Thursday, April 5, 2012

SRT Viper Returns with Factory ALMS GT Program

Ralph Gilles remembered the time when he pitched the new Viper to his boss, Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne.

“I showed the car to Sergio in the middle of a dome,” recounted Gilles, who heads the SRT Brand for Chrysler. “The dome was dimly lit. It was about 26 management teams sitting campfire style with the concept covered up.”

“When the covers came off, Sergio walked around the car for about five minutes and said, ‘This is the most beautiful car I’ve ever seen.’”

“He went in the management team meeting and asked, ‘who wants to do this?’ Every single hand went up.”

And so began the revival of an American automotive icon.

The 2013 Viper was a project not unlike the metaphorical phoenix rising. When plans for its revival came about, Chrysler was exiting bankruptcy and under new ownership with Fiat. It was also in the middle of revamping its entire product portfolio. A low volume halo product like the Viper was an unlikely candidate on the company’s list of immediate priorities.

But the Viper was special.

Marchionne revealed his plans to bring the Viper back two years ago, when he spoke before a group of Chrysler Dealers in Florida. “There are times when you are given the opportunity to give life to something which is so beautiful and unique, so just and equitable, that you pay a lot less attention to the numbers to the financial reality that surrounds it.”

“And with that I leave you with this,’ said Marchionne, shortly before unveiling the new Viper to the surprised audience.

Evolving an Icon

When unveiling the new Viper at the New York International Autoshow Wednesday morning in front of a well-fed and eager automotive press, Gilles stressed the new car was a ‘deliberate evolution’ of the breed, not an outright reinvention.  

This was true of the exterior. Although much more streamlined, the overall shape remains unmistakeably Viper.

The clamshell-style hood and the deep hood scoops remain, as does the monstrous hand-built 8.4 Liter V10 that powers the car. Lightweight carbon fibre forms the bodywork, wrapped around a frame forged from high strength steel. Aluminum cross-bracing in the engine bay ups torsional rigidity by 50% compared to the outgoing Viper.

No Viper examination is complete without a look at the horsepower figures. With 600hp and a monstrous 640 lb ft of torque, it makes the Viper one of the most powerful normally aspirated production vehicles in the world, CAFÉ standards be damned.

The interior however is really the Viper’s party piece. Chrysler benefited from access to Ferrari and Maserati through Fiat in understanding how to build low-volume interiors. The multimedia instrument cluster first seen in the Dodge Dart makes its way into the Viper with some bespoke cobra inspired gauging. Contrast stitching outline the entire cabin and new slimmer, more ergonomic seats sourced from Ferrari supplier Sabelt mean those who are taller than six feet stand a chance of finding a redeeming seating position.

“We call it the ‘Give a Shit’ factor’, Gilles said jokily when describing the revamped Viper cabin at a reception. “There’s sweat equity in the details. This is probably the best interior we’ve ever done in the company.”

A Well Kept Secret

Perhaps the most impressive feat of all, aside from the performance figures and the quality improvements, was how the project remained under wraps for so long.

“We have been working really hard to keep this a secret,” said Gilles. “We like the fact that so many people have been anticipating this car.”

The new Viper took over 24 months from conception to reality, and over that period of time, very few details emerged aside from some heavily camouflaged spy shots, a low-resolution photo of the Hot Wheels diecast, and some blurry screen caps of the Forza Motorsports presentation. SRT made use of social media and released a few teaser shots via Facebook and Twitter, but mostly for whetting the appetite as opposed to offering anything concrete. By and large, the Viper remained a secret until 7am on Wednesday morning.  To show that the company wasn't above a little humour and irony, the PR department even went in on the diecast joke and included a Hot Wheels version of the new Viper in its press kit.

But the biggest surprise was yet to come.

Let’s Go Racing

SRT announced that in addition to the road-going Viper, the brand will partner with veteran Grand-Am / GT Car builder Riley Technologies and return to compete in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS).

The Viper GTS-R was developed in tandem with the road-going car under the capable stewardship of Bill Riley and his team.  The new factory backed effort will run two GT Spec Vipers at select races in the 2012 American Le Mans Series, with a full season commitment for 2013.  Gaming partner Forza Motorsports has also signed on as a major sponsor of the program.

ALMS CEO Scott Atherton was on hand at the New York Autoshow to make the surprise announcement.

“Viper rejoins world class GT Competition at a time when it has never been more competitive,” said Atherton. “The SRT Viper is joining the likes of Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, Corvette, and Lotus, all currently competing with full factory programs.”

Despite the competition, Atherton remained optimistic on the Viper finding success again on the race track.  “The fact that they're coming back concurrently with the introduction of the new production car and doing it simultaneously, we would be hard-pressed to come up with a better-case scenario. What a great way for SRT Viper to come back to racing.”

So far, Dominik Farnbacher, Marc Goossens, Ryan Hunter-Reay and Kuno Wittmer have all signed on as drivers. Two More Drivers will be announced in the near future and will complete the line-up.  Farnbacher and Goossens are both racing veterans, having driven GT cars and Prototypes on numerous occasions in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Hunter-Reay comes from the world of open wheel racing and currently competes in IndyCar with Andretti Autosport, while Dodge factory driver Kuno Wittmer honed his racing cred from Formula Atlantic and SCCA World Challenge Touring Cars. 

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