Won for the road

This road-going supercar wasn't expected to even finish on its Le Mans debut 10 years ago. But the McLaren F1 GTR beat all the prototypes to win. By Gary Watkins

The thing may have looked the part, but there was no way it could win the Le Mans 24 Hours. Not first time out anyway. The world's fastest street machine it may have been, but this particular supercar hadn't been conceived — in anyway, shape or form — for the racetrack. And when Gordon Murray's supercar did get tweaked for competition, the French enduro wasn't on the agenda, not at first. Yet in 1995 the McLaren F1 GTR tore up the form-book to win the world's greatest sportscar event.

The image of the winning car driven by JJ Lehto, Yannick Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya taking the flag, its shadowy livery blackened further by the carbon brake dust caked in place during one of the wettest Le Mans in memory, is an enduring one. But just as significant in the legend of McLaren's GT racer was its finishing record that year: F1 GTRs ended up taking third, fourth and fifth positions. What's more, five of the seven McLarens in the race led at one stage or another.

No one would have offered odds on that beforehand. It was that outrageous. McLaren's customers may have won six races on the trot since the marque's debut in the new Global Endurance GT Series, but Le Mans was an entirely different ballgame. Not only were the GT events just four hours in duration, but now the F1 GTR had to go up against the prototypes, pure-bred racing cars that had a clear advantage in terms of speed and, everyone reckoned, reliability.

When the F1 GTR was launched it was billed as a four-hour car rather than one capable of finishing a race six times that duration. McLaren was covering itself, of course, because there was never any doubt that the mix of wealthy amateurs and collectors who had bought the first run of chassis wanted their purchases on the grid for the jewel in the crown of sportscar racing.

McLaren Cars motorsport manager Jeff Hazell knew what it took to develop a car capable of going around the clock from his days with Spice Engineering. "We knew we could validate a car for four hours but not 24," he explains. "We didn't have the necessary time or money. I suggested that we shouldn't lay ourselves open, as a serious company, to all sorts of queries."

The Global series was already well underway when the decision was taken to try to turn the BMW-engined McLaren into a Le Mans car. "We met with our customers and it was agreed they would sign up for a long-distance kit," says Hazell. "The price included a contribution towards a 24-hour test. We ended doing it at Magny-Cours — not the best place to do a Le Mans simulation, but it was available."

No one expected the car to make it through the night, but a nine-strong line-up of drivers all due to race F1 GTRs at Le Mans completed 24 hours in McLaren's test hack. "We were gobsmacked," says Hazell. "Magny-Cours isn't hard on machinery, but we were all expecting the thing to break."

The transmission had already proved to be the weak link on the 1994-spec F1 GTR.  Murray, who set the specification of the car together with Hazell, had retained the road-going version's FF Developments gearbox, complete with its synchromesh. Time and money weren't the only reasons: McLaren didn't want to turn up with a sledgehammer to crack the nut that was the fledgling GT revival. At the same time, it understood that it needed to produce a car that was easy to run and to drive.

"I remember a few late nights with the gearbox during the development phase," recalls Hazell. "There were so many tubes stuck into it that it looked like it was on a life-support machine."

Despite the successful test, none of the teams running McLarens believed they could make it through Le Mans without problems. "The gearbox had been a bit of a saga all season and there were still worries about it as we left for Le Mans," says Dave Price, whose eponymous team was running a pair of cars with Harrods and West sponsorship. "To be quite honest, no one expected the 'box to last."

Those expectations changed the moment rain began to fall during the opening hour. The skies suggested the inclement conditions were set for the duration, and that proved to be the case. Only when the race was more than three-quarters done could it be described as truly dry.

The conditions not only put less stress on the McLarens' transmissions, but also closed the performance gap to the prototypes. The best McLaren time, set by Lehto in the Japanese-funded Kokusai Kaihatso car, was a full 11 seconds from the pole-winning WR-Peugeot and, more significantly, 8.5sec behind the much-fancied Courage-Porsche driven by Mario Andretti, Bob Wollek and Eric Hélary. Yet a McLaren led before the end of the opening hour.

And that's the way it would stay, after the pole-winning Welter Racing prototype had a brief return to the top, for the rest of the race. John Nielsen was first to hit the front in David Price Racing's West-liveried car, despite the failure of a windscreen wiper. The Dane brought all his experience into play to lead at the top of each hour from 7pm until clutch problems intervened shortly before half distance.

Troubles for one DPR car allowed the team's second entry to take up the running. The Harrods McLaren had lost time early on when Derek Bell, back in a competitive car for the first time since 1988, inadvertently kinked the throttle cable climbing into the car. DPR had prepared the car with a second cable in situ, but two laps were still lost when the switchover was made.

Also making up ground following a cautious start, but still a lap down, was the Kokusai Kaihatso entry run by historic preparation expert Paul Lanzante. The rest, the prototypes included, were nowhere, though the Courage was making progress after Andretti had hit the wall in the Porsche Curves.

It was an intriguing battle between a pair of cars that each relied mainly on the talents of just two drivers. Sekiya drove for just five hours in the winning car, while Justin Bell, who joined his father and Andy Wallace in the Harrods McLaren, completed only three stints behind the wheel.

More than once Bell and Lehto, two sportscar legends at opposite ends of their Le Mans careers, went head to head. There were times when the Finn, one year out of Formula One, was lapping 10 sec faster than anyone else on the track, yet twice the 54-year-old veteran got the better of a driver 25 years his junior.

The second occasion came with just four hours to go. The Harrods McLaren had lost its one-lap lead over the Japanese entry when the young gun and the old hand took over their respective mounts within minutes of each other.

"The team told me that JJ was something like 47sec behind," recalls Derek Bell. "I remember thinking the writing was on the wall, but I put my head down and pulled away from him at half a second per lap."

It was the last great Le Mans drive of a career spanning four decades. Bell Snr had to step up to the plate when his son, who had been driving the Harrods car together with Wallace since its debut in the fourth Global round, got spooked by the conditions during the night. "I remember Justin coming in and getting out after one hour when he was supposed to have done two," says Derek. "His eyes were the size of saucers. He said, 'Dad, I've never been so frightened in my life.'

Wallace, who anchored the Harrods assault with nearly 14 hours behind the wheel, still marvels at Bell Snr's performance "The one thing I found out about Derek around that time," says Wallace, who also finished second with the sportscar legend in that year's Sebring 12 Hours, "was that if he has a chance of winning he steps up into another gear. He certainly drove very well."

All was not well in the DPR camp, however. Pretty soon the car started to encounter clutch issues, a not altogether unexpected problem. The team had opted against using a new long-distance clutch offered by McLaren in favour of sticking with a modified version of what it knew, but this system had caused problems during qualifying.

The failure of the bearing on the release slider left DPR in a quandary. Engineer John Piper and Peter Stevens, the stylist responsible for the McLaren's sleek outline but also a friend of Price's who was helping out on the pitwall, spent much of Friday looking for a replacement. "It was a proprietary part that cost maybe £1.50, but there was an inherent weakness in it," explains Piper. "Peter and I went around all the local bearing suppliers and engineering companies trying to find an alternative."

Piper and Stevens were unsuccessful in their search, so they looked at either modifying the existing bearing or reverting to the standard clutch. Murray advised against the modification, while the parts necessary to facilitate the standard version weren't available. "There was no clutch because the bearing had broken," explains Wallace. "That gave us direct drive, which in a syncromesh box caused big problems. By the end of the race I was only using fifth and sixth because it was too risky to go across the gate."

The Kokusai Kaihatso McLaren, which moved into the lead in the 22nd hour, survived its own late-race scare when an alarm came on after the last fuel stop, forcing a quick stop to re-pressurise the water system. Apart from that it was a faultless run. "That was always our aim," says Lanzante. "Our strategy was to do our own thing and keep out of the pits."

On a fully dry track, the Courage was closing fast in the final hours and the car even unlapped itself in the closing stages. The Harrods car ended up a further two laps behind in third, while the best of the GTC Motorsport McLarens finished fourth after team boss Ray Bellm had crashed in the wet. The Giroix Racing Team entry came home fifth after an early delay caused when a brand new starter motor failed.

It was a remarkable tale, and one that didn't finish at four o'clock on Sunday afternoon. This surprise victory turned out to be a controversial one too. Not that anyone had a problem with a McLaren triumph — it was just that some within the British car maker's camp took issue with which  McLaren had won.

The Kokusai Kaihatso McLaren hadn't been running in the Global GT series and was in fact the same hack that had completed the Magny-Cours test. The entry was made after a Japanese client of McLaren's offered to sponsor a car. None of the existing teams took up the opportunity, and thus the decision was made to field F1 GTR chassis number 001R in the big race.

McLaren knew it couldn't run the car from the factory — "It wouldn't have been very nice to our customers," says Hazell. Hence Lanzante, who was well known to McLaren Cars sales boss David Clark, was brought in. That didn't stop the customers objecting. The handful of McLaren employees working on the car as mechanics rang alarm bells, as did the presence of Hazell and James Robinson, development engineer on the programme, in the Kokusai Kaihatso pit.

Exactly how 'works' the winning car was remains a matter of debate. Bellm famously cried foul, claiming that it was in his contract that McLaren wouldn't run a factory car against its privateers. That wasn't the case and he was forced to issue an apology to old friend Ron Dennis.

Today Bellm is less repentant: "When I discussed it with Frank Williams some time after, he said to me, 'The ultimate test of whether it was a works entry is who employed the drivers, who owned the car and where does the trophy sit? The answer to all those questions is 'McLaren'.'"

That may be the case, but Lanzante's squad was certainly the smallest of the teams running an F1 GTR. What's more, his relationship with the McLaren Cars bosses at the track was never easy. There are different versions of the story, but it is fact that Hazell and Robinson were banished from the winning car's pit at one point during the race.

"We didn't have anything different to any of the other teams," says Lanzante. "There were only eight or nine of us. I even brought the cook into the team photograph at scrutineering to make us look bigger!"

And the 'works' allegation? "Bullshit!"

***

Thanks a million, Ron!

One million pounds. That's how much Ron Dennis told Ray Bellm he wanted for a one-off racing version of the McLaren supercar. The pharmaceuticals magnate had just explained that he was going to go racing with the F1 he had on order whether his friend liked it or not. Unsurprisingly the offer was politely refused.

"When I said I couldn't pay a million pounds for a racing car, Ron suggested I find some other people to help fund the development of a racing F1," remembers Bellm. "He had already talked to Thomas Bscher (a German banker and historic racer) and I brought in Lindsay (Owen-Jones)."

At the same time. Dennis was being lobbied to go racing from within his road car division. A proposal had already been put together by Jeff Hazell, who was then running McLaren Cars' composites department, after a fact-finding mission to Le Mans in 1993. A more modest plan got the green light after Hazell and Gordon Murray visited the May '94 Dijon round of what would subsequently become known as the Global Endurance GT Series.

"We found a friendly series in which no one had really pushed the boat out in terms of preparation and development," says Hazell. "We thought that without too much work we could get the car to a good level of competitiveness."

The initial development budget was just £750,000, remembers Hazell: "That was all we had to do the design and development work, build a prototype and do the necessary testing before we had other cars coming down the line for customers."

A production run of five cars, at £625,000 a pop, paid for this programme, according to McLaren Cars sales boss David Clark. He found the Fayed family of Harrods fame and gentleman racer Jean-Luc Maury-Laribière, and the F1 GTR was go, even before a sixth customer, French collector Paul Picard, produced his chequebook.

"Not much was done to the car for 1995," explains Hazell. "We took all the rubber out of the suspension and the engine subframes, put a cage in, bolted on a rear wing and went racing."

It added up to a tricky car to drive, remembers Harrods McLaren driver Wallace. "The BMW V12 was a gem, but it had a high centre of gravity and was forever trying to overtake you. It was the best road car ever, but it wasn't a bona fide racer.