To commemorate the 20th anniversary of BMW’s outright victory at the 24-Hours of Le Mans, Johan Ackermann created his very own road-legal tribute to BMW’s V12 LMR Prototype sports car… Story: Johann Venter. Photography: Jan van der Walt.
LMR Tribute One For The Road?
The 24-Hours of Le Mans is considered the pinnacle of endurance racing. In 1995 it was won by the McLaren F1 GTR powered by a BMW 6.1-litre V12 engine; a McLaren also secured third, fourth, and fifth overall. This so inspired BMW that it mounted its own challenge at the great race with its LMR Prototype. Before we further examine the LMR let’s give credence to the automotive legend that made it all possible – the McLaren F1. Returning on a flight from the 1988 Italian Grand Prix, South African-born Gordon Murray was honing the design for a ‘Super Car’, which he conceptualised since his days at college. Murray shared his design with the McLaren F1 team boss Ron Dennis who happened to be on the same flight.
The arrowhead design showed a centrally-focused driving position, akin to a Formula 1 car, with passengers positioned on either side behind the driver. And so was born one of the greatest automotive concepts, the McLaren F1. Through his close association with Honda who developed F1 engines for the McLaren team, Murray logically looked to Honda to develop the naturally-aspirated 4.5-litre engine, in either V10 or V12 configuration which he required. Furthermore he’d been charmed by the Honda NSX and decided to incorporate several of its attributes into the F1. Surprisingly Honda turned him down! But Isuzu came to the fore offering a brand-new 3.5-litre V12 it had developed for F1 aspirations. Murray would inevitably turn to BMW, his former engine supplier when he was at Brabham, and in particular to Paul Rosche (head of the M Division at the time) who had developed the BMW 1500cc turbocharged engine that could produce up to 1000hp, which led to Nelson Piquet securing the F1 title in 1983.
“This is not a replica, or copy but is a fully legal, road-going car that looks like a race car”
The S70/2 BMW engine Paul Rosche developed for the McLaren F1 is nothing short of an engineering marvel. The 6.1-litre 60-degree V12 four-cam, 48-valve is remarkably compact, weighing 216kg but producing a mega 627hp at 7500rpm and 480lbft at 5600 rpm – 0-60mph in 3.2-seconds. The F1 to this day is one of the most exceptional cars of the 21st century, it used many firsts in a production car, including a carbon-fibre monocoque and 24-carat gold foiling in the engine bay. To put the F1 into perspective it still remains to this day the fastest naturally-aspirated car on the planet.
On 31st March 1998, it became the world’s fastest production car, reaching 231mph and 243mph with the rev-limiter disabled. This record stood unchallenged until 2005 when a turbocharged Bugatti Veyron set a new one. In an extract from Gordon Murray’s book One Formula, 50 Years Of Car Design, this is how he described the design philosophy behind the F1: “To make it light we designed absolutely everything. We did our own gearbox, we did our own instruments, our own handbrake, our own steering column, our own steering rack. The machined pedals and the machined-aluminium knobs, instead of plastic and stuff like that. The feel of the gear lever was very important to me. I wanted the parts to be absolutely beautiful. So even stuff like windscreen-wiper brackets, which you will probably only see as a replacement part, are milled from solid aluminium and are beautiful pieces of engineering. Every single thing on the car is like that.”
Johan rose to prominence when his tribute to the Mercedes-Benz C9 featured on The Grand Tour
Let’s turn back now to how BMW mounted its challenge on Le Mans. In 1997 BMW turned to the Williams F1 team who had dominated the constructors’ and drivers’ championships in the ‘90s. Williams technical director Patrick Head would oversee the development of the carbon-fibre chassis, aerodynamics and adaptation of the S70/2 engine as used in the Le Mans-winning McLaren F1 GTR. BMW also turned to long time racing partner Schnitzer to oversee the race teams under the stewardship of Charly Lamm. What sounded to be a winning combination to conquer Le Mans in 1998 turned out to be an absolute disaster, the consensus is that the LMR was rushed and underwent too little testing. Within 60 laps of the 1998 Le Mans 24 Hour race both cars had retired. The cooling system had been poorly designed and sucked in hot air off the track, the drivetrains vibrated and wheel bearings failed. The team went back to the drawing board, retaining only the carbonfibre/ aluminium chassis while completely redesigning the exterior, most notably resorting to a single roll-over hoop, providing better airflow over the rear wing. The engine remained largely unchanged, with only slight modifications made to the intake and exhaust manifolds, to comply with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest’s regulations for 1999. The S70/3 6.0-litre V12 engine was good for 580hp at 6500rpm, mated to an X-Trac 6-speed sequential gearbox, achieving an astounding 214mph on the Mulsanne Straight. The LMR debuted at the 1999 12 Hours of Sebring, the two BMW entrants securing the front row of the grid and kept the lead formation for half the race. LMR number 42 driven by J.J. Lehto, Jörg Müller and Tom Kristensen won from pole, securing a maiden victory for the BMW, Williams, Schnitzer team. Unfortunately LMR number 43 (chassis 001) had a catastrophic accident and was never raced again. For the 1999 24 Hour Le Mans, BMW fielded two cars which qualified third (car number 15 driven by Tom Kristensen, J.J.
Lehto and Jörg Müller) and sixth (car number 17 driven by Pierluigi Martini, Yannick Dalmas and Joachim Winkelhock) on the grid, the Toyota GT-Ones closed out the front row. The two LMRs ran a competitive race from the start, jockeying for position among the front runners, LMR number 17 trading the lead with the Toyota GT-One front runner within the first hour. As darkness fell LMR number 17 continued to alternate the top spot with the two Toyotas. What gave the BMWs an added advantage was their fuel economy, being able to run for fourteen laps between pits stops equated to a major strategic advantage in the race. By daybreak the BMWs occupied the top two spots, LMR number 17 leading by three laps. After leading for 269 laps, victory for LMR number 17 seemed certain but it was not to be. While J.J. Lehto was at the wheel, part of the front right suspension failed, wedging open the throttle on the entry into the Porsche Curves, with disastrous effects. The car was retired leaving LMR number 15 in the lead, but only just, the remaining GT-One was gaining and in the process posting a new lap record. With less than an hour to go there was virtually nothing between the Toyota and the BMW, but such was the fate of the race that the GT-One’s rear right tyre blew on the approach to Indianapolis. Katayama managed to steer safe from the wall but crawled back to the pits losing over four minutes handing BMW the victory. Pierluigi Martini took the chequered flag in LMR number 15 just after four o’clock on 13th June 1999, after 365 gruelling laps.
The LMR also participated in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) for the 1999 season, and despite skipping two races in preparing for Le Mans, the team finished second, winning all four races it entered. By the end of its second (2000) and final season in ALMS the LMR was deemed one of the most successful open-topped sports cars of recent times. To commemorate the LMR victory twenty years ago the winning LMR together with a BMW 328 Touring Coupé, (recorded a class win at Le Mans in 1939) did a demonstration lap on the Circuit de la Sarthe before the start of the 2019 Le Mans race. In that very same spirit Johan Ackermann built a road-legal LMR of his own, paying tribute to BMW’s only outright victory at Le Mans twenty years ago.
Johan rose to global prominence when his tribute to the Mercedes-Benz C9 Le Mans winning car was featured on the second episode of The Grand Tour filmed in South Africa. Johan’s passion for BMW goes back more than four decades. In 1989 he was approached by the late Tony Viana to assist with his campaign in the WesBank Modified Saloons. Tony Viana is a South African racing legend having won numerous championships, several of which were for BMW. The most notable being the Group One Championship which Viana won in 1985, in an E23 745i, the only motorsport 7 Series BMW ever sanctioned. The 745i developed for the South African market was powered by the M88 engine as used in the E28 M5, only 249 were produced at the Rosslyn plant.
In 1989 Viana campaigned a highly modified E30 333i (SA special only 210 made) in the WesBank Modified Saloons that was powered by the E28 M5 engine. Johan Ackermann developed the front spoiler ingeniously using a Kirby vacuum-cleaner as a wind tunnel. Through Johan’s involvement with Viana he met Geoff Goddard, a test and development engineer at BMW South Africa, who later became a works driver and team manager. In 1990 Goddard offered Johan the opportunity to test drive the numerous BMW models being produced at the Rosslyn plant. We caught up with Johan to find out what spurred the desire to make his very own LMR: “I need to be clear from the onset that this is not a replica, or copy but is a fully legal, road-going car that looks like a race car, which pays tribute to the Le Mans winning LMR,” Johan exclaims.
He continues, “I’ve always had a soft-spot for BMW, so the LMR was always playing on my mind – having admired the Kyosho 1:18 scale model that I had. With the twentieth anniversary win of the LMR coming into focus I approached Manie Coetzee, a good friend and asked if he wanted to partner with me on the LMR tribute. We started the project on the 22nd August 2018 and used my scale model as a reference,” he reflects. I understand that you and Manie had no scale diagrams, I doubt those are even accessible. “Effectively only the exterior would resemble the actual LMR and for that we scaled up the model to determine the size of the body panels, but we are getting ahead of ourselves. Before we could get to the body work we needed a chassis, bearing in mind this was going to be a road and not a track car. Our intention was to use mainly BMW components, so it could be serviced and maintained at a BMW dealership or independent specialist. The chassis was crucial, which I scrutinised and developed in my head long before we started with the body work. There could be no compromise on the engine – it had to be a V12! We managed to find a BMW E38 750iL with the 5.4-litre V12 engine, the intention was also to use the suspension, Johan remarks.” The M73B54 engine used in the 750iL was superb for its time, in 1999 it won the category ‘Above 4-litres’ at the International Engine of the Year Awards. Used in BMW’s flagship model the 7 Series but also in its grand tourer the E31 850Ci from 1995 and not surprisingly in the first Rolls Royce built under BMW’s ownership, the Silver Seraph – it was good for 326hp at 5000rpm and produced 360lbft at 3900rpm. “I didn’t know all of that,” he remarks and continues. “We laid out the front and rear suspension and placed 2mm steel tubing in-between and formulated a ladder frame chassis, similar to geodetic construction, which is an old method used in constructing aircraft frames. The LMR is an open-top car without a roll cage, so we had to ensure that the chassis could handle the load. We were adamant that it should have a manual gearbox for a more involved driving experience, it proved to be quite a challenge though. Our research pointed to the five-speed manual ZF gearbox used in the E36 325 Turbo Diesel, these gearboxes are quite robust and can endure quite a bit of torque. The challenge was to make the bell housing of the gearbox fit onto the 750 engine. We overcame this by cutting off the front section of the bell housing of the automatic ZF gearbox from the 750 and proceeded to do the same to the manual gearbox. We then combined the back end of the manual gearbox bell housing with the front end of the automatic gearbox bell housing. To preserve the ring-gear for the starter, we had to modify the flex plate from 750 and had a 20mm flywheel made,” Johan points out. It’s pretty obvious that the brake rotors and callipers are not from the 750. “We knew that the power to weight ratio was going to be quite significant and therefore opted to use the discs and callipers from the E39 M5…
boy does it stop on a dime. In terms of the wheels we fitted 18-inch M4 replicas, they are the closest in our view to the double five spoke wheels used on the LMR. We had them carbon-dipped and the rears were widened, fitted with Goodyear Eagle F1 rubber, 225/35/18 in the front and 285/35/18 at the rear,” he declares. A different fabrication method was used to that employed for the body of the Mercedes-Benz C9.
”For the LMR we did not use a plug or a mould, each panel was individually made, it is much more cost effective and efficient. We used polyester foam, shaping a specific section of the car and then applied glass-fibre; once dry we removed the foam. The Kyosho model was measured and then scaled up to the actual size of the LMR…we started with the nose. The large flat pieces were placed on a flat sheet of glass to ensure a smooth, straight surface. Shaping the fenders and curved surfaces required plenty of creativity and a real artistic element to get it right. The model also came in handy when it came to designing the decals, again these were scaled up to the exact size. In terms of the interior, it needed to be a two seater. We designed and fabricated the seats ourselves out of plywood, the frames were then skinned with glass-fibre and carbon-dipped. The driver’s seat is slightly bigger than that of the passenger. Each seat is equipped with a four-point harness, it is less heavy and more comfortable than a full six-point racing harness. When we first tested the seating position we found that the floor was too high and that one’s shoulders were completely outside the cockpit, so we had to lower the floor. Due to the suspension setup of the 750 we could not have a level floor, so the seating position is that of a F1 driver, where your buttocks are lower in the cockpit than your ankles,” Johan declares. It’s fantastic how the racing dynamic like the seating position has crept in, even if it was not part of the plan, into what is ultimately a road-legal car.
“Because of the layout of the foot well we had to design custom pedals, the brake booster doesn’t sit behind the pedals as there is insufficient space, instead it is positioned in the centre and works off a lever system.
“We tried our utmost to get the steering-wheel, dash display and switches to look as close to the original items. The detachable steering-wheel carries the buttons for the indicators, lights and hooter, which operate wirelessly,” Johan explains. I must say that it has come together quite smashingly, I rather like the fuel filler cap…it has a nice racing feel to it… “The filler cap is from a BMW F650 Dakar GS motorcycle, and the fuel is stored in a 48kg gas cylinder that takes about 60-litres of 95 Octane. Overall we are very pleased with the outcome, the ride is extremely smooth, and the 7 Series suspension gives one the sensation of floating when on a long open road. It is light with plenty of grunt, giving it a fairly agile handling characteristic. We view the LMR ownership experience as no different to that of an AC Cobra or a Lotus Super 7, I would however recommend wearing a helmet on longer journeys. I am planning a road-trip to Dullstroom, it is approximately 260km from Johannesburg out in the Mpumalanga Highlands and we’re definitely not going for the fly-fishing. Our aim is to put the LMR through its paces on the plentiful S-bends that curve through the Highlands,” Johan concludes.
Before we depart Johan offers to take me for a quick spin down a 2km stretch of road. One has no choice but to slide over the top of the LMR and slip into the passenger seat. Once the four point harness is strapped in we’re off, it’s quick and soon my face suffers the same fate Jeremy Clarkson’s did when he tried to tame the Ariel Atom and BAC Mono in Top Gear. The G-force onslaught tries to rip the skin from my face, all the while the V12 is belching out a rich baritone note through its custom exhaust. And in a flash it is all over but the LMR tribute has left a lasting impression. The first take away from all this being that the LMR tribute is much better enjoyed with a helmet, and that secondly it could even be more fun still on a racetrack…
The floor was lowered to accommodate passengers, the driving position is now F1-style with legs raised. The rest of the interior apes the original LMR closely.
The driver’s seat is larger than the passenger one, both passengers get full harnesses…
When it came to engine choice it simply had to be a V12. An E38 750iL donated its M73B54 5.4-litre V12 unit Johan and the team had only a scale model of the LMR to work from as a starting point…