The performance and specification of the McLaren F1 was clearly that of a racer built for the road. So it wouldn't take much of a leap in imagination to see the vehicle in competitive environment, and of course there were already individuals wanting to race the McLaren at the tracks. While this path was directly contrary to the original plan of producing the ultimate road car, as the clamor increased McLaren had to accept the inevitable. As always with this organization, if their creation was going to be raced, it would be done properly. A roll cage was the first item to be added along with other safety related equipment but amazingly it was said that the 1995 spec F1 GTRs were around 90% comprised of the same parts as were found on the roadcar. Perhaps the motto would be "Drive on Monday, win on Sunday!"
As with so many other aspects of this amazing vehicle the F1 GTR's timing was impeccable. Endurance prototype sportscar racing had disappeared from Europe and North America after 1992, a victim of insanely rising costs and scandalous political intrigue, the manufacturers had simply walked away. A year or so later, sensing a gap in the marketplace, Stephane Ratel, Patrick Peter and Jürgen Barth formed an alliance to bring the BPR Global Endurance GT Series into being. After a tentative start in 1994, things really got motoring the following season. The impact of the arrival of three McLarens on the grid in early March at Jerez in Southern Spain, proved to be a major factor in the rapid growth of the Series.
It was GT Racing in the traditional style with privateer teams and owners competing using road based racers and a mix of gentlemen and professionals behind the wheel. There was a serious attempt to create the right spirit in the paddock, with a cocktail party after Qualifying at every meeting, all very agreeable and sociable (no wonder I liked it so much). Ambiance was very much an important element to the BPR in 1995.
The initial field was a bit thin, but reinforcements were on the way, more McLarens in fact. The best news for Woking was the fact that the Gulf sponsored F1 GTR of Ray Bellm and Mauricio Sandro Sala took first place in the Jerez 4 Hours, making McLaren winners from day one.
Round two in France at Le Castellet saw more cars and attention from the media, but the result was the same, another win for the Gulf pair. The appetite of both competitors and fans had been whetted, the BPR grids swelled.
The third event at Monza saw another jump in numbers, the BPR Series was gaining traction with each round. There was another McLaren win, this time for Thomas Bscher and John Nielsen.
Jarama race drew another big crowd. Those present were privileged to witness another two McLarens on the grid, bringing the total to five. The tidal wave from McLaren was unstoppable, another win - four in a row in four hour events.
The BPR calendar was crazy in 1995 with another two races being squeezed into the pre-Le Mans schedule, Nürburgring and Donington. Both saw victories for McLaren, but up next was a test of a different magnitude. Another new F1 GTR joined the fray, backed by the Fayed family through their famous store, Harrods.
Those going before have shown that it takes up to three years of campaigning to win the Le Mans 24 Hours. Certainly no one comes along and wins in the first year! McLaren took no notice of that "truth" and beefed up the spec of the car, with no less than seven examples making the start. Unlike the races earlier in the year, the McLarens were also up against the much faster prototypes, so racecraft and meticulous preparation would come into play as well as flat out speed. The conditions, cold and wet almost from the start, negated some of the advantage for the prototypes. The fastest of these, a Courage C34 Porsche of Bob Wollek, Eric Helary and Mario Andretti, was delayed by six laps after the great American hit the wall avoiding a spinning GT. Would this slight window of advantage be enough?
The answer was just about. One by one the F1 GTRs were delayed themselves till the race came down to a straight fight between two McLarens - the Harrods example and the Ueno Clinic car. JJ Lehto in the latter car put in a drive that has passed into legend, clearly the fastest car on track during the worst of conditions. When the Harrods car was delayed by clutch problems, Lehto and his co-drivers, Masanori Sekiya and Yannick Dalmas took a famous victory with the Ueno Clinic F1 GTR. In fact McLaren finished 1-3-4-5-13 overall, with the missing cars retiring after accidents. It was a once in a lifetime performance.
To celebrate this enormous achievement, the company produced a run of five specials, known as the McLaren F1 LM. It was basically a road legal version of the car that had triumphed at Le Mans, arguably the ultimate sportscar that could be driven in public. With a weight reduction of 78 kilograms and an additional 60bhp on tap, it could comfortably outperform the "standard" F1.
Continue readingThe Supercar's Supercar - Part Three. If you missed Part One, read it here.