The McLaren F1 is considered by many to still be the ultimate supercar. It held the title of the fastest car around until the Bugatti Veyron showed up, and it still makes car enthusiasts’ hearts flutter — just at the mere thought of it. In my opinion, though, it isn’t the car’s legendary speed that made it so incredible — it was its performance in the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans, where it took first place and four of the top five spots, beating out purpose-built Le Mans Prototypes.
The crazy thing about this is that the McLaren F1 wasn’t designed to be a race car. It was meant to be the ultimate road car — and Gordon Murray, the car’s designer, didn’t want it to have anything to do with racing. Finally, after quite a lot of begging from several interested racing teams, Murray gave in and agreed to modify the F1 into a race car.
Believe it or not, there wasn’t actually much that needed to be done to get it to competition spec. McLaren modified the body a bit to add additional cooling, and they added a spoiler and some other aerodynamic tweaks. They also added a roll cage, upgraded the brakes and stripped out the interior. Otherwise, it was largely unchanged, with the same gearbox, butterfly doors and the famous center seat driving position. The resulting car would be named the McLaren F1 GTR.
A total of six teams entered McLaren F1 GTRs into the 1995 24 Hours of Le Mans under the GT1 category, including Gulf Racing, who actually registered two F1s. In qualifying, the prototypes proved to be the faster cars, but the F1s were no slouch either. It was clear that despite the original intentions of Gordon Murray, the F1 was built to race at Le Mans.
At the start of the race, the top prototypes quickly built a large lead of almost half a lap after the first hour, as is typical in the 24 Hours of LeMans. But soon, a heavy and persistent rain enveloped the track. This rain prevented the prototypes from being able to use their power effectively, and the McLarens started catching up — and, eventually, they took the lead.
In the morning the rain started to let up and the leading prototype started to gain speed back, making up a large deficit of laps. Eventually, the prototype got within a minute of the McLarens, but the field of F1s kept going strong. The car of Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing in particular drove flawlessly and avoided misfortune, which allowed them to continually climb the leaderboard to first place. They would stay in that position as the 24-hour mark passed, a full lap ahead of the leading prototype.
The F1’s victory here had a profound effect on the sport. It galvanized the GT1 category, which lead to the production of some of the great homologation specials like the Porsche 911 GT1, the Nissan R390 GT1 and the Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR. McLaren continued to adapt the GTR for each season with additional aerodynamic tweaks and modifications (including the famous longtail variant), but never saw the same success as it did in 1995. Still, the F1 remains the only true GT car to have beaten purpose built prototypes at Le Mans, a feat that will likely never be repeated.
Photo Credit: Julian Roberts