Twenty years ago the hugely successful McLaren F1 GTR underwent a major redesign. On 18 November 1996, the first of the new ‘Longtail’ cars left the production line.
‘The first time I drove the ‘Longtail’ F1 GTR was in a test session at Monza in early 1997,’ remembers 1995 Le Mans winner JJ Lehto. ‘Straight away, with no set-up tuning or adjustment, the car was around eight seconds per lap faster than the car I’d driven in ’96. It felt like jumping from Formula 3000 to Formula 1! The downforce was on another level, the braking was better, the car was lighter and the engine produced more power. It was instantly clear that the car was a huge step forward in every area.’
Since its debut season in 1995, the McLaren F1 GTR had been scoring pole positions and race wins – including the famous victory at Le Mans. But in 1996, rivals began stretching the GT rules to the limit (some would say beyond) by creating purpose-built racing cars. In order to keep its F1 GTR competitive, McLaren had to make drastic changes for 1997. The result was a high-downforce version of the GTR, dubbed internally as ‘F1 GT’, although it became better known as the ‘Longtail’.
Chassis 20R (shown here) finished second at Le Mans in 1997 in the hands of Jean-Marc Gounon, Pierre-Henri Raphanel and Anders Olofsson.
Late in 1996, work began on this faster, lighter F1. Gordon Murray recalls the immense amount of work that was required to finalise the design for the start of the 1997 season. ‘We had to embark on a major crash-testing programme to develop not only a new racing car, but first a new road-car model to legalise it!’ Murray and the rest of the team tasked with creating the ‘Longtail’ wanted the car to represent the ultimate expression of what the F1 was capable of, retaining the underpinnings of the road car. ‘We were determined to do it all precisely to the letter of the regulations, in the spirit that their original authors had plainly intended’.
The F1’s unique central seating position was carried over, but the ‘Longtail’ gained a sequential gearbox for faster shifts.
Gordan Murray designed larger front and rear overhangs for the 1997 car to achieve competitive levels of downforce.
The result was dramatic: 135kg was stripped away, major modifications to the bodywork were made to improve downforce and a sequential gearbox and fully adjustable suspension were added. The first competition version of the ‘Longtail’ – development chassis 19R – was completed on 18 November 1996 in parallel with three road-going versions of the car.
Teams began to take delivery of cars at the start of 1997 to compete in what would turn out to be the final two seasons of McLaren’s involvement in the FIA GT Championship. Following the completion of the development car, nine more ‘Longtails’ were built – including chassis 20R (pictured here), which was delivered to the Gulf-Davidoff GTC Motorsport team, finished second at Le Mans in 1997, and is now owned by McLaren.
Just nine F1 GTR ‘Longtail’ racers were built, along with the development car.
Unlike many of its FIA GT Championship rivals, the ‘Longtail’s’ monocoque remained the same as the production car.
Despite missing out on the championship title to Mercedes driver Bernd Schneider by just a handful of points, Schnitzer driver Lehto looks back on the 1997 season fondly.
‘It was brilliant to win my home race in Finland. That street circuit in Helsinki was narrow, so it was tricky to drive a big, powerful GT car there. Another good moment was at the first race at Hockenheim. I had come down with chicken pox so couldn’t drive at all in practice. My first laps were in qualifying, and I managed a lap good enough for second place!’ It was at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps circuit where Lehto enjoyed his favourite moment at the wheel of the ‘Longtail’. ‘My team-mate Steve Soper and I had qualified nearly one second ahead of the next car, and race day was a typical rainy day at Spa. I was 30 seconds ahead of the car in 2nd place after a few laps, and we went on to win the race. With the extra downforce, the ‘Longtail’ felt absolutely incredible at Spa.’
And the Longtail name and its principles live on today with the 675LT Coupé and Spider.
: The ‘Longtail’ brought a huge step up in performance from the 1996 F1 GTR. Downforce, braking and acceleration were all improved.