“IT'S QUITE interesting,” Ray Bellm’s English voice crackled over the phone, “because the GTR was born as a conversation between myself and Ron Dennis.”
This story originally appeared in the October 2019 issue of Road & Track.
Ron Dennis, I noted. Legend of motorsport, once ran McLaren, famously built the British company into a behemoth. You guys just had a chat or a pint or whatever and then boom, the McLaren F1, one of the most desirable supercars in history, was in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the greatest road race in the world. Which it proceeded to win overall, its first year out.
“Well,” said Bellm, matter-of-fact. “I had known him for many years.”
Bellm is 69 years old. He speaks in the brusque manner common to a certain breed of British racing driver, a tone that can echo impatience but that usually just represents a disinterest in beating around the bush. Between 1984 and 1997, Bellm competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans nine times. He won overall twice, in 1985 and 1988, and three times drove there in a McLaren F1 GTR, the F1’s competition sibling. Of the six F1s Bellm has owned, only one began life as a road car, which should tell you a bit about his taste.
McLaren built just 107 F1 road cars, all between 1992 and 1998. Even dull examples are now worth millions. This is partly because the F1 is widely agreed to be the pinnacle of the 20th-century supercar, the last great analog machine in an increasingly digital business. And partly because the car is disturbingly good to drive and imbued with an unassailable sense of story.
We can lay all of this at the feet of Gordon Murray. An Englishman born in South Africa, Murray chiefed the engineering behind 56 Formula 1 victories and took multiple drivers to F1 championships, including Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. He is so generally important to British motorsport, and motorsport in general so important to Britain, that Queen Elizabeth II last year anointed him Commander of the British Empire for “services to motoring.”
The F1 was Murray’s first road-car design and the first purpose-built sports car in McLaren’s history. The company gave Murray almost no rules, merely the mandate that his efforts should produce a machine better and faster and stronger than anything on the market. The result oozed moon-shot joy and rare creative freedom. In road trim, the 2425-pound F1 was a feather, roughly as hefty as a 2019 Mazda Miata but more than 440 horses stronger.
The McLaren’s world-first carbon monocoque was wrapped around a 6.1-liter, dry-sump, carbon-clutch, 627-hp, 7500-rpm V-12 built and tested by BMW in a matter of months. That engine, basically a pair of BMW straight-sixes, breathed through a long intake tract running directly behind the center-mounted driver’s seat and fed by a scoop above the driver’s head. Which meant that the V-12’s bellowing intake snort resonated from a hollow tube inches from the driver’s ears.
This was likely on purpose. Purity and feedback were so much a design compass that the F1 lacked driver aids of any kind—no traction or stability control, no anti-lock brakes, not even power steering. Murray’s cost-no object choices were famously specific and particular; they produced a litany of killer bar trivia, from the gold foil engine-bay lining (the lightest, most efficient insulator available) to the 58-volt DC/DC converter that drove plasma-sprayed resistive defroster film in the car’s glass. (Murray hated being hot and dry-eyed with traditional defrosters, so he engineered a fix. It cleared fog in seconds.) The synchromesh six-speed manual was developed with California’s Weismann Transmissions, whose transaxles have won in F1 and at Le Mans and Indy. The steering geometry was so considered that the car’s unassisted wheel was rock-solid at autobahn speed but light enough for one-handed parking.
Numbers weren’t the goal, but they came anyway. In August of 1993, at Italy’s Nardò test track, Jonathan Palmer took an F1 prototype, chassis XP3, to 231 mph. Five years later, with the rev limiter disabled, Andy Wallace whipped another prototype, XP5, to 242.9 mph. For more than a decade, the F1 was the fastest road car on earth.
Track use seemed a calling. And yet. “I had stated right from day one that this should be a road car only,” Murray told Octane in 2007. Compromise for racing, he thought, would only result in a sports car that did both jobs badly. “What I didn’t realize is that, because of my background, I subconsciously built all the good racing stuff into the design—low polar moment of inertia, the right chassis—so that when we were bullied into turning our road car into a race car by… [three] very important customers, we actually had very little to do.”
Bellm was one of those customers.
“I ordered an F1 road car, chassis 46, in 1994,” he said. “When it was coming out for delivery, I said, ‘Ron, I’m going to go and race it.’ He said, ‘Oh, don’t do that. It will cause me so many problems. If you want to race the car, I’ll build you one for a million pounds.’ “In retrospect, I should have said yes. I said, ‘I can’t afford a million pounds for a race car.’ He said, ‘Well, find two other customers, and we’ll make three.’ So three of us, in 1994, signed the contract to buy a car each and race them with customer support from McLaren.”
Murray was initially reluctant to refocus his opus, but he got to work. The GTR saw just one day in a wind tunnel for aerodynamic sorting; the finished car offered a few body addenda and some suspension modifications but no real downforce. Save safety equipment, the first-year racing version of the 20th century’s most advanced supercar was roughly an eyeblink off stock, and slower in a straight line: each of the seven GTRs at Le Mans in 1995 wore a rules-mandated intake restrictor that cut output to 600 hp.
McLaren hadn’t so much as tested an F1 for 24 hours at that point, but one of the seven would end up leading 287 of the race’s 298 laps. GTRs finished first, third, fourth, and fifth overall.
In the years since, no one has built a game changer so focused and stirring. Until the McLaren Senna—a carbon fiber, active-bodywork hypercar aimed obsessively at downforce and feedback. And like the F1, around $1 million new.
The two cars seemed to beg for a track meeting. I had driven a Senna before. Years ago, I tried an F1 road car in Chicago traffic. But the GTR carries a different weight.
“It’s satisfyingly demanding if you know what you’re doing,” Bellm had told me, chuckling. “Frighteningly demanding if you don’t. You don’t think, This is inspiring. It’s a car that makes you concentrate.”
When I first belted in, I took a deep and involuntary breath. The GTR ambled out of the garage on scant throttle, the engine burbling softly, as if the car had no idea how much it cost or the meaning people attach to it or how I had dreamed of it in 1992, in middle school, when it was new.
Moments later, when I toed into the throttle, the airbox erupted.
Bellm was wrong. You concentrate, all right. But the other thing.
Man, that other thing.
ONE DOES not lightly take an F1 on a date. The car tends to suck the air from any room it finds, so we’ll discuss the Senna first. The newer McLaren seems to treat styling as an annoying speed bump to purpose, in the way that a McDonald’s hamburger seems only indifferently designed to resemble food. But styling isn’t the point. The Senna looks like it does because it works like it does, and it works like it does because McLaren engineers do not screw around. No currently sold road car makes more aerodynamic downforce or can so change its chassis balance with your actions—the Senna’s active bodywork moves during the course of a lap, rear wing and nose flaps adjusting their angle of attack in service of low drag or downforce and grip.
The car’s 789-hp twin-turbo V-8 and carbon-fiber tub are rooted in McLaren’s far less expensive 720S, but the two machines feel little alike. If the 720 is a steak knife, all poise and fillip, the raw-boned Senna is a bayonet more potent with proper use, and far less concerned with manners. The Senna carries huge spring rate and as much carpet as a Camry’s glove box. Seating duties are handled by thinly padded carbon sheets. Sound deadening is essentially absent, the cockpit full of road shout and shaft clunk from the paddle-shifted, twin-clutch seven-speed. Ride height drops automatically in Race mode, 39 millimeters in the front and 30 millimeters in the rear.
The car is comfortable for what it is, but not by traditional standards, and certainly not in a way that suggests seven figures of plush. You only buy one of these things if you are a certain brand of human, willing to compromise on certain fronts.
The track we chose for this test, Pittsburgh International Race Complex, revealed much. Pitt is equal parts fast and slow and paved with glassy asphalt; the 2.8-mile, 19-turn configuration we selected gives both triple-digit corners and multiple points where a car has to work at low speed. In that environment, the Senna felt legitimately bonkers and only a little hemmed in. The car is staggeringly sharp on the nose, with a perpetually lively rear. Drive it hard, and the gearbox is essentially flawless, whip-sharp. The carbon brakes work well when cold and rise to mammoth strength after a few corners of heat. Nor do they change much; stopping distances seem to expand slightly after a few laps, then hold steady.
In fact, nothing changes much, save the tires. The stock Pirelli P Zero R-compounds can grease up under abuse, but attention will keep them under the car. The hydraulically assisted steering is a live wire of feel. The car’s basic chassis is an utterly predictable rock.
Except. Those movable aerodynamic elements, the Senna’s party trick: a pair of computer-controlled, airfoil-shaped flaps in the nose that turn and route air through the car’s bodywork. Plus a wing out back, the size of a church pew, that automatically adjusts its angle of attack with your brake, steering, and throttle inputs, pivoting up from its low-drag setting to plant the rear.
That first fast lap can throw you for a loop. The Senna tends to pay more attention to your driving than you do, and it’ll change its balance and grip from lap to lap, or even in the middle of a corner, depending on your actions. If you’re paying attention, it can feel like chasing your own tail—maybe the nose has more grip over there, on more trailed brake; maybe you can take that fast corner flat, but only with a lift or a brake tap to signal the rear wing to pin the back of the car.
The method required goes beyond the traditional rules of slow hands and respect for power. It’s in quickly feeling out a track, parsing how the car thinks, recognizing against instinct that certain techniques work here but not there, and why. If you get through all that and feel like you understand the process, or at least trust it, then you can tell traction control to take a walk. At which point you have license to get goofy with a machine that pivots a touch easier and absolutely hates its rear tires. (Any big slide pulls air off the wing elements, slashing grip. One more thing to think about.)
This is next-level stuff, impressive and disorienting even if you aren’t sure what’s going on. In a short lapping session, I managed to notice and exploit some of the car’s tricks. Others were beyond my ken, or maybe I was just being cautious. You want to build up to a car whose true talents hang out around double the national speed limit.
Which is why we brought in a pro for data. When Bill Auberlen took the Senna out on a flyer (see track map), I sat on the pit wall and watched. Fast corners gave double-take pace, but the car’s poise off the brakes was almost more impressive. Properly aimed, a Senna trims and revectors like mad. Then the driver taps the explosive torque and simply slings off the corner like the alien business. People tend to describe supercars in cliché—“race car for the road” and all that.
A Senna doesn’t so much recall a real racing car as a happy blow to the head. One thing, at least, that it has in common with an F1.
Oh, the F1. It lurked nearby. Checked and prepped, they said. Ready. And I was next.
McLAREN BUILT just 28 F1 GTRs. Climbing into one of those center seats means you’re lucky or rich or both.
From the left door, the cage bars make things difficult. From the right, it’s the shifter. The left side of the cockpit has a larger air hole, so you come in there, walking on your hands, sort of hovering your legs into the footwell. But the seat gets in the way, and a bulkhead or the windshield tries to make out with your helmet. So you wriggle out and try again, and then again, and maybe one time you have a shift knob up your tailpipe or a headlight switch in your nose, and one time you’re locked in like an upside-down spider, legs all funky akimbo.
You figure it out eventually, or maybe an F1 vet gives you advice and you drop right in. Either way, “cozy” is the only term. The cockpit feels half its size once you’re behind the wheel, but that’s just par for the course, because everything about an F1 seems smaller and more elegant up close. In profile, doors open, the car does a birdlike impression of the Spirit of Ecstasy, the Rolls-Royce hood emblem. If there’s a limit to how long a person can stare at that shape, I never found it.
GTR No. 17R ran at Le Mans in 1996, backed by BMW of North America and campaigned by Italy’s Team Bigazzi. The car is still owned by BMW NA. It wears tall Le Mans gearing, though that doesn’t keep the rear tires from going to vapor in third gear. With the exception of a latterly installed passenger seat, 17R is as it ran down the Mulsanne. The engine hasn’t been apart since.
That V-12 is the F1’s gravity, a screaming piece of history with its heart on its sleeve. Its intake and exhaust yawps are unique and steeped in source, the kind of noise that could only come from 12 naturally aspirated pistons and mid-1990s BMW engine theory. In road trim, the engine gives a jungle-cat howl that suggests Ferraris, just deeper and more harmonic. GTR trim, sans muffling, is a religious experience. Your navel cavitates.
Bellm allowed that the first GTRs had problems. Heavy steering, he said, and the gearbox wasn’t the easiest. The car porpoised at speed and tracked a bit. Early on, teams couldn’t get ride height low enough without locking out the suspension, because the geometry had been designed for road use. The rare occasion that Murray’s focus stood in the way.
“People don’t realize this,” Bellm said, “but at Le Mans in ’95, the car… actually had lift at speed. It was the most frightening car to drive in the wet, no grip. Look at pictures, when XP5 did its high-speed run. Look how high it is off the ground! Lots of little aspects that just made the car, made you concentrate.” Concentration again.
We overuse the word “buttery” around these parts, but a McLaren F1 is buttery. The only thing I can compare it to is a Group C car—I once tested a Porsche 962 and a Mazda 787, two of the F1’s predecessors at Le Mans— except that the C cars slid with less warning and required quicker reflexes when they went. And they were less comfortable, more fatiguing inside.
It makes sense, given the blueprint. The GTR’s layout is essentially Group C gone sane: a similarly rigid structure but also taller and softer, more inviting and talkative, higher in roll center. There was more than a whiff of street car—more time needed in quick transitions, patient hands to settle the car and keep it happy. The tall, soft springs and tall tires were obvious, but the GTR liked a long apex and rip-snorty early throttle, and it shouted those feelings from the first lap.
An F1 shouts everything, this stream of refined sensation through controls and seat and ears. I noticed it first in the steering, remarkably light but never distant. The wheel gave nibbles of feel, not so much as to be distracting but enough to broadcast when the front tires were nuzzling up to a slide. This alone was rare; most pro-grade racing cars don’t have or need good steering feel. (Both because the people who drive them are sensitive enough to do without, and because it’s not an immediately necessary product of race-car design.)
Or take the engine, which makes raucous power and great whapping frictionless instablips on a brush of throttle. Redline is one instrument but also orchestral. You put that noise under your control and you feel taller, smarter, faster, the only human who matters, as if everything else in life were a game.
Millions might not be enough for that experience. Fine art usually costs more anyway, and appreciating it is nowhere near as joyful. The gearbox oozed fussiness and seemed to balk at nice treatment, so I tried shifting while tactically angry. The synchros then instantly slicked up, like the flick of a switch, as if the shift lever were some kind of test to gauge whether its driver was a collector fop or a true believer.
Consider the carbon brakes. They somehow manage to combine a remarkably long pedal—the opposite of race-car SOP—with a delicious hair travel near lockup. A Senna on equal tires would almost certainly out-brake it cold or warm, but the F1’s middle pedal felt right and was so transparent that railing on it became an odd little present at every corner: I get to do this again! Trailing off the brakes set the nose in a gently aggressive way that made my right foot twitch, but only seconds later, once my subconscious had internalized the joy and the car was rip-snarling down a straight like the clappers.
There may not be a more satisfying and blisteringly evocative machine on this earth. Call it a large Lotus Elise, but more stable and less tolerant of idiots, with a bucket of baby giggles under the engine lid. Halfway through my third lap, I looked down at the dash, saw some ridiculous speed on the display and laughed, genuinely astonished to be there. Wouldn’t it be great, I thought, if somebody built a road car that felt exactly like this? The world would beat a path to your door. You could charge millions.
And then a realization: Ah. Right.
The brain takes strange paths when you plop it in a bathtub of dopamine.
Bellm is undoubtedly right about the F1’s flaws; the ’96 GTR was only slightly more evolved than the ’95. But as he alluded, those drawbacks are now immaterial. GTRs have long been uncompetitive at Le Mans and too valuable to risk in vintage racing, which means they now exist solely as performance art. And from that angle, they are unimpeachable. A supernova. Possibly the last word on the subject of Car.
We were assisted at the track by one of R&T’s reporters, a cheery, 26-year-old New Yorker named Chris Perkins. Over two days of photography, whenever the F1 was parked, he kept hopping into the driver’s seat. I’d turn around, and he’d be planted behind that sloping windshield, grinning his head off.
After the 10th or 12th instance of this, curiosity prompted an ask. “Perkins,” I said, “what’s your damage?”
He looked up from the seat. Quietly gobsmacked, like a kid who had eaten a whole cake in one sitting.
“It shouldn’t be this special.”
“You mean to drive or behold, or what?”
“The latter, I think? The technical stuff that once made it stand out, that’s no longer rare. Now your knees go weak at the noise and the shape, but long-term, the story is what gets you. Murray. That almost impossible freedom.”
“It probably can’t happen again,” I said. “A notion I both love and hate.”
“Funny, though,” he said. “For such a long time, the draw was how the F1 answered the question, the ultimate numbers car. But the world is different, and the numbers don’t mean anything anymore. The purity of the thing outshines that.”
Perkins reached over to close the GTR’s door, the latch clicking shut with a ping. And we stood there quietly for some time, each lost in thought.
HOURS LATER, with the car’s massive engine still warm to the touch, mechanics pushed the F1 into a nearby hauler. I watched as they carefully shut the trailer door. Then I watched the door for a bit more after that.
What a strange test this was. Two vastly different ends of a spectrum. The Senna seems a forest of hidden talents and undeciphered code, more complex than most racing cars, unintuitive but fascinating for it. The F1, by contrast, lays its cards on the table and simply asks what you’ve got. The two cars are a remarkable testament to the power of original thinking, and they orbit a similar idea—the individuals behind either weren’t looking backward from their work, or even at the next step forward. They were focused on the third or fourth step after that.
Industrial design rarely sticks that landing, and age usually dilutes its power. But McLarens tend to feel like exceptions. The brand’s best achievements carry an almost egalitarian vibe, as if some engineer was standing behind them, saying, “We built this thing we can’t afford to buy, just to see if it was possible.”
At the end of this test, photographer Dave Burnett drove me back to our hotel. It was one in the morning and pitch-dark, the end of a long two days.
I grabbed my bag and rubbed my eyes. “I’m going to sleep like a dead thing.”
“No,” Dave said, shaking his head. “You’re not.” It sounded like a benediction. “You’re going to go up to your room and download the in car footage, and you’re going to watch it over and over, you driving that car.”
He was right. I couldn’t sleep. Laps on repeat on my phone, cockpit video from a helmet camera, watching the glow in a darkened room, over and over.
It occurred to me that I had probably spent much of the past two days sitting in the car for no reason, like Perkins. And that maybe Dave had noticed.
I was 11 when Murray launched the F1. Fourteen when the car won Le Mans. The magic of those moments orbited the machines in question but ultimately represented something deeper. And for a few minutes in that hotel room, before I drifted off to sleep, I felt as giddy and obsessed as I was then. It was a gift, and it had nothing to do with driving. Thanks, Gordon.