|JJ Lehto was awesome during that long, treacherous night. At times he was 30sec a lap quicker than anyone else|
Lest we forget, the F1 was the world’s most famous car in 1995. Everyone was buzzing with excitement, rapt by its power, price, pace and peerless quality. That would have been enough for most supercar manufacturers, but not McLaren. Having taken the decision to develop a racing version and supply it to privateer teams for the BPR GT1 Endurance series, an assault on Le Mans was inevitable.
Perhaps because chance of an overall victory against the Courage and Kremer prototypes was thought to be slim, McLaren’s support for the programme was deliberately low-key. Independent teams would run the cars, as they did in the BPR endurance series, but McLaren did co-ordinate a 24-hour test at Magny Cours in order to expose any weaknesses in the package and subsequently develop upgrades, which would then be made available to all the teams running F1s.
The car used for this test was owned by McLaren, but thanks to sponsorship from the Japanese cosmetic surgery practice, Ueno Clinic, sufficient budget was found to run the car at Le Mans too. A team was duly formed by a small nucleus of McLaren employees, who bolstered their ranks with experienced endurance racing engineers and known associates of McLaren.
One of the key members of the newly-formed Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing team was Graham Humphrys, then race engineer, now director of GT1 Design and a driving force behind Aston Martin’s Nürburgring racing efforts. Working alongside Paul Lanzante and Geoff Hazell (who ran the McLaren GTR programme), it was Humphrys who effectively engineered the No.59 car, making all the calls relating to its pre-race preparations and maintenance during the race itself.
Though the car’s progress appeared imperious from the spectator banking (I know, I was there), the Ueno Clinic F1 almost didn’t complete the first hour of the race. Humphrys explains: ‘We had a torrid time in the build-up to the race. JJ (Lehto) was phenomenally quick whenever he drove the car, but he’d bent a few wishbones by clouting the kerbs in qualifying. Then he buzzed the motor, which meant we had to speak with the BMW guys, who were looking after the engines. If an engine exceeded 9000rpm they felt it was compromised, and that was their view of our engine. There was a spare, but I had to make the call to Ron Dennis to tell him we needed to have it. He listened intently, asked if anyone else had a similar need for the motor, and then gave us the okay to use it.
‘The engine swap meant we were working late into the night. Actually we were still working in the early hours of race day morning. At around 2am I can remember us scrabbling round the paddock trying to load the car onto a flat-bed transporter – we even enlisted a few drunk spectators to help us push it onto the truck – before taking to the aerodrome across the road from the main entrance for a shakedown test.
‘To make matters more stressful we had also identified a potential gearbox problem. Our other drivers – Yannick Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya – had both said they felt there was an issue between third and fourth gears, both on the up and downshift. JJ said he hadn’t noticed, but that was JJ… Anyway, I went to the gearbox man and said I wanted the back taken off the ’box so we could take a look, but he’d built the ’box himself and stubbornly refused to consider it had a problem. As you can imagine, things got a bit heated, and after much shouting at each other he eventually relented. When he came back some hours later to say that the selector fork was bent and the synchro was shot he was somewhat contrite. It wouldn’t have lasted another hour. Funnily enough, after that flare-up we’ve been best mates ever since!’
The race started dry and the WM Peugeots streaked off into the distance, closely followed by the other prototypes. Then the rain came and the race changed completely. It was said at the time that it was the weather that saved the McLarens, for a dry race would have put too much strain on the F1’s transmission. Humphrys again: ‘Yes, the rain meant the cars weren’t worked as hard as they would have been in a hot, dry race, but JJ was awesome during that long, treacherous night. At times he was 30sec a lap quicker than anyone else…’
I can vouch for Humphrys’ eulogy to Lehto, for despite the miserable weather John Barker, Roger Green and I stood transfixed on the inside of Tetre Rouge for lap after spellbinding lap, stunned by the Finn’s commitment and car control. Where others would tiptoe through, right foot audibly hovering on the throttle pedal, JJ would spear into view then dance the F1 through the fast right-hander, hard on the power, revs rising as that mighty, rasping BMW V12 span the rear wheels, then the note hardening as JJ’s quick, adrenalin-fuelled wits applied just enough corrective lock to balance but not wholly correct the slide. It was by any yardstick one of motor racing’s greatest drives.
Humphrys takes up the story once more: ‘Those stints are what built the victory for us, but again things could so easily have gone wrong. We knew that other teams were experiencing gear selection problems. You could hear their tentative shifts and occasional missed gears as they passed the pits. When our drivers also reported the problem we knew it was something common to all the F1s, but what could we do? At the next stop we checked everything, but couldn’t see an obvious problem. Then I remembered the linkage mechanism was exposed in the transverse ’box’s casing. Although they were partially shielded by a panel and a liberal coating of silicone grease, the rain and grit was being blasted at the linkages, forming a very effective grinding paste and gumming the whole thing up. I can remember thinking ‘we’ve got to do something about this’, and decided to pump as much WD40 as possible into the area where the rainwater and grit was collecting. We did it every stop from then on. Not only did we not encounter any more selection issues, but the gearbox was sweeter at the end of the race than it was at the beginning!'
The rest, as they say, is history. Not only did the Ueno Clinic car’s win (by a solitary lap from the Courage prototype racer of Bob Wollek, Eric Hélary and Mario Andretti) mean McLaren had conquered Le Mans at the first attempt, but it was also the first win for a Japanese or Finnish driver. To ram home the fact that car 59’s triumph was no fluke, F1 GTRs also occupied 3rd, 4th, 5th and 13th positions. The legend of the F1 – and the magical qualities of WD40 – was now complete.