A few weeks ago I produced a list of who I considered the greatest drivers to race at Le Mans, citing among others Luigi Chinetti, whose final win in 1949 aged 47 came at the wheel of a Ferrari he drove almost, but not quite single handed.
The other unusual facet of that race is that it was the first time since the race’s inception in 1923 that a car marque had won at the first time of asking. That was not so remarkable then because, in fact it was only the 17th time the race had been won. More interesting to me is that in the 55 Le Mans 24 hours held since, the feat has been repeated just once. And it was 20 years ago this weekend. What’s more it was won by a car that was never designed to race: if you are going this weekend, just look out at those Porsche, Audi, Toyota and Nissan spaceships and imagine such a thing happening again.
The car, of course, was the McLaren F1, a car its designer Gordon Murray only turned into a competition car after intense pressure from those who had bought the road car. ‘Had I known it would race,’ he once told me, ‘I’d have designed it a completely different way.’ Even so by the time of its first appearance at Le Mans in 1995 it was already known to be the best GT car out there and that the rules for Le Mans had been changed to ensure that for the first time in years, a GT car had a real chance of winning. Purpose-built prototypes were still quicker, but with severely limited fuel tanks they would be seriously hobbled. What no-one knew, but what plenty had their doubts about, was whether the F1 had any chance of actually surviving 24 hours of racing.
There were plenty of reasons to think not, most surrounding its gearbox for which such a test had never been envisaged and which had broken more than once in races of just a fraction of Le Mans’ duration earlier in the year. Everyone expected the F1s to be in a class of their own at the start? But how many of the seven entered would actually still be around at the finish.
By any standards it was a classic race, spiced up even more by unpredictable weather that eventually led to more than ten hours of rain. A Ferrari F40 actually claimed the GT pole but posed no threat in the race and by the time the fastest 911s had fallen away, the contest lay between the three fastest F1s – and when Ray Bellm crashed his Gulf-liveried car, three became two: the yellow Harrods car of Derek and Justin Bell with Andy Wallace, and the black Ueno Clinic sponsored car that was actually the works development prototype, which raised a few eyebrows among other teams running F1s who’d been told McLaren would absolutely not compete against its own customers. It was driven by Yannick Dalmas, Masonori Sekiya and the extraordinarily rapid JJ Jehto.
At the start the factory car held back, allowing the Harrods car to lead the opening hours but one of the other F1s was already showing worrying signs of transmission failure. Through the night the factory car remorselessly increased the pressure on its rivals, passing one after the other, the combination of it and Lehto in the rain providing a sight of almost limitless drama. And when it became a contest between him and Justin Bell, and JJ started decimating the gap by 10 or more seconds a lap, the game seemed up. Or at least until the 53 year old Derek Bell was hurriedly installed back behind the wheel and the gap back to the man who’d been Michael Schumacher’s F1 team mate the previous season shrank no more.
I always thought it was the Harrods car’s race and with two hours to go, that is the way it seemed it would go. But then its clutch started dragging, Wallace couldn’t even get a gear at a pitstop and it seemed the car might retire. But they got it out – I believe by jacking it up, jamming it into gear and dropping it off the jack with its wheels spinning – but not before not only the factory car but also Mario Andretti’s Courage had slipped past.
So McLaren won Le Mans at the first time of asking, Sekiya became the first Japanese driver to win the race and other F1s followed home in 3rd, 4th and 5th places, Derek Bell realising the ambition of a life time by getting to stand on the Le Mans podium with his son. He told me that once the disappointment of losing the race to a works car had dissipated, it beat the five times he’d actually won hands down.
Le Mans has changed so much as a race in the last 20 years and it’s hard indeed to imagine any manufacturer winning first time out again, let alone claiming all but one of the first five places. But it did happen as those that were there to see it will never forget.