I know it’s unfashionable, but I’ve always had a soft spot for McLaren - perhaps as a result of growing up and switching on to F1 in the late Eighties when their incredible run of modern day success really hit its stride.
But despite the fastest laps, poles, victories and championships racked up by the likes of Niki Lauda, Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Mika Hakkinen, what really stands out for me is the Le Mans triumph of 1995 with the McLaren F1.
To my mind, the F1 road and racing projects emphasised everything that was great about an F1 team’s ability to think beyond boundaries, from the original road car to the ‘came, saw, conquered’ win on its first visit to Le Mans.
Today, at the Geneva motor show, McLaren has put the F1 GT Longtail on display on its stand. Even though the racing equivalent never quite hit the heights of the original Le Mans winner, it’s a car that signifies much of the innovative spirit that typifies McLaren and which has, of course, now given its name to the new McLaren 675LT road car unveiled today.
On the stand in Geneva, McLaren is understandably protective of its F1 GT; it is reckoned to be the third most valuable McLaren F1 in existence - behind the original F1 XP LM and, of course the Le Mans winning, Ueno Clinic sponsored F1 GTR #01R.
But it’s not what it’s worth, but what it represents that appeals to me. This is a road car that was put together in just three months in a bid to meet homologation rules for racing. To meet the FIA’s race rules, a road-legal equivalent had to be available, so McLaren’s technicians set to work, not just on the distinctive long tail but also reworking much of the bodywork, a new damper system and engine modifications that took the road car’s output to 627bhp, where the race car was restricted to 600bhp.
Ever the perfectionists, McLaren purportedly printed up a customer sales brochure for the car, just in case the FIA decided to check out just how available the road car was. In the event, two private customers did buy examples. They, too, are rather good investments as it turns out…Racing historians will know that the Longtail was undone when it became apparent that other manufacturers couldn’t meet the FIA’s deadline to have road cars ready for the season’s start. With the homologation deadline extended to the end of the season, McLaren was undone by the fact that rivals who couldn’t work as fast or innovatively as them could run more bespoke racing machinery.
Even so, Longtails still won five of 11 FIA GT rounds in 1997, and finished second and third at Le Mans. Back in the day, the road car may have been pushed in to storage with a certain shrug of the shoulders, the story of how it came in to being remarkable but ultimately overshadowed by the unsuccessful - by McLaren’s standards - race project.