Last Friday’s announcement of the new shared regulations between the FIA World Endurance Championship and the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship was welcomed throughout the motorsport world.

The new class – named LMDh – is set to strengthen both championships, creating the potential for a huge increase in numbers at the front of the field in sports car racing’s two most iconic events: the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The news would have been also been welcomed down in Woking. For while McLaren may not currently have an in-house sports car operation, its focus naturally being on Formula 1, it has made no secret of its desire to establish one in the future.

And the chance to complete a new ‘Triple Crown of Motorsport’ feat has now become a real possibility.

Talk of the Triple Crown has intensified in recent years thanks to Fernando Alonso’s exploits. The Spaniard is now just one victory short of emulating Graham Hill’s feat of winning the Monaco Grand Prix, the 24 Hours of Le Mans and the Indianapolis 500, the last-mentioned being the only trophy missing from his cabinet. Another shot is planned this May, albeit not with McLaren following the expiration of their agreement at the end of last year.

But the desire to complete the Triple Crown was not Alonso’s alone. His initial entry to the Indy 500 in 2017 was encouraged and facilitated by Zak Brown, McLaren Racing CEO – a role title notably not restricted to Formula 1 – who explained to Crash.net back in September that it was a “crazy idea” to begin with.

“I was new to the job,” Brown said. “But when I presented it to the board, they immediately understood why I wanted to do it. There was no convincing them, they said ‘that’s a great idea’. And it was exciting because people don’t race in multiple motorsports. They view it differently. I’ve got a more open mind.

“I think it’s great that race car drivers drive in different formulas, so I think it was mainly refreshing for the sport to see something that really hadn’t been done since Jim Clark raced. It created a lot of excitement around the McLaren brand, and I think it created a lot of excitement in motorsports.”

The hubbub over the 2017 Indy 500 entry was a much-needed good news story amid the final act of the McLaren-Honda tragedy that played out that year. But the opposite was true in 2019. As fortunes turned sharply upwards in F1, the return to Indianapolis descended into farce as McLaren and Alonso failed to qualify following a series of operational errors.

Undeterred, McLaren announced in August it would be entering IndyCar full-time from 2020 in partnership with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports, rebranding the team as Arrow McLaren SP. The philosophy of placing trust in youth that served its F1 team so well in 2019 with Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris was carried over to IndyCar through the signing of the two most recent Indy Lights champions, Pato O’Ward and Oliver Askew – a clear sign of the symbiotic relationship McLaren will hope to foster between the programmes.

Putting the IndyCar project together was something Brown felt comfortable doing upon completion of his new management structure on the F1 project, spearheaded by ex-Porsche WEC chief Andreas Seidl. “My job is not to run the racing team, that is Andreas’ job,” Brown said. “Until Andreas arrived, until [technical director] James Key arrived, you fill in the gaps, and once I got them in place, and I feel they are doing a really good job, it allowed me to do what my remit is which is to be CEO of McLaren Racing and build out our racing portfolio.

“We have a lot of work to do, but I now have the right people in place which allows me to start building out slowly, opportunistically, when the time is right, other forms of racing.”

This expansion is part of what Brown has often called the “McLaren solar system” within the motorsport “galaxy” where each programme fulfils a different purpose: “The biggest planet is Formula 1. Then you’ve got IndyCar, which really is all about North America. You’ve got sports car racing, which is really all about our automotive business. You’ve got Esports, which is about your younger audience. Our applied technology business is supplying the battery to Formula E, that gives us that electrification message. If you look at that in total, that’s an exciting portfolio of McLaren racing activities.”

Helping fuel Brown’s drive to return McLaren to the top of global motorsport is some personal ambition.

“McLaren is the only team to have won the Triple Crown. My own personal goal is that I’d love to win each of those championships and each of the big races,” Brown said.

“I know that it will take a while to try and accomplish that, but I’m here for the long term. I love my job, and there is no place I would rather be than where I am now. Everyone has their racing goals, their individual goals. My individual goal is clearly to win as many championships as possible in those three racing series.”

McLaren’s links to sports car racing’s highest level are historically strong. It took overall victory at Le Mans in 1995, completing the brand’s own Triple Crown after previous Indy and Monaco wins, and famously raced in Can-Am through the late 1960s and early ‘70s with considerable success. It still enjoys a presence in sports cars via customer teams in GT3 and GT4 racing.

Brown also has deep-rooted links in sports cars. He is the co-founder of the United Autosports team that races across numerous categories up to LMP2, and has previously raced himself across various sports car series in the UK and the US. Both Alonso and current McLaren F1 driver Lando Norris featured for United Autosports in the Rolex 24 at Daytona back in 2018.

McLaren was a firm fixture in discussions regarding the future of the WEC’s premier class right the way through to confirmation of the Hypercar category at Le Mans last year. Brown said he was “pleased with the direction” the rules were taking, with a potential entry to the category set to be mulled over by management in the following months alongside McLaren’s automotive arm.

Yet doubt always lingered so long as a global formula could not be agreed on. Brown was clear at the end of last year that if McLaren were to return to Le Mans and establish a factory sports car programme, it would have to be with a car that could race across series, much as the GTE manufacturers operate in both WEC and IMSA.

Following the announcement at Daytona, Brown tweeted: “Major positive news for global sportscar racing from ACO and IMSA today. Great vision and collaboration to create better racing and therefore better entertainment for fans. The dawn of a new era for sports cars.”

An era McLaren will be part of? A final decision still needs to be made, naturally, but the odds are far better than they were a few months ago. In a couple of years’ time, it would not be a surprise to see cars decked in McLaren papaya racing on three fronts: F1, IndyCar and WEC. It could contend for a calendar Triple Crown.

That is something no other manufacturer is doing or looks likely to do any time soon, potentially setting McLaren apart in global motorsport once more.

 

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