Has a new McLaren Cycle Begun?

Atlas F1

Has a new McLaren Cycle Begun?

by Brendan Duck, Australia

All the signs are there that 1998 is just the beginning, the past may help us decide..

There has been many reactions to McLaren’s dominance of the this year’s World Championship. Surprise, accusations of cheating and even hatred directed at the Woking team, but if we look at McLaren’s performance since Ron Dennis took over in 1981, one cannot help but think this was the year McLaren was always going to have. They not only know how to win races, but how to dominate championships.

In 1981 Ron Dennis and his Project Four organisation took over a McLaren team that had been struggling since James Hunt had driven for them in 1976-77. He immediately set John Barnard to work on a revolutionary new carbon fibre chassis. With John Watson and Andrea De Cesaris behind the wheel, as well as Ford power behind them, the team managed to make progress - Watson won at Silverstone recording the first win for a carbon fibre tub. 1982 saw even more improvement with Dennis luring retired Niki Lauda back after a two year “break” setting up his now famous airline. The team picked up 4 wins, Watson only missing out on the title to Keke Rosberg’s Williams by 5 points. The momentum slowed in 1983 with a Watson-Lauda 1-2 at Long beach the only highlight - remarkable seeing the pair had qualified 22nd and 23rd! The end of the season did see the debut of the McLaren-Tag turbo powered car, which showed potential, a potential that would be proven in 1984....

After almost winning the title with Renault the previous year, Alain Prost had fallen out with the French team and was quickly snapped up by Dennis - replacing the unlucky John Watson. To control the Turbo cars a fuel limit was introduced. This helped the TAG-Porche powered McLaren, with Porche having vast endurance-race experience to draw from. At last Ron Dennis had a complete package - two more than competent drivers, a strong engine, a quick chassis and superior Michelin rubber (sound familiar?). It was a package that would dominate 1984 with the team recording 12 wins (Prost 7 - Lauda 5), and winning the Constructors’ Cup with 143.5 points - the next closest team was Ferrari (still sound familiar?) with only 57.5 points! 1984 was also the year the smallest championship winning margin was recorded. Lauda won that year with 72 points - Prost finished with 71.5, the half point coming from Monaco when the race was stopped due rain, the same race a young charging Brazilian perhaps should have won...

The next two years saw McLaren continue their dominance with Prost winning both the 1985 and 1986 World Driver Championships and McLaren winning both Constructors’ Cups. It took the Honda powered Williams cars of Piquet and Mansell to put a stop to McLaren, winning both titles in 1987. Yet all the success that McLaren had enjoyed so far was only a prelude to the explosive years that were 1988 and 1989.

Before the season had even started Ron Dennis must have been thanking his lucky stars every night, for 1988 saw the bringing together of perhaps the most complete package ever to be seen in post World War II Grand Prix racing- many (myself amongst them) will go so far as to say that a team of this calibre will never be seen again. Dennis had managed to bring two of the greatest drivers together, Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, and in doing so secured the use of the immensely powerful and drivable Honda turbo engines (Senna had brought these over from Lotus - as well as convincing Honda not to supply Williams). The team lived up to all the hype and managed to win 15 of the 16 races, score 199 points and help Senna to his first World Drivers’ Championship. 1989 continued in pretty much the same fashion, this time Prost winning. It was this year that things disintegrated between Senna and Prost, so at the end of the season Prost left to join Ferrari and took the number 1 with him.

McLaren, with Senna and Berger, continued to win Championships until Williams took over there dominance in 1992. It was lean times once more for Ron Dennis’ team, although with Senna behind the wheel there was always a chance of victory, indeed Senna was to record the teams last victory for 3 years with a stunning drive at Adelaide in 1993.

When, after a year of Mercedes engines, David Coulthard was signed to the team it was the first time the team had two properly signed drivers since 1992. Indeed since that year McLaren had 3 different engines (Ford, Peugeot and Mercedes) and no fewer than 6 different drivers (Senna, Michael Andretti, Hakkinen, Brundle, Mansell and Blundell). They were not most stable of years! Progress was made in 1996, but there was change again when the teams sponsor of over 20 years, Marlboro decided to take it’s cash to Ferrari and, of course, Schumacher.

1997 was the year McLaren started to fight back, at last the team was winning again, both drivers were performing well, the Mercedes engine was developing into one of the most powerful, and perhaps Ron Dennis’ smartest move - the nabbing of design ace (he is an ace - it says so when I play Grand Prix Manager!) Adrian Newey from Williams. All combining to point the way towards a promising 1998.. A promise that appears to have been for-filled.

So will McLaren continue to dominate towards the year 2000? They have the package and company structure to so, but one can never be too sure as long as Michael Schumacher is still driving for another team. Regulations could also play a part, although the team successfully saw off the end of the turbo era by staying on top. It is almost written in stone that Ron Dennis and his German backers will get their wish - Michael Schumacher will drive for Silver Arrows perhaps hatching a 1988 style dominance, but when?

Only time, and perhaps Bernie, will tell...

Brendan Duck
Send comments to: bduck01@postoffice.csu.edu.au