Le Mans 1999: BMW wins manufacturer arms race
“There is absolutely no doubt about it, the Le Mans 24 Hours is one of the three biggest races in the world,” says 1990 DTM champion Hans-Joachim Stuck without hesitation.
“Alongside the Indy 500 and the Monaco Grand Prix, this is the race every driver wants to win. It’s a real classic.”
Stuck knows what he’s talking about: he’s won the French race himself twice, in 1986 and ’87, both times driving the legendary Porsche 962.
DTM’s three 2019 manufacturer brands – Aston Martin, Audi and DTM – have extensive Le Mans history, too. And this year’s running of the famous enduro marks significant anniversaries for all three, including the 20th anniversary of BMW’s first – and only – overall victory in the race.
It was a very good year
It is often said that Le Mans races held in years that end with nine are something special. 1929 was the first year in which a team scored a repeat win, when legendary ‘Bentley Boys’ Tim Birkin and Woolf Barnato took their second successive victory in the event’s seventh ever running.
In 1939, victory went to Jean-Pierre Wimille – who would go on to become a WWII hero – and Pierre Veyron in a Bugatti Type 57S. It would take until 1972 for a French car to win again on home soil.
The 1949 event saw the first Le Mans win for Ferrari: Luigi Chinetti and Peter Mitchell Thomson drove a 166M entered by Lord Selsdon to victory. Then, in 1959, Aston Martin famously took the spoils with Carroll Shelby and Roy Salvadori.
Aston Martin’s iconic DBR1 took the spoils at the 1959 edition of the famous race
The 1969 event was one of the closest finishes in Le Mans history: the legendary battle between Jacky Ickx’s Gulf-Ford GT40 and Hans Herrmann’s Porsche 908 ended with victory for the Belgian, who had notably made a point of walking rather than running to his car for the traditional ‘Le Mans start’. The practice was abandoned the following year.
In 1979, Porsche’s German customer team Kremer came out on top. Klaus Ludwig, who would go on to become a two-time DTM champion, partnered Americans Don and Bill Whittington, finishing ahead of Hollywood actor Paul Newman, himself an accomplished and enthusiastic racer.
A decade later, 1989 was the last year the race was run without chicanes on the Mulsanne straight. The Sauber-Mercedes team came first and second, with victory for Jochen Mass, 1996 ITC champion Manuel Reuter and Stanley Dickens.
For 1999, the stakes were high: despite the demise of GT1 the previous year, manufacturer involvement at Le Mans was at its highest ever level.
“BMW is coming, Toyota is coming, Chrysler and Mercedes are coming, Nissan is coming and Audi is coming. And you, are you coming?” the official event poster read.
1999: the battle of the titans
For Audi, endurance racing proved to be a fresh challenge after its highly successful two-litre A4 quattro Super Touring car was effectively ruled out by a ban on four-wheel drive. The front-wheel driven version never really cut the mustard, and the factory decided to switch its focus.
For 1999, Audi ran two different concepts – the open-top R8R (right) and the closed-cockpit R8C
Not quite sure what would be the best option for its sports car future, Audi had a two-pronged strategy with the open-top R8R prototype – developed in co-operation with Dallara – and the closed-cockpit R8C, built by British subsidiary RTN. The open cars, run by the German Joest team, had made their competition debut at Sebring earlier that year and had already proved competitive with third- and fifth-place finishes in Florida.
At Le Mans, the R8Rs came third and fourth respectively, the first podium success for Audi at a race in which it would go on to score 13 overall victories. Beautiful as they were, the R8Cs running under the Audi Sport UK banner, proved unreliable, which came as no surprise given their short development and build programme. Still, much of the R8C was used as the basis for the Bentley that went to win at Le Mans in 2003.
Enter the V12 LMR
At BMW, the Munich marque opted to race an open-top prototype for the second consecutive year at Le Mans, but made many changes after the 1998 season. The operation was moved from the Italian Rafanelli outfit to the German Schnitzer team, and the V12 LM car replaced by the more refined V12 LMR.
The car was a joint development between BMW and the Williams Formula 1 team and was officially launched during the legendary Hahnenkamm downhill ski race in Kitzbühel in Austria, of which BMW was a sponsor at the time.
“Yes, the car in the city centre of Kitzbühel at the end of January, in the snow, was quite something,” BMW’s motorsport boss Gerhard Berger recalled.
Boosted by victory at Sebring, BMW entered two cars for Le Mans. Joachim Winkelhock, Pierluigi Martini and Yannick Dalmas would drive the number 15, while Sebring race winners Tom Kristensen, JJ Lehto and Jörg Müller were behind the number 17 entry. At the test day at Le Mans, there was even a third BMW, the 15th vehicle in BMW’s famous ‘Art Car’ collection with a livery created by American concept artist Jenny Holzer, including her famous statement ‘Protect me from what I want’.
A V12 LMR ‘Art Car’, featuring slogans from concept artist Jenny Holzer, ran during the Le Mans test, but not the race itself
The race gets underway
In the race, it soon transpired that the BMWs were able to run longer on a single tank of fuel than their rivals, mainly Toyota and Mercedes. On Saturday evening, Mercedes driver Peter Dumbreck had his fearsome accident along the Mulsanne straight, after which the team also retired the other remaining car. Two of the Toyotas were out after a blown tyre (on Martin Brundle’s car) and a crash (for Thierry Boutsen’s car) respectively.
The sister BMW of Tom Kristensen, JJ Lehto and Jörg Müller looked set to give the marque until an accident forced Lehto to retire
The mechanical toll gave BMW a relatively comfortable lead and a one-two looked on the cards until JJ Lehto had an accident with the number 17 car and was also forced into retirement. As a result, the number 15 car stayed in front and went on to win, one lap ahead of the remaining Toyota and five laps ahead of the best-placed Audi.
A ‘prestigious and valuable’ victory
“I was fairly new at BMW at the time and this really was a significant project,” remembers Berger today. “Many changes had been made over the winter, and the operation was under close scrutiny. But it went perfectly, of course. The Schnitzer team with Charly Lamm was definitely a key to this success, but the drivers were really good, too.
“For me, the memory that stands out most is the large number of manufacturers that were there. That added a lot of prestige and made the win all the more valuable.”
Pierluigi Martini triumphantly crosses the line on June 13 1999 to record BMW’s one and only victory at Le Mans
Berger also underlined the value of the input from the Williams Formula 1 team in the development process. “They certainly brought a different approach to the project,” he explains. “They really built a car that was made to last the distance. I remember a discussion where some technicians would ask how long it would take to replace such and such parts, and the Williams people replied that they didn’t want to replace any parts at all, they simply had to last. The car had to be the fastest and the most reliable, and that worked out. And on top of that, it looked beautiful!”