12th - 13th June
The 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans was the 67th Grand Prix of Endurance
1999 saw another increase in manufacturers involvement. Although Porsche did not send a team to contest in the prototype classes, Toyota retained their three updated GT-Ones, now moved to the LMGTP class due to the demise of GT1, while Mercedes-Benz debuted three new CLR LMGTPs. Nissan instead moved from GT1 to an open cockpit LMP, as did Panoz.
Newcomer Audi attempted to try their hand at both classes, with two open cockpit R8Rs and two closed cockpit R8Cs. BMW continued with their open cockpit LMPs, updating to the new V12 LMR.
Mercedes CLR incidents
This event became famous for the incidents involving the team of Mercedes-Benz CLRs during qualifying and the race itself. An aerodynamic design flaw in the CLR allowed for large amounts of air to build up underneath the nose of the car, especially when following another car and at the tops of hills, notably on the run to Indianapolis and on the Mulsanne straight.
Mark Webber's CLR became airborne at Indianapolis during qualifying and was repaired with tweaks to the rear suspension in an attempt by Mercedes to cure the problem. All cars qualified, but during the brief warm-up on the day of the race, Webber again became airborne when following his teammates over the hump of the Mulsanne, landing on his roof and skidding to a stop in the Mulsanne corner. This car was withdrawn, but the two other CLRs continued on, again with emergency tweaks to attempt to stop the instability.
Unfortunately, a few hours into the race Peter Dumbreck's CLR also became airborne just before the Indianapolis corner (a very bumpy section of the track), this time flying off the side of the track and landing in the trees. This incident, unlike the previous two, was caught by TV cameras and thus broadcast worldwide. Mercedes-Benz immediately withdrew the remaining CLR and dropped out of sportscar racing for the immediate future.
This would be the second time Mercedes-Benz had been forced to drop out of Le Mans and sportscar racing following an incident with one of their cars becoming airborne and leaving the track, the first being the 1955 Le Mans disaster.
The race got off to a fast start, the competition was hot. For the first couple of hours the No.6 Mercedes driven by Bernd Schneider, and No.1 & 2 Toyotas driven by Martin Brundle & Thierry Boutsen fought it out at the front, the No.17 BMW was never far behind and used its superior fuel economy to take the lead. The no 5 Mercedes was fighting with the No.2 Toyota for second and third place at approximately 8pm when the incident described above took place. This led to the immediate withdrawal of the remaining Mercedes.
Martin Brundle in the No.1 Toyota suffered a puncture at high speed on the Mulsanne straight, the cars rear suspension was badly damaged and he was unable (despite his best efforts) to get back to the pits. The No.2 Toyota being driven by Thiery Boutsen was next to go when he suffered a high speed crash under the Dunlop bridge. The car was destroyed and Boutsen suffered injury to his lower back.
By dawn the No.17 BMW was 4 laps in front of its sister 15 BMW, it looked like nothing could stop the BMW's. At approximately 10am JJ Lehto driving No.17 BMW suffered a stuck throttle and crashed in the Porsche curves. The front of the car was badly damaged and could not continue. This left the sister No.15 BMW almost a lap ahead of the No.3 Toyota which had been quietly cruising around at a steady pace. With this sniff of a win Ukyo Katayama put the foot down in the Toyota and set the fastest lap of the race. He narrowed the gap to less than a minute till again a tyre blowout befell the Toyota team. Ukyo was however able to return to the pits for new tyres and continued. By then bar any problems for the BMW the race was out of reach. Audi came in a respectable 3rd at their first attempt at Le Mans setting them up nicely for the domination that was to come.
The 1999 race was the last for several of the "big" manufacturers. Only Audi returned for 2000. Mercedes pulled out of sports car racing altogether following the CLR incidents, BMW concentrated their efforts on their supply of engines to the Williams team in F1 (who had incidentally built the BMW LMRs). Toyota also pulled out as despite their terrific pace over 98 & 99 disappointingly only one of their cars finished the race over both of those years.
Sports Car Races