemsen set a personal record by bringing his Citroen Jumper up to 90 kph inside the train from Calais to Dover in a bid to reach the first train car in as little time as possible.
At Silverstone, the team was in for a surprise. Already in the very first practice session, the largely untested Bitter proved to be excellent at eating its own gearbox. The sheer gravitational pull of the 800 nm (590 lb ft) V10 was simply too much for the Hewland to handle.
The team rebuilt the car three times, receiving help from a man in an impeccable business suit. This man, Andre Verwey, was the owner of Gemini Transmissions. Covered in oil from the Bitter’s battered Hewland, he explained his company could deliver a unit strong enough to handle the torque of the Chrysler V10. Toine Hezemans ordered one on the spot.
The cars qualified 13th (#9 Lammers/Hezemans) and 29th on the grid, with the Germans apparently having screwed up the remaining 20% of their GT1, as the car overheated so much they weren’t even able to run a single lap at full throttle. On race day both cars were out early on with #9 suffering a water pump failure, and #10 succumbing to a busted gearbox.
The team had the cars fixed in time for the second round of the championship at the exceedingly fast Hockenheimring. Business resumed as usual however, as the German car could barely do a lap and the works Hezemans machine again butchered a gearbox.
Hezemans had illegally increased the size of the FIA-mandated intake restrictors, giving a 15 kph advantage over the Mercedes and Porsche cars, but the additional torque gained from this trick had overwhelmed the new gearbox. Adding insult to injury, the German Bitter was completely destroyed in a devastating fire.
A beaten down Hans Willemsen immediately flew to London, where Gemini Transmissions was headquartered. Two employees started work on the smashed transmission right away, while Willemsen was carted off to a rundown apartment in a sleazy part of town. He asked the locals for a hotel only to be told there wasn’t one anywhere near him. He fell asleep on a barren mattress under his own jacket.
Back at Heathrow Airport, Hans Willemsen found himself in a six man firing squad after security officials discovered his hand luggage to be a 60 kg sequential shift gearbox. The staff shouted at him for several minutes before one of them posed the million dollar question: what exactly was this thing for?
After Willemsen had explained the mysterious lump’s function, the official allowed him in to wait for the first flight to Frankfurt. As luck would have it, the employee was an avid racing fan, and had heard of Toine Hezemans’ many adventures.
Willemsen’s valiant effort turned out to be in vain though. Despite the new gearbox, the car could not be readied in time to take only its second race start. After this debacle, Hezemans’ money and good will ran out, and he cancelled the project mere months before the GT1 category would be dissolved.
After only two terrible appearances the jig was up, and the Bitter GT1 would find a new home as a static display object on Hezeman’s karting track without an engine. At some point it was bought for use as a promotional tool by former WTCC team owner Franz Engstler, who put the car on sale again in 2015. The current whereabouts of this car are unknown at this time.