For all of BMW's famed racing victories, it won the 24 Hours of Le Mans just once—and late in the company's hundred-year history. It was the late 1990s, and the Germans were really taking off: Porsche's mighty GT1 went airborne at Road Atlanta in 1998, driver Yannick Dalmas shook up but uninjured. At the 1999 Le Mans, Mercedes-Benz's CLR twice: once during qualifying with Mark Webber, and once down the Mulsanne Straight in the race's early dawn. , the car flew of the track as if undergoing a video game glitch. Driver Peter Dumbreck was knocked unconscious and woke up in the trees. The first thing he remembered doing upon regaining consciousness was performing a breathalyzer test for the officials. "It is highly unlikely that any driver is going to guzzle a few pints before hitting the track for a 24-hour race. Don't you think?" he reminisced. "But that is French law and you have to adhere to it. I haven't had a drink in me for two weeks."
Mercedes-Ben pulled all of its remaining CLRs from racing. It was the second time the company dropped out of Le Mans due to flying cars—the first, of course, was the 1955 Le Mans disaster.
Mercedes-Benz dropped out, and BMW came through. The V12 LMR had been built with the help of the Williams F1 team, an evolution of 1998's thoroughly unsuccessful (slow, inefficient, unreliable) LM. It worked. One of the two LMRs crashed with mere laps to go, and the other held off Toyota's GT-One in a close battle to the finish. Much like this year's running, Toyota's entry suffered a mechanical failure right near the end, and BMW beat it—and won the whole thing—by just a single lap.
Most race cars are discarded like the proverbial cordwood, left to linger in a museum basement somewhere, even—especially—after a victory so historic. It might come out for a rare turn at Goodwood, stoking the fires of nostalgia for a too-brief moment, but that's about it.
BMW Motorsport raced the winning LMR for another year and a half. It never quite replicated its Le Mans success, but it placed within the top five for the rest of the season. The next year, BMW went all in to Formula 1, supplying engines to WilliamsF1, and along with Toyota left the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Just as well. This was Audi's time: the debut of the R8 prototype that would win for six years in a row, give rise to its namesake supercar, and cement the company's reputation for Le Mans dominance for the next decade and a half.
But the V12 LMR still had notoriety to achieve. And at 2000's Petit Le Mans, racing alongside Jenny Holzer's Art Car, the BMW flipped coming over the rise at Road Atlanta, just like Porsche, and just like Mercedes.
Unlike Dumbreck, BMW driver Bill Auberlen was able to climb out of the car. He suffered nothing more than a bruised elbow. "I could feel the air was different," . "When I got to the right, all of a sudden, my visor opened up and I knew this was going to be a different deal. The car took off and I thought, 'Oh, no, I'm going to make the Great Crashes .'"
The BMW lived on. Schnitzer Motorsport rebuilt the car, entered it at Laguna Seca and Las Vegas, and finished out the season. Today, the car resides at the BMW Museum in Munich, a time when the Germans fought at the highest levels of sports car racing, and when the Luftwaffe came to Le Mans.
Images via BMW. h/t to