Cars of Supercar’s Past: The Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR

Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR

The mid-to-late 1990s was a glorious renaissance period for performance cars. Formula 1 inspiration created the McLaren F1 using a BMW V-12 engine to become the then-fastest production car in the world. The Dodge Viper introduced in 1992 refined itself into a formidable performance coupe. The C5 version of the Chevrolet Corvette brought world-class speed and refinement back to the American sports car. At the very top, supercars took center stage in sports car racing as rules allowed super-limited production vehicles to compete in top classes at races such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring. In 1997, the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR presided as one of those exceptionally developed racecars of the time.

Shortly after the original DTM Series folded in 1996, Mercedes-Benz devoted their motorsports resources to building a race vehicle to compete in the FIA GT Championship. In preparations for a 1997 championship starting in mid-April, Mercedes-Benz engaged in a rather swift development for what would be the CLK-GTR. Using computer aided design and clay modeling, AMG needed just 128 days to allow the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR to evolve from concept to race track-ready. Mercedes-Benz and AMG may have leapfrogged the construction of their racecar by studying the competitor of the time. Reports have indicated Mercedes-Benz secretly reverse-engineered a McLaren F1 in the creation of their speed machine. A picture of a modified test mule has confirmed this to be the case.

Presenting the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR in racing trim as well as a street version, the FIA granted entrance of the German supercar ahead of a four-hour event at the Hockenheimring. Wearing the badging and characteristics of a production coupe (even a hood ornament), the CLK-GTR racecar shared few Mercedes CLK parts. A purebred racecar featuring the earth-shaking power of a mid-mounted V-12, the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR was exclusively shaped with carbon fiber bodywork (more common today but considered highly exotic in the 1990s). Butterfly-style doors on the vehicle allowed easier driver changes during the course of a FIA GT Championship event. The headlamps and the front grille remain the only carryover pieces from the more conventional Mercedes-Benz CLK in the creation of their GT1 racecar.

Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR racing

Campaigned within the GT1 category through AMG-Mercedes in 1997, the McLaren F1 fielded by BMW Motorsport would not concede superiority. It was not until the fourth race at the Nurburgring that a Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR piloted by Bernd Schneider and Klaus Ludwig would be at the top of the podium. However, after that initial win, the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR cruised to victory in five of the final seven races of the 1997 FIA GT Championship. Resulting in a driver’s championship for Bernd Schneider, the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR GT1 car late season dominance gave the AMG-Mercedes organization the team championship.

In 1998, the pace of motorsports development relegated the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR out-of-date. Competing in two races (sailing to victory in both cases), Mercedes-AMG would replace the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR with the CLK-LM (an upgraded variant of the previous racecar). Bernd Schneider partnered with future Red Bull Racing Formula 1 driver Mark Webber recorded the CLK-GTR’s last FIA GT Championship win. Privateer organization Persson Motorsport respectably ran the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR through the remainder of the 1998 FIA GT Championship but didn’t capture a victory. Unlike the McLaren F1 or its corporate successor the CLK-LM, the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR would never race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR front

In respect to homologation rules of the 1997 GT1 class cars, Mercedes-Benz needed to produce a minimum of 25 street legal versions of the CLK-GTR. That was fulfilled the following year. Buyers of the road-going version of the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR enjoyed almost all the styling and performance characteristics of the FIA GT Championship winning variant. 20 of the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTRs were coupes while the remaining five were produced as convertibles by H.W.A. GmbH (a motorsport company created Hans-Werner Aufrecht in 1998 after Mercedes-Benz wholly acquired AMG). The only major difference is a body-integrated rear wing replaced the race vehicle’s tail. Two-piece luggage set, battery charger and a first aid kit would come with the CLK-GTR road car.

The 25 Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR models actually featured a larger displacement engine than the racecar. Fitted with a 6.9 liter version of the M120 V-12 powerplant, the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR street car pumped out roughly the same horsepower as the 1997 GT1 racing sports car. An exception to this performance equality is an ultra-rare SuperSport model was given a larger 7.3 liter V-12 engine capable of 720-horsepower. Only two Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR SuperSport models are known to exist with the horsepower upgrade. August of 2012, a 1998 Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR SuperSport road car fetched $1,100,000 at the RM Auction in Monterey.

Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR engine

An impressive machine constructed during a very brief period where GT1 racing resulted from extreme supercars, the Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR risks being one of those forgotten vehicles. Not enjoying the fanfare of the Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren or the current SLS AMG, the CLK-GTR short sports car racing career is still a legendary feat.

Information and photo source: Daimler AG, RM Auctions

Chris Nagy

Chris Nagy

Automotive Editor
Admiring automobiles ever since childhood viewership of the TV show Knight Rider, Chris Nagy grew as an enthusiast enroute to become an automotive and motorsport writer. Drawn to the rich world of motoring, Chris discovers charm everywhere in the industry from supercars like the Bugatti Veyron to a Kia Soul. Car design, engineering, performance and the passion itself fuels his daily existence.
Chris Nagy

@ChrisnagyCarGuy

Mech Eng. Grad, Automotive & Motorsport Journalist with a wide range of intrigue. An Unsuccessful Quitter Who Continues to Try.
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