The story of the 90s Mercedes-Benz racing trinity
From killing their own racing series to building flying a flying car, the late 90s was something rather extraordinary for Mercedes-Benz.
Written by: Rahil Hashmi
To someone who doesn’t live and breathe the automobile, racing cars may seem rather pointless but to us, they are what drive automotive innovation.
In the late 90s, Mercedes created three incredible racing cars, each with its own unique story. First, there was the CLK GTR; a successful GT1 racing car which saw 25 road-going versions built as per the FIA race regulations. What followed was the CLK LM. ‘LM’ stands for Le Mans so it’s not too difficult to guess which race the car entered into. The final act of this epic trilogy was the CLR but contrary to its predecessors, the CLR was a complete failure... so much so that the car is actually most famous for its accidents.
But the question is: how on earth did Mercedes go from forcing their competitors to leave the GT1 game to walking away from Le Mans? Answering this requires a history lesson but don’t worry, like Henry VIII said to his wives, I won’t keep you long.
After winning the 1996 International Touring Car Championship (ITC), Mercedes-Benz were alone as their main competitors, Opel and Alfa Romeo, decided to leave the sport due to the increase in costs to participate in the sport tied together with the dominance Mercedes had. This left the German manufacturer with just one option which was to transfer to the bigger leagues.
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Finally, Mercedes could go up against some of the biggest names in the world of racing, Ferrari and Porsche to name a couple. They would do this in the FIA GT World Championship but they faced a problem. Mercedes need to have a competitive car ready for the race and yet, 6 months prior, they didn’t even have a concept.
One of the unique rules of the GT1 Series was that each team had to produce a road-going version of their racing car which is why, without this rule, cars like the Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR and Porsche 911 GT1 would not exist.
With the clock ticking, somehow had to design and build a competitive car for the race and so they secretly purchased a McLaren F1 GTR in order to gain a better understanding of how their competitors were going to be on track, afterall, Mercedes were completely new to the sport. The F1 GTR also served as an experimental car as Mercedes replaced a lot of the bodywork with panels which were supposed to go on the CLK GTR. Moreover, Mercedes also tested their own 6.0-litre V12 engine as an oppose to using the F1 GTR’s BMW powerplant. The development phase of the CLK GTR was like more like a garage project as an oppose to a GT1 car from the largest luxury automotive company in the world.
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The first race of the 1997 GT1 season was was at the Hockenheimring, one of Mercedes-Benz’s home tracks. Knowing of the success of the CLK GTR may lead you to believe that Mercedes were victorious from day one but this was not the case. One car was forced to retire due to brake issues and the car that did finish ended up doing so 20 laps behind the car in first place.
Luckily, Mercedes were able to redeem themselves after the CLK GTR began to show it’s true potential when it finished less than one second behind the winning car at the next race.
Mercedes saw their first win at the fourth race which took place at the Nürburgring after they added a third CLK GTR to the team and their success did not end their as the CLK GTR would also go on to score wins at A1-Ring, Suzuka, Donington, Sebring and Laguna Seca.
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It was at the notorious Nürburgring where Mercedes achieved their first victory. The team later secured both a team and drivers championship win, an extraordinary win for a team which had only been in the sport for one year.
Mercedes-Benz were absolutely thrilled with the success of the CLK GTR and so was the rest of the world- this made it opportune to enter Le Mans.
In order to comply adhere to the regulations and to be competitive in the race, Mercedes had to make a few tweaks to their car. Gone was the monstrous V12 and in was a more reliable V8 engine which was previously used in the Sauber C11 and Sauber C9, a former a Le Mans winner. Furthermore, the nose and roof were also lowered and altercations were made to the cooling system. This resulted in the CLK GTR’s highly anticipated sequel: the LM.
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The CLK LM made its debut when the 1998 season of Le Mans commenced. The start was promising as both LMs the team ended up taking pole position despite the fact that, unlike the majority of its competitors, the LM was based off a road car whereas the majority of its competitors were custom built prototypes.
Sadly, this sense of victory was short lived. Both cars ended up retiring from the race due to engine issues. Shortly after this mishap, they decided to revisit the GT1 Series except this time, they chose to use the CLK LM. The result was six 1-2 finishes at the end of the season which meant that, yet again, the championship was their’s.
Due to Mercedes’ dominance in the sport, no other teams wished to compete in the 1999 season. FIA with no choice but to scrap the GT1 series entirely. Yet again, Mercedes’ dominance had killed their own racing series except this time, the whole world watched as them do it.
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The year was 1999 and Mercedes wanted to have another crack at what they had previously entered: Le Mans.
Mercedes-Benz had established their racing skill in ‘97 and ‘98 and they did so with ease. The job was even easier as now, Mercedes were under no obligation to base their racing car on a road car- no compromises had to be made.
Because of the few existing regulations, the CLR was far more advanced than its predecessors. It featured a carbon fibre monocoque along with much better aerodynamics. Mercedes stayed loyal to the V8 they used in the CLK LM except they made a few tweaks such as increasing the displacement to 5.7 litres. After completing roughly 22,000km in testing, the CLR was revealed to the public.
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Mark Webber, one of the drivers for the team, was attempting to overtake another car during qualifying. Webber moved out of his opponent’s slipstream but doing so caused the front of the car to lift off ground which quite literally resulted in flight. The CLR flipped multiple times before landing. Shockingly, Webber managed to escape the scene with minor injuries.
Come race day, both Webber and the CLR were ready but both ended their session the same way they did just a few days prior. The disaster occurred whilst the Australian was pursuing a Dodge Viper during the warmup session.
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The final race was due to commence later that same day and so Mercedes had a decision to make: would they race? In the end, after consulting the head of aerodynamics along with several Daimler board members, they decided to participate in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Altercations were made to the front of the car in order to try and minimise the chances of the CLRs taking flight and then, the race begun. Everything seemed to be going well until lap 76 when the number 5 car of Peter Dumbreck took flight whilst chasing Thierry Boutsen‘s Toyota.
Mercedes made the decision to retire the remaining car and leave Le Mans. The epic story of Mercedes-Benz’s racing machines had come to an end.
As previously mentioned, the GT1 racing regulations required all teams to build a road-legal version of their GT1 Car. Mercedes built four different road-going GT1 cars, each one was expensive then and is even more expensive now.
CLK GTR Straßen Version
When translated from German to English, ‘Straßen Version’ quite literally means ‘street version’. Just 20 examples of the CLK GTR were produced making it one of the rarest cars to have ever left the Mercedes factory.
The CLK GTR Straßen Version shared most of its design with the CLK GTR as an oppose to the CLK LM. Most notably, this included the iconic V12 engine. Engine displacement went from 6 to 6.9 litres. This consequently resulted in a total power output of a mind-boggling 604hp and 77Nm of torque. Mercedes were forced to change the car slightly so that it was road-suitable which is why the CLK GTR Straßen Version had a more comfortable interior and a rear wing which was nothing like the one found on the racing car.
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It had a top speed of 214mph and could get from 0-62mph in 3.8 seconds. 22 years on and these performance figures are still astonishing.
The exclusivity combined with its performance meant that it was priced at exactly £1,547,620 when new. The Guinness Book of World Records even recognised the CLK GTR as the most expensive production car ever built at the time.
CLK GTR Roadster
In addition to the 20 Coupés, Mercedes also built 6 Roadsters. It was designed to be similar to the Coupé though there are a few things which can help to distinguish the Roadster from its sibling. The Roadster features a larger integrated Mercedes-badge on the grille instead of a smaller version above along with a wing more similar to the one on the racing car.
Six of these special Roadsters were built. Four of them were painted silver and the other two were painted in black and dark silver. Because the Roadster required extra structural support, it weighed 105kg more than the Coupé but make no mistake, it was no slouch.
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CLK GTR Super Sport
The standard GTR Straßen Version was powerful but the GTR Super Sport was invincible. 5 of the standard GTR Straßen Versions were transformed into SS models. The 6.9-litre V12 from the racing car was replaced with the monstrous 7.3-litre V12 from the Pagani Zonda. This meant that the SS had a whopping 655hp along with 786Nm of torque. In order to cope with the extra power at high speeds, the car also received a new front splitter.
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At the time of writing, just one of these cars is actually for sale though the price is yet to have been disclosed to the public.
CLK LM Straßen Version
The epic sequel to the GTR, the CLK LM was even faster than the bonkers quick CLK GTR and, because it participated in the GT1 series, a road car had to be built.
The thing is, the CLK LM killed its own racing series so when Mercedes were supposed to build the road-going version of the LM as per the GT1 racing regulations, the GT1 series no longer existed but they were still obliged to build a car.
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This is why Mercedes built just one CLK LM Straßen Version. Originally sold to a private collector in Japan, the CLK LM has since only resurfaced on a couple of occasions. It is believed that the CLK LM has changed hands on numerous occasions. The car’s last public appearance was at the Chantilly Arts & Elegance in 2015, a prestigious event where you can get access to some of the most incredible driving machines on the planet.
Where it all went wrong
To me, the most interesting part of this story is just how quickly things went wrong for Mercedes. I mean, the GTR and LM both thrived when it came to the GT1 series whereas the CLR performed appallingly at Le Mans.
Although the LM also performed poorly at Le Mans, I don’t think this had anything to do with the CLR’s failure. I believe that the CLR only ended up failing because Mercedes had simply run out of luck. After Mercedes had killed the GT1 Series, Le Mans was the only sport that could house cars such as the CLR but due to the amount of embarrassment which the team faced following the CLR’s mishaps, returning to Le Mans did not make sense and with that came the end of an era for Mercedes-Benz.