Motorsport seldom ‘does’ feel good stories or giant killing feats, and for every example of pluck and guile overcoming all, there are dozens more where the traditional virtues of experience and vast reserves of cold, hard cash have ensured the continuation of the status quo.
That being said, certain races and forms of motorsport seem to invite upsetting of the status quo more frequently than others, none more so than the Le Mans 24 Hours. ‘The World’s Greatest Motor Race’ has a mythology all of its own, one largely built on rarified tales of David besting Goliath, passed down from paddock to pit and discussed at length over strong drinks and flickering fires lining the Mulsanne Straight.
There are few Le Mans tales more compelling than that of the 1995 running, when the McLaren charge, one based around the resolutely road-based F1, triumphed against the odds. It’s a fascinating story and one more than suitable for the ‘Retropower Hero’ treatment.
It’s important to realise that for all its many, many virtues and undoubted performance, the McLaren F1 was not, and had never intended to be, a race car. Gordon Murray’s creation was supposed to be an automotive showcase, true, but it was intended to go the other way, to be a means of demonstrating the worth of motorsport technology and construction methods when employed to build a road car.
Happily for us, McLaren and petrolheads of all stripes, the F1 did indeed take to the La Sarthe’s hallowed tarmac, and in fact did so a number of times in the mid ’90s, but none have been as significant as its Le Mans debut in 1995. The story is undoubtedly made that bit more compelling through McLaren’s initial reluctance to take its new creation racing, but consistent pressure from its (staggeringly wealthy and well-connected) customer base ultimately told.
A limited race programme had actually already commenced, with a handful of cars having been pressed into active duty in the BPR GT1 Endurance series. This certainly boded well for the F1’s Le Mans aspirations but it should also be noted that the programme, when it was finally given the go-ahead, was far from a Works, factory backed affair. The BPR excursions had at least convinced McLaren and a handful of high-end race teams of the car’s worth and innate suitability for the role it’d had foisted upon it, and suggested that relatively few modifications would be required for the road going F1 to be turned into an endurance racer.
McLaren undertook a pre-Le Mans test programme at Magny Cours, with much of its effort and resources aimed at rooting out any potential reliability weak points as opposed to boosting performance. The car used for this 24 Hour endurance test was actually the very same prototype GTR that would go onto claim victory at La Sarthe some weeks later, though of course at the time it was just (well, as ‘just’ as an F1 can ever be) a hard worked test car, albeit one with the potential to be a racer thanks to a cash injection from the Ueno Clinic. This eventually evolved into the Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing machine we now know and love.
The data from the test session was swiftly converted into a handful of aerodynamic parts and chassis revisions, all of which were made available to a select group of McLaren sanctioned race teams. Other changes were made at the behest of the FIA, including a mandated restrictor for the bellowing BMW S70 V12, plus the standard list of safety kit you’d expect to find on any top-flight, near 200mph capable race car.
Understandably protective of their latest creation, McLaren opted to sell GTRs to a handful of proven independent race teams, including Gulf (two cars), West Competition (one car), Société BBA Compétition (one car), the Giroix Racing Team (one car), Mach One Racing (one car), plus their own, Kaihatsu Racing branded car.
Understandably given the scale of the task facing them and the calibre of the opposition, outright victory was not really given much consideration. Then as now, dedicated endurance prototypes occupied the upper echelon of the sports car world, and most reckoned outright victory would go to either the Courage C34 driven by Mario Andretti, Bob Wollek and Eric Hellary, or perhaps the Kremer K8 of Hans-Joachim Stuck, Thierry Boutsen and Christoph Bouchut. The F1 GTR was quick, granted, but it was still a road car made track ready, and as such couldn’t be expected to take the fight to a field containing so many dedicated, purpose built racers.
The established wisdom outlined above was rather confirmed by Saturday’s qualifying session, which concluded with the two WR LM95s, followed by a trio of Courages and then, leading the GT1 class, a trio of Ferrari F40s. It looked like McLaren would have its work cut out to claim a class victory, never mind an overall one, especially when the dust settled and it was revealed the lead F1 had qualified down in 9th.
The weather and litany of issues befalling their rivals still wouldn’t have been enough to put the McLaren into contention for the win, not without Lehto’s banzai performance in the dead of night. The Finnish ex-F1 driver was in his element in the sodden French night and reeled of a string of jaw-dropping times – at points he was a full half a minute faster than everyone else!
Not only did the torrential rain allow Lehto to shine it reduced the strain on one of the F1’s only weak components, its transmission. Various F1 drivers had reported a worrying vibration between third and fourth gears, and bent selector forks would ultimately put paid to the hopes of one of the Gulf cars and the lone West Racing one. The issue had made itself known in qualifying but, as is so often the case with Le Mans, it took until the race itself for the true scale of the problem to make its presence felt.
The upshot of this was that none of the remaining F1s could discount the possibility of gearbox drama befalling them, and this included the Uneo Clinic sponsored car. Indeed, the lead F1 began to show evidence of cog-swapping difficulty in the closing hours, which in turn prompted it to pit so that a proper investigation could be undertaken. This revealed that a thick coating of race grime and general detritus had begun to coat the gear linkage, which in turn had begun to gum it up and had, thanks to its abrasive nature, started to take its toll.
McLaren had effectively pulled off one of the biggest upsets in motorsport history. Not only had the upstart from Woking won on its Le Mans debut (an all but unheard of feat given the scale of the challenge represented by the race), in doing do it had beaten a fistful of far faster and more specialised, dedicated race cars. In the process Lehto became the first Finn to win, and his team mate, Sekiya, the first Japanese.
There are few more remarkable Le Mans tales than McLaren’s triumph against the odds back in 1995. The result served as the cherry atop the F1 programme and opened the door to further endurance forays in the years that followed, though none was quite as special as that first, wholly unexpected victory. The whole event, including the gearbox dramas and Lehto’s stonkingly quick nighttime laps, is perfectly captured in this period, McLaren-shot documentary. It’s well worth a watch.