Archive: Why Cadillac's previous Le Mans bid was doomed

After announcing its LMDh programme, Cadillac will return to Le Mans in 2023 after two decades away. Back then, the American manufacturer hoped to take Le Mans by storm with its Northstar LMP car - but, as Gary Watkins wrote in Motorsport's sister title Autosport in 2003, it was doomed from day one.

Archive: Why Cadillac's previous Le Mans bid was doomed

The sportscar fraternity took a collective gasp when Cadillac axed its Northstar project in August 2002. The move ran contrary to all reliable indicators and came just as the General Motors marque's latest open-top prototype was coming good. By why should have been surprised? After all, it wasn't the first piece of bizarre decision-making over the course of Caddy's three-year bid to win the Le Mans 24 Hours. And, as it turned out, it wouldn't be the last.

GM got it wrong from the word go, although the world's largest motor manufacturer wouldn't have been the first car giant to endure a difficult year one at Le Mans. BMW and Audi weren't competitive when they made their maiden bids with prototype machinery in the late-'90s, but both learned from their errors and went on to win the race in year two. Cadillac only compounded its early problems, which doomed the project to failure within its three-year lifespan.

Put simply, GM didn't realise what was required to win one of the sport's biggest prizes. It even admits as much, although the admission comes in US corporate-speak. "A fairly significant misunderstanding of the culture and nature of European racing, particularly Le Mans," are the words used by GM motorsport boss Herb Fishel, the architect of the Northstar project. "Another thing was a failure to stand back and fully understand the competitive nature of that [sportscar] industry." That translates as, "We underestimated Le Mans, big time."

GM's failure to realise just how combative the 24 Hours was - and at a time when Audi was in the process of raising the bar still further - had its roots in the mid-'90s. Cadillac's return to La Sarthe was hatched after GM tested the Le Mans waters in 1996 with the Oldsmobile-backed campaign masterminded by Indianapolis chassis constructor Riley & Scott, which had already won the US enduros at Daytona and Sebring that year. The car was third quickest in pre-qualifying, and what was effectively a low-budget operation far from disgraced itself in the race.

Little more than a year later, GM and Riley & Scott were well into the discussions that would take Cadillac to Le Mans. Which was the big problem. The budget and, to only a slightly lesser extent, the technical level of the car were set at '97 levels. Yet by the time the first incarnation of the Northstar LMP pitched up at Le Mans in 2000, the battleground had changed. In the late '90s there was a massive expansion in manufacturer participation at Le Mans and to say that Toyota, BMW, Mercedes and then Audi moved the goalposts would be an understatement. It was as if they were playing a different game.

An estimate of £50 million has been put on Audi's budget for 2000, the first of the three years in which it conquered both Le Mans and the American Le Mans Series. Cadillac's budget, meanwhile, is believed never to have stretched to much more than £15 million, minus the engine bill. This budget, which GM claims didn't increase significantly over the life of the programme, is comparable with what BMW, then racing with McLaren, spent in '97.

GM tried Le Mans in 1996 with Oldsmobile, with help from Riley & Scott

GM tried Le Mans in 1996 with Oldsmobile, with help from Riley & Scott

Photo by: William Murenbeeld

"We thought if we upgraded the existing car [the successful MkIII] and got a good engine, then we would be right up there," explains Bill Riley, who masterminded the Cadillac programme for the family company. "That was where the initial budget was set. Back in 1996-97 you didn't need tons of money to run well at Le Mans. By the time the car rolled out on the grid the game had changed dramatically."

Cadillac and Riley & Scott weren't well placed to react. Riley now admits that his failure to attend Le Mans in '98 was a mistake. It's doubtful whether he would have been able to extract more funds from the GM coffers, but he would have spotted the latest trend in aerodynamics.

The chassis constructor had been told by the Le Mans rulemakers, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest, that a raised front section to the monocoque, a la Formula 1, was not permissible. By the time he returned in 1999, this feature was de rigueur on all the front-running cars. The Caddy tubs, however, were already under construction for the following year...

Cadillac pitched up at Le Mans in 2000 with a car that was behind the times, a claim Riley only half-heartedly denies. Worse still, there were four of them. The French DAMS squad, billed as Cadillac's European development team, entered as a brace alongside the two factory entries. A total run of seven chassis stretched Riley & Scott's already limited budget further. The same goes for a distracting assault on the early-season Daytona 24 Hours, which meant converting the cars to a different set of rules, and a late switch from EMCO to Xtrac transmissions on three of the four Le Mans cars.

The new group - the 3GR design centre in the UK and the Protostar outfit in the US - wasn't operational until mid-December. Bear in mind that Audi had its 2000 chassis up and running before the previous Christmas

Not surprisingly, the 24 Hours was a disaster, a "horrible race" in Riley's words. The best Caddy qualified 6.5s from the pole-winning Audi. One of the DAMS cars burned out in the first hour and the two full factory cars hit clutch problems and finished among the walking wounded in 22nd and 23rd. The remaining DAMS car almost saved the day. It looked set for fourth, albeit a long way behind the three Audis, until a minor suspension failure in the closing stages left the car classified 19th.

Twelve months before, Audi had been off the pace, although strong reliability gave the German manufacturer third and fourth positions. The day after Le Mans, it started work on a new chassis, the car that we know as the all-conquering R8.

A pitstop for Wayne Taylor / Eric van de Poele / Max Angelelli, Team Cadillac-Bill Riley, Cadillac Northstar LMP, 2000

A pitstop for Wayne Taylor / Eric van de Poele / Max Angelelli, Team Cadillac-Bill Riley, Cadillac Northstar LMP, 2000

Riley & Scott also started work on a new car, although GM couldn't make up its mind whether it wanted the American constructor to go ahead and build it. Instead, GM bosses spent the summer touring the world talking to organisations about taking over the programme. Prodrive and Dallara were approached in Europe, others sounded out in the US.

The same sloth-like decision-making that allowed Chrysler and the ORECA team to come in and pinch the Dallara deal from under its nose meant that as autumn turned to winter it still wasn't clear who would be building and running the 2001 Cadillacs. Riley & Scott had been unceremoniously dumped at the end of the summer and instead GM opted for a new organisation put together by Cadillac driver Wayne Taylor alongside seasoned sportscar hands Nigel Stroud and Jeff Hazell.

Hazell, who had masterminded the McLaren F1 GTR programme, had been brought in by GM as a consultant. His advice was that they should stop and regroup for 2002. That wasn't an option, according to Fishel. "I have learned over the years that if you get out of a programme it is extremely difficult to re-engage," he explains. "The landscape changes too quickly."

GM's veteran motorsport boss also makes no apologies for the slow decision-making through the second half of 2000. "It is the way bureaucracy in big companies works. It's the nature of the beast."

The new group - the 3GR design centre in the UK and the Protostar outfit in the US - wasn't operational until mid-December. Bear in mind that Audi had its 2000 chassis up and running before the previous Christmas. GM's dithering meant that a new car was out of the question, but it didn't want to return with the unmodified existing cars. "That would have been nice, but that wasn't our brief," says Hazell. "It wasn't felt that it would bring credibility to the programme."

That meant GM's time-wasting in the summer of 2000 would have implications right through to the end of the Northstar programme. When Stroud and his team should have been working on an all-new design they were having to rework the existing chassis for 2001.

Eric Bernard ploughs his Cadillac LMP into the gravel during Le Mans 24 Hours prequalifying, 2001

Eric Bernard ploughs his Cadillac LMP into the gravel during Le Mans 24 Hours prequalifying, 2001

Photo by: James Bearne

"We had one hand tied behind our backs from the beginning," says Hazell. "We were compromised because we couldn't get on with it [the new design]. We had 80% of the design team on the old car until March [when the revised chassis hit the track]. One would really like to have everyone on the new car the previous November."

The first test of the Northstar LMP-02 was planned for October but the car didn't run until January. The new chassis, which had more than a hint of Audi R8 about it, was a step forward on the initial Northstar, but it took a while to show its promise. The Le Mans test day in May, for example, was a disaster. What team sources labelled only as an "obscure technical problem" held the car's performance back. The Cadillacs may have found a full six seconds in qualifying for the race in May, but who is to say that if the team had not been chasing its tail at the test it might have been quicker still. A car that had been running well before Christmas might not have been affected by obscure problems, nor perhaps the electrical maladies that restricted the cars to a disappointing ninth and 11th in the race.

There would only have been continuity if GM had pushed the green light on an extension into 2003. The irony is, of course, that in the absence of the factory Audis, Cadillac would have gone to Le Mans next year as joint favourites with Bentley

Only later did the Northstar LMP-02 show its true colours. The car scored a run of ALMS podiums, starting at Mosport the weekend after it emerged that the programme was ending. In the Canadian race and then at Miami, the Caddy was good enough to take the fight to the Audis early on. But then racing cars often come good at the end of their first year.

Which was just Cadillac's problem. Its three-year bid to win Le Mans turned into three disjointed one-year bids. There was never any momentum until after the axe had fallen. There would only have been continuity if GM had pushed the green light on an extension into 2003. The irony is, of course, that in the absence of the factory Audis, Cadillac would have gone to Le Mans next year as joint favourites with Bentley.

Not that anyone at GM seemed aware of Audi's withdrawal, surely one of sportscar racing's worst kept secrets over the past few years. Bizarre? Not really.

Emmanuel Collard / Eric Bernard / JJ Lehto, Team Cadillac, Cadillac Northstar LMP-02, 2002

Emmanuel Collard / Eric Bernard / JJ Lehto, Team Cadillac, Cadillac Northstar LMP-02, 2002

Cadillac's lack of power

Three quarters of a second. That's how much it has been calculated that the Cadillacs were losing to the Audis on each of the four long straights at Le Mans. Put another way, that's most of the four seconds the Anglo-American cars were giving away to the leaders each racing lap around the 8.6-mile Circuit de la Sarthe.

The Northstar twin-turbo V8, developed out of house at McLaren Engines in the US, would have been the biggest chink in Cadillac's armour had it returned to Le Mans in 2003. The production-based unit was overweight, underpowered and uneconomical compared with Audi's similar, though purpose-built, engine.

The need to develop an all-new engine if Cadillac wanted to match the Audi V8, which also powers the Bentley EXP Speed 8s, has been cited as one reason by General Motors executives for the decision to call time on the Northstar programme. They explained they didn't want to incur the same cost of developing the same direct fuel-injection technology as Audi in order to improve consumption when GM doesn't use such a system on its road cars.

In truth there was much that could have been done to improve the existing engine to keep Cadillac up with the Bentley, which would have been its major opposition in 2003. It is well known that GM errs on the side of caution with its racing engines thanks to a fear of adverse publicity if its motors are seen to be breaking.

It's worth pointing out that Riley & Scott, which knows the form at GM, took that on board when it was designing the first Northstar. It opted for a low-drag, long-wheelbase car because it was expecting to be behind the eight ball on power.

Christophe Tinseau / Max Angelelli / Wayne Taylor, Team Cadillac, Cadillac Northstar LMP-02 crashes into the tyre barrier, 2002

Christophe Tinseau / Max Angelelli / Wayne Taylor, Team Cadillac, Cadillac Northstar LMP-02 crashes into the tyre barrier, 2002

Why GM pulled the plug on the Northstar project

Why did General Motors axe the Cadillac Northstar programme?

Not because Le Mans is a "non-event" in the US as was stated by GM supremo Bob Lutz, who used to make such play of the Viper's successes there in his old job at Chrysler. The reasons are, in fact, much more complicated and have as much to do with internal company politics as with clear business thinking.

Cadillac was only due to go to sportscar racing for three years, but what is clear is that GM bosses, right up to Lutz himself, were looking at ways of continuing, possibly beyond 2003. A full campaign, encompassing Le Mans and the American Le Mans Series, and an ALMS-only programme were both on the table. And all manner of ways of how best to go about achieving either were under consideration.

Swapping from the 3GR/Protostar group to another organisation was seriously under consideration. Pratt & Miller, who run GM's Chevrolet Corvettes at Le Mans, were sounded out but politely refused the offer. The French ORECA team, which had masterminded the Viper programme, appeared close to a deal that would have involved putting the existing twin-turbo V8 engine into its existing Dallara-built chassis.

This route was proposed by Lutz, but GM's motorsport department was forced to point out that the engine would not fit the Dallara without substantial aerodynamic revisions to the chassis. Moreover, there was no evidence to suggest it would be any quicker than their existing package. Insiders hint that the GM number one didn't take kindly to being told his plan was unworkable and that the decision to axe the programme followed shortly after.

What's more, it was taken before the ALMS-only proposal could be put forward. Such a project would have been almost entirely self-funding courtesy of sponsorship already on the cars. By the time an ALMS assault was discussed this money had been reallocated to other GM motorsport projects.

A week later a proposal for the team to raise further funding and to run in the ALMS as a privateer was vetoed for reasons unknown. The Northstar LMP-02s were now destined for the museum.

Cadillac Northstar LMP, 2001

Cadillac Northstar LMP, 2001

Photo by: Lorenzo Bellanca/LAT Photographic

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