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The GT1 Era

Sunday 20th September 2020

During the late 1980s, Group C was at the height of its popularity as sports-prototypes from great names such as Jaguar, Mercedes and Porsche went head-to-head in front of huge crowds. Sadly, however, cracks started to appear with the introduction of a new engine formula and by the end of 1992 the World Sportscar Championship had imploded.

Attention, therefore, shifted from sports-prototypes to GT cars, which had all but disappeared from top-level international competition in the second half of the 1980s. In 1993, organisers of the Le Mans 24 Hours reintroduced a GT class, and the following year Jürgen Barth, Patrick Peter and Stéphane Ratel introduced the BPR Global GT Series. Its maiden season attracted cars such as the Ferrari F40, Venturi 600LM and myriad Porsche 911s, but it really started to generate momentum with the arrival in 1995 of the McLaren F1 GTR.

Other manufacturers were quick to respond, the first genuine challenge to McLaren domination coming from the Porsche 911 GT1, which was introduced halfway through the 1996 season. Then, in 1997, the BPR series morphed into the FIA GT Championship and the factory Mercedes-Benz team entered the fray with its CLK-GTR.

The pace of progress was frenetic and, as it turned out, unsustainable. At the end of 1998, the headline GT1 class was scrapped and the FIA GT Championship continued with only GT2 cars. More than 20 years later, what we’re left with from that golden era of GT1 racing are roadgoing versions of those three racers, all of which are increasingly sought after by collectors – the McLaren F1, the Porsche 911 GT1, and the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR.

The last time that GT racing had enjoyed such a high profile was in the early 1960s. Ferrari had dominated that era with its 250 GT series, which culminated in the fabled GTO, but it was nonetheless challenged by the Aston Martin DB4 GT – both Touring-bodied and lightweight Zagato – Jaguar Lightweight E-type and Shelby Cobra. All became highly coveted examples of dual-purpose cars that could be driven to circuits, raced, then driven home. Even as competition machinery became more specialised, homologation requirements continued to produce memorable road cars, from the Porsche 911 Carrera RS 2.7 to those derived from the fearsome Group B rally contenders of the 1980s. The GT1 cars of the 1990s are the latest example of a generational shift in the market for such cars, as younger enthusiasts covet them in the same way as those earlier icons have been in the past.

The McLaren F1, of course, differs from the Porsche and Mercedes in that it started life as a road car that was never intended to go racing. In fact, its designer – Gordon Murray – was emphatically against the idea when it was first raised. He eventually relented and began to recognise that, whether consciously or not, his racing background had led him to create a car that would lend itself well to competition thanks to myriad features such as its mid-mounted BMW V12 engine, carbon fibre tub and his relentless obsession with weight-saving. With remarkably little modification, the F1 was therefore turned into the competition-spec F1 GTR. Its place in history was sealed when it won first time out at Le Mans in 1995, and F1 GTRs claimed the BPR Global GT Series title in 1995 and 1996.

Porsche and Mercedes approached it differently, in that they built a racing car that they could then convert into the bare minimum of road cars. Even if the front end of the chassis was based upon the contemporary 993, the Porsche bore little resemblance to any 911 and, with its water-cooled 3.2-litre flat-six engine, actually owed more to the old 962 prototype. The Mercedes, meanwhile, used a V12 engine that was derived from the powerplant used in the contemporary S-Class but was otherwise a bespoke racer based around a carbon fibre monocoque.

Values for these hypercars have continued to climb and there’s an extremely high level of demand for them. We’ve been closely involved with a number of them over the years, including F1s, roadster and coupé versions of the CLK-GTR, plus the 911 GT1 that we sold last winter. Not only is there little variance in terms of quality and condition, all of them are extremely rare.

The production run of the standard roadgoing McLaren F1 short-tail extended to only 64 cars. Five LMs were then built to celebrate the Le Mans win, and two long-tail F1 GTs were made in order to homologate the revised bodywork on the 1997 F1 GTR. Even those numbers make it by far the most plentiful of our trio. Regulations demanded that 25 road cars needed to be built for homologation purposes, and while Mercedes eventually produced 26 CLK-GTRs – 20 coupés plus six roadsters, all but two being left-hand drive – it’s doubtful that Porsche ever built the required 25 roadgoing 911 GT1s. Best estimates are somewhere around 22.

All of them offer the full ‘race car for the road’ experience that has inspired enthusiasts throughout motoring history but which has become increasingly rare in the modern era. In the case of the McLaren F1 and Porsche 911 GT1, you’re driving a barely diluted street-legal Le Mans winner – something that’s unlikely to be repeated any time soon barring a change in regulations at La Sarthe – while the Mercedes CLK-GTR beat the other two to the FIA GT Championship in both 1997 and 1998. With such impeccable credentials, it’s little wonder that demand for this spectacular trio continues to be strong and values are still rising.

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