Cadillac’s barnstorming win in this year’s Daytona 24 Hours eclipsed the marque’s earlier, more modest success in international sports car racing. Richard Heseltine looks back to those heady days in the early Noughties…
From here to obscurity
Richard Heseltine’s weird and wonderful American cars from the past.
Motor sport magazines descended into raptures in February after Fernando Alonso anchored Cadillac’s outright victory in the Daytona 24 Hours. Many reporters claimed it was a landmark win, and one that would be feted for years to come. Who, then, remembers the last time the marque mounted a serious assault on sports car racing? Anybody? The Northstar LMP1 programme had all the necessary ingredients to be a success, but whether glory eluded it or it eluded glory is open to conjecture…
Scroll back to the late Nineties, and General Motors’ luxury brand was keen to shake off its ‘old man’ image. A race bid, with victory in the Le Mans 24 Hours its primary objective, was just the ticket, with race car constructors Riley & Scott being roped in to design the carbonfibre monocoque. In 2000, the first ‘tub’ was completed, with Cadillac’s own artists adding styling touches that mirrored its new Art & Science design cues, not least the razor-sharp creases and egg-crate grille. Powering the beast was a twin-turbocharged, 4.0-litre V8 rooted in an earlier Indy Racing League design. All told, seven monocoques were made, with one being destroyed during crash-testing.
Riley & Scott was then tasked with fielding cars in US motor sport under the Team Cadillac banner, while the highly respected French squad DAMS was hired to enter a brace of Northstars in the European Sports-Racing World Cup. The model’s first outing, the 2000 Daytona 24 Hours, began brilliantly, with one of the two cars entered lining up second on the grid. Come the race, however, it was a different story. Inevitably, teething troubles saw both cars spend plenty of time in the pits. They were eventually classified in 13th and 14th place, having at one point been more than 100 laps behind the leader. The rest of the season saw Cadillac threaten to be competitive, but without much in the way of concrete results. At Le Mans, three Northstars were fielded but they endured a torrid race and finished 19th, 21st and 22nd.
The LMP1 received a new body designed by British engineer Nigel Stroud ahead of the 2001 season, the programme now focusing for the most part on Le Mans. Two cars were entered in the 24 Hours, with one being eliminated in an accident while the other car came home in 15th place. Stroud was then tasked with designing an all-new car for 2002, the LMP02 being markedly less Cadillac-like in appearance but conversely even more angular. The high point of the year was second place behind the benchmark Audi R8 sports-prototype in a Miami street race, while the two cars entered in the Le Mans 24 Hours came home in ninth and 12th place.
Despite a relatively large operating budget, the Cadillac race programme proved a damp squib. Or at least that was how it was perceived in Europe. At the end of the 2002 season, General Motors put out a press release which stated that the programme had achieved its objectives… It would now concentrate on racing Corvettes internationally, which it did with conspicuous success.