It may not be the 24 Hours of Le Mans proper, but the significance of McLaren GT’s return to La Sarthe in the Road to Le Mans support race with its in-house Garage 59 team hasn’t been lost on team manager Tim Mullen, who is highly aware of the marque’s esteemed history at the event.
It marks the second appearance for the McLaren 650S GT3 in the ACO-sanctioned Road to Le Mans, after Adrian Quaife-Hobbs and Hiroshi Hamaguchi finished second for FFF Racing last year, but is the first time since the mid-90s that McLaren has fielded a team at Le Mans, albeit in a customer Pro-Am setup.
International GT Open regulars Michael Benham and Duncan Tappy are entered in the No. 24 McLaren, with Alex West and chief test driver Chris Goodwin driving the No. 88 car.
McLaren famously won the 24 Hours in 1995 with the Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing No. 59 F1 GTR driven by JJ Lehto, Yannick Dalmas and Masanori Sekiya, and added a second-place finish in 1997.
McLaren Technology Group’s executive director Zak Brown has often spoken of his desire to see the brand return to the French endurance classic and Mullen admits that it holds enormous appeal to him too.
Mullen, the 2006 British GT champion, raced at Le Mans four times and finished third in the GT2 class that same year.
“It’s very important,” he told Sportscar365. “We are in the support race over the next few days, so obviously at some point I think McLaren will want to be back competing in the main race and competing at the front I’m sure.
“As to when that will be I’m not sure yet, but it’s still great for us to be here and get some more experience of the track.
“It’s really nice to be back, the atmosphere is great here and we’re going to be really proud to seeing the cars on the grid.”
As a newcomer to the ACO-sanctioned championship, the team is somewhat in the dark over the Balance of Performance, with the situation no clearer after an inconclusive Free Practice 1 which featured seven different manufacturers in as many positions.
“Le Mans is very different to most other tracks that GT3s race on, so I’m not really sure where we’re going to be,” Mullen said. “Let’s see how it goes and I’ll tell you on that afterwards! We’ve got what we’ve got and we’ll just try and make the best of that.”
Despite this uncertainty, Benham has thoroughly enjoyed his first experience of the Circuit de la Sarthe in what is currently a one-off Le Mans Cup outing alongside Tappy.
“Having the McLaren brand behind us is an amazing feeling, and hopefully it’s a precursor to the main factory coming back one day with a car that will compete in the main race,” said Benham.
“I came here I think in ’98 which was the last year the F1 GTR’s ran here and I stood out on the Mulsanne straight listening to them in the first chicane, it was just incredible.
“Obviously, we were aware of what had happened when they won here and all of the history behind that and now we’re making our own very, very small piece of history in that regard, hopefully adding to it.
“To get anywhere near a podium would not only be a highlight in my racing career to date, it would obviously be a highlight of my life and something I’ll remember for the rest of my days.”
Benham’s International GT Open team-mate Alex West was convinced to enter by the expansion to two 55 minute races on the weekend and echoed Benham’s enthusiasm for driving at Le Mans.
“They’ve done a great job of having two races; we looked to do it last year, but with only one race it was a lot of time not doing that much,” he told Sportscar365.
“Today with two races, even if something goes wrong in one race, you still have a second go at it.
“I think it’s a good appetizer for maybe doing a longer version of it at some point in time. I would love to do Le Mans in some shape or form in a McLaren if they have a car, we have to see what they do.”
The Swede, who is also due to run the Total 24 Hours of Spa with Goodwin and Top Gear presenter Chris Harris, is open to adding more Le Mans Cup outings later in the year.
“It’s a one-off for now, but I love racing on the Michelin tires, they’re very, very good,” West said.
“Certainly, depending on how the grid evolves on the Road to Le Mans, it’s very clearly an option that you have to consider. I think this is a good first exposure to what they’re doing, assuming we like it. Why not?”