The Panoz Esperante GTR-1 began development through a combined effort between Reynard Motorsports and Panoz Auto Development in 1996 so as to create the perfect grand tourer endurance car for the 1997 race year, namely the FIA GT Championship. At the insistence of Panoz CEO, Don Panoz, the car was to be based largely off the upcoming Esperante sports car, which resulted in the car being a unique front-engined machine, rather than the competitors such as Porsche, McLaren and Mercedes-Benz, who placed the engine behind the cockpit. The end product was a very strangely designed vehicle which had an elongated nose so as to place the front axle as far forward as possible and thus make the car mid-engined for 50/50 weight distribution. Added to by a very large scoop intake on the nose, and the car was shortly dubbed afterwards ‘The Batmobile’, seeing as it resembled the comic book superhero’s wheels from the 1989 movie.
Power came from a 4.6L Ford V8, producing 650hp and giving the car a top speed of 287mph. Panoz had envisaged a road-legal version of the GTR-1 to try and steal the title of world’s fastest road-legal car from the McLaren F1, and created a unique example with full interior trim and a variety of modifications to satisfy the US road safety requirements. The car was originally going to be fitted with a colossal 6.0L V8 race engine, but was later downsized to a 5.3L V8 instead. Sadly such a car never went into production and this single car is still retained by Don Panoz.
For the 1997 race season, a total of 6 GTR-1’s were built and split between three teams, Panoz representing the USA, DAMS representing France and David Price Racing representing the UK. The cars débuted at the 1997 12 Hours of Sebring, but failed to finish after 108 laps. Meanwhile, David Price’s first Esperante GTR-1 would début at Hockenheimring for the FIA GT Championship, and managed to finish 11th overall behind the McLaren and Porsche competitors. DAMS’ car debuted a round later at Silverstone Circuit, although it failed to finish. The first GTR-1 success was at the Road Atlanta, winning a GT-class only event, followed by a 3rd place finish at the 6 Hours of Watkins Glen, a mere two laps behind the winning prototype. The factory team would follow this with wins in the GT class at Sonoma Raceway and Laguna Seca. Panoz would finish second to Porsche in the constructors championship that season.
For 1998, with the evolved Esperante GTR-1 bodywork, the program was expanded. The factory Panoz team would race not only in IMSA GT but also in the new United States Road Racing Championship. DAMS would continue in FIA GT, while David Price would drop out in an attempt to develop the Esperante GTR-1 Q9 for the 24 Hours of Le Mans. At the USSRC, Panoz fought a bitter battle with Porsche for the title, winning the class in three of the five events in the season but losing to Porsche in the manufacturers championship by a mere three points, although it won the teams championship. In IMSA, Panoz was more dominant as they won seven of the eight races, including taking an overall win at the rain drenched Sebring Fall Festival in October.
Although the Esperante GTR-1 had major success in 1998, the company was aware that a slew of much more exotic one-offs, such as the Toyota GT-One, were now starting to outdo the car’s pace. Panoz chose instead to move to the Le Mans prototype class rather than fend off these much more powerful machines in a battle they couldn’t win. This was also helped by the fact that the FIA GT Championship decided to abandon the GT1 class, leaving the Esperante GTR-1 unable to compete in Europe.
Therefore, while development of the new LMP-1 Roadster-S was underway, Panoz pushed on with the GTR-1 in the new American Le Mans Series. Two GTR-1s would run at Sebring, both failing to finish. At the next race at Road Atlanta, the new LMP-1 debuted and a GTR-1 was also run to give the team something to fall back on. Unfortunately it failed to finish as well. For the next round, a second LMP-1 was completed, and so the GTR-1 was retired completely. The very last outing of a GTR-1 was in the 2003/2004 season, with a car making an appearance at the 2004 12 Hours of Sebring, which would finish 9th overall, whilst the final appearance of the car was at the 2004 Le Mans Series Spa-Francorchamps, of which the car romped home in 14th place. After this the GTR-1 slipped into history.
Today, the various GTR-1’s built have been displayed in museums or collected privately. Some have modified the cars to make them roadworthy, and will sometimes chug about the place in them in similar fashion to the McLaren F1 and the Jaguar XJ220. Panoz has very much exploited the trait of the luxury racing car by putting the remaining GTR-1’s on sale, with leather and wooden trim and a 600hp engine that’s all tailor made to customer demand. Starting Price? $995,000!