A quarter of a century ago, McLaren achieved the improbable. In 1995 at Le Mans, in what was the manufacturer’s first visit to the Circuit de la Sarthe, it swept the GT class and topped the overall standings after 24 hours in the most trying of circumstances.
It had won Le Mans in its first attempt, yet overall victory was never in sight in the lead-up. A game of attrition, survival and smarts enabled the five of the seven McLaren F1 GTRs to make the finish, four of those sealing the first four positions in class.
For the winning team, it was an achievement that required the perfect approach, as JJ Lehto, Masanori Sekiya and Yannick Dalmas produced measured drives in the unrelenting rain to beat the faster prototypes.
The car had undergone limited change from its road-going counterpart, and following extensive testing as well as last-minute alterations, the McLaren F1 GTR became a Le Mans-winning machine.
25 years to the day, team and driver recall the race as it happened, the extensive testing in the build-up, the 16-hour downpour and the vibrant memories of accomplishing McLaren’s first, and currently sole, Le Mans win.
McLaren F1 GTR: unlikely Le Mans winner
Winning the first half dozen rounds of the 1995 GT championship was a strong precursor on paper to McLaren’s first Le Mans attempt, yet the car lacked the necessary modifications that would make it competitive at the race.
As customers continued to press McLaren for the ability to compete at Le Mans with their F1 GTRs, an endurance package was eventually formulated and offered.
Mike Grain of McLaren, who was crew chief on the project, details the planning and preparation that went into developing the road-turned-racing car from its four-hour race specification into a Le Mans-capable car.
“We started with a tiny team, four of us. We worked our way through building the Le Mans car, taking it from a road car chassis to a race car, testing throughout the winter of ’95. As everyone knows, it was never meant to be a race car, let alone a 24-hour car.” Grain told Motor Sport.
“We ran a 24-hour test at Magny-Cours in 24-hour specification and that went very well. I remember chief engineer James Robinson and I had a 150-item job list ahead of the car departing that kept us very busy.
“It wasn’t still far off the base three-to-four-hour car that we developed, but there was a package that we developed around it. I think that’s the amazing thing about that car.”
Aerodynamic, braking and drivetrain adjustments were focused on for the Le Mans version, but an Achilles heel in the form of the FF Developments gearbox – one it retained from the road-going car – emerged as the biggest reliability concern heading into the race.
“We did (the test) in Magny-Cours, during the simulation, I think we stopped at times, changed the cable and restarted but we lost a lot of time doing it,” Dalmas explains
“The briefing we had before the race with JJ and Sekiya, it was important for all three of us to work together. The fragile point for us was the gearbox, our focus was on no mistakes, drive carefully and manage the car. The weather made all the cars level. If it was dry, we had no chance, with it in the wet it was a help for us.”
June 17, 1995, saw the the No59 McLaren start the race ninth on the grid, more than ten seconds off the pace of the WR prototypes on the front row. But the rain materialised shortly after the race got underway and it proved a stubborn but key factor for the majority of the race thereafter.
“It’s difficult for me to explain the driving conditions during the race,” says Dalmas. “It was terrible. If you talk with any other drivers about 1995, all drivers say it was terrible. Aquaplaning on the straight and all over the lap. If we compare ’95 and today, we’d probably have a safety car.
“Just one hour before the chequered flag the track was dry, but you can’t imagine how difficult it was during the race.”
“I just loved it, especially in the wet. It had loads of traction, lots of torque – no problem.”
As other cars struggled with the conditions, the Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing McLaren soldiered on, unperturbed by the torrential downpour and fears of gearbox trouble striking.
By nightfall, the pre-race power advantage the prototype cars held over the GTs had long disappeared as the rain showed no signs of easing. A spin for Mario Andretti’s Courage in the Porsche Curves as daylight faded cost his team six laps worth of repairs back in the pits, while the McLaren teams plugged along 1-2-3.
“Lots of drivers didn’t like it. The car was built around this big BMW V12 engine and they felt the back end was heavy and hard to control,” JJ Lehto told Motor Sport in a 2017 interview.
“I just loved it, especially in the wet. It had loads of traction, lots of torque – no problem.”
Dalmas’ experience at Le Mans drove his decision to take care of the car in the opening hours of the race, while Lehto’s single-seater background presented a more foot-to-the-floor mindset.
“He (Dalmas) was being clever and keeping it out of trouble. Then when I got in at night I was able to use all the sand and gravel that had been thrown onto the circuit, find some interesting lines and go a little quicker.”
Team boss Paul Lanzante recalled the pre-race meeting between his drivers and remarked that Lehto couldn’t be hardwired to slow down.
“Before the race we had decided on the lap time we should try to stick to. JJ appeared to think that still applied in the wet…”
In the darkness his pace was scorching and, although he was driving in a manner that left his team on tenterhooks, crew chief Mark Grain pointed to the stint performed by Lehto as crucial to the team’s success.
“JJ’s driving in the night in that dreadful weather, if your eyes were open, you were watching something quite spectacular.
“There are various trains of thought on how you should drive a car at Le Mans and drive it conservatively and so on. JJ caned that car every lap.
“That to me went a long long way. Yannick was that supreme sports car racer that understood what it took and drove accordingly as well. JJ drove it more like a single-seater and so on, he drove the wheels off of it.”
It was a stunning spell behind the wheel, faster than his rivals by some margin he’d clawed back vital time. While the driving was down to the Finn behind the wheel, the road ahead of him was lit thanks to another case of committed preparation by McLaren, as Grain recalls.
“We had flown out a revised bonnet that had headlights that were pointing cross-eyed at the apexes. The night before the race we fitted it and then took the car over to the airport, put some cones down and drove it over there to make sure the lights were pointing at the apex. Not ideal preparation for a 24-hour race the night before but it proved essential.”
Essential indeed, as when the sun finally rose, the No59 McLaren remained in a good position as the rain eased.
The closing hours of the race on the pit wall were tense already, and a unique issue that had materialised caused much displeasure for one man in particular according to Grain.
“Something that became emotional was the stickers on the windscreen with McLaren written on them. They were all peeling off because of the rain and I believe Ron (Dennis) was at home watching the race and he was getting very irate about the stickers coming off to the point where he was advocating that maybe we should box and replace the stickers.
“That suggestion wasn’t taken up!”
The no51 David Price Racing McLaren had managed to assume the lead of the race during the Sunday morning, but disaster was to strike in the closing hours as a clutch issue reared its head.
As Derek Bell sat in the pits for repairs, Dalmas retook the lead. Following his incredible stint through the night, Lehto joined Grain on the pit wall for the final hours.
“Through that final period, Mario is starting to nibble back at us and I remember with an hour to go, I got a prediction on where we thought we were going to finish. I was getting really jumpy,” Grain remembers.
“We were in the lead and the prediction was we’d win by minutes and seconds rather than multiple minutes or laps. I said to JJ ‘the prediction is saying we’re going to win by a minute’, and I was like that isn’t enough and JJ was the complete opposite, ‘Ah easy!’”
Behind the wheel though and Dalmas wasn’t thinking about victory just yet either. Bob Wolleck had assumed driving duties in the Courage Competition car from Andretti in the closing hours. He’d unlapped himself and clawed his way to within three minutes of the lead.
“The last hours I wasn’t thinking about the win 100 per cent, I was just thinking 100 per cent on the car, the racing lines, the braking points, the corners.
“You hear everything. The engine, every gear change. You’re concentrated on that. We push, of course, but with no mistakes, the priority was don’t break something in the car.”
Despite impressive pace, Wolleck’s late-race surge wasn’t enough to deprive McLaren of overall Le Mans win.
The team had accomplished the victory with a car not far removed from the road-going version. It arrived at Le Mans with no prior experience versus rivals, though in the project’s first attempt it had achieved far more than had been originally thought possible.
“Before the race I never expected to win but all the conditions, weather, no mistakes – it worked for us,” Dalmas remembers.
“The car for me, the engine was unbelievable with a lot of torque. The horsepower was also good. The speed was very high. The seating position was very nice, with sitting in the middle of the car.
“It was fantastic to win. All of the drivers and mechanics and the team did a good job. Le Mans, sometimes you are very lucky, other times you are unlucky. Everything for us was good.”
“It was beyond all expectation,” Grain admits.
“As an achievement, it ranks right up there. The first time a manufacturer had won outright (in its first attempt) since the very first race. The first time a Japanese driver had won, the first McLaren win of course.
“It also meant that McLaren was the first team to have won the world championship, Indianapolis 500 and Le Mans 24 Hours.
“When you start to line-up all of those firsts that were achieved, it’s incredible and a testimony to the small team and everybody who worked on it that worked so hard.”
“After the race, we’re in Lanzante’s motorhome, Masanori’s people had brought a very large wooden barrel of sake. Japanese tradition dictates that you have to smash the lid of the barrel with big mallets. So, each of the three drivers had these mallets and smashed the lid of the barrel and we all drank sake afterwards, the whole team.
“We got back to the hotel with great ambitions of drinking a lot of beer and celebrating and partying, but you’re knackered. I think we had a few beers, had a bite to eat and that was it, we all flagged. It was a wonderful experience though, I wouldn’t change it for the world.”