25th Anniversary of McLaren's Le Mans Win

This week marks 25 years since McLaren’s unexpected Le Mans win in 1995. It was a victory that shocked many within the sport and it is now a story that is part of motorsport mythology. 

The McLaren F1 GTR had been hastily prepared by the Kokusai Kaihatsu team and was a road-going supercar. The Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing team came together and included Japanese businessman and McLaren enthusiast, Motokazu Sayama, who approached McLaren hoping to secure a last-minute entry alongside the five other GTR teams. With no inhouse personnel available, McLaren turned to a small privateer team called Lanzante Motorsport and they had just eight weeks to get ready. McLaren quickly found three drivers, all with Le Mans experience: the two-time winner Yannick Dalmas, Japanese driver Masanori Sekiya and former Formula 1 driver JJ Lehto. 

Once the team was together, they still needed to sort the car. Given the #59 race number, chassis 01R was McLaren’s own test car which had been used as development work for the GTR programme, it had completed a full, 24-hour test at the Magny-Cours circuit. The model had to comply with Le Mans rules that year, the car’s 627bhp V12 had to run with air restrictors, which Barry Lett, the GTR’s Chief Designer, found disappointing: ‘With the restrictors, the engine had less power, and with the inclusion of air jacks and the FIA roll cage the car was heavier too. So we had a race car that was heavier than the road car and less powerful than the road car!”. 

The Le Mans race took place on 17th and 18th June 1995, it was the wettest Le Mans in history and was a relentless, 24 hour test of endurance, speed and teamwork. The weather played an important role within the race, it meant slower lap times and reduced stress on suspension parts and gearboxes. Purpose built prototypes also suffered as they could not take advantage of their higher speeds and great downforce. 

Strategy also played a key role, Lanzante opted for a cautious strategy, ‘Just keep going, and see what would happen at the end’. This proved to be the right approach, as the leading cars suffered reliability problems or crashed out. Then overnight during the heavy rain, JJ Lehto racing was said to be half a minute quicker on some laps than anyone else. By daybreak, car #59 had moved to third position and soon it was second. Lehto was back in the driver’s seat at 8am as they went head-to-head with the leading Harrods McLaren, and a change in tactic was given –‘Go out and give that car everything you possibly can’, which he did. Just before 9am, they took the lead and other than routine pit stops, they kept it all the way to the chequered flag in the afternoon.

The #59 McLaren F1 GTP, the roadgoing supercar had conquered the relentless Le Mans race at its first attempt.

Today, the tall and elegant, 1995 Le Mans trophy stands in the McLaren Technology Centre as a reminder of this wonderful and unlikely achievement. 

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