Our legendary Le Mans triumph told by those who lived it – presented by Arrow Electronics
No sleep, a little bit of saké and a lot of torque: An oral history of McLaren’s iconic 24 Hours of Le Mans debut
An entire 24-hour race and it all came down to a matter of seconds.
Had you asked the team whether they’d have accepted second place overall ahead of their 24 Hours of Le Mans debut in 1995, they’d have snapped your hands off. But if you’d asked them that same question in the final half an hour of the race, they’d have been devastated.
Andretti were bearing down on us, and the overall victory that had seemed impossible at the start but had inexplicably become a possibility, was close to slipping out of our fingers. Inside the car, Yannick Dalmas was unshakeably calm, unfazed by the Andretti 25 seconds behind in his rear-view mirror, or by the piercing noise of the engine, which by this point was close to reaching its limit.
It’s rare that McLaren are ever underdogs, but on our Le Mans debut, in what was technically the third fastest class of car, we very much were. Yet, as time ticked down, a victory was within our grasp, but with favourites Andretti chasing us down, the ultimate underdog story was on a knife edge.
The McLaren F1 GTR was never even meant to be a race car – you could argue that 90% of it wasn’t – it was a road car, so how did it come to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans? Here’s the story of the most unlikely of victories, on the grandest of stages, as told by the people who lived it…
Testing the F1 GTR for the first time in Chobham
The “granddaddy” of endurance racing
To appreciate the magnitude of the achievement, you’ve first got to understand what makes the 24 Hours of Le Mans unique. With 186 drivers, four classes of cars and a multitude of plotlines all unfolding in tandem, it’s racing harmony. There is no greater test of racer and machine on the planet than 24 hours of non-stop racing on the 8.5-mile Circuit de le Sarthe: it causes the most experienced drivers to wilt under pressure and the most reliable cars to break down. But don’t just take our word for it.
Mark Grain, Senior Technician, Kokusai Kaihatsu McLaren: The grandstands, they hum, and they vibrate. Before the race, you can’t hear anything for the noise of the crowd. No music, just cheering and shouting. Then in the race, people are sitting there eating their dinner, and cars are hurtling past at 200 miles an hour, and all of the silverware and the glasses of wine are rattling on the tables. These things are all part of the Le Mans legend. It's got so many elements to it that make it very special and very unique.
Lyn St. James, the first American woman to race the 24 Hours of Le Mans: The first endurance race I ever saw was the 1972 24 Hours of Daytona, and I remember thinking, "Oh my heavens, these cars are going for 24 hours.” Then, I learned about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, this race on the other side of the pond that was even older, more important and bigger, and the granddaddy of them all. Le Mans is treacherous. Most closed circuits have a high-speed section, but they're usually never long enough. At Le Mans, it’s frighteningly long.
Le Mans is a big party. There is a carnival inside the track, and I remember in 1991, I went down there to see what it was like. I was only there for 15-20 minutes and remember thinking, "This is insanity. I must return to pit-lane where I feel sane and safe." The festivity, attitude, spirit, and atmosphere at Le Mans is extraordinary.
Inside the car, when I raced there in 1989 and 1991, it's like screaming hell. I mean, there is noise everywhere. Coming from the engines and the cars around you, because there’s always one around: you're either passing a car or you're being passed. It’s hectic.
The 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans Before and during the race
“Winning the entire thing? Not a chance” – Expectations going into the race
Given that the McLaren F1 GTR had been designed for luxurious, leisurely drives across the South of France, expectations going into the race were understandably understated. But such was its popularity, customers decided they would race it anyway, with or without our blessing. And so, in short, it was decided, if you can’t beat them, join them. Although, we didn’t think we’d beat everyone…
Mark Grain: It was very exciting to take this iconic road car and convert it into what would become a fantastic race car. We felt that we were going in more prepared than anyone else, so we were confident of a class win, but winning overall? Not a chance. We should have been easily outpaced. The base of the car was still the same, and there were two faster classes of car above us: the World Sports Cars and the LMP2 cars. This was also our first time, and so there wasn’t any pressure on us to win, but then the rain hits, some of the other cars have trouble, and all of a sudden, something starts to build…
J.J. Lehto,Driver, Kokusai Kaihatsu McLaren: There were faster cars than us, but the first time I drove the McLaren GTR, it felt really special. The cockpit is very unique, you have the steering wheel and the driver's seat in the middle, and you feel like you are driving a single-seater. Yannick [Dalmas] was clever. He was saying, “we need to start easy and keep the car together,” and then it started to rain, and it was a completely different game. In the night, it rained so, so hard, and it was really, really dark. The engine helped, it was so torquey, and, in the rain, you could really play with the torque. When I was in the car, all I could hear was this fantastic BMW V12 engine. I couldn’t hear anything else, just these fantastic revs and this torquey engine.
John Knight, Assembly, Kokusai Kaihatsu McLaren: I was in the assembly team that built the car. Almost everyone who worked on the car travelled to watch the race. We knew it was a good car doing fairly well in some of the four-hour races it had taken part in, but we never thought it would be up there in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It didn’t even enter our heads. J.J. Lehto was awesome in the rain, seconds ahead of anybody else, and it was only then that we thought, “corr, blimey,” he is in the lead, we could do something here.
Loading up the F1 GTR ahead of the final test at the Circuit de Nevers Magny-Cours
“We were relentless” – Teamwork was crucial
From factory to track, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is a true team effort. Despite the small size and budget of the team in comparison to some of the big hitters, and the complete lack of sleep afforded to the crew, McLaren’s debut at the Circuit de le Sarthe pretty much went off without a hitch. The sole error in the entire 24-hour race was when the car was put down without its wheels during a pit-stop, but the recovery was so exceptionally quick, that the story has been reduced to a mere footnote.
J.J Lehto: I knew Yannick from the past. He had a lot of experience and had won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times. He knew everything about the race. We didn’t really know anything about Masanori Sekiya, apart from the fact he was a very good Japanese race driver, who was a little bit older than us. He didn’t speak English at the time, so he had a translator. He was a quiet, clever guy, was always listening to what we were saying, and what we needed from him in the car. My background was in single-seaters, I was just a young boy and spent the whole time trying to push the car to the limit. There were faster cars than us: we had narrow tyres and less downforce. So, we needed to play the game in the right way. We all worked really well.
Mark Grain: Everybody told me, having never been before, the secret to Le Mans is to get a good sleep the night before the race, but in true McLaren fashion, we were up working the night before and didn’t get much sleep at all. In the final qualifying, the engine was over-revved. BMW inspected it, said it was okay and told us not to change it, but we insisted on a new engine for the race, which we installed overnight. After the race, we went back and did a dyno test, and the original engine lasted half an hour before it blew up.
It sounds boring for such a huge achievement, but the car just ran. It was all about the preparation and the hours and hours that we put in. That’s what won it. We were relentless, we didn’t leave a single stone unturned. Sitting here now, there is nothing else that we could have possibly done.
Marcus Handley, Kit Cutting, Kokusai Kaihatsu McLaren: I had only been with the company three or four months beforehand. We were cutting the carbon fibre into the specific shapes that the laminators needed to make the parts. We were responsible for nesting the templates and saving as much material as possible. We had to work to tight deadlines, there was no downtime. We all worked so hard.
The team in action during a pit-stop in the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans
"Holy s***, did I do that?" - driving in the rain at night
J.J. Lehto’s night stint in 1995 has gone down in history as one of the greatest of all time. The night shift at Le Mans is notoriously treacherous in the dry, let alone in torrential downpour, but as our rivals struggled with the torrid conditions, J.J. sparkled, revelling in the rain and setting an unmatchable pace, despite several requests from the team to slow down. His response was simplicity to the extreme: “Don’t worry.”
Mark Grain: It's quite famous now, but I genuinely believe that's where we won the race. The stints in the dark were super impressive, and the lap times were on par with cars that were way faster, and that's where we made up ground. A lot of drivers made mistakes through that period, but we started to pull ahead.
J.J Lehto: The Team Leader, Paul Lanzante, was on the radio all the time in the night stint, and when it was dark and slippery, he kept asking about my speed, “are you sure, JJ?” I was telling him not to worry, but he kept asking me to “slow down a little bit because we are much faster than the others.” Someone told me that at one point, I was 30-35 seconds faster than anybody else.
“Someone told me that at one point, I was 30-35 seconds faster than anybody else.”
Driver, Kokusai Kaihatsu McLaren
I only lost the car once. It was raining so heavily, I was in fourth gear and full throttle, and there was a lot of water, and I lost the rear end, but I kept the throttle down, went 360 and just kept going. The weather kept changing, so I was trying to be on the limit and never over it. Michelin were making deeper grooves in the tyres because the car was aquaplaning all over the place, and the wheels were spinning. You needed to be careful, but we wanted to push hard because we knew we could make a difference at that point. I was young and fearless, pushing every lap.
Masanori brought two acupuncture guys over from Japan, and I remember during the night stint, I had driven more than four hours in a row and ran out of water, so I had cramp in my leg. I got out of the car and could hardly move, I certainly couldn’t drive, but he got these two acupuncture guys to work on me, sticking needles in me, and after that, the cramps were gone. It’s such a long race, but one problem can hurt the whole thing.
Lyn St. James: I remember running in 1989 as a rookie. Not only did I get a night stint, but I also got sunrise coming up under the Dunlop Bridge, which I’ll never forget for as long as I live. I watch it on TV now and think "Holy s***, did I do that?" Because it looks crazy, but I didn't feel overwhelmed.
Masanori Sekiya (L), Yannick Dalmas (C) and JJ Lehto (R) on the 24 Hours of Le Mans podium
“I worked out we’d win by 25 seconds” - The tense final laps
As the sun rose, we were in prime position. But the rain was lessening, and so was our advantage. Andretti were closing in, and the mood on the pit-wall was tense. Mark Grain had done the math, and we were still on course to win, but it would be close. Uncomfortably close. J.J.’s work was done by this point, and he was left anxiously watching from the sidelines.
Mark Grain: Some of those faster cars that had done themselves some damage had recovered, and they got back onto the same lap as us towards the end of the race. I did the calculations and worked out we would win by around 25 seconds, which over 24 hours is a tight margin.
J.J Lehto: Mario's team were pushing really hard, and we knew that they were closing in on us during the end of the race once the weather started to get better. They were faster than us but were using more fuel than us, so if they kept going, they’d have to stop more than us. By that point, we were trying to keep the lap times even and push hard, but not too hard. They were getting closer and closer, but we just kept our heads cool, praying that we wouldn’t have any issues. Yannick finished the race, and he was typical Yannick. He didn’t feel any pressure, he was just doing his job.
Andy Wells, Trackside Support, Kokusai Kaihatsu McLaren: Normal endurance races were four hours long, which seemed like forever to me, so after 20 hours of Le Mans, I had to remind myself we still had a whole one of these four-hour races to go, but with a very good chance of winning. Those four hours seemed to last longer than ever. With just under two laps to go, Paul [Lanzante] was on the radio telling me I could lock up the spares truck and join the rest of the team on the pit-wall, knowing I would want to be there if we won. Little did he know I was already there. There was no way I was missing that! The feeling when the car crossed the line with the door open to win is one I’ll never forget. The smiles, the back-slapping, the hugs, the handshakes, it was such a great feeling.
Mark Grain: After the race, I heard this fellow calling out my name on the other side of the fencing. He was a friend of mine from years back in London, and he told me it was a great result and congratulated me, but he was a bit of a rogue and decided to climb the fencing. The area was off-limits, and had he made it over the fence, I was worried we’d have been kicked out of the entire race just because this guy I knew had decided to come in and say hello. I was shouting at him: “No, no, no, you cannot come over.” Thankfully, he didn’t!
Mark Grain (L) and the team celebrating the victory by drinking saké out of ladles
Saké and sleep – Celebrating in style (sort of)
It’s said that one side effect of going 30 hours without sleep is difficulty distinguishing between angry and happy facial expressions, but after a victory of this scale, you probably could have guessed whether your teammate was smiling or scowling.
The unexpected nature of the victory meant that a celebration hadn’t exactly been planned into the brief, but this wasn’t just any win, and so the celebration had to match the achievement. Didn’t it? Well, not exactly…. As much as they’d have loved to have told us they turned 30 hours into 48, a party was the last thing on their minds. They needed sleep. And lots of it. If only to confirm it wasn’t all just a hallucination caused by sleep deprivation.
Mark Grain: Masanori had a large barrel of saké, mallets and ladles, and the tradition is that you smash the lid on the saké with these mallets, and then you all have a drink out of these ladles. I’ve still got one of those as a little trophy of my own. We were all drinking it in this tiny motor home. Honestly, you would look at it and think twice about renting it for a holiday. It wasn’t like a motorhome is today.
After that, we packed down, went for a team dinner and had a few glasses of champagne, but by around 10pm that night, everyone was starting to flag. We had been at the track since 6:30am the day before. We went to the Cricketers pub in Woking once we were home, where we celebrated.
J.J Lehto: Everybody's so knackered, and nobody wants to say much, but then the following week, you start to realise, "Okay, oh my god, we won Le Mans." You begin to realise that you have done something big, and you never forget it, that's for sure. On the day, I think that we had maybe one beer, but I was so knackered, so I said, "Okay, Yannick, let's take the cars back, go to the hotel and sleep." That was all. The party came later.
1995 24 Hours of Le Mans The celebrations
John Knight: A lot of people decided to power through and watch the entire thing, but I found the coach and slept inside the luggage cell. I had my boy with me, he was around 13 years old, and we both slept in there. It was a great experience. When we knew we were going to win, it was awesome. It was really emotional. I had never experienced anything like that before, knowing I had a hand in achieving it: part of me was in that car. We had a good drink on the way back, that is for sure. We couldn’t go into the pit-lane, but we found an area where we could drink together and had some champagne. The big celebration was back in the UK, at The Cricketers.
Andy Wells: Being part of a team that won Le Mans is the highlight of my professional career. It is something we can all be very proud of. At the time, I don’t think I realised the enormity of what we had achieved. Looking back, what an amazing achievement to rock up at what some consider the biggest race in the world and win on our first attempt, beating cars from higher categories. It was incredible. I have met people that have worked at the race numerous times and never had that success – some have never even finished, but we won on our first attempt.
Marcus Handley: For many of us, this was the first race we had worked where we could have an influence. The week afterwards was good, everyone was buzzing. It was an amazing achievement and hadn’t been expected. We all got our photographs taken with the winning car, which was still covered in dirt and damaged, and also with the trophy, which was nice. I still have the photograph now.
The team with the 24 Hours of Le Mans trophy and the F1 GTR at the factory in Woking
“We made history” - Completing the Triple Crown
It was our 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans victory that completed the Triple Crown for McLaren, making us the only team to achieve motorsport’s three-pronged popularity contest in the last 100 years. But there was so much to unpack from our victory that it was hard to know what to shout about first. J.J. was the first Finnish driver to win the race, and Masanori the first from Japan. And we were also the ultimate dark horse - teams don’t just turn up to the Circuit de le Sarthe and win on their debuts. It simply doesn’t happen.
Mark Grain: When we crossed the line, I was aware that we'd won the Triple Crown, for sure. As a kid, McLaren was always my team anyway, so I knew our history, I knew that we had won the Indianapolis 500, and I knew we’d won Monaco, but beforehand, I wasn’t making a deal out of it. From an external point of view, I was disappointed that more wasn’t made of us completing the Triple Crown. Even internally, we didn’t make as big a deal of it as I think we could have, so it’s nice to be part of celebrating it now.
It was so historic for the team. If you can stand up and say we've won Monaco, we've won the Formula 1 World Championship, we've won the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and we've won the Indy 500, that to me is a very powerful way of measuring the best racing team in the world.
J.J Lehto: Yes, I knew, of course! We made history.
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