The inherent magic of every 24 Hours of Le Mans lies in the “unexpected”.
Such was the script in 1995, the 63rd Grand Prix of Endurance, when during McLaren’s first ever Le Mans attempt, a talented trio of racers persevered with their outgunned F1 GTR throughout the wettest race in the event's history to claim one of Le Mans’ most dominating victories, while beating everything that entered, including prototypes.
Incredible results seeing as McLaren never meant a road-going F1 GTR to be a race car, let alone a 24-hour Le Mans champion.
The victorious #59 Kokusai McLaren Racing F1 GTR, driven by JJ Lehto, Yannick Dallas and Masanori Sekiya, and led by McLaren's Chief Engineer James Robinson. It was the first Le Mans win for a driver from Finland and a driver from Japan.
Beaten up McLaren F1 GTR of J.J. Lehto / Yannick Dalmas / Masanori Sekiya, McLaren F1 GTR, that eventually won the 1995 24h Le Mans. Image Courtesy: Motorsport Images.
A year earlier, F1 GTR customer teams' continuous pressure for McLaren to compete at Le Mans eventually pushed the firm to formulate and deliver an endurance package.
The factory's successful 24-hour test at Magny-Cours in full 24-hour specification convinced the McLaren customer teams that their F1 GTRs were not only on the path from the road-turned-racing car but had also transformed from their F1 GTR's limited four-hour race specification into an unexpected Le Mans' superstar.
However, McLaren harbored no misconceptions of defeating the faster and well-supported prototypes; for them, that jump appeared theoretically unfeasible.
So was Kokusai McLaren’s chance to battle for the lead based on their supply of available spare parts. The only extra BMW V12 brought to the track was swapped into the winning car in the middle of the night before the race.
J.J. Lehto / Yannick Dalmas / Masanori Sekiya, McLaren F1 GTR, during a 1995 24h Le Mans. Image Courtesy: Motorsport Images.
On the morning of the race, the weather was clear. At flag fall, both Welter Racing WR LM95s and Bob Wollek's Courage lept off the line and established nearly half a lap lead on the field by the end of the first hour.
John Nielsen in the #49 Dave Price McLaren and Henri Pescalaro’s #11 Courage led that pursuit battling for fourth. The Kokusai McLaren F1 GTR patiently sat in mid-field with a strategy based on preservation.
The rain arrived at the end of the first hour. It remained all night and well into Sunday morning, with scattered showers right to the finish. Many cars, caught out on their slick tyres, spun or skated off. Then, in the 5th hour, Gonin’s WR LM95 aquaplaned at speed, somersaulting at the Mulsanne kink into a big accident.
As the heavy rain intensified, the WSC cars' power advantage evaporated, and upon the restart, four of the McLarens launched a duel with Wollek's Courage. Later, with Mario Andretti aboard, the Courage tangled lapping a Kremer Porsche, elevating the LMGT1 McLaren's into a solid 1-2-3 order.
As dawn broke, the rain finally eased off, as Wolleck and, later, Andretti started pushing the Courage and gradually pulled back laps on the leading McLarens.
Meanwhile, the dark horse Kokusai McLaren F1 GTR had been inevitably moving up the board. While others spun or pitted, it never missed a beat, and through the night, Sekiya, JJ Lehto and Dalmas put in breathtaking stints to claw their way up to 2nd.
Andy Wallace / Derek Bell / Justin Bell, McLaren F1 GTR, leads J.J. Lehto / Yannick Dalmas / Masanori Sekiya, McLaren F1 GTR, and Gary Ayles / Massimo Monti / Fabio Mancini,Ferrari F40 GTE. Image Courtesy: Motorsport Images.
Of particular note was ex-F1 driver Lehto, who was as much as 30 seconds a lap faster than his rivals at times as he drifted the Kokusai McLaren through Tetre Rouge in the rain.
Lehto had over-revved the naturally-aspirated BMW V12 during qualifying, and the on-site BMW techs replaced it before the race with the only extra motor on hand. They added oil, tried to take it easy on the shifts, and crossed their fingers. Fortunately, the rain later allowed the drivers to protect the new engine.
Given the situation's fragility, Lehto made up enormous ground in the rain at night. After taking extra precautions to preserve the gearbox with massive applications of WD40 to prevent wet debris from collecting in crucial places, the possibility of a win became closer and closer.
J.J. Lehto / Yannick Dalmas / Masanori Sekiya, McLaren F1 GTR, makes a pitstop. Image Courtesy: Motorsport Images.
With just 2 hours to go, McLaren's feared delicate transmission struck the leading David Price Racing McLaren, which pitted with gear-selection problems. After a 5-minute delay in the pits, Derek Bell slammed it into 6th and rejoined the race.
That was all gap Yannick Dalmas needed to grab the lead and never let go. With less than an hour to go, Andretti passed the ailing Harrods McLaren for second place and overtook JJ Lehto to get onto the lead lap. Andretti then handed over the Courage to Bob Wollek for the finish.
Wollek threw everything to the wind, intelligently chasing as hard as possible, but in the end, he just came up short, barely 3 minutes behind. Andy Wallace nursed the DPR McLaren home a lap further back, five laps ahead of the Gulf and Giroix-Jacadi McLarens and the remaining two WSC cars: the Kremer and Kudzu-Mazda.
The Kokusai McLaren won because they pushed harder, but not irresponsibly. Each driver applied their skills correctly throughout the deluge, as did their mechanics and managers.
Éric Hélary, Mario Andretti and Bob Wollek (2nd position), Masanori Sekiya, Yannick Dalmas and J.J. Lehto (1st position), and Andy Wallace, Derek Bell and Justin Bell (3rd position), on the podium. Image Courtesy: Motorsport Images.
Against the odds, but true to their heritage, McLaren’s F1 GTR earned the 1995 Le Mans championship and a permanent spot at the tip of the supercar pyramid.
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