One of America's leading specialist manufacturers is Saleen, who have scored many sales and motoring in the last two decades. Founded by Steve Saleen in the early 1980s, the company is best known for their Ford Mustang derived products. Saleen is more than just a tuner company; they are accepted as a manufacturer and every car built receives a Saleen VIN (vehicle identification number). At the 2000 Monterey Historics a bold new move into a new market was made, with the unveiling of an all new mid-engined supercar, the S7.
Unlike previous Saleens, the S7 was developed by the manufacturer from the ground up. A steel spaceframe forms the lightweight, but strong basis of the car. Suspension is all-round by double wishbones and coil-overs. Compared to contemporary supercar releases this setup was not overly advanced, but Saleen proved that a good supercar not necessarily requires an expensive and complex carbon fibre construction. Composite materials were used for the body, designed much like a long tail Le Mans racer, hinting at Saleen's motorsport intentions for the S7.
Power comes from a Ford derived V8 engine, which is mounted longitudinally behind the driver's compartment. Displacing just under seven litres, the OHV unit is good for close to 600 bhp and a tarmac shredding amount of torque. A six speed manual gearbox transfers the power to the rear wheels. The complete car's relatively low weight and the engine's enormous torque gives the S7 the edge on most of its competitors in the sprints to 60 and 100 mph. All this performance does not come cheaply, with a sticker price of well over $400,000 US.
Three months after the road car's introduction, the S7R racer was introduced. With the racing plans for the S7 so clearly baked in the design of the road car, the modifications required to turn it into a full blown GT racer were minimal. Simply put Saleen fitted a rear wing and slick tires to create the S7R. To comply with the regulations, the engine is equipped with restrictors, but still produces a healthy 600 bhp. Saleen supplied customers in North America and Europe with the S7R, but never ran a works team as they had done in the past with Mustangs.
The S7Rs had a stellar debut with a class victory in the 2001 Sebring 12 Hours. The very experienced Ray Mallock Limited (RML) in the UK developed and prepared the S7R for Saleen. For reliability reasons various engine displacements were tried by RML, but after the Sebring win the cars rarely managed to translate the very quick pace in good results. When they the cars did finish, various victories were scored in the highly competitive FIA GT Championship. Back in the USA, the Saleens faced the almost unbeatable Corvette works team.
For 2006, Saleen have increased their interest in motorsport once more and have supplied the European Zakspeed and Oreca teams with brand new cars developed separately from RML. The deal with Oreca is particularly interesting as the French racing giant also became the official European distributor of Saleen road cars and is considered by many as the new 'works' team. The first international outing for the 'new' S7Rs came in the hands of the Zakspeed team who drove the American supercar to a second place finish in the opening round of the FIA GT Championship.
After receiving the car later than expected, Oreca were forced to change their plans for the season and skipped the first round of the Le Mans Series. More importantly they also withdrew from Le Mans as they need feel capable of running 24 hours trouble free. Late in March, the car turned a wheel for the first time at the official Paul Ricard test session. A few weeks later at the French Nogaro track, Oreca very convincingly took the first round of the FFSA GT championship against various ex-works Corvettes.
A week after the Zakspeed podium debut, Oreca brought their striking blue Saleen to the first international meeting; the Spa 1000 km. Throughout the weekend the S7R was involved in a close battle with the Cirtek Aston Martin DBR9, which remained undecided until the last laps of the race. The two cars changed position various times and were never far apart until Soheil Ayari managed to pull away slightly in the closing stages to take the flag first.
Oreca decided to forfeit the 24 Hours of Le Mans because it came too early in their development program. Their place was taken by Acemco, who fielded a similarly specced S7R. There were teething problems throughout the practice and qualifying sessions, which prevented the team to properly set the car up. Once the race started, the silver S7R started to come into its own and a steady run to 11th overall and fifth in class behind the works prepared Astons and Corvettes.
Hughes de Chaunac's gamble paid off as the Oreca Saleen dominated the French GT championship with Soheil Ayari and Bruno Hernandez claiming the title at the end of the season. In the Le Mans Series, the fortunes for the Saleen were mixed. It was definitely on the pace in every round, but reliability issues prevented the Ayari and Ortelli to convert the pace into victories. It all came together in the final race of the season at Jarama, where the Oreca Saleen won convincingly.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on December 14, 2006
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