The McLaren F1 is now an old car, it appears on the covers of classic car magazines and is part of McLaren’s history; it is a collector’s car and an investment opportunity, but of course it was once a new car and a successful one. This weekend, 13th and 14th of June marks 20 years since the McLaren F1 GTR won the Le Mans 24-hour race in central France. McLaren F1s also came 3rd, 4th, and 5th.
It has often been repeated that the car was not designed to be a racecar, but I always thought that, with the GT regulations of that time, it was clearly well suited to become a competitive racer. The road version had gone from early sketch ideas to a finished design that was expensive, but with a wonderful engine from BMW it was well received by the press, public and customers. Two of those customers, Thomas Bscher and Ray Bellm suggested to McLaren that the F1 would make a good racecar for the BPR. McLaren quickly developed a race version, which, by the company’s own admission, was little changed from the road car.
Bscher planned to take his car to a well-established race team, DRP, run by one of my best friends, the vastly experienced David Price. This very fortunately meant that I was able to work with the team developing both the ‘West’ sponsored Bscher car but also the ‘Harrods’ sponsored car owned by Moody Fayed. The plan was to compete in both the BPR ‘Karcher’ GT Championship and the Le Mans 24-hour race.
For the championship, the West car was to be driven by experienced but amateur driver Dr. Thomas Bscher and Dane, John Nielsen who was considered by the team to be something of an ‘iron man’. The Harrods car was to be driven by previous Le Mans winner Andy Wallace with the highly experienced Derek Bell or occasionally Olivier Grouillard or Karl Wendlinger. Nielsen and Bscher won the 1995 championship by a large margin from the Gulf sponsored car of Ray Bellm; that the car was so successful was down to great driving but also a continuous development program that saw the cars become very different from what we considered to be the ‘factory cars’ run by Ray Bellm’s team.
The ‘West’ sponsorship was interesting for the team; at that time cigarette advertising on racecars was allowed in some countries but not in others. Therefore the car appeared at some races with the cunning but legal ‘East’ graphic, at others with a solid block version of ‘West’, which, if you half closed your eyes, still looked like ‘West’. For Le Mans Bscher and the team arranged sponsorship from local French radio station ‘West FM’, again perfectly legal but something that kept our true sponsor happy with the chance for exposure at the 24-hour race!
Knowledge gained during the development of the F1 and both Price and Bscher’s enthusiasm for constant improvements kept a competitive edge for the team. By the end of the season, the DPR cars were very different in much of their engineering componentry and in their efficiency from what McLaren had first envisaged. Were we popular with the factory? I doubt it.
The 24-hour race at Le Mans is the most challenging event for any motor sport team and car, covering more than 2,500 miles in a day (4,000 km) is endurance racing at its most extreme. 1995 was considered to be one of the wettest years ever at Le Mans; this was both good for all the McLaren teams because suspension and transmission would be less heavily loaded but also bad because the downforce generated by GT cars is considerably less than that of Le Mans Prototype cars. Stability under braking would be particularly difficult, as would visibility on the long straights.
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