What is the Triple Crown?
You’ll see a lot about the Triple Crown over the next two months: here’s why, and what it is
It’s motorsport’s ultimate popularity contest and the most exclusive hall of fame in racing.
It’s the three single greatest motor racing challenges on the planet, as chosen by the fans. The winners are very few and forever immortalised.
The Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix are three entirely different but equally challenging races. Only the best of the best win one, let alone two, so the winners of all three are legendary.
Only one driver and one team have won all three within the last 100 years. Johnny Rutherford won us our first Indy 500 as a factory team in 1974. Our maiden Monaco Grand Prix win followed with Alain Prost at the wheel in 1984. We then completed the set in 1995, when JJ Lehto, Yannick Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya took victory on our debut at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Triple Crown The Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Monaco Grand Prix
It’s an unofficial accolade for those whose love of racing stretches beyond driving one category and one breed of car but driving anything and everything they can get their hands on… and winning the lot.
And that there strikes at the core of our team and our founder’s principles. Bruce McLaren wanted to engineer and race everything, not only to prove he was the best, but because of his unconditional love of racing cars. Give him a soapbox, and he’d have found a way to stretch it to its limit at the first track he could find.
So, when exactly did fans decide that these three races were motorsport’s prom king and queen? It’s hard to say. The oldest of the three dates back more than a century to 1911, when the Indy 500 was first held. The inaugural 24 Hours of Le Mans took place in 1923, almost 100 years ago, and the Monaco Grand Prix was first raced in 1929.
Given that their longevity has played a role in them becoming a part of the Triple Crown, it’s an accolade that has grown significantly in stature throughout the years, as shown by Fernando Alonso. The former McLaren driver - who has won the Monaco Grand Prix and 24 Hours of Le Mans - attempted to complete the achievement by entering the Indy 500 with us in 2017, 2019 and 2020, and has been quoted as saying: “I’ve never been shy about my aim of winning motorsport’s Triple Crown.”
Graham Hill was the first (and only) driver to win all three, doing so with victory at the 1972 24 Hour of Le Mans, following five wins at Monaco and one Indy 500 triumph.
Although Hill believes the Triple Crown to be the F1 World Championship, not the Monaco Grand Prix, his acknowledgement of winning the Triple Crown proves that the unofficial achievement had already been conceived, even if its exact definition was still up for debate. In a 1975 interview for the Thames Television ‘Drive In’ programme, he said: “Le Mans I thought was a very nice thing to have won after several years of trying, and it did mean that I did win the Triple Crown.”
Although that debate rages on to this day, as recently evidenced by his son, Damon Hill, on Twitter, the majority accept it to be the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Monaco Grand Prix and the Indianapolis 500, which are generally considered to be the hardest and most prestigious three races in the world. That begs the question, why?
Johnny Rutherford driving the McLaren M16 at the 2009 Goodwood Festival of Speed
The Indianapolis 500
From a purely racing perspective, the Indy 500 is arguably the toughest of the lot. Surviving even one course of the 200-lap epic is impressive on its own.
With a grid of 33 drivers racing at speeds of more than 220mph, you’re one slip of the steering wheel away from hurtling into a wall. The faster you can go, and the closer you can get to the barriers, the better chance you’ve got, but that requires an unhuman level of bravery and commitment.
In any given NTT INDYCAR SERIES race, you’ll find a field featuring some of the world’s greatest racing drivers, but such is the prestige of the Indy 500, it attracts a selection of guest entries every year. In 2021 & 2022, Juan Pablo Montoya made a one-off appearance for Arrow McLaren at the race. At the 2023 Indy 500 - nearly 50 years on from Rutherford’s 1974 victory for McLaren - the legendary Tony Kanaan will bring his racing career to a close, announcing he will retire after competing for Arrow McLaren.
The 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval is an expansive track with four corners banked at nine degrees, where the weather plays a huge role, with wind and rain often making the most treacherous race of them all even trickier.
With the cars only two inches off the ground, every single bump – and there are more than a few – is felt. It’s so easy to be caught off guard. It requires the tightest of grips and the ultimate speed of hand, and you cannot switch off for even a second.
It’s quite frankly terrifying, but that’s exactly why teams and drivers love it.
Alain Prost driving in the rain during the 1984 Monaco Grand Prix
The Monaco Grand Prix
There have been 34 different Formula 1 World Champions, but only 14 of them have won Monaco. It’s the race every driver wants to win, but so few manage to.
The track holds a special place in the papaya-coloured heart of any McLaren fan. The Circuit de Monaco is arguably the most iconic track in existence, and our love affair with the principality dates all the way back to 1962 when Bruce McLaren clinched victory there at the wheel of a Cooper.
However, our first win as a team in Monaco didn’t come until 1984, thanks to the inimitable Prost. Having narrowly missed out at Monaco up until that point, the Frenchman’s win opened the floodgates, and we went on to become the circuit’s most decorated team, with 15 wins.
It’s 78 laps on the grandest, most glamorous of stages. Set in the heart of Monte Carlo, on a glistening yacht-filled harbour along the Mediterranean, the city-state provides a lavish background of grand casinos, designer malls, luxurious bars and beautiful beaches. And the cars drive right through all of it.
Words scarcely do justice to the challenge of driving the 3.337km-long circuit. You’ll have to watch Ayrton Senna’s iconic 1990 on-board footage at the circuit to get an authentic feel for the millimetric precision required. As you’ll see, it’s the ultimate test of a driver’s capabilities and confidence, requiring absolute accuracy and complete commitment to manoeuvre an F1 car through the tight and twisting streets.
Masanori Sekiya, J.J. Lehto and Yannick Dalmas on the podium at the 1995 Le Mans 24 Hours
The 24 Hours of Le Mans
If it’s cool enough for Steve McQueen, who are we to argue?
The fact that the King of Cool starred in a 1971 film about the 24 Hours of Le Mans is utterly irrelevant from a racing perspective, but his decision to do so illustrates the legend of the event. You know motorsport’s love of spraying champagne on the podium? That started at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1967. It’s just cool.
It’s a brutal, 24-hour slog, often through wind and rain, and it’s absolutely mesmerising. It’s the ultimate endurance test of man and machine because so much can go wrong in 24 hours. The longest distance covered was 5,410km in 2010, which is roughly equivalent to driving in a straight line from London to New York. You have one car, three drivers and a crew smaller than that of an F1 team – all of whom have to somewhere try and fit in some modicum of sleep in order to maintain focus.
These were just a few of the challenges we faced in 1995, which remains one of the wettest races in the event’s history. It remains our first and only official entry into the French endurance race, and the McLaren F1 GTR was a road-car-cum-race-car that was never even meant to compete in races, let alone in the most challenging of them all.
The racing version was only slightly modified from the standard road-going model, and yet it went on to achieve legendary status. Driven by Lehto, Dalmas and Sekiya, it beat faster purpose-built prototypes to an overall victory.
Out-and-out pace can only get you so far at Le Mans, as there are so many mental and physical hurdles to contend with. And at the race in ’95, we were able to clear so many of those - we out-fought and out-fought our opponents. The 24 Hours of Le Mans has been likened to a “high-speed game of chess”, and you’ll struggle to find a better comparison. It tests every characteristic of a racing team and their driver, from pure speed - around 85% of the lap is taken at full throttle – to durability, strategy and teamwork.
And from an aesthetic point of view, the one-third of the race that takes place during the night is some spectacle, with cars making their way through a combination of pitch-black areas and floodlit sections. And you’d be right in thinking that it can be difficult to see – concentration is crucial.
So why are we telling you all of this? With the help of our partners, Arrow Electronics, NTT DATA, and SmartStop, we’ll be celebrating all three victories throughout our 60th anniversary year as part of #McLaren60: Johnny Rutherford’s 1974 Indianapolis 500 victory in the McLaren M16C/D, Alain Prost’s 1984 Monaco Grand Prix victory in the McLaren MP4/2, and our 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans victory, won by the #59 McLaren F1 GTR, at the hands of JJ Lehto, Yannick Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya. Download the McLaren App and follow our social media channels to keep up to date with everything we’re planning.
This is just the beginning, and we can’t wait to share the heritage content we’ve got in store for you. Download the McLaren App and follow our social media channels to keep up to date with everything we’re planning.
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