Longtail got short shrift

McLaren’s glorious road car had a brief spell at the top in endurance racing before its rivals gained an unfair advantage

Wandering about Silverstone on a recent test day we were basking in the sun, pondering the new pits site between Club Corner and Abbey Curve, and the new infield loop which runs up to the start of the one-time Club Straight – now (most aptly) renamed the Wellington Straight. Why aptly? Because No 26 Operational Training Unit flew Vickers Wellingtons off the underlying runway when Silverstone Aerodrome was brand-spanking new. While I regret the passing of so many race circuit yardsticks from the past which have totally screwed up any notions of performance comparison between ‘then’ and ‘now’, I was impressed by just how much track one can now see from the spectator banks and seating at Abbey. And then some familiar cars hove into view, accelerating hard out of Club, rushing towards us and then swooping away into the new infield section. Stubbily pugnacious-looking, pale blue, orange arrowhead striping - Gulf-Porsche 908/3. Mouth-watering little rocket ship, though best not to think where your feet are on those foot pedals relative to the front-axle line, first to arrive at the accident… And then there appeared another familiar shape - the 1997 McLaren F1 GT Longtail.

I don’t normally ‘do’ being a fan. But I vividly recall the day in 1989 when Gordon Murray had invited me to McLaren Cars’ new HQ in Woking, and he and Creighton Brown began by requesting a signature upon a confidentiality agreement. They then showed me their embryonic new centre-drive McLaren F1 ‘ultracar’. At that time it comprised just an MDF buck, with strings stretched from roofline to scuttle to indicate the windscreen.

What followed was a very enjoyable few years working with the team. While I always had the most enormous respect for Gordon, Creighton, stylist Pete Stevens and their fellows, I think I came to be regarded as the occasionally resident unbeliever. Perhaps I gave the game away by loudly asking “What’s the use of any car into which you can’t fit an eight by four sheet of plywood and two springer spaniels?”. Even so, three sizeable adults, a set of golf clubs and some tailored luggage wasn’t doing too badly for a 230mph rocket ship.

A great day came when I was allowed to drive the prototype for the first time, with a nervous Creighton alongside, on the country roads outside Millbrook test track. As we braked into one village there was a young chap on the pavement walking a dog. He heard our approach, glanced over his shoulder, then spun around as if he’d been shot. As we turned right at the crossroads he flopped down onto his knees, touched his forehead to the ground and salaamed. We contracted a fit of the giggles. Creighton was a great man, much missed.

By 1995 the McLaren F1 – despite having been tailor-made to be “purely a road car” – had been adapted for endurance racing. At the time my daughter was a secretarial temp. Her agency called to offer work at “some garage in Woking called McLaren Cars”. So she ended up working there when a trophy was delivered to her desk “for winning Le Mans, Dad”. McLaren’s debut 24 Hours had just been a phenomenal success - seven F1 GTRs had started, two had crashed, but four came home 1-3-4-5 (a crushing GT category 1-2-3-4) with the other, amateur-driven entry 13th. Le Mans ’95 marked the greatest race debut there in depth for any manufacturer, ever. Not bad for a detuned road car. In ’96 the updated McLaren F1 GTRs gave best to Porsche, but still finished 4-5-6-8-9-11.

The new Porsche 911 GT1 had been admitted to the BPR races. This thinly disguised pure-bred racing design leapfrogged the road-dedicated McLarens with their long-travel, high camber-change suspension and limited downforce. McLaren felt with some justification that Rose-jointed, proper-geometry, true road-racing suspension on a car only arguably available for sale shouldn’t have been within the regulations, but the team just had to grin and face up to it.

Big overhangs added front and rear to generate competitive downforce then created the McLaren F1 ‘Longtail’. The prototype Longtail chassis ‘19R’ was completed on November 18 1996, destined for Team Lark in Japan. In jet black with contrasting paint flicks it made Gordon “come over faint” when he first saw it complete: “I just thought it was the best-looking racer our guys had ever turned out”. Michael Cane’s GTC Motorsport team then combined Gulf Oil livery with Davidoff Classic to run a regular three-car entry, led by German banker Thomas Bscher.

Nine ‘Longtail’ McLarens followed that prototype, including one engine-less spare ‘28R’ (re-numbered from its original ‘27R’ after being damaged in a shakedown test) supplied to GTC to support its three complete cars – chassis ‘20’, ‘22’ and ‘25R’. Little more than a week before the 1997 season’s first race at Hockenheim, AMG Mercedes announced its CLK Coupé to tackle the new FIA world championship series. Completely in character, the governing body had just altered its rule demanding full homologation prior to the start of the season to one which postponed that requirement until the last day of the year. This admitted designs from AMG Mercedes, Panoz and Lotus. The 11-race 1997 FIA GT Championship then saw two titles awarded, one for the new world champion GT team/constructor and the other for driver pairing. It turned into a battle between Formula 1 partners McLaren and Mercedes, the difficulty for the former being that the endurance cars were powered by V12 engines, made to order by BMW…

In fact it was BMW’s effectively works Schnitzer team of Fina-sponsored ‘Longtails’ which posed the greater threat to AMG Mercedes, their McLarens driven most notably by the irrepressible JJ Lehto and Steve Soper. The battle for the titles went down to the wire in the Laguna Seca 3 Hours, when AMG Mercedes and Bernd Schneider scored a last-gasp victory, with the McLaren Longtails of Team BMW Motorsport runners-up and Gulf Team Davidoff third.

Meanwhile, the gloriously-liveried GTC Longtail chassis ‘22R’ had caught fire during Le Mans practice, which left the driving trio of Bscher, Nielsen and Goodwin as non-starters. But the car was returned to racing in the Mugello 4 Hours, and both the Sebring and Laguna Seca 3 Hours. Into 1998 ‘22R’ was co-driven by Thomas Bscher/Geoff Lees to win the Jarama 4 Hours and Monza 1000Kms, and the same pairing brought it home fifth at Hockenheim, sixth at Silverstone and the A1-Ring, and seventh at Donington Park.

Today – exquisitely restored – this high-tech beauty is preserved within the recently created Duncan Hamilton Gulf Collection, sharing house room with 917, 908/3, Brabham BT26A, McLaren M20 and more. Pale blue and orange, eh, and here it was before us – wailing around the new-look Silverstone circuit. History on wheels, indeed.