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.
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.
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.
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