The BMW GTRs In The ALMS
2001 – That Was the Year That Was
© Tom Kjos

With BMW set to return to the ALMS in 2006, Tom Kjos looks back to an epic season of GT racing.

BMW and Tom Milner’s Prototype Technology Group – more commonly referred to as simply “PTG” – have been fixtures for most of IMSA’s history, and the early years of the American Le Mans Series, too. Before that there were the CSL 3.0, the Red Lobster M1, David Hobb’s 320i turbo. Later, BMW put a two-liter version of the 1.5 turbo (that won Nelson Piquet a World Championship) in a March chassis and won at Watkins Glen with “junior team” Davy Jones and John Andretti. Meanwhile, Milner’s team was running a Ford Mustang in IMSA as early as 1981, then a full-season GTP in 1991, with the team's Chevrolet Spice a regular top 10 finisher. In between, Tom and Paul Newman “invented” power steering for race cars, and PTG progressed to a 1994 NASCAR Busch Grand National campaign. That year at Watkins Glen, Tom encountered BMW’s M products brand manager Eric Wensberg. From that meeting came the PTG-BMW relationship that has endured since. By Daytona in 1995, PTG was racing still-over-weight, production, unibody M3s against the tube-frame race cars of the day, but that would change quickly. The following year, with the M3 significantly lightened and developed into a proper racecar, PTG and their M3s won Daytona, four Professional SportsCar races, and the manufacturers’ championship for BMW. AutoWeek did a cover of the Milner First Union BMW, and an article titled “Goliath Rises”. In the next two years, PTG would win three manufacturers’ championships (in one year they contested both PSCR and USRRC), three team titles, and drivers’ championships for Bill Auberlen, Mark Simo, and Ross Bentley.

Then, in 1999, the GT racing scene changed dramatically. Porsche introduced the GT3-R at Le Mans, where it swept to an easy victory, then contested the remainder of the new American Le Mans Series season, winning the manufacturers’ and drivers’ championships for Porsche and Cort Wagner. PTG was able to salvage the team title once again, while Brian Cunningham was the runner-up driver. But the hand-writing was on the wall; BMW would not be able to compete with the new Porsche “racer in a box,” with the maxed-out 3.2 liter in-line six cylinder power plant and M3 CSL. With the ACO unwilling to provide a restrictor different than that for the 3.6 liter Porsche, BMW took Tom Milner’s advice and began development of the new M3 GTR, with its four-liter purpose-built racing V8. ACO rules required a minimum of only two road cars, but they would have to be offered for sale on two continents. PTG struggled though the ten race 2000 season with a single win at Laguna Seca.

The new GTRs weren’t ready for the 2001 season opener at Texas Motor Speedway. BMW had decided to field two “factory” teams, PTG and Schnitzer, a long time BMW partner and European touring car championship winner. PTG provided CSLs for Schnitzer along with its own two entries.

Although it was still a race into the last three-quarters of an hour at the Texas sprint, factory-supported and richly experienced Alex Job Racing swept the top two spots for Porsche. Hans Stuck and Boris Said drove through to a podium finish behind the two AJR Porsches. "I decided to run a conservative race--lift early and try to go for one stop. To run the pace I did was easy. The M3 was 100 percent," said Boris. It still took some “defensive driving” to keep Petersen-White Lightning Porsche GT3-RS of Bob Wollek / Johnny Mowlem off the third podium step. Without the new cars, it would be another long season against the Porsches. This is JJ, confronting the chicane at Texas. Note the chicane-induced damage.

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When BMW introduced its new M3 GTR racer on Wednesday at Sebring, they said they believed that GT was about to become the most interesting and competitive class in the American and European Le Mans Series. The class has often been that, until the introduction and proliferation of the Porsche 911 GT3-R, and the new-in-2001 RS.

dailysportscar.comOnly one car was ready for Sebring, and on Wednesday that seemed not to be ready either, as drivers Jörg Müller and JJ Lehto spent more time sitting than driving. On Thursday, however, the cat was out of the bag, as Müller easily put the blue and white M3 into third place on the GT grid. Still, given the troubles of the first practice and qualifying sessions, there were few if any who thought the car would finish. It would not only finish, but finish on the podium (3rd), lead much of the race, and set fastest lap, a GT record of 2:06.643. Hans Stuck, Boris Said and Peter Cunningham drove the #6 PTG M3 GT to fourth place behind the third finally garnered by the new GTR. Alex Job Racing swept the first two spots with their new Porsche GT3 RSs.

This was one of those years with a long break for Le Mans – all the way from March to July, but that 'pause' included two ALMS races in Europe - at Donington Park and Jarama. PTG wasn't ready with its GTRs, but Schnitzer was, although neither finished at Donington. Lucas Luhr / Sascha Maassen and Randy Pobst / Christian Menzel finished 1-2 for Alex Job. This is the JJ Lehto / Jorg Muller BMW, proving that it wasn't quite a race winner - yet.

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At Jarama, it very much was. 1-2 in qualifying, then 1-2 in the race, the maiden win going to Dirk Muller and Fredrik Ekblom, in #43.

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When the ALMS resumed (in North America) at Sears Point, our (US) reporting already sounded like it often had during the Porsche dominance of the previous year. There were now four of the new GTRs on the grid. “The GT grid order was BMW, BMW, BMW, BMW….yadda, yadda, yadda,” we wrote.

But look at this BMW-Porsche mix early on.

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dailysportscar.com“At the end the four GTRs were in (overall) positions 7 though 10 (top four in GT). They gave us pretty much the same show that Porsche has over the years. Pretty good racing, but you really have to be a fan of the marque to really get into it.”

JJ and Jorg took their first win: JJ had cussed Jörg during a Sears Point pitstop when Müller required all four tires changing after a Jörg lockup, then kissed him when Müller won.


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The Porsche-BMW war resumed at Portland, as the RS models brought Porsche back to the head of the class in practice, with 1:13s to 1:14s for the GTRs. But BMW swept the first four qualifying positions, JJ Lehto’s 1:13.3 leading the pack. On race day, the three RS model GT3s had great starts and the GT field filed out of the Festival Curves like a club sandwich. BMW-Porsche-BMW-Porsche-BMW-Porsche, and so on through seven cars. They were literally nose to tail from the flag, and not without some bumping. Hans Stuck had started on the pole, but found himself at the tail of this train by the time they were through the Festival Curves the first time.

Sascha Maassen took the GT lead for Porsche after the first full-course caution and the order was now Porsche-BMW-BMW-BMW-BMW-Porsche, the two slices of bread being the McKenna AJR cars. Nose to tail was almost not descriptive enough for the leading four cars. For most of the next hour the entire group was not a full second front to back. All six cars traded places on the track and through pit stops for most of the next two hours, but the BMWs slowly took control, in one-two-three (43, 6, 42) order with less than a half hour to race.

Hot drivers, a rare AJR team mistake, tires going off, and a late caution shuffle the deck, and Boris Said took the lead in the #6 GTR.

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PTG comes away with a win for Stuck and Said. A large part of the credit for this win goes to PTG Team Engineer Ina Gastesi, who put considerable effort into designing for driver cooling. He is responsible for the racing E46's NACA duct, now carried over onto the PTG GTR, but not the Schnitzer cars – yet. JJ made a late pass on Dirk, for third in class, with the second placed AJR Porsche just ahead of them.

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It was on to Mosport, where the BMWs raced to a podium sweep. The #42 BMW Motorsports car started at the back of the grid after a technical disqualification, but moved to the front within the first hour, and then drove away.

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Hans Stuck was as good as expected in the rain, grabbing an early lead, but the PTG car faded into the clutches of the Alex Job Racing Porsche GT3-RS of Sasha Maassen and Lucas Luhr after the track dried. Boris Said was just able salvage third from the pressing Porsche. The #43 Schnitzer GTR of Dirk Müller and Fredrik Ekblom finished second in GT.

Even if no one else could, the Alex Job Racing GT3-RS Porsches were pushing the new M3s hard. The Lucas Luhr / Sascha Maassen #23 GT3-RS gave all but one of the BMWs all they could handle. They stayed right with the PTG car of Hans Stuck and Boris Said and the BMW Motorsport M3 of Fredrik Ekblom and Dirk Müller all the way, and heading each at times. The JJ Lehto / Jörg Müller GTR was an entirely different story. Lehto drove like a man possessed at the start, then pitted for tires, fuel, and to hand over to Müller, who just stretched the lead until there was soon no doubt at all of the outcome. BMW was winning a lot of races. But one Porsche team has been close all along.

Our review of this race in 2001 made these observations: “What would help is a second Porsche team to complement the AJR effort, just as PTG and Schnitzer complement each other. Interestingly, it is the Stuck / Said PTG GTR that has set fast lap in each of the past three races, not either of the BMW Motorsports M3s. And the "privateer" has captured one of the three races in which they have had the new GTR. Porsche is in its second year of a single dominant team. That is not the way to win when you are no longer the town bully.”

JJ Lehto didn't think it was as easy as it looked. "It was very, very close. We have a good car, but it was very difficult to get the set-up right. Pit stops, tactics, and teamwork were the key." At post race pressroom interviews, the question is asked, "If there are no other questions from the floor, do you (the drivers) have anything you want to add." JJ was not at a loss for words. As at Sears Point, he had a rhetorical question, "How are Jörg and I supposed to divide just one trophy?" If Don can't afford a second trophy for these by-rule two-driver teams, perhaps the fans should take up a collection.”

At Mid-Ohio Müller and Lehto won, with the second Schnitzer (BMW Motorsport) entry second. PTG had its troubles and Alex Job Racing captured third and fourth. Sascha Maassen had surprised by qualifying on the pole, but once again, the GTR was formidable and BMW took its own fourth straight class victory (in North America), that string shared between BMW Motorsport and PTG.

dailysportscar.comCharly Lamm's team (Muller and Lehto again) took another win at Laguna Seca (right), with an ever stronger Alex Job Racing Porsche effort capturing the runner-up spot.

The season ended at Petit Le Mans and JJ Lehto and Jörg Müller were being split for the first time in three years in ALMS competition. Separated by only a single point, they will determine the drivers’ championship here with the help of new driving partners. In the end, the damage of collisions took Lehto’s car out of contention and finally off the podium. Although Jörg won the drivers’ championship, his mistake (he helped clean a windshield on a pit stop by giving co-driver Dirk Müller a rag) hands the race (appropriately) to the PTG "dream team" (as Stuckie calls it) of Hans Stuck, Boris Said, and Bill Auberlen. In the process they halted Bill Auberlen's record string of most ALMS starts without a win, at twenty-five. Drivers’ championship or not, it's a fair bet that Road Atlanta is not Jörg Müller's favorite race track.

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Although the Petersen Motorsports Porsche GT3 made a real fight of it, Alex Job Racing put its #23 Lucas Luhr / Sascha Massen Porsche GT3 RS on the last step of the podium. We were in the pits for the finish. Tom Milner and his team were thrilled with their most important victory over their German "cousins." We didn’t know then it would be the last ALMS win for PTG – and for BMW – for many years.

The BMW had been given a smaller restrictor at Laguna Seca; it hadn’t made a difference. JJ Lehto put the GTR on the pole in record time, and won the race. The 1-2 at Petit, and (some say) BMW’s non-entry at Le Mans put the ACO into rule-revision mode over the winter. Feeling that the GTR violated the “spirit” of the rules by not being based on a substantial number of road cars, they re-wrote the “letter” of the rules to create a requirement for a substantial number of road cars. They would allow BMW to race with a 20% restrictor reduction. BMW was interested in neither the production of V8 M3s, nor in racing with the smaller restrictor. When negotiations for a less draconian restrictor on the V8, or for a larger restrictor for the in-line six than that allowed for the Porsche motor failed, BMW and PTG decamped for Speed World Challenge, then on to Grand Am GT. Ironically, four years later, BMW returns to the American Le Mans Series, in part because Grand Am is moving away from street-based GTs to purpose-built racecars – the very thing the GTR was purported to be.

But what cars those were in 2001 – flaming exhausts, often caught “flying” by the camera lens. The BMW Motorsport GTR has raced infrequently in European “showcase” races since then, winning the Nürburgring 24 hours in its final appearance in 2005. It was, after all, a special car. We wonder if we will ever see its like again.

 

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