Woking back to happiness

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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.

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