It was perhaps inevitable, given not just McLaren’s raison d’être but also Gordon Murray’s professional background and expertise, that the McLaren F1 road car would eventually take to the racetrack, even though Ron Dennis had specifically denied such a possibility when the car was launched.
Murray had no such plans either. He merely dreamed of building what was quickly and widely to become recognised as the 20th century’s most exotic road car, and at the conclusion of a three-year design-and-build process he had achieved exactly that.
Before long, hoever, customers were asking for a racing version, and as the 1995 GT season drew nearer the number of requests began to climb. Leading them was racing driver Ray Bellm who, together with fellow F1 owner and German banker Thomas Bscher, approached McLaren with an idea to race the cars in the BPR Karcher Global Endurance GT series. Initially McLaren was not taken with the idea, so Bellm went direct to Dennis, an old friend.
Thereafter an agreement was reached initially to develop a three-car custom racing programme, the third car being assigned to Lindsay Owen-Jones. The factory was not slow to respond; it couldn’t afford to be with just a few months left before the start of the season.
The racing version of the F1 that went to Le Mans in June, the GTR, was only slightly modified from the standard road-going model. The regulations pegged its power below 600bhp, so the racer was actually slightly less powerful. The GTRs also had to be fitted with steel roll-cages, the steering rack ratios were quicker, and the rubber bushing in the suspension was removed.
Development of downforce was limited to a single day in the wind-tunnel under Murray’s direction, while the OZ Racing wheels concealed even larger discs and calipers.
Bellm loved the car. “As a result of the changes, it didn’t load up in the same way [as the standard car] and you could really zip it around,” he revealed.
The fact that the F1 GTR entree by Tokyo Ueno Clinic Team went on to win the famed endurance classic at the first attempt underlined the integrity of the original design. There was also a simple moral correctness to such a car being victorious at Le Mans: the F1 GTR was essentially a road car, which is what Le Mans had originally been about. Seven GTRs started, apart from the winners, four finished third, fourth, fifth and 13th.
By any standards, that 1995 race was an epic.
The weather was appalling – it rained for 16 of the 24 hours – but the McLarens rose to the challenge, despite never having been raced before in the wet. A couple fell victim to that, one of them Bscher’s Team Competition car, which crashed out during the night. It had led earlier on, as had the other casualty, the Gulf-sponsored GTR driven by Owen-Jones and Pierre-Henri Raphanel.
Bellm recalled his worst moment: “When the car got away from me through the Porsche Curves and I slammed into the wall, I thought, ‘Oh Lord, this is it.’” Instead, he got back to the pits where repairs cost the team eight laps, enabling him to finish less than 30 minutes behind the winner. Once the car was fixed, he and co-drivers Maurizio Sandro Sala and Mark Blundell were able to make up an incredible 31 places to finish fourth.
Bellm expressed “massive respect” for the way eventual winner JJ Lehto dove relentlessly all night through the weather. Even in the rain, in the Tokyo Ueno Clinic Team GTR he shared with Yannick Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya, the Finn was posting lap-times up to 20 seconds faster than his rivals.
After passing the lead car, the Harrods-liveried McLaren driven by Andy Wallace, Derek Bell and son Justin, Lehto was soon uncatchable and before long yet another McLaren-built machine had entered the racing record books.
Nor was it just that the La Sarthe classic that year was such a great race; it also represented several highly significant motorsport firsts. McLaren had won Le Mans at its first attempt; the F1 GTR had won the event in its first year of production, and not even Ferrari had managed that; it was also the first Le Mans win for a Finnish driver, and for a Japanese one, as well as being a first for BMW power.
As it that weren’t sufficient, the model also went on to win the 1995 Global GT Championship. The cars were not only fast, but consistent. The championship-winning car of Bscher and John Nielsen won only two races that year, but was nevertheless sufficiently reliable throughout the season to amass the necessary points to take the title.
The greatest supercar of its generation had been transformed into the most successful British sports racing car of modern times.