Throughout the 1980’s the famous Le Mans 24 Hours had put more and more emphasis on prototype racing. The first half of the decade saw a high number of Gran Tourismo production derived entries, but the popularity of Group C’s relatively cheap subcategory C2 made sure GT cars fell out of favor completely. The equivalent Group B GT road racing category never took off, which meant there was nowhere to race. As a result the GT grids rarely even exceeded 5 cars.
The slow and painful death of Group C left a giant hole in the schedule of many privateer teams, who now had nowhere to run. Top flight prototypes were still far too expensive, so the GT car was granted its second youth. In 1994 this sentiment was finalized with the establishment of GT1. Like any good GT racing category the regulations stipulated that any car participating had to be based on a road legal sports car.
To the fresh faced startups at Bugatti this new category was a godsend. The illustrious brand had been defunct since 1952, but had been resurrected by Italian entrepreneur Romano Artioli in 1987. By 1991, his new company had started producing its first model, the space age EB110 GT.
The futuristic machine featured a 3.5L, quadruple turbocharged V12 supplying all four wheels with a massive 560 horsepower and 611 nm (450 ft lb) of torque through a 6-speed manual gearbox. Just a year later, those immense figures were trumped by an even more extreme SS model, with as much as 612 horsepower and 650 nm (479 ft lb) on tap. With the endorsement of Benetton’s rising star Michael Schumacher (who bought a bright yellow one), Bugatti S.p.A. felt confident enough to take the fight to Porsche and Ferrari. Spurred on by media mogul and racing aficionado Michel Hommell (FRA), the company provided him with an EB110SS to turn into a Le Mans weapon.
Bugatti and Hommell knew not much had to be done to the EB110 SS to make it fast in the GT1 world. a clear indicator was the FIA demanding the car to be detuned to a mere 600 horsepower. a bigger challenge was making the car a consistently good performer in the endurance discipline. the big Bug retained its four wheel drive triple differential setup, which presented a bit of a problem. The GT version weighed in at a colossal 1800 kg (3968 lbs), which the SS brought down to a still very chunky 1600 kg (3527 lbs). Racing in this configuration would meant extra strain on the tires, brakes and fuel consumption, the definitive Holy Trinity of endurance racing.
To combat the glaring issue Bugatti’s engineers turned the car inside out to find any and all weight saving opportunities. Carbon composite brakes, aluminium hubs and lighter Bilstein shock absorbers were among the many remedies. In the end their hard work was rewarded by a hugely satisfying 300 kg (661 lbs) weight loss.
Bugatti’s driver team consisted of Group C refugees Alain Cudini (FRA) and 1993 Le Mans winner Eric Hélary (FRA). The pair was joined by Formula 3000 points leader Jean-Christophe Boullion. With both experience and youth on their side, the team went to secure a good qualifying position.
Faced with opposition from Ferrari’s F40, Porsche’s 964 Turbo, Dodge’s Viper, numerous Venturi’s and a funny looking thing called a Dauer, this was no easy task. In the end the Bugatti qualified a very respectable 17th overall and 5th in class with a time of 4:16.940. In the process it had only conceded to both Dauer’s (who were 25/26 seconds faster), the F40 (9.9 seconds), and a Venturi 600 LM (9 seconds).
On race day, things did not look quite so rosy however. A mere hour before the start of the race, the team discovered a massive leak in the fuel tank. With no chance of replacing the damaged tank, desperate measures had to be taken. A tube of sealant was hastily thrown into the tank to try and seal the gap.
As the sealant had little time to dry, the car could only run on half a tank of fuel. The light fuel load severely hampered the car, as it had to make way too many pit stops compared to the competition. After a few stops the problem had been solved, which allowed the car to pick up speed and make up some places.
After the fuel tank drama had passed the EB110 quickly recovered to third place after dealing with the Porsche. The maniacal Group C-derived Dauer 962 Le Mans proved impossible to catch however, so the team settled in for a wonderful GT1 podium finish on their debut.
Unfortunately disaster struck in the form of classic Italian reliability. The big Bug suddenly found itself plagued by consistent turbo failure. Consecutive repairs saw all four turbochargers replaced. Then, in a spectacular case of bad luck, one of the replacements also broke.
The technical woes made Bugatti reconsider its priorities in a big way. As the podium was now out of the question, their goal shifted to at least finishing the grueling 24 hour event. Sadly even this modest goal proved to be a bitter pipe dream.
In the closing stages of the race, all hopes of finishing slammed into the wall at the first chicane. A suspected flat tire caused the car to snap to the left under braking. The resulting impact destroyed the front section of the car, and any hopes of finishing the race. With the disaster now completed, Bugatti S.p.A would never enter into Le Mans again.
The Bugatti EB110 SS Le Mans was an ambitious attempt at shaking up the establishment by a very young manufacturer. It showed incredible speed and exceptional promise, but was held back by a lack of reliability.
With a bit more development, the EB110 might have been a true contender for 1995. Sadly the company withdrew the car before it had the chance to really prove itself. One can only wonder what it could have done to fight the McLaren F1 GTR.