The 1995 Le Mans winner that inspired a modern-day supercar
There's an intriguing tale behind the 2020 McLaren 720S Le Mans that currently resides within our luxury showroom and it is one that transports us to 1995, McLaren's foray into endurance racing and the greatest race of them all – the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Achievable goal or fairytale?
In an era that saw the headlining prototype World Sportscar (WSC) category and GT1 class regularly in close competition, there was plenty of speculation on whether the five privateer McLaren F1 GTRs fielded in the 1995 running of the race would be in contention for the overall victory. Having dominated the BPR Global GT Series, the smart money said yes.
Unsurprisingly, the prototypes romped to the top spots on the grid owing to their straight-line speed advantage but the McLarens were also bested by several Ferrari F40s, putting them on the back foot heading into one of the greatest challenges in motorsport.
We go green
At the start, the Welter Racing LMP2 cars that locked out the front row bolted, pulling out a half-lap gap before the first hour was up, with the Courage Compétition WSC entry close behind. The 60-minute mark signalled a change in the weather and with it, the turning of the tides for the McLarens.
On a sodden Circuit de la Sarthe, the prototypes lost their primary advantage, they were no longer able to apply the power they had at their disposal in a stable and predictable manner and as one of the wettest Le Mans on record, their troubles continued throughout the race.
After a lengthy safety car period, McLarens occupied the top four spots and, when their nearest competitor – Formula 1 legend Mario Andretti – crashed out at the wheel of the Courage, the British cars seized an advantage that they refused to relinquish.
In the early hours of Sunday morning – and after battling for the lead in the rain with a broken windscreen wiper for nine hours – the John Nielsen, Jochen Mass and Dr. Thomas Bscher GTR faltered, retiring with a terminal clutch problem. As a result, the Bells father and son duo along with Andy Wallace took the lead while the Yannick Dalmas, Masanori Sekiya and JJ Lehto Lanzante-run effort was inconspicuously climbing up the ranks.
The gap between the two leading GTRs ebbed and flowed until Derek Bell's ailing #51 car came into the pits with gear-selection issues, there were just two hours left to run. That left Dalmas and the #59 car in the lead with the resurgent Courage / Andretti combination in hot pursuit. With just under an hour to go, Mario passed Lehto, bringing himself back onto the lead lap, but to no avail.
At the flag, Sekiya and Lehto became the first overall Le Mans winners from Japan and Finland respectively while Dalmas took the first of four victories. Incredibly, McLaren F1 GTRs occupied four of the top five positions and to date, the 1995 triumph remains the British marque's only victory at the legendary French race.
In 2020, McLaren commemorated that momentous occasion with an ultra-exclusive derivative of the road-going 720S. As just one of two right-hand drive orange examples in the UK and 50 worldwide, it is a true expression of a distinctive supercar and a worthy tribute to a now-iconic Le Mans-winning car.