During practice and qualifying on the Wednesday and Thursday prior to the race all the McLaren teams discovered a problem with the clutch withdrawal mechanism, a new component supplied by McLaren was failing on all the cars – well on all the cars except one, and that was the factory development car run as a separate team sponsored by ‘Ueno Clinic’. This car had the original and reliable components used by all the teams prior to Le Mans. Friday morning and no solution was available from the factory, so David Price gave myself and team engineer John Piper until 5pm to try to source replacement bearings of a type that would not be destroyed by carbon dust in the clutch housing; we were unable to find a suitable alternative. All the teams except Ueno Clinic knew that their mechanism would not last the race, which was not a good way to start a 24-hour event!
Just two hours after the start of the race our West car was in the lead with the Harrods car in second place. The West car led for the next 13 hours until it came into the pits needing the clutch withdrawal bearings replacing, a one hour job at least. During the lengthy stop it was decided to replace the brake pads and unfortunately when Nielsen left the pits with a working clutch he forgot about the new brakes and left the road early on during his first lap.
During the nightlong torrential rain, the Harrods car had led the race chased hard by JJ Lehto in the Ueno Clinic car. During Justin Bell’s nighttime stints in the car he managed to stay ahead of an ever-closing Lehto, the Harrods car continuing to lead for a total of eight hours before Derek Bell encountered the dreaded clutch bearing problem with car.
The team tried bleeding the clutch but Wallace found himself unable to select a gear when leaving the pit. Knowing how long a change would take Andy Wallace and the team chose to continue without using the clutch – something that would inevitably slow the pace of the car. Pit stops were a particular problem but Wallace was simply mighty in his determination not to give up, he drove the last three hours without using the clutch and finished third just 16 miles (25 kms) behind the winning McLaren.
McLaren later produced a ‘long tail’ version of the car for the 1997 season but the car was little better than the standard bodied version and looked dreadful, interestingly Mercedes used an F1 to evaluate their GT racing ‘CLK GTR’ when they became engine suppliers to the McLaren Formula One Team. And this year, being the 20th anniversary of that historic ‘first time’ win for McLaren, the Woking-based company developed a 650S LM version of their road car to be sold in a limited-edition of just 50 cars.
I was fortunate enough to have been involved in this program and so was responsible for the color, roof air intake and other details both inside and outside the car that pay homage to the winning Ueno Clinic car, but I can’t help thinking how it might have looked in either West or Harrods colors had history been a little different. But that’s old cars for you!
About Peter Stevens Peter Stevens is a world-renowned vehicle designer and former Visiting Professor of Vehicle Design at the Royal College of Art in London. Over the course of his career, he’s been chief designer at Lotus Cars, McLaren and Lamborghini and design director for MG, Mahindra and Mahindra and Rivian Automotive. He’s also worked as a design consultant for Prodrive, BMW, Williams and Toyota. You can catch up with his antics on his Facebook page and his new website.
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