That it fell to actor Desmond Llewellyn, gadget-man ‘Q’ in four decades of James Bond films, to help break BMW’s official silence on the details of its attack on June 5 Le Mans 24 Hours was entirely fitting. Few doubt that the Munich marque’s new motorsport partner; the Williams Grand Prix team, will come up with something suitably advanced to resite the goalposts in the somewhat neglected sports racing car class.
But even greater significance lay in the improvised words of this octogenarian player who had misplaced his script. ‘It should be here now, but unfortunately it isn’t ready; said Llewellyn of the car that will be known as the BMW Vl2 Le Mans and driven by a ‘home-made’ team of BMW stalwarts past and present. Inadvertently this sentence gave an insight into Munich’s decision to build the sports racer after quitting GT racing, where it had boosted and then bankrolled McLaren’s efforts with the BMW engined Fl GT from 1996 on.
BMW of course, says the V12 LA’ is not behind schedule, though it should be noted that Williams had booked Paul Ricard from February 12 for a shakedown. But a more realistic roll-out date for the second half of March reveals that the design process started relatively late – September if you talk to BMW or early August if you believe Williams insiders. And the reason it began so belatedly has to be that BMW was uncertain about which way to turn to fulfil a commitment to sportscar racing it had clearly stated over the past 12 months.
It can only be a matter of speculation that BMW would still be in the GT ranks had it not seen the original McLaren made obsolete by the Porsche 911 GTl and then its replacement. the long tailed 1997 Fl GTR, rendered uncompetitive by the Mercedes CLK-GTR in last year’s inaugural FIA GT Championship. But it is clear that BMW marketing boss Karl-Heinz Kalbfell, the man who makes Munich’s motorsport decisions, is unhappy about the uncertainty that continues to surround the FIA GT series, particularly the arrival of what he regards as ever-more sophisticated pure-bred race cars.
‘There appears to be a confusion between GT and prototypes (sports racing cars)’ he explains ‘I cannot spend my company’s money on an insecure future I have done that twice already (a reference to the Porsche and Mercedes episodes) So I do not see a GT route any more says Kalbfell who denied all the rumours that the V12 LM could become the basis of a BMW GT1 contender of the future.
‘We mustn’t forget that the decision to go Fl has taken a lot of capacity in all areas’ he goes on. ‘That means we have to concentrate our minds, and the only stable regulations I see are those for Le Mans And, because we have a special feeling for Le Mans, the decision was quite easy. Another motivation for the decision to opt for a sports racing car, says Kaibfell. was the interest from BMW’s US division, which has long been eyeing up thc Stateside World Sports Car class which provided the blueprint for Le Mans LMP875 technical regulations. Developing a car just for Le Mans is not cost effective say 5 Kalbfell who answers in the affirmative when asked if there is likely to be a BMW factory presence at next years Daytona 24 Hours. ‘Daytona for me is one of the big and strong names in motor racing.’ To this end BMW is developing a race version of its road car four-litre V8 in conjunction with famed engine builder Heine Mader in Switzerland. US rules, as well as those of the new International Sports Racing Series in Europe, outlaw engines over five litres meaning that a refined version of the big six litre BMW V12 from the McLaren will see service only at Le Mans.
According to BMW tradition the V8 will also be available to private teams looking for a suitable powerplant for proprietary chassis, though Kalbfell says there’s no decision yet on the possibility of the BMW chassis being available to customers.
A US programme in 1998 also explains, at least in part. why Team Rafanelli from Italy, formerly Bigazzi, was chosen to run the Le Mans campaign ahead of Scbnitzer, BMW’s factory representative in last year’s FIA GT series. ‘Gabriele Rafanelli (owner and founder of the team) has a lot of experience in the US’ explains Kalbfell, without mentioning that this came during Rafanelli’s time as an amateur driver more than a quarter of a century ago. ‘We are lucky to have two top teams, so it makes sense to swap them around; Bigazzi was our team in GT racing in 1996, Schnitzer was next and now is Gabriele’s turn again.’
Rafanelli, for his part, seems to be relishing the challenge of a return to Le Mans with a car, on paper at least, capable of winning. He appears unconcerned that his multiple touring car title-winning team is not scheduled to get its hands on the first. V12 LM – a dedicated test car – until about six weeks before the all-important Le Mans pre-qualifying at the beginning of May ‘I’m not worried because of all the experience Williams,’ says Rafanelli, who confirms that the V12 LM is being
penned by John Russell, formerly chief designer within Williams’s Renault touring car operation. ‘The car was started from a clean sheet of paper, so there are no compromises whatsoever When this car hits the road, it will be ready. And this is not a customer car’ he goes on. ‘Our mechanics will be going to Williams to put the car together so we won’t be losing two weeks learning about it after we get it. And the V12, you and I know that it could run for a month: Within the BMW camp there’s no talk of 1998 being in anyway a learning year ‘Some might say we should aim to win in 1999 or 2000’ says Kalbfell, ‘but that kind of talk doesn’t interest me.’