The arrival of the LMGT3 class to the World Endurance Championship opened the door for several new manufacturers to enter, among them McLaren. Before the British brand fulfils its long-held ambitions to realise a Hypercar programme, it had plenty of work to get its 720S GT3 Evo ready for customer squad United Autosports.

McLaren entered the sportscar racing folklore in 1995 when it claimed an against-the-odds victory at the Le Mans 24 Hours with the F1 GTR. Running a car based on the road-going F1, which itself developed a cult following over the next two decades, the factory-supported Kokusai Kaihatsu squad capitalised on heavy rain at Circuit de la Sarthe to beat purpose-built prototypes in the biggest endurance race of all.

The story of how McLaren turned up at Le Mans with a car that was never intended to race and scored an outright win on debut has been retold many times over the years. So much so that it’s easy to forget that it’s almost been 30 years since the British outfit achieved that feat. In fact, 1998 was the last year a McLaren F1 GTR was seen at Le Mans, as the demise of the GT1 class left the car ineligible to particpate in the French enduro. Clearly, McLaren’s return to top-level sportscar racing had been long overdue.

So when World Endurance Championship organisers the FIA and the Automobile Club de l’Ouest announced that GT3 cars would be eligible to compete in the series for the first time in 2024, McLaren jumped on the opportunity to return to Le Mans and the spiritual successor to the World Sportscar Championship.

“It's 27 years since we last raced [with its factory squad in partnership with BMW] and 29 years since we last won,” says Michael McDonagh, director of McLaren Special Operations & Motorsport at McLaren Automotive. “I remember back at Le Mans [last year], I met with Richard [Mille, chairman of endurance commission], Thierry [Bouvet, ACO’s competition director] and all the team, and laid out why McLaren wanted to come back to the World Endurance Championship.

“We already had a lot of success with both Artura and 720S in GT3 and GT4 racing. And when the ACO decided that LMP2 was being pulled out, GT3 was coming back in, it was the perfect timing for us, it was just the sweet spot for that car. We are really, really excited about being part of WEC. Not just Le Mans but across the globe.”

The new LMGT3 class has offered McLaren an easy and affordable entry point into the championship, something that was lacking with the previous GTE divisions. But with the way the technical regulations are framed, manufacturers cannot simply take a GT3 car from British GT or GT World Challenge Europe and ply it in the WEC.

McLaren F1 GTR BMW at Le Mans 24H 1998

Over the winter, McLaren had to spend several months modifying the 720S GT3 Evo to make sure it was compliant with the LMGT3 rules. A rigorous testing programme followed, although some planned running in Dubai in February was effectively scrapped due to heavy rain.

“Since October we have been preparing the car,” McDonagh explains. “When we initially started, the regulations were going to be pretty clear. It was torque sensors and no wind tunnels. But as you develop, a few more regulations come in.

“The first and the biggest one [change] for us was clearly using synthetic fuels. We hadn't raced our GT3 with synthetic fuels before. Synthetic fuels can cause different parameters within the engine and for us, we saw quite a lot of oil dilution which you can't live with. So we spent a long time calibrating to get that oil dilution resolved. It’s fixed now, but a lot of sleepless nights to get there, a lot of dyno work, hub dyno work.

“The introduction of the torque sensors was also interesting for us. It’s not something we have done before. Having to get the hardware from North America, getting it on the cars, testing on the cars, it's been a challenge.”

"We spent a long time calibrating to get that oil dilution resolved. It’s fixed now, but a lot of sleepless nights to get there, a lot of dyno work, hub dyno work" 
Michael McDonagh

McLaren’s LMGT3 attack is fronted by the Anglo-American United Autosports operation, which has already made a name in prototype racing. It took a Le Mans class victory in LMP2 in 2020, helping the team to achieve the 2019-20 WEC crown alongside a double title-winning campaign in the European Le Mans Series across LMP2 and LMP3 in 2020.

United Autosports is also partly owned by Zak Brown, the CEO of McLaren Racing. But McLaren Automotive, which is responsible for running the marque’s GT3, GT4 and one-make programmes, evaluated a wide range of outfits before zeroing in on United as its WEC partner team.

“It wasn't an obvious choice,” says McDonagh. “Back in the middle of last year we looked at the number of our teams we worked with and we united them to make a proposal of how they would work with us on WEC. We set four criteria of how we would measure and I won't share that because they are a bit internal. We went through those criteria with them and United came out as the selected team.

Zak Brown at Bahrain pre-season testing 2024

“Clearly, Zak is part of the family but we put that to one side. We considered who is the best customer team to work with. And United have got such a history, particularly with WEC and Le Mans, and I think we absolutely made the right choice.”

The LMGT3 class is primarily designed as a form of customer racing, although the degree of manufacturer involvement has varied up and down the grid at the start of the 2024 season. McLaren was present at this month’s Qatar 1812Km with a sizeable team of personnel, but it intends to cut down on factory support in the coming races as United gets the hang of the updated 720S GT3 EVO.

“Here we have got four or five engineers and two managers,” McDonagh says in Qatar. “But we have got people back at our home base as well. This is the first race for us. We really want to ensure that the car is as it should be going into this race, so we have not held back on any support. Even though we are a customer racing team, we are really supporting this customer.

“On a technical basis, I don't think there should be a limit [on factory support]. If there is a fault in the car in the way it runs, the factory has to resolve that for our customer. So anything technical, we are duty-bound to support the customer.

“On the ground it's minimal support as other teams’ support as well. You are only seeing more people with us here [in Qatar] because it's the first race. But once we have got through Qatar, once we have got the sensors working that everybody is comfortable with, it will be a light touch to supporting [our team] during the race.”

One area where McLaren didn’t have any involvement in its LMGT3 programme was the driver line-up, with United independently selecting the two crews after taking financial considerations into account. The #59 entry is piloted by Carrera Cup Brazil champion Nicola Costa, British GT runner-up James Cottingham and Formula 3 convert Gregoire Saucy, while United regular Josh Caygill and ELMS race winners Nico Pino and Marino Sato form a trio in the #95 car.

“We have some people that are very close to McLaren, but we haven't supplied any factory drivers because of the whole process of the drivers paying,” says McDonagh. “The teams rely on that income. For McLaren this is not an on-cost, the teams have to fund it. That's the name of the game. So they need the income from the drivers.”

It wasn’t an easy start to McLaren’s maiden foray into WEC at the Losail International Circuit, with its two cars finishing 13th and 14th in class, several laps down on the winning Porsche. The #59 car sustained a broken rear suspension in first-lap contact that cost seven laps to repair, putting them one spot behind the #95 crew that was hampered by technical issues and two penalties for track limits infringements.

United Autosports McLaren 720S LMGT3 Evo at WEC Losail 2024

But McLaren has high ambitions from its biggest sportscar racing programme in three decades, as one would expect from a brand which has so much success in Formula 1, IndyCar and the now-defunct Can-Am series. While McDonagh wants to taper expectations this year, given it’s completely new to the series, he hinted at some grand plans that McLaren is working on for 2025.

“We are clearly here to win,” declares McDonagh. “That's what we are setting out to do. We have to be realistic, it's the first season. We need to prove the endurance of the car.

“If I look beyond '24, 2025 is a massive year for us. It's 30 years since we were at Le Mans [for the first time]. So we are going to learn as much as we can this year to leave us in a good place for next year. I can't go into the details but '25 is going to be a big year for McLaren in motorsport.”

McLaren gave the 720S GT3 a mid-cycle refresh at the start of 2023, before making further changes to the car towards the back end of the year to make it compliant to the LMGT3 regulations. The 720S road car has since been discontinued from McLaren’s range and replaced by the new, more powerful 750S model. As such, the British marque refers to the racing version of the car as simply the McLaren GT3 Evo.

"[Hypercar] is an aspiration we do intend on filling at a point in time. That point in time is not quite right yet. But it's not that far away"
Michael McDonagh

Further, McLaren has already decided which model will form the basis of its next sportscar contender. While it is unwilling to go public about the 720S’s successor just yet, as it could still be several years away, the new Artura coupe could be a part of McLaren’s roadmap.

Beyond GT3 racing, a Hypercar programme still remains on the table, with McDonagh insisting that the project will eventually get off the ground at some point in the future. He reckons the LMDh formula will be the one McLaren “would target in a likelihood”, a choice that has already proven popular with a number of manufacturers that are either new or returning to top-class endurance racing.

“It's no secret that [Hypercar] has always been an aspiration of ours,” he says. “And it's an aspiration we do intend on filling at a point in time. That point in time is not quite right yet. But it's not that far away. Just keep your eyes peeled and maybe in the next years we will be doing something.”

While a Hypercar effort could be a few years down the line as the project awaits the green light from the top brass at Woking, in less than two months the McLaren logo will return to La Sarthe for the first time since 1998. In an LMGT3 class that already comprises sportscar racing heavy-weights such as Porsche, Corvette and Aston Martin, the presence of a revered British brand like McLaren will only add to the charm of Le Mans.

United Autosports McLaren 720S LMGT3 Evo at WEC Losail 2024