F Features

Snakebitten - GTLM Champion Viper GTS-R and Kuno Wittmer

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By Jordan Lenssen | Photos by Nick Busato, Richard Prince, & Jordan Lenssen

Stepping into the world’s largest GT arena is a daunting and intimidating task, yet when the Chrysler brass decided to put the Viper GTS into competition as the GTS-R in 1996, there was no hesitation.

As part of a limited program run by Canaska Southwind Motorsport in the IMSA GT championship’s GTS-1 class, the 8.0-litre dual overhead V10 finished in 29th in its maiden race at the 24 Hours of Daytona, but followed that up with a strong 12th place finish overall at the 12 Hours of Sebring. Overseas, established French operation Oreca entered the GTS-R in the Asian BPR Global Series and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, against some of the top GT cars of all-time in the McLaren F1 GTR and Porsche 991 GT1. In its first appearance at the pinnacle 24 Hour race, the Canaska GTS-R managed an astounding 10th overall, beaten only by these ultra-exotics and the Porsche WSC-95 and Courage C36 prototypes. It was a matter of time before the Viper name would etch its name into the record books.

Snakebit-GTLM-Champion-Ignition-Jordan LenssenFor 1997, with Canaska out of the picture, Team Oreca took over factory-backed Viper operations and set out to make their mark. Amidst stark competition from the Porsche, McLaren and Mercedes-Benz GT1 dominating the field, Oreca opted to move the white, blue and red-liveried GTS-Rs to the GT2 class against competitors like the Porsche 911, Chevrolet Corvette and bespoke racers such as the Saleen Mustang RRR and Marcos Mantara LM600. In a full-fledged FIA GT Championship effort, the Viper would capture an astounding seven of 11 races for the GT2-class team and driver titles in its first full season of competition.

Those results would be bested in 1998 with nine out of 10 wins, a repeat of the driver and team championships, and the team’s first class title at Le Mans, finishing one-two, and nearly 30 laps ahead of the third-place finisher. The Viper team proved its performance was no fluke in 1999. For the inaugural American Le Mans Series race, Oreca switched to the red and white striped livery that would carry them through two ALMS GTS team titles and entrench them as one of motorsport’s most recognized and respected racers of all time. At Le Mans, the traditional tri-coloured Orecas captured their second-straight one-two finish and the Viper locked out the first six positions in the GTS class to complement an FIA GT team and driver title for a third-straight year.

The Viper wore the red and white exclusively in a sole ALMS and Le Mans campaign in 2000. The Oreca GTS-R started the season by being the first American production car to capture the overall victory at Daytona, and followed that with nine-straight wins to run away with the ALMS title over the Corvette. That domination carried over to Le Mans, where the GTS-Rs finished one-two ahead of their American counterparts once again.

Snakebit-GTLM-Champion-Ignition-Jordan Lenssen-21But just as the program seemed at its peak and the Viper invincible, Chrysler pulled the plug to focus its efforts on a new prototype venture.

The Viper was left as a customer racer, but failed to capture any of the success as the factory program. In the meantime, Dodge continued to produce Viper race cars such as the ACR (and subsequent ACR-X) and GT3-spec Competition Coupe for customer and one-make series.

The factory race program had gone quiet, but those four years of GT domination allowed Viper engineers to take that experience and translate it into the street snake of the future.

“The street car has benefited a lot on the engine performance side,” says Matt Bejnarowicz, former SRT Viper Lead Racing Engineer. “Developments in intake and cylinder head design were started in early race programs [and brought over]. The street car transmission evolved due to improvements made during the original GTS-R race program, which were required to complete 24-hour endurance races.”

Even the later ACR and Competition Coupe served to benefit the current Viper’s oil sump system.

The aerodynamics of the previous GTS-R also served as a basis for the fifth-gen SRT Viper and GTS-R design, notably in the hood extractors.

Riley Technologies played a large role in developing the race car and, when it debuted alongside the production model at the 2012 New York Auto Show, the technology sharing between the two was obvious.

Snakebit-GTLM-Champion-Ignition-Jordan Lenssen-4“The same engineers who have worked on the race programs for many years have also developed the street car… so the technology sharing goes both ways,” Bejnarowicz says.

The new, silver-clad Viper GTS-R returned to factory racing just months later for a partial 2012 season (largely a development year), fielding two cars and a team that included Tommy Kendall, Marc Goossens, Jonathan Bomarito, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Viper vets Dominik Farnbacher and Canadian Kuno Wittmer. Farnbacher’s had previously set a world record in 2011 for production cars at the Nürburgring, driving an ACR around the circuit in just 7:12.13. Wittmer’s relationship with the Viper was solely competition-based.

“The first time I drove a Viper [Competition Coupe] was 2009 at Road America for a World Challenge event,” Wittmer says. “We ended up taking pole and leading until a suspension failure, but that really launched everything with SRT.”

Impressing SRT and finishing second in the standings the following year, he stayed on to test in 2011 and prepare for the SRT’s return to ALMS sportscar racing in 2012.

Debuting at Mid-Ohio, the hulking 8.4-litre factory V10 was immediately restricted by series officials who de-stroked and dropped displacement to 8.0-litres. It forced engineers to extract every bit of aero and mechanical grip out of the vehicle to make up for the balance of performance (BoP), but largely handcuffed the team in its return season.

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“It wasn’t until mid-2013 that we started to get competitive,” Wittmer says. The team returned to the winner’s circle for the first time in 13 years at Road America, but their hope to rekindle Le Mans glory fell short. The no. 53 car of Goossens, Farnbacher and Ryan Dalziel finished ninth in class, while Wittmer, Tommy Kendall and Jonathan Bomarito finished 10th in the no. 93. Back in North America, the team had gained traction however, finishing the season in third behind Corvette and BMW.

For the 2014 unified United SportsCar Championship (USCC), Wittmer and Bomarito returned to the no. 93, and Farnbacher and Goosens to the no. 91. Both cars started the season strong, with third- and second-place finishes in the first two races.

The off-season allowed engineers to dissect the ultra-stiff and infinitely-adjustable GTS-R chassis, and team management made sure every aspect of the operation was cohesive, to create a potent entry for every track.

In the GTLM class, you have to be the best at everything,” Bejnarowicz says. “The race car is only one part of that equation – preparation needs to be perfect, the setup needs to be perfect, pit stops need to be perfect and the drivers need to be amazing.”

Part of that perfection, the team attributes, came at the cost of forgoing Le Mans.

“That was completely up to us,” Wittmer says matter-of-factly.

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Trading the top spot with the no. 3 Corvette throughout the season, Bomarito and Wittmer went into the final race as leaders in both the driver and team standings, but under heavy threat from the Corvette and Antonio Garcia. Hedging their bets and doubling their odds, SRT opted to place Wittmer into the no. 91 and keep Bomarito in the 93 car to double their chances of capturing the driver’s title. In the end, Bomarito’s sixth-place finish secured the team title for the 93 car, but put him second in the driver standings, while Wittmer’s third place finish was enough to award him the championship. But he admits, it was a bittersweet decision to make at the final race.

“The championship was won by the both of us,” Wittmer says. “It’s one of those decisions that’s tough to live with, but it really could have gone either way.”

Before the team could let their sophomore victory sink in, and in a turn of events vaguely similar to the team in 2000, two days SRT announced that it would be ending the Viper factory program, effective immediately. It was a move that stunned the sportscar world, and left the drivers and team members scrambling for jobs.

Bomarito quickly signed with Mazda’s USCC prototype program while Wittmer, Farnbacher and Goossens accepted a one-off race at this year’s 24 Hours of Daytona in two Riley Motorsport Viper GT3-R GTD entries. Wittmer, Farnbacher, Cameron Lawrence, Al Carter and Ben Keating (the world’s largest Viper dealer) took victory by just seven seconds.

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For Wittmer and Farnbacher, the victory is an affirmation – and hopefully, a motivation for teams looking for top-tier drivers this season.

Wittmer has been actively searching for a full-time ride since October and, while it’s hard to imagine a GT champion without a ride, it’s only a matter of time before he’s scooped up and onto the next. He took GTLM, he captured a one-off in a GT3-R during the Toronto Indy weekend, he won one of sportscar’s most prestigious 24 Hour races in the world. He’s won them all in arguably the toughest GT car to drive, and all within a 12 month span. Where will he go? Who knows, but it’ll be good, and if it’s in a Viper, the competition better be shaking in their boots.

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