Exactly 20 years ago the final round of the 1998 FIA GT Championship was held at the Laguna Seca Circuit. In the top GT1 class it was scheduled to be a classic encounter between the veteran champion, Klaus Ludwig, and the reigning FIA GT champion, Bernd Schneider. Yes, of course they had co-drivers, Ricardo Zonta and Mark Webber, but despite the obvious talent and potential of that pair all eyes were on the two Germans of different generations. Schneider had taken the title in 1997 and had looked favourite to repeat this for most of the 1998 season. What added spice to the contest was that they were both driving for the AMG Mercedes team, for the majority of the season in the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz CLK-LM. Approaching the decisive race, the score sheet showed Ludwig and Zonta ahead of their rivals by four points. However, Schneider and Webber had racked up five wins to four, so if the points tally was equal after Laguna Seca they would be champions on the basis of more race wins. It was a case of the winner takes all.
Adding even more spice to the contest was the announcement by Ludwig that he would retire from motor sport after the race in Monterey. His career had included three victories at Le Mans and five DTM titles, could he add the FIA GT Championship to the list? Klaus certainly was motivated, and said before the race, "Laguna Seca is one of the tracks I love the best. It's a demanding track and an exciting track - the Corkscrew, in Europe, impossible! To win there would be very special for me."
Most Europeans like myself imagine that California is a place of sunshine and beaches, blondes and brunettes of either sex, all tanned, forever young. So, it was something of a shock arriving at the track in anticipation of Saturday Morning’s Qualifying session to conditions usually found at the Nürburgring or Spa, torrential rain. The first session was stopped after 15 minutes as a river of mud was blocking the Corkscrew, not quite how I imagined the weather would be on the West Coast. The afternoon’s conditions were much better and the advantage swung Ludwig’s way courtesy of Zonta. The Brazilian’s pole position lap of 1m16.154s was 0.434 seconds faster than Schneider’s best. Afterwards Ricardo explained. “My qualifying lap was really good but not without a problem. Because I experienced a little brake balance problem, I got off-line in the last corner where it was a little wet. That might have cost me some time."
After the traditional end-of-term drivers’ photo Klaus was presented with a lump of the track as a memento of his final race, it seemed a very Californian thing to do. AMG Mercedes had the front row to themselves, who would emerge from Turn One in the lead, Schneider or Ludwig? Everyone held their breath but in the end the veteran got the best start and quickly pulled away from his rival. In any case Bernd had his mirrors full of a Porsche with Allan McNish making a nuisance of himself, even passing the Mercedes after a few laps.
Ludwig had his own dramas to contend with while negotiating his way through the traffic, making contact with William Langhorne’s GT2 Porsche. A heavy side impact nearly put Klaus off the tarmac but somehow, he gathered himself together and raced on at full speed. Schneider also got rid of the McNish problem around this point, the clutch failed on the Porsche stranding the Scot. It would be a straight fight for victory for the #1 and #2 Mercedes. Schneider then dived into the pits, fuel only, no fresh tyres. A lap later Ludwig was in, then out of the car, Zonta taking new rubber. He managed to stall the CLK-LM as he left the pits, all of which gave a handy advantage back to Schneider.
Bernd was looking certain to take the title but then lost a load of time stuck behind Jörg Müller in the other factory Porsche 911 GT1. Müller was determined to not go a lap down on the leader, hoping that the deployment of a Safety Car would give him the chance to catch up to the leader. Eventually Müller ran wide at the first turn, allowing Schneider to pass, though he was furious at his fellow German. The gap was around the 12 second mark but this might not be enough to guarantee victory.
The second stints ended and into the pits came Schneider to hand over to his Aussie co-driver who also received a new set of tyres. This would put Webber behind Zonta on the road as it was expected that his stop would be a fuel only affair and so it proved. The AMG Mercedes management had anxious moments after both of their cars left the pits for the final time. Both fell off the track at turn three, where oil had been deposited by a back marker, both cars just missed hitting the wall by a fraction. It could have been a disaster.
Webber got his head down and chipped away taking a second here, a second there. Webber posted a time of 1:19.094, setting a new GT record, would it be enough? The gap came down to ten seconds but the time ran out for the chasing Mercedes and Zonta crossed the line 10.8 seconds ahead – Ludwig and Zonta were champions, the fairy tale had come true.
Schneider showed grace in defeat, he is, and always was, a class act. "Failing to win the title after 10 races by just 10 seconds shows how tough we raced for the Drivers’ Championship this season. Although Mark and I didn’t manage to win the championship, I’m glad for the team. Congratulations to my old friend Klaus, who deserves to end his career as champion."
Of course, the old stager did not ride off into the sunset, the lure of motor racing proved too strong. In June 1999 Klaus scored a third win in the Nürburgring 24 Hours driving a Zakspeed Viper. In 2000 Ludwig raced a full season in the revived DTM, scoring a pair of wins at Sachsenring in his Mercedes. Now at the age of 50 he decided to retire as a professional driver. Then, being Klaus, he raced on for a few more years just for fun, notably by taking the pole position of the very first race of the FIA GT3 European Championship in 2006.
Twenty years on Bernd Schneider is still racing. The now 54-year-old competed in the 2018 Total 24 Hours of Spa, as part of the Sun Energy1 Team HTP Motorsport, helping co-driver Kenny Habul to full points in the Intercontinental GT Challenge Bronze Drivers championship. At the wheel of a Mercedes-AMG the Australian is well on his way to claim the title. And Mercedes-AMG could conquer much more, for its driver pairing Raffaele Marciello and Tristan Vautier are leading the Intercontinental GT Challenge Drivers’ standings, and in the Manufacturers’ standings, the brand with the three-pointed-star is leading as well. Could there be a repeat of the celebrations of twenty years ago?
text & pictures: John Brooks