The Legacy of the V12 LMR

The Time BMW Won Le Mans, and What the Future Could Hold for Them.

Written by Riley Gent

Many people could say that BMW makes boring cars, and they all look more or less the same. Still, I raise you the BMW V12 LMR, a pure race car produced by BMW and the Williams F1 team barely containing a screaming V12, with over 580 horsepower and a carbon and aluminum honeycomb monocoque weighing just under 2000 pounds; this thing was a rocket ship winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans for BMW. However, before that, they never won the whole thing. In 1999 BMW was still determining how their new car, The BMW V12 LMR, would perform based on their last car's performance, even with BMWs storied and primarily successful history racing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. So there was going to be a challenge on BMWs hands.

The #15 BMW V12 LMR winning the 1999 24 Hours of Le Mans

A year earlier, in 1998, the BMW Schnitzer team's V12 LM debuted at the Le Mans test session and underperformed at best. When the race came later in the year, they were faster but it was still not enough for them to put the hurt on the other front runners. The BMWs placed behind both Porsches, Mercedes, and a Toyota. Unfortunately, both cars had to retire from the race to avoid a catastrophic failure from drivetrain vibrations that would occur at high speed; the most mileage they covered was 60 laps. After Le Mans, it was later found that the car suffered from cooling issues and the aero being poorly designed to fit the car. The team was invited to race at the 1998 Petit Le Mans but would later decline, abandoning the two V12 LM chassis and selling them to privateer teams.

The 1998 #2 BMW V12 LM

In 1999, BMW went back to the drawing board with Williams, making many aero improvements to the car and pushing the boundaries of the ACOs (Automobile Club del'Ouest) rules with a loophole with the roll hoop of the car to get the desired effect that they wanted, creating a sleek-looking car, unlike its competitors. The new LMR would only retain the basic structure of its predecessor but radically different, with redesigned bodywork for improved airflow and a new cooling system hoping to eliminate one of the LM's main issues. The LMR now created less drag and the cooling issues were fixed creating an almost entirely different car from the LM. BMW would make four new chassis and compete in the 24 hours of Le Mans and the then-new American Le Mans Series (ALMS) for the 1999 season. There would also be changes to various strategies and staff appointing former F1 driver Gerhard Berger as the head of BMW Motorsport and the continuation of entrusting the Schnitzer team to run the cars in both series.

The #42 V12 LMR at the 12 Hours of Sebring

The first two cars debuted at the 12 hours of Sebring, and many were surprised with the rapid pace of the new LMRs being a significant upgrade from the 1998 car. The new BMW V12 LMR took the pole on debut and shocked the field. Later during the race, both cars ran towards the front for the first six hours. Unfortunately, chassis #1 had a significant incident, damaging the car beyond repair and never able to race again. Still, the second BMW, driven by Tom Kristensen, JJ Lehto, and Jorg Müller, pushed to the end, winning the new car its first race.

Winners of the 12 Hours of Sebring

After the win at Sebring, rigorous testing was conducted at Monza and Silverstone to develop the car further, making driving easier. The engine built in Munich was also developed to produce 580 hp with a max of 8,000 rpm. The engine also became more compact, lighter by 33 lbs (15 kg), and improved power and fuel consumption. Even with the improvements, the BMW Schnitzer team would face new challenges at the Le Mans test session, facing closed cockpit prototypes that were theoretically faster over a single lap. However, this did not deter the drivers of the LMRs from setting good times for the practice session, with 580hp allowing it to top out at 214 mph (342 km/h) on the Mulsanne Straight, placing them behind the Toyota GT-Ones.

The 1999 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans was eventually upon the teams, and during qualifying, both BMWs again showed their speed, and they took 3rd and 6th places, sadly still being beaten by the Toyota GT-Ones. Both cars showed a strong pace against intense competition between the supposedly faster cars, outlasting Mercedes and Nissan during the race. In the second half of the race, BMW's only competition was its main rival, a lone Toyota GT-One, and two open-cockpit Audi R8Rs, similar to the LMR. In the final hours of the race, the pace looked very strong for BMW, and everything looked good; then suddenly, on lap 304, the #17 BMW V12 LMR driven by JJ Lehto crashed heavily in the Porsche Curves, the accident being caused by a stuck throttle instantly retiring the car. This left the now lone #15 BMW to fend for itself in the lead against the remaining Toyota, just less than a lap behind the new leader.

The waning hours of the race were at the peak intensity of nervousness for the BMW Schnitzer team. The lone Toyota was actively catching them towards the end, until the GT-One suffered a tragic high-speed tire blowout solidifying the BMW V12 LMRs lead. Joachim Winkelhock, Pierluigi Martini, and Yannick Dalmas brought the car to victory lane, only a single lap ahead of the Toyota GT-One. Even if BMW was not totally dominant, they had finally won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and indeed created the ultimate driving machine of reliability. Following its success in Europe, BMW returned to the American Le Mans Series at Sears Point and handily won the race; the V12 LMR would go on to sweep the series, taking two more victories over the last four races, but even with their successes, BMW's choice to only race in Europe during Le Mans would cause them to lose out on winning the ALMS championship by only two points to Panoz.

Winners of the 24 Hours of Le Mans

The following year, BMW's partnership with the Williams Formula 1 team would see them supplying engines to the Grand Prix team as part of a factory program; this would spell the end of BMW's interest in prototype sportscar racing, along with the Le Mans win. With the exposure they would garner from F1, BMW called it quits, but not before the LMR would get one last hurrah.

Genuine BMW Parts: the V12 LMR

For the 2000 season, the car would exclusively compete in the ALMS, running the whole season before retiring for good. Returning to Sebring, where the BMW V12 LMR took its first-ever win, they would find unexpected competition in another German brand. Audi had brought their new second-generation R8 prototype. BMW was on the backfoot qualifying in 5th and 6th, behind both the Audis and both Panoz. When the race came, they were able to handle Panoz, but struggled greatly against what was the start of Audi's sportscar dominance, settling for 3rd and 4th at the end of the race.

For the following two rounds, there would be a small break from Audi's domination, as they would sort out some issues and improve the new R8 before Le Mans; racing the older R8R and allowing BMW to reclose the gap, with the LMRs winning at Charlotte and the European part of the ALMS in Silverstone. Still, in Germany, they could not take full advantage of the spot they were in, allowing Panoz to take the win; BMW missed out on an opportunity of winning their home race.

BMW Art Car by Jenny Holzer, 1999 - BMW V12 LMR on display at the VIP lounge at Art Basel Miami Beach 2012 in Miami, FL.

The pain was still to come, however. Audi had returned from winning Le Mans with the improved R8, and BMW was forced to pick up scraps at the end of the year, only taking podiums when available; Audi had completely shut out the competition. At Petit Le Mans, BMW, trying to improve its chances, brought out the BMW Art car, retaining its livery designed by Jenny Holzer, which only tested during the 1999 Le Mans test session. The pain continued to mount when all three cars would struggle, with one of them doing a backflip, putting the car out of commission indefinitely; the Art car was the only V12 LMR to finish taking 5th at the end. The final two rounds were also abysmal for BMW, and they would eventually call it quits, not even attending the final round in Australia. Not wanting to be battered by Audi for one last time, they would retire the car and retain them, not selling any to privateers. BMW shifted all focus to Formula 1 after that rough season, and would have a successful partnership taking many wins, but no championships thanks to a certain Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. BMW would eventually part ways with Williams and buy out the Sauber F1 team, running a total works effort and leaving after the 2009 season.

The #43 BMW V12 LMR followed by the #42 at Laguna Seca

BMW made an insane car capable of taking on the likes of Mercedes, Toyota, Nissan, and Audi; which saw them finally winning at Le Mans and was a great success, even if the ending was rough and downright saddening. Still, the legacy of BMW's V12 LMR is a great one with seven wins and 13 podiums across 18 races and four pole positions; only competing for two years is a great success for BMW with notable drivers such as Tom Kristensen, Bill Auberlen, and JJ Lehto, along with many more. The V12 LMR not only brought them victory, but also notoriety by winning the most prestigious of races; they showed that they could compete with the big boys, and they don't only make luxury cars for old people.

The newest attempt by BMW to return and attempt to win at Le Mans is a year from now, and the new M Hybrid V8 has much to live up to and surpass. The Rolex 24 saw the return of BMW to the top class of endurance racing since 2000. Testing at Road Atlanta looked promising, but Daytona was not the M Hybrid's friend, being mired by unreliability throughout the Rolex. The pace was also absent for the new prototype. However, with only the first race of the IMSA season done and Daytona being a unique track, BMW's hopes may be looking up for them. They'll be looking to show if they are capable on street courses and more traditional tracks. Even with a history of winning, the new M Hybrid V8 has yet to prove itself compared to its more successful predecessor, the V12 LMR. BMW would like to be a force to be reckoned with, on track and off of it, by winning big in the coming years showing that they truly do create the ultimate driving machine.

BMW's new top-class prototype sportscar, the M Hybrid V8