When Porsche won Petit Le Mans outright in 2015 with a 911 RSR GTE against hordes of prototypes, it was a tribute to another great feat carried out 15 years earlier.
Porsche’s feat had been accomplished in an event that rained in a short time—just 7 hours and 51 minutes of the originally scheduled 10 hours were completed at Road Atlanta—in horrendous weather that allowed the Michelins to shine over Continental’s faster prototypes. But when the Dodge Viper GTS-R conquered the Daytona 24 Hours in 2000, it had run the full distance and a fluke could not be questioned.
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Still, Autosport Magazine’s report called it “one of the biggest disruptions” in the event’s history, as the faster SR-class prototypes fell like flies with “an unprecedented catalog of problems and incidents.” But the fact that three of the ORECA-run Vipers occupied the top five (a total of five of the US-built cars were in the top seven) told its own story.
The victory for Olivier Beretta, Karl Wendlinger and Dominique Dupuy by 31 seconds on the leading works Corvette, also in the secondary GTO class, was the culmination of Beretta’s long stint with the car he chose as the favorite of his long career that graced Formula 1 with Larrousse in 1994.
He had played a pivotal role in the “totally unexpected” outcome, despite his suffering from chickenpox; Beretta put in a double stint that gave the winning #91 car a pit stop advantage over its GT rivals after 10 hours and allowed him to take advantage of the fact that the engine of leading Dyson Racing Riley & Scott MKIII in the last four hours began to lose power.
But it was far from the only highlight, as the Monegask also took two of his six victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans (in 1999 and 2000), two US Le Mans Series titles (1999 and 2000), plus two FIA GT class titles (1998 and 1999) in a car “born with me”. Beretta was involved in its development from the start and made sure it fit him perfectly.
“We started with something that was not reliable and very difficult to drive,” Beretta, now part of Ferrari’s Competizione GT driver list, recalls of the 8.0-litre V10 brute. “We had the money then, the ORECA team did a great job and I was there from day one, so the car was evolving around my driving style. In the end it wasn’t that hard, because the car was born with me.”
Beretta (right) took his first of six Le Mans class wins with the Viper in 1999
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In a time before Balance of Performance, where the most prepared crew and fastest car prevailed, the Viper was top dog. Beretta has vivid memories of ORECA boss Hughes de Chaunac organizing tests of 30 hours or more “every month, from January to April” for Le Mans, “and for Daytona we did that for Christmas”.
“Those were the things you had to do in those days if you want to make sure you have the reliability with you,” he says. “In the beginning we stopped after eight o’clock, after 15 o’clock. But at the end of the test we managed to drive for 32 hours without stopping and we knew that all parts of the car were reliable. And that’s why the Viper was unbeatable at the end.
“We had so many endurance tests before the race and that was the strength of ORECA, planning and spending a lot of time and money on winter testing. We were in Paul Ricard in February at zero, two degrees, run, run, run, run 32 or 35 hours and it paid off.
“When you do Le Mans, you do some stamina [tests], but you’re not doing what we did 20 years ago. I don’t see any team doing things like this today!”
“We drove for 32 hours without stopping and we knew that all parts of the car were reliable. That’s why the Viper was unbeatable at the end.” Olivier Beretta
Beretta’s bond with the car hadn’t started on the brightest note. After four toe-in-the-water BPR Endurance outings in 1996, he finished third in class at the 1997 Daytona 24 Hours, just a massive 35 laps behind the GTS-1-winning Porsche. He and Philippe Gache had been the fastest GT2 couple in that year’s FIA GT Championship, but a series of minor mistakes put the title on the line at Laguna Seca – where their season was marred by a faulty speed penalty in the pit lane that was imposed on Beretta.
The penalty gave the lead to the Roock Porsche Stephane Ortelli shared with title challenger Bruno Eichmann, who was about to grab the crown, and forced ORECA to change the order of its two cars. Through Justin Bell’s #52 Viper went into second place he needed to claim the title, but it was a bitter pill to swallow for Beretta.
“At that time they had the speedgun and the Marshal made a mess between the #51 and the #52,” he recalls. “The team said to me: ‘You have to stop, you have too much speed in the pitlane’. And I said, ‘No way, no way’. I knew I couldn’t do this because I was leading the race so I didn’t have any pressure to overdo the pit lane and I was super focused not to do it.
“At the end of the race we looked back at the telemetry and it was the sister car that did it. So I lost the championship for something I didn’t do…”
After ignominiously losing the FIA GT2 title in 1997, Beretta had a flimsy hold on the series in 1998 and 1999, never finishing lower than second place in the ORECA Viper
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But by teaming up with Pedro Lamy in 1998, the French-Portuguese couple were beaten only twice throughout the year, finishing second both times. In 1999, he successfully defended the title with Wendlinger by finishing first or second in every race. When ORECA joined the nascent ALMS, Beretta was momentarily unstoppable as the Viper steamroller continued unabated.
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Beretta puts his wins in the Le Mans GTS class – both times with Wendlinger and Dupuy – “on par” with their outright Daytona win, although problems with the Viper’s fifth gear in the closing stages gave that result an added advantage.
“Overall, Daytona at the time was totally unexpected and winning with the GT was something huge, especially against the Corvette back then with the two major American manufacturers,” he says. “This race has been green for a long time until the end, so it wasn’t like a race where you have safety cars and restart the race every hour.
“We were super tense because at that time we didn’t know if the gearbox was okay until the end. Sometimes we need luck and that time, and that day we had luck on our side.”
Luck, however, had little to do with most of the success. After ORECA shifted its focus to prototypes for 2001 with Chrysler, the Viper continued to win – Christophe Bouchut and Larbre claimed consecutive FIA GT titles in 2001 and 2002, and also won the Spa 24 Hours in both years. The Nürburgring 24 Hours was another happy hunting ground for the Viper, with Zakspeed triumphing in 1999, 2001 and 2002 – the last two with Lamy at the helm set the Portuguese on the road to a record five wins he still holds today. has.
However, it was not the easiest car to handle. Beretta says the Viper was “pretty hard physically” to drive, especially since ergonomics could hardly be considered a priority. With no traction control to control wheel spin and thereby preserve tire life, plus an H-pattern gearbox that requires careful downshifts to prevent the rear wheels from locking up, Beretta takes great satisfaction in mastering the car’s idiosyncrasies.
“Inside the cockpit it was super hot because there were no rules like today that you get a stop-and-go if you overheat,” he says. “It used to be nobody cares! I remember we had the exhaust next to the seat, the engine in the front when we were doing Texas, it was 43 degrees at 8pm in the car. It was amazing how hot it was.
High temperatures in the cockpit were one of the Viper’s drawbacks – but that didn’t stop Beretta, Wendlinger and Dupuy from taking the ALMS class at Surfers Paradise on New Year’s Eve in 2000
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“We had a lot more to arrange in the cockpit than today. These days you just don’t care about the gearbox anymore, you just have to step on the pedal and you downshift, you shift up, you look at your light and you go. It used to be that you had to manage the H gearbox, you had to manage the wheelspin, a lot of the tires because we didn’t have traction control, we had to manage the inside of the cockpit because it was super hot. ”
Beretta won Le Mans four times with Corvette between 2004 and 2011 before moving to Ferrari, including three in a row with Oliver Gavin and Jan Magnussen from 2004 to 2006. But it’s the Viper that is etched in his brain as the perfect match.
“When I switched to another car, like the Corvette, the car was already developed, so I have to adapt to the car,” he says. “So for me it was much easier to drive the Viper.”
Beretta won Le Mans four times with the Corvette, but says the Viper he intrinsically developed was the most suitable for his driving style
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