Rule changes had made it virtually impossible for Mercedes-Benz to defend their title, so an all out assault on Le Mans was the only logical option. Where the FIA banned the GT1 cars outright, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest (ACO) created the new LM GTP class for the highly sophisticated machines. This very smart move meant that manufacturers like Toyota, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz all had a reason to return to the great race. Gone were the homologation requirements of GT1, which enabled Mercedes-Benz to develop a purpose-built machine without having to worry about a road going version.
With its long straights and high-speed corners, Le Mans is quite unlike any other track, so being able to develop a car with only the 24 Hours in mind is a great benefit. What is critical is get the right balance between low drag for the straights and enough downforce for the twistier sections. The emphasis of the CLR's aero package was clearly on cutting through the air as efficiently as possible. Compared to the CLK-LM used a year earlier, the new car was lower still and also featured a much narrower cockpit. All the exterior surfaces were extremely smooth with hardly any bumps, scoops or intakes. With some imagination, a hint of the CLK road car could be picked up from the four headlights and grille.
Under the ultra-smooth body panels, the CLR was much more than a further refinement of the CLK-LM. The carbon-fibre monocoque was completely redesigned to accommodate the much smaller cockpit. The double-wishbone suspension, with push-rod actuated coil springs over dampers, had a revised geometry as the LM GTP regulations called for slightly narrower tyres. The all-alloy V8 engine was enlarged from 5 to 5.7 litre in a quest to find the optimal balance between displacement and restrictor size. It was quoted by Mercedes-Benz to produce 600 bhp. This power was transferred to the rear wheels through a six-speed XTrac gearbox.
Ahead of the traditional Le Mans test-day, scheduled on May 2nd, the CLR was subjected to thousands of miles of testing. After the poor showing in 1998, Mercedes-Benz was determined to leave nothing to chance. With the 1997 and 1998 FIA GT results still fresh, the rival Audi, BMW, Nissan and Toyota teams had every right to be worried. In that light the performance of the CLR at the test-day was quite surprising. Piloted by an all-star crew of drivers, which included the likes of Bernd Schneider, Christophe Bouchut, Nick Heidfeld and Mark Webber, the new Mercedes-Benz could do no better 6th, 14th and 15th. Embarrassed and baffled, the team returned to Stuttgart to try and salvage things before the race.
Come June it only got worse for the AMG-Mercedes team. Bernd Schneider pushed the car to the absolute limits and still only got his CLR up to fourth in qualifying. That was the least of the team's concerns as Mark Webber had flipped his car in the run up to the Indianapolis corner. It had miraculously landed back on its wheels and there was no footage of the accident, so the whole incident was quickly swept under the corporate carpet. Before the nasty accident, the car had set the 10th quickest time. The third entry had managed to claim the seventh starting position. Overnight a new CLR was shipped to Le Mans to replace the car that had performed the aerobatics during qualifying.
During the first lap of the pre-race warm-up, the replacement CLR also performed a back-flip. Again with Webber at the wheel but this time it was down the Mulsanne Straight and there was no 10-point landing. A French photographer had captured the car at a 90 degree angle and there were numerous pictures and even TV footage of the car lying on its roof. Fortunately Webber managed to crawl out of the car unhurt. Clearly there was a design flaw but much to everyone's surprise the two surviving examples lined up for the race. To prevent another accident of this kind, the team had fitted additional dive-planes on the nose and further adjusted the aerodynamics. The need to win Le Mans was apparently worth the obvious risks.
The race started off well for the two CLRs, which diced for the lead with the Toyotas. An early worry was the pace of the BMWs, which managed to keep on the leaders' tails and run two laps longer between each stop. All this was of little importance when, on lap 75, Peter Dumbreck took off in the approach to Indianapolis. His CLR flew into the trees and he was incredibly lucky not be seriously injured. A tree-trunk had pierced the tub between his seat and the fuel tank. The dazed Scott was apparently breathalysed by a local Gendarme, who figured that this was an accident on public road. Although he was back racing shortly after, Dumbreck did not return to Le Mans for nearly a decade.
The whole incident had been captured live on television and Mercedes-Benz had no choice but to withdraw the other car. By Sunday morning the accident dominated the newspapers and the video of Dumbreck flying into the trees is still a big hit on Youtube. The reason why the CLR was so prone to fly was probably a competition of very low downforce and the relatively bumpy track. At speeds of well over 340 km/h and with very little load over the front wheels any bump in the road could lift the nose sufficiently for the air to get under the car and flip it. After the disastrous race, the CLR was not race again and the Mercedes-Benz president vowed never to return to Le Mans. Arch-rival BMW dropped the final pinch of salt in the gaping wound by winning the race outright that weekend.
Chassis '003' was one of the three CLRs entered for the 24 Hours of Le Mans race. In the hands of Schneider, it was the fastest of the trio both in the official test and during qualifying. More importantly, it is the only of the four CLRs that managed to keep all fours on the road. A lap after Dumbreck had his horrendous accident, it was withdrawn from the race. For a long time it was believed that all CLRs were scrapped in attempt to forget the nasty episode. At the 2009 Modena Trackdays this proved to be a wrong assumption as chassis 003 appeared and even more surprisingly, in private ownership. The very brave owner is seen here in action in the only known surviving CLR at the Nürburgring.