The 1000bhp AMG Project ONE isn't Mercedes' most extreme road car ever, this is
This is the story of the road-legal Mercedes CLK GTR, which started life as a McLaren F1 GTR race car…
Bear with us for this back story, but it’s important…
Today we have a multitude of endurance race series, from IMSA in the USA and Canada, to Blancpain and International GT Open in Europe, to the Asian Le Mans Series in, well, Asia, and plenty more besides, all topped off by the FIA’s World Endurance Championship. But back in the early 1990s there was nowt, following the end of the FIA’s World Sports Car Championship.
So Jürgen Barth (winner of the 1977 24 Hours of Le Mans), Patrick Peter, and Stéphane Ratel (who now runs the Blancpain Series) got together and created the BPR Global GT Endurance Series, BPR coming from the first letters of their last names.
It started in 1994, but really got into its stride when McLaren joined the fray in 1995, and over the next two years we lucky sods saw the F1 GTR take on the likes of the Ferrari F40 and Jaguar XJ220. Basically, all the best supercars in the world, racing on track together. No wonder it was a success!
Then Porsche got interested, and Mercedes too, the FIA took over control of running the series for 1997, and it became the FIA GT Championship. And rather than road cars converted to race, the new entrants responded to McLaren’s dominance with purpose-built sports cars.
Why? Well while the McLaren was never designed to compete, and it took three orders from wealthy F1 road car owners (Ray Bellm, Thomas Bscher and Lindsay Owen-Jones) before company chairman Ron Dennis committed to building a racing GTR version, thank to its lightweight carbon chassis and hugely powerful BMW engine, it dominated the competition. Besides two back-to-back BPR titles in 1995 and 1996, the F1 GTR won at Le Mans in 1995 too – and it was shortly after that that Porsche gave the green light to its 911 GT1 project…
Which competed in final rounds of the 1996 BPR season, and while it wasn’t yet eligible for points, proved quicker than the McLaren. Then Mercedes turned up in time for the 1997 FIA GT season, having designed the CLK GTR in just 128 days, and while both Merc and Porsche kept to the letter of the technical regulations, neither were really in the spirit in which they’d been framed. They were purpose-built race cars, then modified just enough to create the road version needed for homologation.
It was all a source of consternation for them too, mind, as racing rules are made to be bent and twisted and interpreted. I once sat next to Porsche engineering legend Norbert Singer at dinner – the man who played a role in Porsche’s first 16 Le Mans victories, from 1970 to 1996 – and he recounted how the FIA thought his team was doing 'funny things’ with Germany's TÜV department (the equivalent of the UK's DVLA) to get its 1996 and 1997 911 GT1s homologated for the road. (And it was probably right, given the front half was the steel chassis of a 993-era 911, and the back was straight from the 962). So with the carbon chassis'd GT1-98 that won Le Mans in 1998, Porsche built one road car, and achieved full type approval, even cheekily going through the Belgian authorities to get it, as it took its rules and regulations from the French vehicle licensing agency. Who says the Germans don't have a sense of humour?
Anyway, now we come to Mercedes. Which, working in collaboration with AMG in 1996 (Merc didn't take a controlling interest until 1998, and only became sole owner in 2005) somehow managed to purchase a McLaren F1 GTR race car. That's right, Mercedes and AMG bought a McLaren F1 GTR to jumpstart their test and development programme.
Not only did the purchase allow Merc and AMG to see how quickly its key opposition could run at any given track, but while the pair were still readying their own chassis they then swapped out the BMW V12, popped in their own 6.0-litre V12 AMG engine, fitted their own prototype bodywork (which was surprising close to the final shape of the F1 GTR Longtail that McLaren raced in 1997) and ran it at Jarama for four days between 10 and 14 March 1997. Touring car champion Bernd Schneider was at the wheel of the rough and ready McLaren-Mercedes mule, and ran about two seconds a lap quicker than McLaren had during the previous year's BPR round in Spain.
The McLaren-Mercdes F1 GTR/CLK GTR mule – Credit: www.sutton-images.com
Mercedes and AMG bought an F1 GTR, fitted with their own own 6.0-litre V12, and ran it at Jarama in March 1997 – Credit: www.sutton-images.com
Touring car champ Bernd Schneider was at the wheel, and ran about two seconds a lap quicker than McLaren had during the previous year's BPR round there – Credit: www.sutton-images.com
Not every lap was without fault though – Credit: www.sutton-images.com
When the first of Merc's own race cars was ready, on the outside it appeared inspired by the CLK coupe road car, but underneath it was a proper racing car with a carbonfibre chassis and an AMG 5986cc V12 engine developing 622bhp (both of which bore no relation to the McLaren F1's chassis or engine, I should point out). It took a few races to solve early teething problems, but Bernd Schneider won the the driver’s title of the 1997 FIA GT championship, while the manufacturer's title went to Mercedes and AMG.
Once the early problems were solved, even the BMW Motorsport-run McLaren F1 GTR Longtail couldn't compete with this, and Porsche didn't so so well either
The 6.0-litre V12 engine of the CLK GTR developed around 622bhp
Mercedes didn't enter Le Mans in 1997, but it did in 1998, with the CLK-LM. Out went the V12, in came a 4986cc V8 (tested nearly a decade earlier in the Sauber Mercedes C11 Group C race car), and the top speed climbed 10mph to 225mph. Mercedes ultimately didn't win at Le Mans though, but when the CLK-LM joined the 1998 FIA GT series it continued the three-pointed star's dominance, winning every race. Klaus Ludwig and Ricardo Zonta captured the driver’s title, while AMG and Mercedes again won the manufacturer’s title. And due to Merc’s dominance, no one else entered the seres in 1999, so the GT1 category was killed off and continued with GT2 cars like the Dodge Viper.
Then we all remember watching the slippery Mercedes CLR flipping through the air at Le Mans in 1999, whereupon Mercedes promptly withdrew from the race and hasn't been see at the Circuit de la Sarthe since.
Mercedes might have failed at Le Mans in 1998, but the CLK-LM was dominant during the rest of the 1998 FIA GT Championship. Here, eventual series champions Klaus Ludwig and Ricard Zonta are on their way to victory at Dijon, France
Yellow wing mirrors mark out the CLK-LM of Bernd Schneider and Mark Webber. They were victorious in Budapest, Hungary
In the meantime though, Mercedes had raced in 1997 without a homologated road car (much to the annoyance of the likes of McLaren) but it stayed true to its word and to meet the regulations set about building a batch of 25 cars licensed for road use. Not that each came cheap: 20 years ago its was over 3m German marks, roughly €1.5m, making in the most expensive production car in the world.
The bodywork, with a new single-piece spoiler that rose up from the outer edges of the rear wings, was carbonfibre composite, and it was a little different from the racing car elsewhere too. Out went the 6.0 V12, in came a 6898cc V12 with around 600bhp and 531lb ft, and there was air-con, leather and a hi-fi.
Only 20 were sold though, before HWA hit upon the idea to modify the remaining chassis. Who are HWA? They were spun off from AMG when Mercedes took a stake in AMG in 1998, and were responsible for building the CLK GTR road car (and subsequently the limited edition CLK DTM Coupe and Roadster in the mid '00s) and today build and race Merc's DTM cars, build its Formula 3 engines, and have developed both the SLS AMG GT3 and the current AMG GT3. Not a bad resume, then.
Six CLK GTR Roadsters were subsequently built, with the roof removed, two rol hoops added, along with additional strengthening, and a new rear wing. Power was rumoured to rise to 640bhp too.
The CLK-GTR Roadster. Only six were ever built
That wasn't the end of the story either, as HWA created two CLK GTR Super Sports. with modified bodywork and a 7.3-litre V12 that would later see service in the Pagani Zonda.
And there were two 'Strassenversions' of the 1998 CLK LM, one of which was crash tested, and the other which still exists.
All of which means, that while Mercedes-AMG's 1000bhp Project ONE hypercar will be utterly bonkers and mind-blowingly fast thanks to a road-legal Formula 1 engined pinched from Lewis and Nico's weekend wheels, we reckon it won't ever be quite as extreme as the race cars Mercedes once converted to road use back in the late '90s.
Back in the '90s Mercedes built the racing car and then built a road version. Today, it's race a Formula 1 car, then found a use for its engine. This shadowy teaser image is our only hint of how the 1000bhp Project ONE will look