Back in the 1960s, Bruce McLaren had set up a team that would be able to compete on many fronts. Formula 1 was only a part of the story for the McLaren team. In fact, Bruce McLaren had set down a marker for the future successes of the grand prix cars that the team would build by kicking off with an excellent campaign in sports cars. Ask any true McLaren fan where they won their first titles, and they will tell you it was in Can-Am – the North American series for Group 7 sports prototypes. Between 1967 and 1971, the championship winning car was a McLaren.
After the death of Bruce McLaren, the focus of manufacturing switched to the single seater market with F1 and Indycars. In the early 1990s though, design genius Gordon Murray came up with a concept for a new and exciting car. Powered by a massive BMW V12 engine (which sounded as good as any sports car V12 engine should) it was meant to become the ultimate road car, manufactured with the expertise of the Formula One team. The McLaren F1. This was the first McLaren sports car for the road, but it wasn’t going to be unnoticed by racing teams. Such a brilliant car would be welcomed on the tracks, where GT racing was going through a rebirth.
1995, kicked off and the McLaren F1 GTR arrived and stormed the world of GT racing, which at that time still relied on the Porsche 911 and Ferrari F40. It had taken some arm twisting, as Murray’s original concept was never that of racing, but of the perfect road machine. The car proved to be magnificent. The engine had been perfectly produced, and was even overpowered for the GT rules of the time! The highlight of the season though was a victory at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, on debut, which was stunning against a field of seasoned prototype specialists!
1996, brought more of the same, especially seeing as BMW suddenly sat up and took their engine seriously! The famous sight of the Schnitzer liveried McLaren tearing around the great circuits of the world brought joy to many racing fans. However, GT1 was becoming endangered. At the end of 1997, the McLaren F1 GTR stopped production, and the McLaren sports car business went into hiatus.
The late 2000s, it was decided by McLaren, would be a great time to release a new production sports car. The car would be of the highest specification. There would be a new engine which had input from Ilmor and Ricardo, two experts in engine manufacturer. The twin-turbo M838T was born. Whilst the roadcar would have fewer restrictions, the GT version would be restricted to just under 500bhp to correspond with homologation rules for GT3, where it would come up to face the likes of Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes, old compatriots BMW, and Aston Martin. The 12C’s lowline bodywork made it an attractive car to look at, and the addition of aggressive aerodynamics on the front and rear of the car made it look the perfect part for racing.
CRS Racing entered the MP4-12C into a GT race for the first time in the 2011 British GT championship round at Spa Francorchamps. The thing that made it stand out though was the paint. McLaren were back, and the heritage of the years shone through as the traditionally liveried orange machine stormed to pole position at Spa in the hands of Andrew Kirkaldy and Chris Goodwin. The two races at Spa proved to be a mixed bag, but a 4th place in the second race showed what was capable from this new machine. It had caught the eye of teams around Europe, and 2012 was going to show an absolute wealth of McLarens on the GT3 grid. Teams like Von Ryan (run by Dave Ryan, who was the sporting director for McLaren F1), United Autosports, ART Grand Prix and HEXIS Racing would show up on the Blancpain and FIA GT Championships in 2012.
The first taste of glory for the MP4-12C came at Navarra in Spain, where Fred Makowiecki and Step Dusseldorp pedalled their car to top spot in race 1 of the weekend. The first international GT win for McLaren since 1997 had been long coming, but it would be backed up in the FIA GT Championship by wins at Moscow Raceway, Donington Park and the Baku Challenge. There were also wins in the FFSA GT and British GT Championships for the 12C in GT3 form.
2013 bought changes to the aerodynamics of the car, with a taller rear wing adding improved downforce and a sharper look to the vehicle. The car took wins in French GT, GT Open, and once again at Navarra in FIA GT, this time in the hands of legendary driver Sebastien Loeb, who had bought the McLaren for his entry into international GT3 events, alongside long serving McLaren GT driver, Alvaro Parente. 2013 was also the second year for Von Ryan’s partnership with the MP4-12C, and with entries into the Blancpain Endurance Series and the British GT championship. Being able to witness the storming drive from French ace Gregoire Demoustier and Duncan Tappy at Brands Hatch 2013 was a personal highlight of mine, as it showed exactly what the car could achieve in the right hands.
2014 was the MP4-12C’s swansong year at the top level of GT3 racing, but the year started with a bang. The opening round of the Blancpain Endurance Series, the 3 Hours of Monza fell to the ART Grand Prix car driven by Demoustier, Alex Premat and Parente. One of the highlight drives of the year for the McLaren came in a race on the famous Mount Panorama circuit, at Bathurst in Australia. The 12H of Bathurst is the premier long distance GT race in Australia. Darrell Lea Racing had taken purchase of a McLaren, and the Kiwi hotshot Shane van Gisbergen went out and shot around the circuit to record the fastest ever lap of the course at a hair-raising 2:03.850. This was something truly awesome to behold, and van Gisbergen found himself called up to races for McLaren in Europe.
But, there was a new machine in development at McLaren. The 650S was coming. A leaner, meaner looking bodyshell that enhanced the aerodynamic grip of the GT competitor, whilst retaining the M838T engine. The 650S GT3 certainly took the prize of the best looking new GT3 machine in 2015, with Von Ryan leading the way for the team in the Blancpain Endurance Series and in the frantically fought British GT series, and the debut international win came at the 3 Hours of Silverstone. Shane Van Gisbergen returned to Europe to partner Rob Bell and rising star Kevin Estre to victory in a fantastic strategic race round the British track. A second victory at the season ending 3 Hours Nurburgring for the same driver combination led to Von Ryan’s most successful season in the Blancpain GT Series. A further win at Silverstone in British GT, along with victories in GT Open for stalwart Alvaro Parente, means that the 650S has been one of the best performers in GT3 of the year.
GT racing might not have been Bruce McLaren’s original goal when he raced the M1, M6 and M8 machines in Can-Am, but the performance of the latest breed of McLaren GT machinery certainly live up to his visions of improvement, innovation and excitement. And yes, that famous winning McLaren orange certainly isn’t disappearing from these cars any time soon…