The fall and rise of McLaren

The fall and rise of McLaren
by Toby Waller

Think back to the late 1980's ... Done that? Good - now what do you see? If you're thinking along the same lines as me, then you're probably seeing the red and white Marlboro McLaren Hondas dominating the rest of the field. Between 1984 and 1991, the team won seven of the eight drivers' championships - Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Niki Lauda the drivers doing the winning. Since those glory days, however, the team have slipped from being the team to beat, and joined Benetton and Ferrari in the quest to oust the Williams drivers from the top step of the podium. At the end of the 1993 season, Ayrton Senna provided a last win for the team he was leaving and, in doing so, gave the team a farewell present to beat any other - the title of the most winningest team in the championship's history. The 104th victory for McLaren placed them one ahead of Ferrari in the all time stakes - the Italian marque had been competing a darn sight longer, remember. But, over the past few years, Ferrari have regained that distinction, and now Williams are beginning to threaten McLaren's consolation spot. So what went wrong, and will 1997 be the season that McLaren finally take the step up to the top podium once more.

After having dominated the late eighties, it was becoming clear in 1991 that the opposition - most notably Williams - were beginning to catch up. At the end of 1992, after having lost both the drivers' and constructors' championships to the Renault powered team, Honda packed their bags and quit Formula One. Senna was also on the verge of quitting, but was persuaded by team-boss Ron Dennis to race the 1993 contender - now powered by a Ford customer unit. The engine was lacking a certain oomph, but Senna's test times at Silverstone convinced the Brazilian that there was sufficient untapped potential in the car to tempt him back. The car struggled against the opposition, but Senna raced it as best he could and took five brilliant victories - often out-racing the more superior Williams and, most embarrassingly of all for Ford, the works team, Benetton. The change of engine showed in the poor car design, but the designers would spend another winter catching up for 1994. Try as he might to persuade Ford that McLaren was the better bet for championship glory, Dennis was forced to attract the attentions of Peugeot. Senna jumped ship to Williams, and the team were left with a driver combination who, for the first time in several years, lacked a race winner or title holder. The engine was new, and consequently lacked the power and reliability to make it an instant race winner. A spate of retirements and poor finishes meant that McLaren would be looking elsewhere once more for their 1995 propulsion. After two years of struggling to maintain engine continuity, Dennis finally managed to secure a long term, five-year deal with Mercedes. The added bonus of Nigel Mansell - fresh from racing Indycars in the States - pretty much guaranteed the package: Mercedes had been in Formula One for several years and could develop their engine from previous experience; Mansell would provide valuable input to the testing equation, and help the talented Mika Hakkinen mature and develop; the designers could now evolve the car alongside engineers from Mercedes over several seasons, and gradually hone a race winner. The future looked bright. The team wore shades.

It all went wrong at the first test: the car was a dog; the innovative mid-wing hampered rather than optimised the aerodynamics and the innovative Mercedes engine was also somewhat lacking. To cap it all, it was quickly discovered that the monocoque was a bit on the small side for Mansell's unique driving position. It was announced that Mansell would sit out the first few races - and eventually the remainder of the season - whilst a new chassis was built to accommodate his frame. Mika Hakkinen, and Mansell's replacement, Mark Blundell, tried as hard as they could through the season and, by the end, the car was beginning to look vaguely competitive. With David Coulthard joining Hakkinen in the team, as well as the continuing partnership with Mercedes allowing sustained development, things were looking promising for McLaren in '96. Then came Friday qualifying in Adelaide. Mika Hakkinen's huge crash shocked not only the team, but the whole paddock. Ron Dennis quickly confirmed that there was no question about the team's commitment to Hakkinen for '96 - if the Finn were sufficiently recovered. After having spent two seasons gradually building a competitive base upon which to mount a serious challenge, one of their drivers was out of action and things were looking pretty bleak for the team. So how come McLaren look to be on the verge of race glory once more?

It is often said that four things contribute to a race winning package: chassis; engine; drivers and team personnel. Over the winter between the '95 and '96 campaigns, McLaren and Mercedes set about improving each of these factors. Alain Prost was recruited to the team to act as a bridge between the engineers and drivers - a valuable role when engineers and younger drivers often find it difficult to understand each other's requirements at the best of times. Prost would also use the experience gained in his four world championships to coach the drivers in attitude and approach. Many scoffed, but Coulthard and Hakkinen are quick to praise the benefit it has brought and point out the similarities with many other sports - after all, golfers and tennis players have coaches and all they do is hit balls. The engine was built on the successful base of the '95 unit but, with improved experience, would work better first time out. Mercedes also used an interactive test bench for the engine that allowed it to simulate the course of a Grand Prix race many times in a day - a valuable addition in the quest for fine tuning and reliability. The drivers also honed their talents. David Coulthard had pretty much developed into the complete driver at Williams, but spent the off-season pounding round test circuits to get a feel for the team and their modus operandi. Hakkinen recovered rapidly and tested the '95 car at Paul Ricard early in 1996 - the results were impressive. Criticised before for his lack of testing input, Hakkinen appeared to have lost none of his natural speed or car control, but gained a bundle of maturity. With Prost also driving the '95 car, the team gained valuable lessons and were soon setting competitive times around the world. . With the '96 car looking competitive and the driver line up restored, the team went to Melbourne with high hopes.

First impressions were mixed. Hakkinen performed brilliantly, Coulthard struggled - both had problems with the set-up of the car. By the time the European portion of the season started, problems with the front wing assembly had been sorted and the team were looking like one of the top four once more. After leading on merit at San Marino, Coulthard has battled with Hakkinen for number one honours throughout the season but the opposition have pulled away once more. Whilst the TV cameras have been concentrating on the Ferraris and the battling Williams pair, though, the McLaren drivers have been putting in a series of drives that have shown the potential of the team for the future. The Mercedes engine is powerful, and regularly heads the top speed charts. The ability of Hakkinen and Coulthard to match the front runners' pace at Spa, despite being on a heavier fuel load - a cunning strategy neatly scuppered by the safety car - certainly bodes well for the chassis. The team were predicted to perform well at Monza, but their race was dominated, like everyone, by tyre problems - and not the ones on the four corners of the car. In the early stages, Hakkinen appeared able to sufficiently match the pace of Jean Alesi and Michael Schumacher with a similar fuel load. The 40s that he finished behind Alesi is no reflection on the car, more a consequence of the unnecessary stop and the subsequent laps behind Pedro Diniz and Johnny Herbert. If Hakkinen hadn't damaged his front wing, and either Schumacher or Alesi had retired...

But that's not the story in Formula One. With Coulthard staying with the team for '97, and either Hakkinen, Damon Hill or Ralf Schumacher in the second seat, the team will have a competitive driver line-up. With yet another year with Mercedes under their belts, the design team should be able to produce another competitive car. With Adrian Newey lured away from Williams, the aerodynamics on the car should be second to none. There is also the benefits of sponsorship by West and possibly Bitburger. The loss of the Marlboro red and white is a disappointment, and will be sorely missed by all true Formula One fans, but the return of McLaren to the winners podium will be most welcome. The rise continues ...

Toby Waller
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