1992 McLaren F1 vs. 1996 Porsche 911 GT1 and 1997 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR C297

1992 McLaren F1 vs. 1996 Porsche 911 GT1 and 1997 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR C297

Forget about hybrids, this is the true holy trinity. We gather the three iconic road-legal Le Mans legends… and drive them. Words by Henry Catchpole. Pics Andy Morgan.


THE WILD ONES

THE REAL HOLY TRINITY

Forget hybrid hypercars. This is the real deal. The 1992 McLaren F1, 1996 Porsche 911 GT1 and 1997 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR C297 in one place. Henry Catchpole is your guide to a triple test that may never be topped.


A down-change for the hell of it. Just to hear the V12. Because that dab provokes probably the best induction bark ever to emanate from a road car. There is almost a mirroring between the air rushing through the intake directly above your head, down to the engine behind you, and the tingles that start in your scalp and run down the length of your spine.


1992 McLaren F1, 1996 Porsche 911 GT1 and 1997 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR C297

A glance right through the black arc that bisects the side window and there is the roof scoop of the wildest road car ever to be called a 911: the GT1. A glance left and there is the caricature face of the most expensive Mercedes road car ever made: the CLK GTR W297 (C297 for Coupe). I'm sitting in a McLaren F1 and yet I’m in the least rare car of our trio. By some margin. Not for the first time today, I find I can’t help but smile at the absurdity of what’s happening here.

These are three of the most exciting road cars ever made, two developed from LeMans racers, one conceived to be the greatest road car ever and which happened to win Le Mans. Outright.’ When James Cottingham from DK Engineering first asked me what the greatest trio of roadgoing sports cars could be, I instantly told him: these three. But actually getting them together? All right, I knew they had the GTR, but still. And that they should all be in silver makes this even more surreal. Here we have the story of a golden era of endurance racing. The GT1 racers and the incredible road cars they spawned are something that even today, with the new LMH category, the FIA is striving to recreate.


1992 McLaren F1 vs. 1996 Porsche 911 GT1 and 1997 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR C297

Famously the McLaren F1 was never intended to go racing. Gordon Murray and the team created a road car. And you can feel that as soon as you get into it. Granted, there is a convoluted technique (that I’ve yet to master) required if you want to get into an F1 as gracefully as you would a Ford Fiesta but, once ensconced, you can revel in a cockpit that feels all at once fantastically focused but also supremely spacious. Comfortable, too, despite the thin seat. You could imagine covering long distances in it. In fact, as the whole car is only 4288mm long and 1820mm wide, you could also happily conceive of popping into town.

THE GT1’S MONSTROUS HURRICANE FORCE OF TORQUE PICKS YOU UP AND LAUNCHES YOU DOWN THE ROAD

Anyway, despite the obvious habitability of the F1, it was nonetheless created to exacting standards by a race team. As a performance road car, it had no equal at the time it was launched and so it was almost inevitable that, in a race series based on road cars, it would also be top of the tree. When customers convinced McLaren that a race car program should be undertaken, it dominated the BPR Global GT Championship, winning both drivers’ and team titles in 1995 and 1996.


The 1992 McLaren F1, 1996 Porsche 911 GT1 and 1997 Mercedes-Benz CLK GTR C297 in one place

But it was the car’s victory, first time out, at Le Mans in 1995 that really put the cat among the pigeons. The victory may have been a little lucky, with the atrociously wet weather playing into the F1’s hands, but nonetheless it made the F1 GTR an instant icon.

Driving the F1 today remains an extraordinary experience. This, chassis 037, is the third F1 that I’ve been lucky enough to drive but these are such special cars that getting reacquainted isn’t the work of a moment. The 6.1-litre V12 dominates the experience because it is so responsive, so alive to every movement of the throttle. The power really is palpable and it’s intimidating. It takes quite a bit of courage to really extend the engine, partly because the gearshift has such a tight gate that for the first few miles there is a real concern about missing a shift across it as you go from second to third.

What’s more, in comparison to the whip-crack V12, the rest of the controls can feel a little slow in their responses. The steering is full of feel but also heavy, with very little inclination to naturally re-centre. The brakes are certainly not the most reassuring. Combine these with suspension that allows a lot of movement in terms of roll, squat and dive, and tyres that have plenty of sidewall to flex, and you can quickly find your hands very full. Brake hard, sense that delicate nose dip, add a bit of steering lock, feel the weight of the engine behind you and… well, you want to be very careful about what you do next with the throttle. It’s a car that you need to be positive with, otherwise you can feel like it is in control of you, not the other way round.

But you also need to be deft and in tune with the way it moves. It would be a glorious car to own, because it would not only thrill you every time you cracked the throttle and felt the manifestation of that startling power-to-weight ratio, it would also be a constant learning experience. In the same way that you need time to master the weight-balance wiles of an old 911, so the McLaren is a car that you need more than a first date to get to know. Talking of 911s…

That win at La Sarthe in 1995 must have really annoyed Porsche. The 24-hours was its playground. So, for 1996, Norbert Singer was tasked with producing a car that was based on a 911 road car but could beat the mighty F1 on track. The result was the union of a 993 with a 962. As you sit in the driver’s seat of the GT1, there is every impression that you are sitting in a 911. The seat is from a 964, the five-dial dashboard is exactly what you would expect to find in a 993, save for the water temperature gauge. But behind you, hidden by the bulkhead through which the chunky gear linkage disappears, is pure race car.

Its first race in the BPR series was round eight at Brands Hatch in 1996 and, even though most thought the drivers were sandbagging, Hans-Joachim Stuck and Thierry Boutsen won easily. However, they couldn’t claim points because they were an invited entry (and it was late in the season) so McLaren again took both titles. The 911 GT1 had already been beaten to the outright win at Le Mans earlier that year by the TWR/Porsche WSC-95 prototype.

Just a couple of road versions with the 993 nose were produced (one of which I have driven), but most of the 20 or so examples of the Straßenversion were based on the 996-nosed GT1 Evo from 1997 – which we have here. And the fact that Porsche never fulfilled the full homologation quota of 25 road cars means this is the rarest of our trio. After the F1 the GT1 feels almost agricultural. Apart from some clonking noises from the suspension the McLaren is very refined, but the Porsche is all noise and pugnacity. Its clutch is heavy and aggressive and is married to a gearshift that is incredibly positive. You feel as confident in the shifts in this as you feel suspicious of the ones in the McLaren.

It feels like a race car. In fact, more than that, it feels like a race car designed to last for 24 hours. A tough car, built to endure. Despite the claimed kerbweights being separated by just 13kg, the Porsche feels like a heavier car than the McLaren. Not because of any lack in performance, just because the controls are that much heftier, the ride is firmer and there is this rugged air about it.

And yet, for all that, it is a car that gives you huge confidence. The steering is beautiful, just as you’d expect from a Porsche, and there is a real sense of connection with the front tyres. Perhaps more surprising, however, is that through your backside there is also a really good sense of the grip from the rear tyres. It feels like a chassis that you want to grab by the scruff of the neck and start to throw around. Curiously, despite its very definite mid-engine layout, there is still a slight feeling of 911 about it; vague like an unclear memory from your childhood, but triggering nonetheless. It’s probably mostly down to the steering feel, but the initial weight transfer as you turn into a corner feels familiar too. It’s just not backed up by a 911 pendulum.

If you’re sensible, then the power delivery undoubtedly makes the first few miles in a GT1 easier too. The watercooled, turbocharged flat-six is the grandfather of all the Mezger engines in 996- and 997-generation GT3s, and it obviously delivers its performance in a starkly different way to the F1’s V12. Stay off-boost, short shift, and you have a relatively docile car. Relatively.

However, find a straight, squeeze the throttle, feel the boost build and then with a surprisingly large number of revs on the central dial the rush hits you, the monstrous hurricane force of torque picks you up and launches you down the road. It is addictive, like all good turbocharged deliveries. But the GT1’s use of turbochargers was also one of the reasons why it was uncompetitive in 1997. McLaren produced the Long Tail version of its F1 for ’97 and, combined with the talents of JJ Lehto and regulations that favoured naturally aspirated engines, Woking was faster than Stuttgart. But the F1 wasn’t fast enough to claim the new FIA GT Championship, because Mercedes had muscled in on the action with its own interpretation of the rules...

I’ve never driven a CLK GTR before and that instantly makes it a little more intimidating than the others. Gaining access doesn’t make me feel any more at ease, either. The Porsche’s door opens normally and there’s just an ‘X’ of rollcage to clamber over. The McLaren is obviously a little trickier, but even that feels like a doddle compared with the Mercedes. ‘Cool,’ you think, as the tiny door sweeps upwards, but then you look at the wide sill you need to cross (big enough for a luggage compartment inside it) and the tiny aperture you’re supposed to go through. Legs first is best, but if you’re of even average height then I think there’s probably no dignified way to get in. Or out, for that matter.

Once you are sitting snugly, it’s bizarre because the switchgear suggests you’re in a Mercedes road car from the ’90s, but the claustrophobically cramped cabin and the fact that you can’t put the windows down tell you that this is nothing but a pure racer. This is chassis number 7 and thought to be one of only two with plaid trim on the seats, evoking Moss’s famous 300 SLR. Its glorious M297 engine is a 6.9-litre variant of the 6.0-litre V12 used initially in the race car (a V8 was used later) and it feels every bit of its capacity. It would later find a home in the Pagani Zonda and there is something significantly bigger-chested about both its delivery and soundtrack in comparison to the McLaren’s V12. Like the Porsche’s, the engine seems to be right in the cabin with you all the time. There are three pedals in the footwell and you use the clutch for every shift, but you change gear with the small, light-action metal paddles on the back of the wheel. It’s actually much easier and more intuitive to use than I’d been led to believe, although as it’s a sequential ’box you need to make sure you go all the way back down through the gears as you come to a stop.

Once I’ve got my bearings, the whole car feels much friendlier than I was expecting. Traction is reassuringly impressive so, although you don’t have quite the sense of connection as in the Porsche, you feel at ease deploying the huge amounts of torque. You can feel the stiffness from the carbon and aluminium honeycomb tub, but the suspension has a nice pliancy to it, so it’s not the totally brutal experience you might fear. It feels wide and corners flat, but it is also much more wieldy than you might expect from looking at its near-five-metre length. The power-assisted steering is easy to use and there is so much flexibility from that fabulous-sounding V12 that you can get into a rhythm with it. You can even start to push the tyres, nibbling at the limits of the front end midcorner. It’s actually really fun to drive.

I’m sure it was fun for Bernd Schneider, who took the championship in 1997, and Klaus Ludwig and Ricardo Zonta who did the same in 1998. But they were too successful; Mercedes-AMG amassed 149 points to win the Teams title in ’98, while Porsche AG in second place scored only 49.

It killed the class. Mercedes built a single road car for homologation in 1997 (it would eventually produce 28, including two prototypes and six roadsters – one of which DK engineering also looks after) but Porsche felt that, while its GT1 still stuck to the spirit of the class, the GTR took things too far. Porsche countered with its own version of the GTR in 1998, which was a totally different animal to the GT1s of ’96 and ’97, based around a carbon tub and sequential shift. It still wasn’t the quickest but it did succeed in one arena that Mercedes couldn’t. It won Le Mans thanks to that crucial component: reliability.

What all the racing has left us with is these extraordinary road cars – except only one really feels and looks like a true road car. Because only the McLaren began life that way. The Porsche and Mercedes both feel like the thinly disguised racers they are. In fact, I can’t think of any more extreme examples of modern supercars. This trio’s sense of purpose, the lack of compromise, the sheer presence of their looks – with/without bodywork – means that, more than 20 years later, nothing has yet surpassed them.

I CAN’T THINK OF ANY MORE EXTREME EXAMPLES OF MODERN SUPERCARS

MAIN No prizes for guessing which was a road car that later morphed into a racer.

The Specs Silver bullets: the original hypercar trio

ABOVE A total of six Roadsters were built by AMG specialist group H.W.A. Apart from being without a roof and adding 105kg to the kerb weight, the drop-top is signified by a large three-pointed star in the front grille.

MAIN It’s the least userfriendly of the trio, but you could endlessly drool over the CLK’s race-car DNA for a lifetime

THE PORSCHE AND MERCEDES BOTH FEEL LIKE THE THINLY DISGUISED RACERS THEY ARE

MAIN Recognisably 993-sourced fascia feels familiar, but there’s a 996 nose. Out back it turns into a 962 racing car – though there are 996 tail-lights. Roof-mounted air intakes and rear wing are rather less disingenuous.

LEFT MAIN Peter Stevens’ sublime styling simply wraps the mechanical components – and refuses to date.

BELOW Central driving position is unique in this trio, even though the F1 was developed for the road first.

LEFT The 6.1-litre atmo BMW V12 looks as dramatic as it sounds with genuine gold plating

THE MCLAREN F1 IS A CAR THAT YOU NEED MORE THAN A FIRST DATE TO GET TO KNOW

McLAREN F1

With McLaren having strong ties with Honda for its Formula 1 program, Gordon Murray approached the Japanese giant for a 410kW engine with a maximum weight of 250kg. In the end, no deal. And a proposal from Isuzu (with a 3.5-litre V12) was also rejected. BMW came to the party and developed its BMW S70/2 V12.

  • BODY 2-door, 3-seat coupe
  • DRIVE rear-wheel
  • ENGINE 6064cc V12, DOHC
  • BORE X STROKE 86.0 x 87.0mm
  • COMPRESSION 10.5:1
  • MAX POWER 461kW @ 7500rpm
  • MAX TORQUE 617Nm @ 7500rpm
  • POWER/WEIGHT 403kW/tonne
  • TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
  • WEIGHT 1138kg
  • SUSPENSION double wishbones, alloy dampers, co-axial springs, anti-roll bar (f); double wishbones, alloy dampers, co-axial springs, anti-roll bar ®
  • L/W/H 4290/18200/1140mm
  • WHEELBASE 2720mm
  • TRACKS 1570/1470mm
  • STEERING hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion
  • BRAKES 332mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers (f); 305mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers ®
  • WHEELS 17.0 x 9.0-inch (f);
  • TYRES 235/451ZR17 (f); 315/45ZR17 ® Goodyear ‘F1’
  • PRICE $20 million (estimated current value)
  • PROS Legend status; the OG hypercar broke speed records; remains special in modern context
  • CONS If you want one, you’ll need very deep pockets despite build numbers exceeding rivals
  • STAR RATING 5/5

MERCEDES-AMG CLK GTR

The road car’s capacity rose to 6.9-litres (up from 6.0-litres) and an air restrictor was removed, resulting in the 450kW power figure. With help from H.W.A, the CLK GTR Super Sport was created using a newer 7.3-litre V12. It was good for 488kW and was also used in the Pagani Zonda and Mercedes-Benz SL73 AMG.

  • BODY 2-door, 2-seat coupe
  • DRIVE rear-wheel
  • ENGINE 6896cc V12, DOHC, 48v
  • BORE X STROKE 89.0 x 92.4mm
  • COMPRESSION 10.5:1
  • MAX POWER 450kW @ 6800rpm
  • MAX TORQUE 770Nm @ 5250rpm
  • POWER/WEIGHT 313kW/tonne
  • TRANSMISSION 6-speed sequential manual
  • WEIGHT 1440kg
  • SUSPENSION double wishbones, pushrod-operated dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); double wishbones, pushrod- operated dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar ®
  • L/W/H 4855/1950/1164mm
  • WHEELBASE 2670mm
  • TRACKS 1665/1594mm (f/r)
  • STEERING hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion
  • BRAKES 355mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers (f); 330mm ventilated discs, 6-piston calipers ®
  • WHEELS 18.0 x 10.5-inch (f); 18.0 x 12.5-inch ®
  • TYRES 295/35 R18 (f); 345/35 R18 ® Bridgestone
  • PRICE $7-10 million (estimated current value)
  • PROS Roadster version offers access to epic engine note; true race car for the road; presence
  • CONS You’ll need origami skills to get in and out of it; never achieved its brief of winning Le Mans
  • STAR RATING 5/5

PORSCHE 911 GT1

The Straßenversion (or Street Version) saw approximately 20 units make it to production, with a detuned 400kW/600Nm version of the flat six required to meet European emissions laws. In race applications, the 3.2-litre twin turbo produced about 441kW. The roadgoing GT1 also featured the ‘Evo’ style front end.

  • BODY 2-door, 2-seat coupe 2
  • DRIVE rear-wheel
  • ENGINE DOHC, 48v 3164cc flat-6
  • BORE X STROKE 95.0 x 74.4mm
  • COMPRESSION 9.0:1
  • MAX POWER 400kW @ 7200rpm
  • MAX TORQUE 600Nm @ 4250rpm
  • POWER/WEIGHT 320kW/tonne
  • TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
  • WEIGHT 1250kg
  • SUSPENSION double wishbones, pushrod-operated dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar (f); double wishbones, pushrod- operated dampers, coil springs, anti-roll bar ®
  • L/W/H 4710/1980/1173mm
  • WHEELBASE 2500mm
  • TRACKS 1502/1588mm (f/r)
  • STEERING hydraulically assisted rack-and-pinion
  • BRAKES 380mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers (f); 380mm ventilated discs, 4-piston calipers ®
  • WHEELS 17.0 x 9.0-inch (f); 17 x 11.5-inch ® 18.0 x 11.0-inch (f); 18 x 13.0-inch ® 18.0 x 10.5-inch (f); 18.0 x 12.5-inch ®
  • TYRES 295/35 ZR18 (f); 335/30 ZR18 ® Pirelli P Zero
  • PRICE $7-10 million (estimated current value)
  • PROS Porsche engineered practicality and useability into the road version; desirable; performance
  • CONS Somewhat forgotten in this trio despite winning a 24hr; it’s the rarest of them all
  • STAR RATING 5/5
Article type:
Review
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+6
Votren De Este Votren De Este 3 months ago #

Top speed — what is the topspeed advertised in 1992 McLaren F1 owners manual/brochure? That number should be used, if there is such a number. The prototype speed records can be ignored, but it would be best to have some other number in place.

Estimates — they are based on deep learning (not really deep tbh). The AI does take in account the year of the car (which implies tyre performance) but this effect probably in this current version of neural net is not strong enough. So you could look at it as if the tyres are almost ignored or the effect diminished.

+2
Aaron McKay Aaron McKay 3 months ago #

1992 F1 has incredible acceleration because it weighs only 1150 kg and has a power of 620 hp or 545 hp / t. The modern Porsche 918 has a power ratio of 520 hp / t. F1 is a very light supercar with a powerful engine, all modern supercars weigh more than 1600 kg

+3
Huw Evans Huw Evans 3 months ago #

I find this funny. I wonder who decided how much $$ would be too much to pay photographer for not releasing pictures of crashed F1… How do you calculate something like that… I guess they don't want the bad imagine for the brand, but it's not like other supercars don't crash or that there aren't plenty of pictures with crashed McLaren's, Ferraris etc around anyway

+2
Georg Kacher Georg Kacher 3 months ago #

yep the car in the pic is indeed the 1997 version of the porsche gt1. between 911 gt1 and clk-gtr… that's a really tough choice. i'm surprised nobody ever did a comparison test between the two, on a track or something. it's important to know how fast this type of cars are on circuits

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