Back in 1997 the GT landscape was markedly different to how we find it in 2012. The FIA GT Championship and Le Mans ran GT1 and GT2 machinery with the top class being dominated by the long-tail homologation special froms McLaren, Porsche and AMG Mercedes-Benz, ably supported by Lotus with their wild V8 engined Elise derivative (!) and the thundering Roush-motivated Panoz ‘Batmobiles’.
The FIA Championship visited the UK twice in 1997. Early in the year deluges left Silverstone treacherous, with Peter Kox and Roberto Ravaglia splashing their way to victory in the McLaren F1 GTR #23R – now owned by Lawrence Stroll. I recall it was several days before we had dried out and warmed up, having spent the race shivering under an umbrella on the infield by Becketts.
By September the AMG Mercedes team had really hit their stride, having moved from the defunct International Touring Car Championship over to GT1. Their CLK GTR bore no discernible resemblance to the road-going CLK. With dramatic bodywork and a monster 6L V12, these were Grand Tourers in name only.
However, that is not to dismiss spectacle of seeing these mighty racers in action. The field comprised a useful miscellany of GTs, with 6, 8, ten and twelve cylinder engines across the two classes. The AMG team were supreme and watching the mechanics simultaneously service two cars at once in the pits was a sign that the level of professionalism in GT racing had just moved up a notch. By comparison, the previously dominant McLarens were left breathless as the silver arrows swept to a 1-2-4, with only the genius of JJ Lehto allowing McLaren onto the podium. Lehto was never less than totally committed in hustling the big GT cars everywhere.
Atop the podium was loyal Mercedes driver Bernd Schneider, accompanied by Alex Wurz. The Austrian would be in Formula One within 6 months and is still a leading sportscar racer today – leading Toyota’s mega LMP1 programme.
It was an honour to see the GT1 cars in action. Despite their somewhat dubious GT claims, they were among the most charismatic racers in sportscar history; and as handsome as anything which has followed since.
Photos courtesy of R W Swift.