Remembering The McLaren F1 GTR That Won The 24 Hours Of Le Mans In 1995
Photography by Alex Sobran
The McLaren F1 is and will probably remain the most significant supercar ever made. Paradigm-displacing performance of this magnitude will probably not be seen again, for however fast electric supercars will eventually get, there are definite limits of legality and physics inherent in the world of road cars that cannot be overcome, and the F1 pushed the watermark so far toward that boundary that the last 20-plus years of “hypercars” have been a game of fighting for the slivers of territory left between the McLaren and the ultimate limit.
Prices for the road going F1s are marching toward $20 million, and with an even greater interest in these types of cars that’s likely churn up in the wake of the upcoming hypercar-based premiere category at the 24 Hours of Le Mans these aren’t likely to stagnate at that price point either. If in the 2020s the new Le Mans category takes off and sees support from the likes of Ferrari, Porsche, Audi, McLaren, etc. who wouldn’t have to commit prototype-level budgets to compete at the front while showing off more relatable cars, who’s to say an F1 GTR couldn’t be worth more than a GTO one day?
Though it’s pretty emphatically not for sale right now, McLaren owns the car with the best history. It’s the 1995 Le Mans-winning car. Not the class-winning car. It beat everything that entered, including prototypes driven by teams that included the name “Andretti” on the door. McLaren recently began an in-house certification-slash-restoration program and at this year’s Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion they brought a special car along to celebrate.
With two-time F1 World Champion Mika Häkkinen on hand to do some demonstration laps, it was a rare pleasure to see and hear the car in action, but another Finn and his friends did something a bit more impressive with this car in France 23 years ago. JJ Lehto, along with Japan’s Masanori Sekiya and France’s four-time Le Mans-winning Yannick Dalmas, beat the Kremer and Courage prototypes (both using Porsche turbo flat-six power), along with a field that was full of now-famous ‘90s road cars in “LM” forms: Ferrari F40s, Nissan GT-Rs, Honda NSXes, Toyota Supras, Porsche 993 GT2s, Jaguar XJ220s, Corvettes, Listers, Venturis—it was not a sparse field in GT1 and GT2.
With a strategy based on preservation, a talented team of drivers, and an advantage earned in the rain, the #59 Ueno Clinic F1 GTR beat them all, leading a stream of other high-placing GTRs that finished in third, fourth, and fifth overall. Here’s how it happened in a nutshell.
As the company tells it, some of their customers had a will to go racing with the F1, and this influenced the decision to supply privateer teams with cars prepared to compete in endurance racing at home, in the BPR Endurance series for GT1-spec cars. The F1 GTRs, as the “short tail” motorsport version of the F1 was called, performed admirably and won a few races in doing so. With so much of the engineering in the road car proving to be helpful in the tests of long-term bouts of racing, the question of Le Mans was starting to enter the answering phase.
Gordon Murray, the main designer behind the F1, was not initially keen on the car’s racing efforts, so was not a major player in the Le Mans attempt, though it’s hard to downplay the fact that the car was, in many ways, his creation. After it’s victory, the obviously pleased man added that it would only have been better if the winning car had driven to and from the race, which it probably could have. To and from where, is a different story though.
It came from a team formed with sponsorship from Ueno Clinic (a Japanese cosmetic surgery clinic) called Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing. It was led by race engineer Graham Humphrys (who would go on to win the race with six different manufacturers), the company’s general GTR program manager Geoff Hazell, and a Le Mans first-timer, Paul Lanzante.
The factory provided key people like Humphrys, and they tested what was supposedly their own prepared car at Magny Cours to help with the rest of development that would be undertaken by the privateers—McLaren said that the teams who witnessed the car’s reliable speed lamented the fact that they’d “Have to buy more spares, take more people, and take it a lot more seriously!”
But the factory was not giving the Le Mans program all they had. The car was never built with the purpose to compete on the track, and to win against the prototypes that were just wasn’t that feasible. They did develop a lot of the upgrades to the car necessary to run it for 24 hours, but they didn’t come with truckloads of spare motors to the event itself, and in fact the only extra V12 they did bring with them was swapped into the winning car in the middle of the night before the race.
Winning Le Mans
Of the three-driver team, JJ Lehto was the least experienced in sports car environments, but his time in Formula One proved a worthy enough credential when he set the car’s winning pace and drifted it through Tetre Rouge in the rain to victory. In the process of qualifying before the race he performed so well in though, Lehto over-revved the naturally-aspirated BMW V12, and since the BMW techs who were on-site for such drivetrain dilemmas said it shouldn’t go that high (9,000rpm was the race motor’s threshold of health according to BMW), they replaced it before the race with the only extra one on hand.
They added oil and tried to take it easy on the shifts, and the added cautions brought on by the rain later on meant the drivers took things a bit slower (which only helped keep things from breaking), and in general everything seemed to be going well with the fresh engine and repaired gearbox that were done before the start. Lehto had made up a lot of ground in the rain at night, and after taking extra precautions to preserve the gearbox (Lanzante remembers liberal applications of WD40 to prevent wet debris collecting in crucial places), the possibility of a win became closer and closer to being realized; the strategy from the start had always been to get the car back in one piece, and now it looked like that could come with the added bonus of being the first to do it.
They pushed harder, but not irresponsibly. The drivers did their jobs, the mechanics did theirs, the managers put it all together, and the car brought home three more GTRs in the top five finishers. Against the odds, but a little less so in hindsight, it became a Le Mans champion and cemented its place at the tip of the supercar supreme. The McLaren F1 (in any form), may not be the standard of performance which the next round of really fast and quickly forgettable cars will be measured against, but it’s still the yardstick of a road car’s potential impact, and so far everything else has come up short.
Historical images courtesy of McLaren