THE ROAD TO LE MANS

Matthew Carter recalls his memorable trip to the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans in the passenger seat of a road-legal McLaren F1 GTR.

 

 

Pounding down the A28 autoroute somewhere between Abbeville and Rouen we come up behind a hatchback belching diesel fumes into the atmosphere.

In true racing driver fashion, Ray Bellm – the man at the wheel – isn’t too keen to lift off, so it’s just as well that the driver in front spots us coming. Then again, few are likely to miss the sight of a full-on McLaren F1 GTR, resplendent in iconic blue and orange war paint, looming large in their rear-view mirror.

As the car changes lanes to let us pass, a passenger clambers on his seat and sticks his torso out of the sunroof. He starts to wave his arms enthusiastically, urging us to even greater speed. Ray complies.

That all happened in 1997, nearly 18 years ago. We were on our way to Le Mans for the Vingt-Quatre Heures in the very car Ray had raced at the Circuit de la Sarthe the year before. This was no replica but a genuine contemporary racing car made street legal, complete with number plates, road tax and something resembling a silencer (in the loosest sense – it was, as I recall, pretty loud).

It was quite a trip – surreal is a barely adequate description. It all began because Ray had a problem on his hands at the end of the 1996 race season.

 

 

Together with his GTC Racing team-mate James Weaver, Ray had won the BPR Global GT Endurance Series outright in a McLaren F1 GTR (chassis #012R). For the 1996 24 Hours of Le Mans, Ray and James were joined by JJ Lehto (who had won it the previous year in an F1 GTR), and finished the race in ninth place.

But at the end of the season, the BPR Global GT Endurance Series morphed into the FIA GT Championship and the rules changed: McLaren had to reconceive the F1 as a racing car rather than a modified road car and created the legendary 1997 F1 GTR ‘Longtail’.

The 1996 F1 GTR had moved into retirement. It couldn’t be raced but was too valuable to push into the dark corner of a dusty museum. While musing what to do with the car, Ray had a brainwave: let’s prove it really did start life as a road car.

I had the idea of making it road legal and turning it into a unique promotional tool, offering rides in a genuine Le Mans racer,’ he said.

Road tyres replaced the racing slicks, and it was given reversing lights, a rear fog lamp, a horn and that ‘silencer’. In the interests of comfort, the ride height was raised a few centimetres and softer springs were fitted. The ceramic brake discs were replaced by steel ones, the roll cage removed and a carbon fibre seat fitted to the left of the driver. That seat was mine for its inaugural road trip to the 1997 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The rest of the car was left pretty much as it was, meaning it could easily be converted back into a racer as and when required. The cockpit was racing-car stark, and with no sound deadening the only way to converse was via intercom. The brakes screeched, the big V12 sang, there was no luggage space and it was hot in there. But it was easily the most exhilarating ride I have ever had, full of snapshot memories.

For example, while it was adored on the other side of the Channel, our trip to Folkestone to catch the Shuttle was met with total indifference. I can still picture the sales rep who stared resolutely ahead as we overtook, as if being passed by a Le Mans-spec racing car on the M20 was an everyday occurrence. The acceleration, in particular, was unbelievable and it parted the traffic as if it were the Red Sea.

 

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‘I thought it would be a pig in traffic and that we’d be stopped by the police at every turn. None of that happened. I am amazed and genuinely impressed.’

Ray Bellm

 

 

Once at Le Mans we went our separate ways. I caught a train back to the UK, bunged some clothes into a bag and then drove back in something altogether more mundane (so mundane, I really can’t remember what it was).

Ray, meanwhile, got on with qualifying the GTC Racing F1 GTR ‘Longtail’. Alas, it wasn’t to be a glorious finale to the adventure: in contention for most of the race, the car was in a solid fourth place when it caught fire. Andrew Gilbert-Scott, who was at the wheel, bailed out unscathed.

The second GTC Racing F1 GTR ‘Longtail’, however, finished second, just one lap behind the winning sports prototype. Another ‘Longtail’ finished third, meaning McLaren placed first and second in the GT1 class, with the nearest opposition almost 30 laps behind.

Ray no longer owns his F1 GTR, but #012R is still in road-legal specification and recently starred at the 73rd Goodwood Members’ Meeting as part of the largest ever gathering of McLaren F1 GTR race cars.

 

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