Everyone knew McLaren’s F1 GTRs were quick enough to win Le Mans but few thought they had a chance of surviving 24 Hours. Adam Cooper reports on how 18 hours of rain upset the form book
One of the great unwritten laws of Le Mans is that it’s impossible for a marque to win first time out; tradition dictates that it takes at least three years to find both the pace and reliability with which to master the world’s toughest motor race.
Before the 1995 race, it had been done just once if you omit the very first race. Ferrari managed it in 1949, in the first Vingt Quatre Heures after the war when Luigi Chinetti drove Lord Selsdon’s car for all bar two hours. And in 1995, McLaren followed suit. It remains the only success for a genuine GT car in the modem era.
That statement has to be qualified by the fact that the ’94 race was also won by a car running in the GT class, but even Porsche’s most ardent supporters would have to admit that the so-called ‘Dauer 962LM’ was but a mildy detuned version of the marque’s evergreen Group C machine. By way of contrast the McLaren F1 was conceived as a road car pure and simple and never intended as a racer. But once its designer, Gordon Murray, had accepted the challenge to convert it into a racer, the car not only blitzed all other entries in its class, but also overcame the challenge from an all-new breed of prototypes, known as World Sports Cars.
The failure of one such machine to turn up was one of the talking points of that year’s event. The previous autumn Porsche had given the green light to an ambitious WSC project, involving a once unimaginable partnership with erstwhile arch rivals TWR. It was arranged by a former Sauber-Mercedes team manager.
The car was a clever mix of proven parts, with Porsche’s V6 turbo motor mated to a chassis based on an open version of the 1991 Championship winning Jaguar XJR14. Porsche duly committed to Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans, and hired a stellar driver lineup including Hans Stuck, Bob Wollek, Thierry Boutsen and Mario Andretti.
From the start of testing the car was clearly very good, and worried about a walkover at Daytona, IMSA rushed in last minute rule changes. The reaction was no surprise. Extra ballast and a strangled turbo did not appeal; the German marque canned the whole WSC programme in exasperation, leaving its contracted drivers to scratch around for other rides.
Here’s where I claim a little part in the story. During a lull in proceedings at Indianapolis qualifying in May, I had a long chat with Andretti, who’d recently retired from single-seaters. He was bitterly disappointed about the demise of the Porsche effort, but unlike his stranded colleagues had not looked seriously for alternative employment. I suggested that the Courage team might be a good bet, something that Wollek had already decided. Hitherto unaware that there might still be a vacancy in the French equipe’s Porsche-engined WSC car, Mario was intrigued. I offered to test the water, rang the team, and gave them his number.
A few weeks later Mario was all present and correct at La Sarthe, where he would share with Wollek and French youngster Eric Helary, a winner with Peugeot in 1993. The combination would prove the most potent threat to the numerically dominant McLarens.
Before the race, however, few gave the McLarens much chance of outright victory. No-one doubted their pace but the races that preceded Le Mans, all sprints by comparison, clearly suggested the F1 GTRs would have trouble lasting the first few hours, let alone all night and the following day. Their six speed gearboxes, specifically, had shown signs of weakness.
There were seven GTRs in the field, led by two entries apiece from the David Price and Gulf Racing teams usually seen in the BPR four-hour races. They were joined by the factory prototype chassis, race-prepared and leased to a Japanese sponsor and run by Lanzante Motorsport, a team normally associated with a humble GT2 Porsche. This car had a considerable amount of works support, which created a degree of animosity among McLaren’s genuine customers. It also came with a storming driver line-up, led by former winner Yannick Dalmas and JJ Lehto, a Benetton driver the year before. They were backed up by Japanese Masanori Sekiya, a steady veteran of umpteen starts with Toyota.
Against expectations it was this car which would ultimately humble both McLaren’s BPR regulars and the rest of the opposition. It may have overcome the rule about winning first time out, but the grey number 59 McLaren steadfastly followed the other maxim; to win Le Mans you need to run flat out and avoid unscheduled delays at all costs.
The weather played a massive part in the outcome of the race. It started to rain barely an hour into the event, and it was still soggy on Sunday morning. With the pace of the race slowed, the unproven McLarens had fewer reliability problems and crucially eased the strain on their gearboxes. At the same time, the more nimble WSC cars were unable to take full advantage of their superior cornering ability. Even so, the rain also contributed to a rash of accidents among potential frontrunners; three McLarens hit the barriers, forcing one of the Price cars to retire.
Mario skated off too. In the opening hours he crashed in the Porsche Curves when wrong-footed behind a slower car, and six laps were lost while repairs were made. Thereafter with Helary and an inspired Wollek, they could only play catch up, their remarkable progress accelerating rapidly when the track finally dried.
The closing hours of the race were sensational. The lead had been taken and held by the Harrods McLaren but, in the worst of the weather, JJ Lehto in the Lanzante car started to reel it in at a simply astonishing rate. In the pits Andy Wallace and Derek Bell could only watch the monitor as Lehto chopped dozens of seconds a lap out of Justin Bell’s increasingly slender lead. Justin then spun approaching a chicane on the straight. Lehto took the lead but was by now being caught by the flying Andretti Courage. No one knew if the GT car would hold together with the furious pace required of it. The Bell McLaren certainly could not, losing its gears arid finally coming home third with just one ratio left to Andy Wallace, a fault which denied Derek Bell his record-equalling sixth Le Mans win.
The Courage closed in relentlessly, but at the flag Dalmas was still in the lead by less than a lap. Watching in the pits as McLarens filled four of the first five places, Gordon Murray could barely believe it.
Despite a massive development programme, McLaren failed to repeat its debut victory. A year later Porsche was back at Le Mans with a heavyweight works GT effort, which owed much to the letter of the regulations and clearly nothing whatever to their spirit. It very nearly did the job. But victory went instead to the marque’s own WSC car, which had been rescued from obscurity by the canny privateer Reinhold Joest. And, quite remarkably the very same chassis would win again in 1997.
Mario never did get to race it…