Viper GTS-R's first race was the 1996 Rolex 24 at Daytona, a scant few months after the program started in May, 1995. Canaska-Southwind, a Canadian-American team, ran a two-car program in the GT1 class at both races. The car was more appropriate for GT2, but the required number had not yet been built – GT1 was for limited-production cars, while GT2 was intended for series production cars such as the Porsche 911.
At Daytona, one of the Vipers dropped out early after a crash. The other ran as high as second in class and ninth overall by the 8-hour mark, but then it dropped back because of various issues, finishing seventh in class and 29th overall.
The Viper's next race was at Sebring, and teething problems again thwarted a strong result on the rough circuit built on old concrete airport runways. Both races, however, were a resounding success for Viper owners, who flocked to the track 80-strong to cheer the team.
At the urging of Chrysler General Manager of Powertrain Operations Francois Castaing, the French-based ORECA team run by Hugues de Chaunac was hired to run a two-car Viper team at Le Mans. This was a good strategy, given ORECA's experience not only in racing – having won Le Mans overall in 1991 with the Mazda 787B prototype – but also its years of dealings with the Automobile Club d'lOuest (ACO).
ORECA ran its own development program on its Vipers, including new carbon fiber brake discs which required changes to the suspension such as stiffer mounts to take the increased braking forces. Brake cooling changes and improved driver cooling were also part of the program.
At that time, invited cars like the ORECA Vipers had to qualify during the Le Mans Trials, which were held several weeks before the race. The ACO invited more cars than were allowed to race, with only the fastest cars going on to the main event, so this made the Trials a sprint race, quite different from the actual 24 Hours. Many teams installed hotter engines and most fitted sticky qualifying tires that were good for barely three laps.
All the hard work by ORECA and the Viper team resulted in five Vipers qualifying for the race, to run against six McLaren F1s, three Ferrari F-40 Evoluziones and hot rods from Toyota and Nissan among others in the GT1 class.
Le Mans was also good to Viper, with three cars finishing and one in the top 10 overall. Price Cobb, Mark Dismore and Shawn Hendricks were in the 10th-place car, and were eighth in GT1. Moreover, the Vipers were at least a second quicker than the GT2 cars, so the 1997 season was looking good for the cars since they would run in that class, having built enough cars to qualify.
Viper ran two other races in 1996; the 1000 Kilometers of Suzuka, Japan and Mosport in Canada, where the Viper GTS-R achieved its first podium finish.
The following year, the Viper returned to run in the GT2 class of the American Le Mans Series and claimed both the driver's and manufacturer's championships clinching at the last minute in Monterey. But the season again began with the Rolex 24 at Daytona, where ORECA and Atlanta-based JP Racing teamed up to run one car as a test in the S-1 class (similar to GT2) with an eye on Le Mans.
Chrysler and Caldwell Development engineers found an extra 100 horsepower in the massive V10 engine with a new intake manifold and other tuning tweaks. The car set a new lap record in class and ran well during the race, but problems with an experimental Weismann gearbox slowed the car. The team did score a podium finish in class, however.
In Europe, ORECA was now the official Viper factory team and the FIA GT Championship was chosen as the race series to run in 1997. The primary goal, however, was again Le Mans – a focus that continued throughout GTS-R history. Vipers dominated the first two GT Series races at Silverstone and Hockenheim, taking the pole and the win in both races.
Five Vipers came to Le Mans and four qualified – three ORECA team cars and a private entry from British-based Chamberlain Engineering. Two of the ORECA Vipers were brand-new lightweights and one was last year's car. It was driven by John Morton, Justin Bell and Pierre Yver.
At the start, the two lightweights immediately took the lead and began to dominate, but problems arose. First, one of the cars spun into the wall in the high-speed Porsche curves and caught fire, burning to the ground. The second lightweight crashed as the result of a stuck throttle. The remaining two Vipers finished 14th and 15th overall, and fifth and sixth in GT2.
This would be Viper's breakthrough year at Le Mans. The team took the first four qualifying positions in GT2 with Olivier Beretta breaking the four-minute mark at a record 3:59.981. The ORECA cars were even lighter than 1997 and were equipped with carbon brakes. Chamberlain Engineering was back with the two 1997 ORECA lightweights, but with the steel brake rotors they were running in the FIA GT Series.
The Vipers was content early in the race to follow a fast Porsche 911 run by the Roock team, taking the lead only in the third hour. But trouble came in the sixth hour when the leading Beretta/Tommy Archer/Pedro Lamy Viper pitted with a minor gearbox problem. They dropped to fourth while the box was changed. Then the battery failed in the other lightweight and the car stalled just short of the pits. The third ORECA car, driven by Justin Bell, David Donohue and Luca Drudi, inherited the lead and went on to win. The Beretta/Archer/Lamy Viper finished second, dozens of laps ahead of the third-place Porsche.
Total domination was the operative term for Viper's performance at Le Mans this year. The GTS-R took the first six places in class. The competition was nowhere.
The script was set from the start of the season at the Rolex 24, when Viper answered the challenge thrown down by the new Pratt and Miller Corvette team. One of previous year's ORECA team Vipers was brought over to race. It would also serve as a test car to see how Viper stacked up against the new Corvette and a host of Porsches run by European teams that would also be at Le Mans. In addition, two privately entered Vipers – one from Chamberlain Engineering – joined the fray.
The Corvette proved quick, running a fast practice lap two-tenths of a second faster than the ORECA Viper, but qualifying was different. The Viper reeled off a 1:47.1, a full second faster than the Corvette. In the race, however, the ORECA Viper's lead disappeared in a crash while lapping a Porsche. The Chamberlain GTS-R also retired, while the second private Viper was far back at the finish.
Le Mans, though, would be a very different story. Eight Vipers were entered, and the snake cars decisively replaced Porsche as the dominant GT marque, sweeping to the top six places in the GTS class. Olivier Beretta, Karl Wendlinger and Dominique Dupuy led the Viper hit parade in their ORECA car, just as they would the following year.
This was the final year of official Viper participation in international road racing and the factory team went out at the very top, winning not only Le Mans for the third straight time but also taking the overall win at the Rolex 24 at Daytona after a fantastic performance. The ORECA Viper team won every race it entered in the American Le Mans Series, including a 1-2-3 at Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta to take that championship, too.
And so ended the brilliant career of the GTS-R – at least as a factory-supported racer. The cars went on to further victories on the international GT racing circuit for a few more years. Their mantle was taken on by the Viper Competition Coupe, which went on to great success in series such as the SCCA's World Challenge.
Now, a new Viper has begun writing a new chapter of the marque's history in ALMS competition, and will make its Le Mans debut next month.
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