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The Saleen S7R, A ‘Beast’ That Needed Taming

Reflections on an American GT1 monster

The GT1 era in the early 2000s saw a staggering array of raw, aggressive and powerful GT cars take on each other around the world, whether it be in the FIA GT Championship, American Le Mans Series or European Le Mans Series. Most came from household names like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Aston Martin or Maserati, but there were some from further afield.

Perhaps the best of the bunch beyond the headline acts in GT1 came from Steve Saleen out of Orange County, California, who after years of gaining traction racing in the USA and tuning various iterations of the Mustang, decided to create a car from the ground up to take on the world.

The S7R first burst onto the scene back in 2000, developed, constructed and assembled by RML in the UK, before making its debut in the American Le Mans Series at Laguna Seca. This was back when GT1 wasn’t a class (by name), so instead the S7R ran in the GTS category at places like Le Mans.

While there was never a true Saleen factory effort, the RML entries were, in essence, factory cars, entered by the company responsible for building the chassis.

In its early days the car achieved some real standout results. It won its class at the Sebring 12 Hours in 2001 with Konrad, and an ELMS title with Ray Mallock’s team.

But it was a car that often didn’t maximise its potential and there were many missed opportunities. The 2001 Le Mans 24 Hours is a good example, when when along with Ian McKellar and Bruno Lambert in an RML-run S7R, Johnny Mowlem looked odds on for a class win when a mechanical failure ended their chances late in the race.

“2001 at Le Mans? That was a real lost opportunity,” he said to DSC. “At the point that our engine blew I’d spent time in the lead during the night, it was raining like you wouldn’t believe. It was only my second time driving at Le Mans and I’d never driven in the wet at night before anywhere, let alone there! It was crazy wet, to the extent that I was aquaplaning on the straights and for periods of time it wasn’t possible to be 100% even in a straight line.”.

“I was pushing as much as I dared but kept telling my RML race engineer, Phil Barker, on the radio how crazy it was out there. He did a great job keeping me motivated. At one point he told me I was several seconds faster than the rest of the class and one of the fastest cars on the circuit. It was probably complete rubbish but that definitely gave me more confidence and made me feel more positive!”.

“In some ways the straights were the hardest bit, because you didn’t have any “feel” for the grip levels and were relying totally on your eyes and peripheral vision to tell you when the car was starting to aquaplane. I can remember having to run down the middle of the straight on the crown of the road down as there was less standing water there. You’d come up to pass a slower car and in the spray you had to pull out to pass them and ease off the throttle 20% or so as you got into the ruts in the road where you started aquaplaning, then try and use your momentum to get in front, then pull back into the middle of the road and gently get back to full throttle.

“It didn’t help that we also lost the use of our windscreen wipers over 100 mph because the wiper motor couldn’t cope with the force of the air pushing the wiper against the windscreen. So I couldn’t see down the straights and I remember having to look out the side window of the car and count the light gantries going into each of the chicanes and Mulsanne corner. You’d start braking and as you started slowing down the wipers would slowly start working again and you could judge your turn in and apex and drive the corner and then as you accelerated back out on to the straight again and picked up speed the wipers would grind to a halt and you’d be virtually blind again, especially if you had a car in front!”

“I think my second stint after the start worked out that I drove from around 9pm till just before midnight, but then one of my teammates was slightly reticent at driving in those conditions, and so I found myself being pit back in the car by Ray Mallock in the early hours of the morning. I’m not sure exactly but I was in the car then for nearly four hours, at least it felt that long! Back then there weren’t the same rules as now in terms of limiting driving time.

“I remember it was just beginning to get light and the rain had eased off considerably when I got back out. We had the lead and were eighth overall and I thought there’s nothing else that Le Mans can throw at me that could be as bad as what I had just experienced. I must admit at that point I felt not a little elated to have come through it all unscathed and felt like we’d got the race covered!

“However I’d only been out of the car some 30 minutes and got myself into some dry clothes when I heard my team mate Ian Mckellar come over the radio, ‘engine has gone’. The feeling of disappointment was like Mike Tyson hitting you in the stomach…..huge! That’s when I learned that you never beat Le Mans, Le Mans just lets you play with her. As soon as you think you’ve got the better of her she pulls the rug out from under you.

You never beat Le Mans, Le Mans just lets you play with her. As soon as you think you’ve got the better of her she pulls the rug out from under you

“We had seven or eight hours to go, and in a 24 hour race that can feels like you’re nearly at the end. I very naively thought we’d cracked it. The only tiny consolation was that I got the class fastest lap, but to be honest that meant nothing and I only found that out afterwards from Ray Mallock when we were all looking for silver linings!”

Mowlem, who describes his experience at Le Mans in ’01 as the most challenging of his career, was a driver who spent a great deal of time behind the wheel of an S7 R. He was even named a factory driver in 2002, though it didn’t allow him to return to Le Mans again that year for a second shot. Funding issues meant he was forced to become a nominated reserve driver that year while Konrad ran as a customer team.

He looks back on his time spent racing the car fondly though, despite it being a tough machine to extract the most performance from.

“It was an absolute weapon,” he describes. “In the early years it was significantly different, it had a H-pattern gearbox. In the latter years it ran with a sequential one,” he told DSC. “In that period most race cars made that transition. I can’t tell you how much harder it is to drive with a H Pattern, using the clutch on the way up the gears as well as obviously in the way down. Also you needed to be able to heel and toe perfectly on the downshifts, especially in the wet, and that engine had tons of torque and was quite low revving, so that made the downshifting even trickier. It took a lot more focus and concentration, even when we got to using the sequential gearbox, than you have these days with paddle shift.

“It had a shitload of power but was heavy. It’s probably the hardest car to drive on the limit I’ve ever driven. It had a weird mixture of aerodynamic downforce and mechanical grip. Because you would run the car stiffer on spring rate to try and optimise your aero platform, that meant that the mechanical grip was compromised. So you had aero, but less than a prototype, and slow speed mechanical grip, but less than a good GT car. So in the slow corners you manhandled it around and in the fast corners the thing could move around like a bucking bronco if you really leant on it, especially at circuits like Le Mans through corners like the Porsche Curves and Indianapolis.

“I remember one situation in the American Le Mans Series in 2004 at Laguna Seca with Terry (Borcheller). We had power steering but it was belt driven, not electric. It failed. And I had to drive a whole a stint with no power steering for an hour. The thing was like a gorilla anyway but this thing was unbelievable. Going through the Corkscrew you could man handle it at the slower speed, but once you picked up speed coming out and going through the long left hander that followed I remember having to jam my left knee up so I could hold onto the steering as it was kicking back so much I couldn’t keep it on the road.

“We led initially but dropped to third when Terry initially had the power steering issue. Then we were third all the way from there, but because I was compromised from having to drive with no power steering, Pedro Lamy was chasing me down lap by lap in the Prodrive Aston Martin. He finally caught me with two laps to go and passed me for third. It had taken him virtually an hour to catch me, and so I’d known it was coming, but to have nearly made it onto the podium despite all our issues and then have it taken away so near the end, I felt like I’d somehow broken under torture. It was a horrible feeling. I got to the end of the race and I couldn’t lift my arms up to get out of the car, they felt like jelly.

“That car was a beast. A joy to drive on occasion, but at the same time you had to be in the right frame of mind to get the most out of it. You needed an agressive mindset. It didn’t swoop through the corners like a P1 cars, it was bouncing, it bashed you around, kicked you in the balls, but you got out and thought: ‘that was great! If nothing else she definitely grabbed your attention when you drove her!'”

Winning Le Mans was always a major target for Saleen. And Mowlem did get a second shot at La Sarthe in 2006 after his hopes of a good result in 2001 slipped away. Unfortunately, it was a similar story when he returned to the race, this time with ACEMCO Motorsports.

The team worked incredibly hard in preparation, but the team’s chances at victory against factory cars from Aston Martin and Corvette and the smattering of other private entries were put to rest early in the race.

It was nevertheless a memorable year, specifically because Mowlem was teamed up with fellow Saleen factory man Terry Borcheller and Christian Fittipaldi who was participating in his first Le Mans.

“We had a crack in the block very early on in the race, no more than five hours in. We started losing water and had to come in every seven or eight laps to top the water up and go again. We finished sixth in class and lost a chance of a podium so early on, but to be hinest that never felt like a lost opportunity like 2001 did. Realistically even if we’d not had the engine block issue we wouldn’t have won that race. But it was a huge shame because we prepared to go there for three years, and Jeff Giangrande who owned the team said he wouldn’t go to Le Mans until he felt he was ready. We went in 06, were as ready as we could be and it still didn’t work out.

“But we had a good time nevertheless. Having Christian join Terry and I in the car was nice too. He was fresh out of Indy Car, and obviously he’d raced pretty much everywhere, from Formula One in Monaco to the Indy 500, and I remember him saying that despite having raced at those places, nothing he’d experienced before matched the atmosphere at Le Mans that week, especially on the Drivers Parade! That made me appreciate even more how special Le Mans is.”

Saleen would eventually achieve that all important victory without Mowlem four years later with Larbre back in 2010, though it was as part of a rather make-shift GT1 class in its last year, with no factory entries.

With no standout result at Le Mans with the brand to his name, his fondest memories came in the American Le Mans Series. For him, the car’s best performance was the ALMS round at Mosport in 2005, and even that wasn’t a victory, instead a podium finish.

“We had loads of podiums in the Saleen but never won a race,” he reflected. “In the American Le Mans Series we probably came closest to beating the Corvettes in a straight fight at Mosport. We started from the Pole, Terry took the start, led, came in and I took over. Both of the Vettes were behind me the whole time. I remember that IMSA had shortened the race by 20 minutes that year because of the New Orleans disaster. So that meant that the last pit stop turned into a splash at the end rather than nearly filling the tank. I came in leading by about two seconds and we took the splash. The Corvettes went another two laps further before they pitted, clearly they had better fuel mileage. They spent less time in the pits as a result and did the overcut and we went from leading to third in one lap….

“We’d led for 2 hours and 15 minutes of a 2 and a half hour race, and ended up not winning! Nevertheless, personally I think that was probably mine and Terry’s finest driving performance in the S7R. It may not have been the best result we ever had, but both of us that day drove every lap like it was a qualifying lap, and I’ve not been able to do that very often in my career. Especially around a circuit as challenging as Mosport was.

“Also it mustn’t be forgotten that by then, even though officially we were the “factory” Saleen team, basically we were a privately funded team with a tiny budget, taking on the might of GM. It was a real David versus Goliath situation.”