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Ever wondered what it’s like to have your McLaren F1 GTR serviced?

Servicing a McLaren F1 GTR is a touch more complicated than servicing a Volkswagen Golf. Here’s a behind the scenes glimpse of the process as the F1 we’ve been babysitting for its owner went to the wizards at McLaren Special Operations for some tender loving care…

Those of you who follow us on Instagram (@girardoandco) will know that we’ve been looking after a bright orange 1996 McLaren F1 GTR on behalf of its owner. The specific car is chassis number #011R, which boasts a fascinating history. More on that later.

Late last year, the F1’s owner took the decision to have McLaren Special Operations service the car – a no-brainer given MSO has maintained and looked after the car ever since 1997. What’s more, he asked us to oversee the process in his absence. Naturally, this was something we wanted to document, not only as an important addition to the car’s history file, but also so we could share a behind-the-scenes glimpse of what is usually a highly secretive operation.

And so, on a freezing cold morning in February of this year, a CARS transporter arrived at Belchers Farm to whisk the McLaren away for its pamper break in Woking. Having become rather accustomed to seeing the bright orange beauty every day, it was genuinely sad to wave it goodbye.

The first production 1996-spec F1 GTR, chassis 011R was delivered new to the Giroix Racing Team, founded by the French racing driver Fabien Giroix. Having lost its title sponsors Jacadi and Elf when his driver Olivier Grouillard defected to the Harrods team, Giroix secured backing from the luxury Swiss watch manufacturer Franck Muller for the 1996 BPR Global GT Series.

Finished initially in factory plain white and subsequently in orange and back, this McLaren contested six rounds under the Franck Muller Watch banner including at Paul Ricard, Jarama, Silverstone, Suzuka and Zhuhai, scoring a season-best second overall in the 4 Ore GT di Monza. At Le Mans, 011R was given the factory’s official Kokusai Kaihatsu Racing entry, granted to McLaren as a result of winning the race in 1995. Unfortunately the car retired with engine issues in the early hours of Sunday morning. 

“Here’s where things get really interesting. Giroix sold 011R to Larbre Compétition, which in turn discreetly leased it to Mercedes-Benz, which saw fit to use it as a clandestine testbed for its new CLK GTR.”

In order to promote the BPR Global GT Series in South America, two non-championship races were held in Brazil (Curitiba and Brasilia) at the end of the season. Piloted by Fabien Giroix and the Brazilian veteran Maurizio Sandro Sala, 011R – now sponsored by Hollywood cigarettes – finished second in both, mere seconds behind the three-time Formula 1 World Champion Nelson Piquet.

Here’s where things get really interesting. Giroix sold 011R to Larbre Compétition, which in turn discreetly leased it to Mercedes-Benz, which saw fit to use it as a clandestine testbed for its new CLK GTR, the car with which it was hoping to topple the McLaren’s crown as the king of GT1 racing. This F1 was fitted with plain white experimental Mercedes bodywork and tested for four days at Jarama by Bernd Schneider.

Its time served, chassis 011R was subsequently returned to McLaren, put back to its original configuration, repainted in the brand’s famous Papaya Orange and converted for road use. Amazingly, the car has been maintained by MSO and remained in the exact specification in which it left McLaren ever since.

Returning to 011R’s trip to MSO – as you can imagine, servicing a McLaren F1 GTR is a little more complicated than servicing a Volkswagen Golf. And lengthy – the entire process took three months and, in this instance, involved replacing the fuel cell. The price? Don’t go there.

We received regular updates from MSO, which we communicated with the owner. And midway through the process, once Covid restrictions had eased a little, we were able to pay a visit to Woking, see the car in the metal and speak to the knowledgeable technicians painstakingly working on it. It was an unforgettable visit, not only for the opportunity to see the wonderfully overengineered inner workings of a McLaren F1, but also to bask in the presence of a number of other incredibly special F1s in the very place in which they were born. On those, we can’t really say anymore.

Despite the engine being out of the car and the front and rear ends removed, MSO’s F1 Senior Technician Pani Tsouris predicted 011R would be finished and ready for its pre-delivery shakedown in less than a month. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was an agonisingly slow four weeks of waiting.

“It was an unforgettable visit, not only for the opportunity to see the wonderfully overengineered inner workings of a McLaren F1, but also to bask in the presence of a number of other incredibly special F1s.”

McLaren performs its shakedowns at Milbrook, a vast automotive research and development facility with, among other features, a banked high-speed bowl, a mile-long straight and a twisty and undulating alpine course. There’s a regimented list of procedures the driver-technician, in this case Pani, has to go through in order to ensure the car is working and handling as it should and, more importantly, safe to be delivered. Thankfully, 011R passed these tests with flying colours.

In what we’re sure you won’t believe was a coincidence, the day of 011R’s shakedown fell on Max Girardo’s birthday. And once McLaren had ticked everything off its to-do list, Max was given the best birthday gift we could possibly imagine: a drive in an F1 GTR. Max’s grin in Tom Shaxson’s photo of him in the central seat familiarising himself with the cabin says it all. And if he was grinning before he’d turned a wheel, he was laughing out loud when he climbed out again.

“What an unforgettable experience,” he excitably uttered after the short drive. “I’ve driven an F1 road car but never a GTR, and immediately I could understand why drivers loved racing these things in the period. The ride is firm but not bone-jarring, the visibility from the middle is superb and the feedback through the steering wheel is so communicative.

“By no means did I push the car to anywhere near its limit, but even at low speeds you can sense the urgency of that BMW twelve-cylinder. The entire experience is loud and raw and inexplicably awesome. What an honour – I’m eternally grateful to the car’s owner.”

“The shakedown day at Milbrook was tinged with sadness, simply because now it’s fighting fit, 011R will return home to its owner. To him we say thank you.”

Having seen this McLaren sitting still and silent here at Belchers Farm for so long, it was a joy to see it alive and on the move. We can only imagine what a nerve-electrifying spectacle is must have been to watch these BMW-powered beauties duking it out in period. The shakedown day at Milbrook was tinged with sadness, simply because now it’s fighting fit, 011R will return home to its owner. To him we say thank you. It was an utter privilege spending time in the company of such a special car and getting an insight into the elusive world of McLaren F1 ownership.

Photos: Tom Shaxson for Girardo & Co. / The Girardo & Co. Archive

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