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Merc’s mega V12 challenger

MENTION ‘1990s’ and ‘Mercedes’ along with ‘Le Mans’ in the same sentence and it’s a pretty good chance the flipping CLR race cars that sent Mark Webber (twice!) and Peter Dumbreck into orbit at Le Mans in 1999 will come up in conversation.

Sadly, this part of the marque’s sportscar history overshadows how cool the car that started it all – the CLK-GTR – really was.

It was a car that is a classic example of what car companies can do in a hurry.

The combined efforts of Mercedes-Benz and Mercedes-AMG produced a carbon-fibre chassis, fitted with a six-litre V12, based on the production model, that made its debut in the 1997 FIA GT World Championship.

Between the first design drawing of the car and its first race were 128 days, an insanely short space of time.

The team made it to the start of the season but, inevitably, there were problems. While the bugs were ironed out of the Benzes, BMW Motorsport dominated the first three rounds of the series, at Hockenheim, Silverstone and Helsinki. But then, AMG Mercedes hits its straps, winning at the Nurburgring.

BMW hit back at Spa and Mugello but such was the pace of the silver cars that by season’s end, it was the McLarens that started to feel the strain and suffer reliability problems. AMG Mercedes won the final two rounds of the year and, with it, a remarkable double, with Bernd Schneider taking the Drivers’ Crown and the team the GT1 Teams’ title.

The team continued to race the car for the opening two rounds of 1998 (the year Webber joined the program) and, after two wins, the car was replaced by the V8-powered CLK LM.

In race trim, and fitted with mandatory air restrictors, the CLK-GTR’s engine produced 600hp; after a full season, this had increased to 630hp.

Ironically, the racing version had less power than its road car equivalent, which had a 6.9-litre version with 612hp. In later versions, the engine would produce as much as 641hp in a 7.3-litre version, which was also fitted to a Pagani Zonda.

The car was fitted with a six-speed gearbox, with sequential shift. The racer had a conventional gear stick but the road car was one of the first fitted with a ‘paddle’ gear shift but without the electronic ‘blip’ function, fitted to many of today’s cars.

While Benz’s racer was based on a homologated road car, its dominance was such that by the time the company got around to building the required road cars, the racer was retired.

The FIA GT series itself was canned in late-1998, about the time AMG started production of 25 cars, which was completed in mid-1999.

Even in road trim, and with a highish first gear, performance was impressive. The car accelerated from 0-100kmh in 3.8s; 200 came up in just under 10 seconds and the top speed was 322km/h.

And, for those for whom a price tag of US$1.54m was not enough, long-time Mercedez-Benz partner Ilmor Engineering produced a go-faster kit, which liberated another 100 horsepower.

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