Woking back to happiness

Strength in depth enabled McLaren to triumph on the F1 GTR's first visit to La Sarthe

Thirteen years ago Porsche's new 956 Group C cars swept to a 1-2-3 result at Le Mans on their debut outing. No manufacturer has come anywhere near crowning that achievement... until now. McLaren Cars of Woking won the 1995 edition of Le Mans outright, claimed the top four positions in the Grand Touring category and, for good measure, placed four cars in the top five positions.

JJ Lehto/Yannick Dalmas/Masanori Sekiya won the race in a McLaren F1 GTR by a single lap from Bob Wollek/Mario Andretti/Eric Helary in the WSC category Courage Porsche.

Third, another lap down, was the Harrods McLaren driven by Andy Wallace/Derek Bell/Justin Bell, and they were followed at a distance by two more McLarens, those of Ray Bellm/Maurizio Sala/Mark Blundell and Fabien Giroix/Olivier Grouillard/Jean-Denis Delétraz.

It was a race of dreams fulfilled, dashed hopes, and of nightmares too. Relentless, drizzling rain made the track treacherous for 16 hours, throughout the night, which caused a number of accidents: Andretti spun and damaged the Courage C34 Porsche, sinking Wollek's hopes of winning the event at his 25th attempt; Hans Stuck also spun his chances away in the Kremer K8 Porsche, a car that suffered a transformation in the race that moved Thierry Boutsen to remark: "It feels as though the wing has been fitted upside down."

Some drivers have a knack of winning, most do not. Yannick Dalmas has the knack, taking the podium on all four appearances at Le Mans. He was first with Peugeot in 1992 (with Derek Warwick and Mark Blundell, and became the last World Sportscar Champion), second with Peugeot in 1993, first with Dauer Porsche in 1994, and first again with McLaren in 1995. Pedigrees don't get much better than that! The cars he drove, the McLaren F1 GTR, hardly had a pedigree at all. The GTR race version first turned a wheel in February, and has never raced on a wet track. Least of all did it have any form at Le Mans, a circuit that will inevitably search out any weakness in a design.

Its new multi-plate carbon clutches were a worry certainly, and spoiled the chances of John Nielsen and Jochen Mass the outstanding leaders at the 11-hour mark – then of the Harrods McLaren crew who looked like being the winners at the 22-hour mark. It seems rather churlish, though, to single out one weakness in an outstanding design. The McLarens took Le Mans by storm and shamed a number of seasoned rivals who should have done better.

For the time being, the days of massively funded works teams are over, and wealthy amateurs are centre stage. You'd have to go down to eighth place, the GT2-winning Honda NSX, to find a manufacturer prepared to invest a Formula 1-type budget in its team.

Testing was minimal and, with some notable exceptions, it showed. A 24-hour test would have done wonders for Honda's new GT1 cars, for Ferrari, and even for Porsche with the new GT1. But, for various reasons, a number of teams went to Le Mans ill-prepared.

It was glaringly obvious when qualifying began that the ACO's desire to invite certain teams, to ensure variety on the grid, was half-baked: Lamborghini never showed up, the AIM team's efforts destroyed by Italian politics; the SARD-entered Toyotas were far from ready; Massimo Sigala's Ferrari 333 SP had not been prepared to the ACO's regulations and, like the Corvette Team USA's entry, had its engine tuned for IMSA's 104 octane brew.

If variety is the spice of life, Alain Bertaut's existence as the ACO's Sporting Director is illuminated by Gerard Welter's skills as a Peugeot specialist. In the 1980s Welter built Group C WMs with the ambition of exceeding 400kph (248mph) on the Mulsanne Straight, and it was he, more than any, who fired Jean-Marie Balestre to impose two chicanes on the world's most famous stretch of race track.

Nowadays, Welter builds little 650kg single-seaters which, with enveloping Scalex bodywork and 450bhp turbocharged Peugeot Mi16 engines, prove to be faster and more nimble than proper two-seat sports and GT cars. William David and Patrick Gonin were able to dominate the front row of the grid in their WRs, to be the hares before the hounds as the pack lined up on Saturday afternoon. Bob Wollek was third quickest, with Franck Lagorce alongside in Yves Courage's Chevrolet powered C41, an unraced carbon machine with great potential.<

Eric van de Poele was not in the line-up though, his Chevrolet-powered Courage disqualified for being 20kg under weight at the final check on Thursday evening. The local team had installed a new engine for the second qualifying session, but the car was otherwise in the same trim as on Wednesday, when it was nine kilogrammes overweight at 899 kg.

Stuck declared on Wednesday evening that the carbon chassis Kremer K8 was "the finest Porsche I have ever driven", then went straight out and crashed it! He fell victim to the uneven nature of the carbon brakes, something that bothered a lot of drivers in the wettest part of the race. The Kremer car was repaired very well and went fractionally quicker on Thursday evening, but its handling deteriorated dramatically at the start of the race. "I would be too frightened to lap below four minutes" said the fearless Stuck, and neither Boutsen nor Hilary would disagree.

Franz Konrad crashed the Kremer team's second K8 Porsche on Thursday evening, and twice on Saturday night, moving Jurgen Lassig to remark "good car, bad drivers" after retiring on Sunday morning.

One way and another, the open-top World Sports Cars did not reach their potential. Andretti and Wollek could have celebrated their first victory, Hans Stuck his third, but success eluded them.

The single Courage-Chevrolet that started soon retired with a broken battery, which had Lagorce trying to raise the fuel pressure. Failing that, he pushed the car for more than a kilometre down the Mulsanne, a fruitless and somewhat dangerous effort in the tradition of the olden days. The two WR Peugeots kept ahead of the pack in the first hour but, as rain swept across the circuit, the unfortunate Gonin back-flipped towards the end of the Mulsanne Straight and came to rest upside down in the middle of the track. It took 31 minutes to release the Frenchman, who suffered broken ribs and concussion, and pace cars were out all the while. Drivers had now to learn how to drive the low-downforce cars on a wet track. It was a salutary experience.

John Nielsen drove the first four hours of the race before handing the West McLaren to Jochen Mass with a healthy lead over Mario Andretti in the Courage Porsche.

Likewise, Pierre-Henri Raphanel drove three hours in the GTC Motorsport Gulf McLaren before handing over to Philippe Alliot in third place. Fourth was Derek Bell in the Harrods McLaren, which Andy Wallace had driven for three consecutive stints.

Ray Bellm crashed heavily out of third place in his Gulf McLaren, which was well co-driven by Maurizio Sala and Mark Blundell. Bell admitted that he was caught out by the skittishness of the McLaren in rain. "I was taking it easy, but it turned round on me" he remarked while repairs were carried out. Having started life as a road car, the McLaren had a full crash structure which took the frontal impact, and Sala was able to get back into the race after a delay of half an hour, seven laps on the road. It needed tape and rivets to keep the new bodywork in place since the mounting points were damaged, but Bellm's car didn't lose any more time throughout the race. A possible victory went down the pan, but at least it was the owner who did the damage!

Two more potential winners ruined their prospects with spins resulting in damage. Hans Stuck lost the poor handling Kremer Porsche and knocked off a wing end-plate, and almost 10 minutes in the pits was spent checking the car over.

Andretti damaged the back of the Courage when he came up to lap Lassig's Kremer in the fast Porsche Curves and went off line. The impact with the wall removed the rear wing and bent the right-rear suspension, which was changed in 29 minutes. This put them five laps down, and they lost the race by a single lap!

Conditions steadily worsened during the evening, and the Porsche teams suffered the most. The entire Labre Competition team was wiped out by accidents, Pierre Yver having a solo 'off' in the GT2/1 model which has competed regularly in the BPR series.

Jesus Pareja aquaplaned off at the Porsche Curves and damaged the new RSR GT1 quite badly, and was joined on the walk back by fellow Spaniard Tomas Saldana, who crashed the Kremer team's Repsol Porsche. Just for once it was not the cheery Prince Alfonso d'Orleans who did the damage!

Those who led GT2 in Porsches were fated, and last to go was the Stadler Motorsport entry in which Andreas Fuchs joined Enzo Calderari and Lilian Bryner. The young German had only been in the car 15 minutes when he was passed by Emmanuel Collard in the one remaining Larbre Porsche GT1, failed to brake at the next corner and took both cars out of the race. Fuchs blamed a failure of ABS, but he was far from popular when he returned to the pits.

All these incidents put quite a different complexion on the race. At midnight British-built cars held the top five positions with Porsche-powered Kremers and Courage in sixth, seventh and eighth places. This was something unusual in the annals of Le Mans!

The West McLaren was a lap ahead, Nielsen and Mass excelling despite the lack of a wiper, since the motor burned out some hours before. Wallace and the Bells were second in the Harrods McLaren despite a delay when a throttle cable support bracket had to be mended, and the 'Japanese' McLaren of Lehto, Dalmas and Sekiya was third, also a lap down.

PC Automotive's Jaguar XJ220Cs were running extremely well, though on low boost in the quest for reliability. The turbocharged cars were extremely difficult to drive in the wet – "animals" according to Win Percy – but at midnight the Richard Piper/James Weaver/Tiff Needell Jaguar was up to fourth place, and the Win Percy/Olindo Iacobelli/Bernard Turner Jaguar was ninth.

The Jaguars didn't last the night, unfortunately. Iacobelli was caught out by the conditions and crashed his car, and the engine failed unexpectedly in Piper's.

Ferrari had arrived with a splash, but their effort was not rewarded: Massimo Sigala's Ferrari 333 SP, entered against the wishes of the factory, retired on the circuit after 28 minutes with an electrical failure; Luciano della Noce's Ferrari F40 broke its transmission on the circuit; the second Ferrari Club Italia F40, with a line-up including Gary Ayles, needed a new transmission before midnight.

With Porsche's representation restricted by the ACO to a quarter of the grid, and then devastated by crashes, the GT2 category was led by Reeves Callaway's Chevrolet Corvette at midnight–  a repeat of last year's performance – followed by Rocky Agusta's Corvette with Robin Donovan and Eugene O'Brien on duty.

Coming up fast, though, was the Kunimitsu team's Honda NSX GT2, which started badly with a broken oil line catching fire. But it recovered well enough to win the class. Judged by the clap-o-meter, though, the two works Marcoses were far ahead in public appeal, although troubled by exhaust and electronic problems.

The West McLaren effectively went out after 11 hours when the clutch failed. It was replaced in an hour, but then Nielsen crashed out with cold brakes. Also out of the contest was the second Gulf McLaren, that of Lindsay Owen-Jones, which was damaged when a lapped competitor hit it up the rear when Philippe Alliot was driving.

With the two Jaguars out by morning, the run to the flag was a straight contest between two McLarens and the Wollek/Andretti/Dalmas Courage.

The McLarens were proving to be extremely reliable, but the leading cars were beginning to be handicapped by dragging clutches which made gearchanging difficult. Once the West McLaren had gone, the Dave Price-managed Harrods McLaren doggedly hung onto its lead, but was always under threat from the Dalmas/Lehto/Sekiya GTR.

Derek Bell's hopes of winning for the sixth time, a record that would put him on a level with Jacky lckx, his former driving partner, were dashed with two hours to run. Andy Wallace took over for the final sessions, but stalled leaving the pit. He lost three minutes over the normal span of a refuelling and tyre stop while the clutch fluid was bled. That was all the time it took for Dalmas to sweep into the lead, and for Andretti to get onto the same lap.

Like last year, the closing stages were not to be missed. Dalmas maintained his lead despite a short fuel stop half an hour from the end but, with Wallace struggling for gears, Andretti was eating into his advantage, and the American finally seized second place in the last hour.

It was a momentous race, quite exciting at times, and it certainly vindicates the ACO's policy of trying to equate the performances of GT and WSC sports cars. An exotic GT has won for the second time, and although Monsieur Bertaut is adamant that the WSC and LMP2 categories will be maintained next year, it may be for the last time. With IMSA's WSC category in trouble in America, and with no more than six WSC open-top cars on the grid at Le Mans, their prospects look bleak. The future of Le Mans, it seems, lies with McLaren until an even better GT car comes along. MLC