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The Story Of Team Lark’s 1996 Campaign

As Team Goh and McLaren prepare for their Super GT returns, DSC takes a deep dive into the legend of the original Goh McLaren F1 GTRs

There’s no question that the official announcement of the return of McLaren and Team Goh to the Autobacs Super GT Series is a big deal, both in Japan, and around the world over, to sports car racing fans.

Kazumichi Goh’s team won the 1996 GT500 Championships with the McLaren F1 GTR, and eight years later, he would field a privateer Audi R8 prototype that would win the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2004. The F1 GTR was one of the most successful GT cars to compete throughout the mid-to-late 1990s, and the 720S GT3, McLaren’s new customer racing supercar, hopes to build upon that legacy starting in 2019.

The livery teased by the team, which will compete as McLaren Customer Racing Japan is an homage to that original ‘96 union of Goh and McLaren. It is one of the best-known cars in the early history of the All-Japan GT Championship (JGTC), and these same colours appearing on the “long tail” F1 GTR in 1997 certainly add to its notoriety.

Perhaps, then, it’s time to tell the story of that 1996 season. The story of an upstart team, and a car that arguably changed the game in the top level of Japanese sports car racing forever. And the story of how they became the “Monsters” of the wild west that was GT500 in 1996, towering over the paddock like the mighty kaiju of action cinema past and present tower over the metropolis.

The hardened GT racing fan of the mid-90s knows the unlikely story of how the McLaren F1 went racing, but for the uninitiated, here’s the quick version: McLaren builds the ultimate lightweight supercar of the early ‘90s, the V12-powered F1. Designer Gordon Murray never wanted it to go racing, but after more than a few teams in the upstart BPR Global GT Series asked, begged, pleaded for a race-spec F1, McLaren and Murray relented and built the F1 GTR.

Come June 1995, the F1 GTR took outright victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans on its first attempt. With Formula 1 veteran J.J. Lehto carrying the team through the rainiest portions of the race, the #59 Tokyo Ueno Clinic F1 GTR of Lehto, Yannick Dalmas, and Masanori Sekiya won Le Mans on the F1 GTR’s very first attempt. The car also won the BPR GT Series title in ‘95. A car that was never meant to go racing became a gamechanger in GT1 in just twelve months.

That win at Le Mans was significant for long-time Toyota factory racing driver Sekiya, who became the first Japanese driver to win the race outright, a feat only matched by two others since: Seiji Ara and Kazuki Nakajima. In August. Sekiya helped drive the F1 GTR to a debut win at the Suzuka 1000km, joined by Ray Bellm, the British driver who went to Ron Dennis to convince McLaren to build the F1 GTR earlier in the year.

Over in Japan, the All-Japan GT Championship was about to start its third full season of competition. Nissan had won the 1994 and 1995 GT1 Drivers’ Championships with the Calsonic Skyline GT-Rs of the Hoshino Racing team and Masahiko Kageyama. Toyota’s Supra had just taken its first win the past season and was expected to progress even further in ‘96. Porsche 911 GT2s were still the best of the international cars, winning three races and the Teams’ Championship for Team Taisan in ‘95. And late in 1995, the Honda NSX GT2 that won its class at Le Mans was announced to make its domestic racing debut in the upcoming season.

But McLaren were planning something big. A two-car, works GT racing team in the premier class of the JGTC, which was about to change its name from GT1 to GT500. Ron Dennis himself, the architect behind McLaren’s return to glory in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, would partner with businessman Kazumichi Goh to form Team Lark McLaren.

The team assembled an international all-star ensemble. John Nielsen of Denmark drove David Price Racing’s new McLaren F1 GTR to the BPR GT title in ‘95, and already had a Le Mans win under his belt in ‘91 with Jaguar. Naoki Hattori of Japan was a Spa 24 Hours winner, a Formula 3 and Group A touring car champion in Japan, and a multiple race winner in the All-Japan F3000 Championship. Like Hattori, David Brabham of Australia had F1 potential that never panned out into success, but the youngest son of Sir Jack Brabham was a talented driver in his own right. David won the British F3 Championship, won the Macau Grand Prix, won the Spa 24 Hours – but after a hard-luck year with Simtek F1 in 1994 and a mediocre year in BTCC with BMW in 1995, Brabham was looking for a breakthrough to get back on track.

There were many other drivers considered for the team as well. Goh recalled in a 2011 interview that both Martin Brundle, who drove for Ron Dennis’ McLaren F1 team in ‘94, and Mark Blundell, who replaced Nigel Mansell in ‘95, were in consideration. But against the best wishes of McLaren and of title sponsors Philip Morris International, Goh pushed to include 20-year-old Ralf Schumacher, the younger brother of the two-time F1 World Champion, Michael, on the team. Schumacher was a Macau Grand Prix winner in his own right, a German F3 vice-champion, and a new recruit for the rebooted All-Japan F3000 Championship, now known as Formula Nippon. Ralf was quick, and had the potential to be as great as Michael one day if he made this next step in his career work out.

Finally in February, the team was confirmed: Hattori and Schumacher in car 60, chassis #13R. Nielsen and Brabham in car 61, chassis #14R. On March 29, 1996, Team Lark McLaren arrived for the first race of the JGTC season, at Suzuka Circuit. McLaren knew Suzuka like the back of their hand through their time in F1, and the ‘95-spec F1 GTR already won Japan’s biggest national-level endurance race just seven months prior. These cars instantly turned heads around the paddock.

If you’re an avid sports car racing fan, you’ve probably printed off and laminated an Andy Blackmore spotters’ guide or two. Blackmore has designed many a livery for some of the best sports car racing teams. He also was in charge of the now-famous union of “Rocket Pink” and “Black Obsidian Grey” colours that adorned the #60 and #61 McLarens. After 50 attempts to find a colour scheme that worked with the lines of the car, Blackmore and Tony Harris finally found a design to suit the needs of the sponsors, Philip Morris, who branded the two F1 GTRs with their most popular brand in Japan, Lark. There had never been a major tobacco company to sponsor a JGTC team before. There has never been one since.

Sure, the cars looked nice, their driver lineups were stacked with a mixture of race-winning experience and raw youth and potential, but how would they fare in their first race? In a wet qualifying session, Naoki Hattori edged Érik Comas’ Castrol Cerumo Supra by just 0.011 seconds to take pole position for the #60 McLaren. John Nielsen wasn’t as lucky in the #61 McLaren, qualifying down in 13th place and four seconds off Hattori’s pace.

The #60 McLaren was fastest in both free practices on Friday, fastest in Saturday qualifying, and in Sunday morning warm-ups, the #60 led the #61 in a McLaren 1-2 – both cars over half a second quicker than the third-placed car. A perfect weekend so far. Hattori started the #60 from pole, Nielsen started the #61 from 13th.

At the start of the 52-lap, 300km race, Hattori streaked out to an early lead, as was expected. Behind him, Nielsen was putting his sports car racing experience to work in tearing through the field. He made up four places on the opening lap alone. By the end of Lap 6, he was already in fifth place.

The closest challengers to the McLarens that weekend seemed to be the Toyotas, in particular the #37 Castrol Supra of Comas and Hidetoshi Mitsusada. Once the GT500 leaders hit GT300 traffic, Comas started to chip away at Hattori’s lead, and with a graceful pass around the outside of the Hairpin Curve on Lap 12, Comas had taken the lead away from Hattori, who kept close in 2nd as Nielsen made it up to 3rd by Lap 16.

Hattori pitted at the end of Lap 22, and Ralf Schumacher went in for his first competition sports car racing laps. They successfully undercut the Castrol Cerumo Supra of Comas, which pitted on Lap 26 to yield to Mitsusada. On Lap 30, at the same hairpin where the lead previously changed hands, Schumacher swooped past Mitsusada with all the poise of his older brother – now just embarking on his first F1 season with Scuderia Ferrari – and drove away into a commanding lead.

It looked certain that the #60 McLaren would win, the #37 Toyota would finish 2nd, and the #3 Unisia JECS Skyline GT-R of Masahiro Hasemi and Tetsuya Tanaka would finish 3rd. But with two laps to go, the fuel system gave out on Mitsusada’s Castrol Supra, and Brabham, who took over the #61 McLaren for the final 28 lap stint, powered past his wounded Supra as it ground to a halt. A great run out of the Hairpin gave Brabham the tow he needed to muscle past Tanaka into the Spoon Curve and into 2nd place.

Team Lark McLaren made a statement on March 31, 1996, when their two cars scored a 1-2 finish in their debut race, and the first race for the F1 GTR. Naoki Hattori and Ralf Schumacher led every session of the weekend to win from pole position. With that, Ralf Schumacher made a bit of history: The youngest GT500 race winner in the short history of the JGTC at 20 years old, and a winner in his very first sports car race – something Ralf could hold over his brother Michael, who “only” won in his third race for the Sauber Mercedes-Benz team. Brabham and Nielsen made the comeback drive from 13th to 2nd in the final laps of the race to seal the deal.

The result was a success for Team Lark McLaren in every way. For Nissan and Toyota, it was ominous.

As the season went on, McLaren’s F1 GTR continued to wield incredible technical superiority over their GT500 rivals. On paper, they had the fastest car in the field in a landslide. Not because the GT Association (GTA), promoters of the JGTC, didn’t try to slow the cars down upon entry – Because they tried, and they really, really, needed to in order to keep this from being a total annihilation.

The McLaren F1 GTR, out of the box, would have overmatched the rest of its GT500 rivals. The 6-litre, V12 S70/2 engine in the road-going McLaren F1 put out 627 metric horsepower (PS). When the F1 GTR debuted in 1995, an air restrictor was fitted to cut it to 600 PS. That amount of power would have broken the ethos behind the GT500 name – 500, as in, the target maximum horsepower. So the McLarens of Team Lark were slashed to around 450 PS, putting it right with the Nissan Skyline GT-R and Toyota Supra GT, and still 60 PS clear of the Honda NSX GT2.

The McLaren F1’s weight combined with its power made it the fastest road-going production car from 1993 to 2004. The F1 GTR continued that lightweight ethos, weighing in at 1000 kilograms in its “unrestricted trim”. For the JGTC, however, the McLarens were asked to carry an additional 200 kilograms of minimum ballast weight, not only to make up the difference to the Nissans and Toyotas, but also to counter-balance its mid-engine layout (the current Honda NSX-GTs have a similar weight handicap in today’s Super GT).

Even with that, the two Lark McLarens went on to take pole position in all six races of the season. The man with the one-lap pace was the young phenom Schumacher, who scored four pole position laps all by himself, adding to the one from his co-driver Hattori, and the one from his teammate in the other car, Brabham.

The McLarens took fastest lap in every race, and again, Schumacher took four of them in the last four races, Hattori took one, and Brabham took one for himself.

And of course, the McLarens had the out-and-out race-winning performance to back up the one-lap pace as well. They combined to win four races. They cruised to the Teams’ Championship in 1996, beating the Toyota Castrol Team (the two Castrol Supras fielded by TOM’s and Cerumo) by 30 points. The margin between 1st and 2nd in the Teams’ Championship was as big as the gap between 2nd and 6th, covering all the frontline works Nissan and Toyota teams.

As for the drivers’ championship battle, well, there was a much different dynamic within Team Lark McLaren. On paper, with the sheer speed of Hattori and Schumacher – who, in the Formula Nippon Championship (formerly All-Japan F3000) were teammates and championship rivals all the way to seasons’ end – the #60 car should have been cruising to the Drivers’ title.

But on the fourth lap of the second race of the season, the All-Japan Fuji GT Race held during Golden Week holidays in May, Hattori was giving chase to teammate Brabham when he locked up under braking into the first corner, spinning through the infield grass, nearly collecting his teammate, and landing in the gravel and out of the race. Brabham dodged the near-wreck, and held off a late push from the TOM’s Castrol Supra of rookie Pedro de la Rosa near the end to take the win.

The #60 crew were leading with just ten laps to go in the third race at the now-defunct Sendai Hi-Land Raceway. In the only race Schumacher ever drove at the undulating 4-kilometer circuit, he took pole position and inherited the net lead after a great opening stint from Hattori – who battled, among others, the FET Power Craft Supra driven by 29-year-old Tom Kristensen. But as Schumacher was leading, he spun out, and the right-rear suspension gave out, forcing a retirement with eight to go. A scary fuel spill in the pits for the #61 meant that Brabham & Nielsen could only salvage eighth place. It was McLaren’s first loss of 1996.

At the second round at Fuji, the Japan Special GT Cup, the #61 McLaren of Brabham & Nielsen recovered from yet another poor pit stop to finish 2nd behind the #1 Calsonic Skyline GT-R of Hoshino & Kageyama. But once again, the #60 was to be the car that had the speed to win. This time, Schumacher took the opening stint. And just after Schumacher had taken the lead from Brabham, he went into the first corner, started to slide under braking, and ended up beaching his car in the gravel – just as Hattori did at the same track a few months earlier.

The Lark McLarens were the fastest team in GT500, but the rotten string of bad luck that hit the #60 team of Hattori & Schumacher meant that they entered the penultimate race of the championship at Sportsland Sugo in eighth place in the championship, and 33 points out of first place, held by Brabham & Nielsen in the #61 car.

And if any race would have undone all the potential of the McLaren F1 GTRs in 1996 as the Monsters of GT500, it would have been Sugo. For the third time, Schumacher took pole position on Saturday, and started the race on Sunday.

Schumacher knew that he was in must-win territory, and he quickly went to work building an early lead on the opening lap. Meanwhile, Brabham was running in third place, fending off the Castrol TOM’s Supra of Sekiya. As the two cars started the 2nd lap, and Brabham tried to force his way past Sekiya, the veteran Japanese closed the door on the Australian and caused the #61 McLaren to spin. Mitsusada in the #37 Castrol Supra missed hitting Brabham’s McLaren at speed. Eiichi Tajima, driving the #30 Porsche 911 GT2 for Team Take One, however, could not miss.

Brabham took the full brunt of the impact in the right-side door. The drivers’ side door in his native country. Of course, the central cockpit position prevented what could have been major injuries, and Brabham walked away, as did Tajima.

Schumacher, who by this point had just signed on the dotted line for a three-year, multi-million dollar contract for his Formula 1 debut in 1997 with Jordan Grand Prix, streaked away and dominated the race through the first 45 laps, doing what he needed to do to keep his team’s title chances alive. He then pitted and yielded to Hattori, his Formula Nippon title rival who’d now won two of the last three races and was leading the Japanese Touring Car Championship as well. Naoki Hattori was the man in form at the moment in Japan.

So nobody could have expected him to loop the car coming out of pit lane on cold tyres, and drop to fourth place in the process. That should have ended the championship push right then and there.

But then, Hattori showed why he was the man in form. He quickly got past Kageyama’s Skyline GT-R for third. He was then to chase after De la Rosa in the Castrol TOM’s Supra, and race leader Masahiko Kondo, the rock star turned racing driver, in the NISMO-run #556 Kure Skyline GT-R. De la Rosa lapped quicker than Kondo and passed him for the lead. Then De la Rosa spun off on his own with twelve laps to go, and gave the lead back to Kondo, who was now being rapidly homed in on by Hattori. With 9 laps to go, Hattori shot past Kondo into the S-Curves and never looked back.

Against all odds, Hattori and Schumacher fought back to win the race and keep their slim championship hopes alive going into the final race – a 78-lap showdown at the fast, flowing, 3.3 kilometer Central Park Miné Circuit. Schumacher had just beaten Hattori to the Formula Nippon Championship the week before, becoming the first rookie champion in Japanese Top Formula competition. If he won with his teammate at Miné, he had a chance to become the first “Double Champion” of both GT500 and Japanese Top Formula.

The two McLarens once again locked out the front row – but in the case of the championship-leading #61 McLaren of Brabham & Nielsen, it wasn’t the same car. Chassis #14R was written off at Sugo, and GTC Competition, one of the top teams from BPR Global GT, sold Team Goh their 1995 car, Chassis #04R, to run the final race. Once the Calsonic Skyline GT-R retired after spinning off on Lap 26, denying Hoshino & Kageyama a chance at taking a third straight title, it was just down to the two McLarens for the championship.

Schumacher dominated his opening stint as he did when he won both his Formula Nippon races at Miné earlier in the year. Hattori drove the closing stint without any trouble, and ended up taking the duo’s third victory of the season, setting a new single-season wins record for a team and driver combination in just the third full JGTC season.

But all Brabham and Nielsen had to do with the Calsonic Skyline’s retirement was finish fifth or better to become champion, and a fourth place finished locked up the title for the Danish-Australian tandem in their first time driving together since the 1993 24 Hours of Le Mans with Jaguar. They weren’t the faster of the two pairings, but their consistency – finishing every race bar one, their only retirement not of their own doing – put them over the top when Hattori and Schumacher retired from three straight races, offsetting their three wins.

The regular season was over. In less than a month’s time, the champions left.

The JGTC weren’t keen on seeing a trend of lopsided domination in just their third season. The GTA founded the series on competitive parity and entertainment for the fans. They did not want to see the series turn into its predecessor, the All-Japan Sports Prototype/Endurance Championship (JSPC), which was dominated by Porsche 956/962 customer teams for much of its existence, or the pre-Super Touring JTCC, which saw the R32 Skyline GT-R win every race in the top class for four straight years, and be the only car in the JTC-1 class by 1993.

Japan’s big three manufacturers – Toyota, Nissan, and the incoming Honda – weren’t keen on how much resources McLaren spent just to bury them on track in a series that was still in its formative years – not after the Japanese “bubble economy” shattered some time around 1991, and not after Group C and the JSPC were resigned to extinction due to escalating budgets.

1997 would have seen even further handicaps placed on the McLarens. Be it either further power cuts, down to less than 400 horsepower or 2/3rds of the car’s actual power potential, or even more weight added on, potentially another 100 kilos on top of the 200 kg they had to take on just to enter in 1996. It didn’t sit well with Kazumichi Goh, who felt as if the GTA was trying to ensure, after ‘96, that McLaren would never be allowed to win in ‘97. Nor did it sit well with anyone else at Team Lark McLaren. They withdrew from the 1996 JGTC All-Star Race at the all-new Central Circuit near Kobe in protest, and then, withdrew from the All-Japan GT Championship wholesale in advance of the 1997 season.

1996 was the first, and only year to date, that a non-Japanese manufacturer took the GT500 crown. Privateer-run McLaren F1 GTR “longtails” returned to the series starting in 1999, but only managed a single win at Miné, in 2001, before the car was retired in 2005.

The four-man dream team disbanded. Schumacher went on to drive for Jordan in F1 in 1997, the start of a 12-year career that saw Ralf Schumacher win six Grands Prix, but ultimately fail to reach his older brother’s historic successes – especially after injuries piled up from 2003 to 2005, and a switch to Toyota never panned out. He now manages several young single-seater drivers including his own son, David.

Hattori should have followed him with Dome Racing, but after they couldn’t get the funds together to enter the championship, the project was suspended, never to be restarted, and Hattori sought new opportunities in the CART World Series. He was the only one of the drivers who raced in JGTC/Super GT afterwards, but only after a humiliating 1999 season – his only CART campaign after two years in Indy Lights – in which he missed several months with a badly broken leg, suffered just two corners into his season.

Brabham went on to become one of the greatest endurance racers of his generation, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2009 with Peugeot, and now seeks to bring the family name back to Le Mans as a manufacturer. Nielsen started Le Mans another seven times, including a reunion with Team Goh in 2001.

Goh made victory at Le Mans his next pursuit, and in 2004, he, Tom Kristensen, Rinaldo Capello, and Seiji Ara stood on the overall top step of the podium at Le Mans, with their customer Audi R8 prototype – the R8’s fourth overall win in five years, which then became five out of six in 2005.

And, something strange happened after the Lark McLarens left after the ‘96 finale at Miné. Sure, the Japanese manufacturers kicked up a fit over the newcomers from England dominating a nascent championship, “like an F1 team entering their car in an F3 race” as one magazine was quoted as saying.

But after that, GT500 cars from Nissan, Toyota, and Honda kept getting faster and faster, with aero improvements and an escalating tyre war. Faster to the point that by the time the JGTC morphed into Super GT in 2005, GT500s were faster than the fastest GT1 cars from out west, like the Maserati MC12. The car that Kazumichi Goh planned to use to re-enter Super GT in 2006, only to abort the effort due to a sheer lack of pace that the MC12 had compared to the new generation of GT500 cars. What the MC12 had in horsepower, it would always lose in downforce in testing.

Today, GT500 cars are only bettered by the current LMP1 and LMP2 cars in terms of speed at tracks like Fuji Speedway. To the behest of some, they are less like a “true” GT car like the F1 GTR was and more like a super silhouette prototype, but they are undeniably brilliant, and ruthlessly quick machines. And they still run on commercial-grade petrol.

Almost a quarter-century later, the falling out between Goh and the GT Association (GTA) is in the past, and the proof of that is in the eagerness of the reborn Team Goh Motorsports to return to Super GT with a 720S GT3 that is now quicker than the F1 GTR, but in a GT300 class with equally matched cars, and without sacrificing nearly a third of its horsepower to get there.

Team Lark McLaren, through their dominance of the early days of the JGTC, may have been the catalyst that sent Super GT on a new trajectory to become the biggest domestic racing series in Japan. Controversial as their one and only season was at the top, they left a legacy of success.

That is the significance of the Rocket Pink and Obsidian Grey, of the team and manufacturer reuniting, and the tale of how, for one year, monsters ruled GT500.

Images by McLaren, Mobilityland Corporation, San-ei Shobo Publishing, GFWilliams Photography, and the GT Association (GTA)