The #88 McLaren 720S GT3 in the hands of Marvin Kirchhöfer crossed the finish line at the final Asian Le Mans Series race in Abu Dhabi in third place on Sunday afternoon, taking the first McLaren 720S podium for the team since switching marques at the end of 2021.
The final two rounds of the Asian Le Mans Series took place at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi and both car crews were gunning for a top result.
Qualifying was a challenge after all of the McLarens were handed a Balance of Performance adjustment after Dubai; particularly tough on Garage 59 as the team is still learning the new car. Nicolai Kjærgaard managed a pair of 20th positions for the #59 McLaren while Marvin Kirchhöfer took 17th on the grid for Race 1 and a determined 12th for Race 2.
It was Kirchhöfer at the wheel of the #88 McLaren for the start of Saturday’s race and the German wasted no time in moving up the order. A full course yellow was thrown half an hour into the race and Kirchhöfer, already all the way up to sixth place, pitted under yellows and rejoined. He then continued to pick off the cars ahead before taking the lead of the race not long after the one hour mark. In the #59 McLaren, James Vowles had made a good start and made steady progress all the way up from 20th to 15th before handing the car over to Manuel Maldonado just before the first hour was up.
The drivers all had a long, unscheduled stop during the second hour when the red flag was thrown as a car had gone off and caught fire. The driver was unharmed but the mess left behind on the track by the extinguishant took a while to clear. It was another half an hour before racing resumed.
Kirchhöfer pitted almost immediately to hand the #88 McLaren over to Alexander West, who rejoined in 11th and worked hard to maintain position against a field of pros. He was doing great until a quick spin put him down to 15th but he regained his composure and recovered to 13th before handing over to Frank Bird for the run to the flag. Unfortunately Bird had to endure a two second stop-go penalty as the pit stop was judges to be too quick. Despite a determined effort and some amazing pace, he had to settle for 14th at the chequered flag.
In the #59 McLaren, Maldonado completed his run and handed the car over to Nicolai Kjærgaard. The Dane rejoined in 15th place and managed to get up to 13th before the flag fell after four hours of racing.
In the #88 McLaren, Alexander West took the start for Race 2 from 12th place on the grid. It was a case of mission accomplished as he held position with another strong run and brought the car in at the one hour mark, during a full course yellow, to hand over to Frank Bird.
Frank was off again at a furious pace and before too long was all the way up to fourth place. Strategies were split from that first full course yellow so it wouldn’t be clear where everyone was until the closing laps of the race. After a quick pit stop, also under yellows, Bird emerged in third place and made light work of the #7 McLaren ahead of him, taking second place.
The #59 McLaren meanwhile had a troubled start. Maldonado got off the line well and made up six places but all too soon there was unavoidable contact and he had to pit with a broken damper. He rejoined the race but four laps down with a mountain to climb.
With 1.5 hours to go, Kirchhöfer jumped into the #88 McLaren, joining the race in fourth position. He took third with 40 minutes left on the clock and even took the lead for a while but couldn’t hold off the charge of the two Porsches that would go on to finish first and second. He crossed the line in third, taking the team’s first podium with the new car.
After good stints by James Vowles and then Nicolai Kjærgaard, the #59 McLaren crossed the line in 19th place.
“I’m very happy to leave Abu Dhabi with our first trophy with the McLaren 720S,” said team principal Andrew Kirkaldy. “The team have all worked extremely hard to learn a new car and manage the tight turnaround required between the Dubai and Abu Dhabi races. We came here to learn the car and develop our understanding so we are ready to be competitive in the forthcoming European season. The drivers all did an excellent job. In the #88, Alex has improved again over the winter, Marvin is as fast as ever and Frank did a great job, especially as it was his first time racing in GTs. Manuel had some bad luck in the #59 McLaren but made huge improvements as he got used to the switch from prototypes to GTs. Nicolai improves with every race and it was great to have James with us; I think he has learnt a lot about GT racing over this past couple of weekends.”
The Garage 59 team will now return to the UK to prepare for the GT World Challenge Europe race season. Driver line-ups for the two McLarens will be announced soon.