Ranking McLaren's 5 Most Surprising Driver Hires

Scott MitchellContributor INovember 13, 2013

Ranking McLaren's 5 Most Surprising Driver Hires

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    Given the ongoing debate over McLaren's 2014 Formula One driver line-up, it seems appropriate to take a look back at its "transfer" history.

    It seems as though rookie Kevin Magnussen will follow in the footsteps of father Jan in making his Grand Prix debut with the team.

    Magnussen (Kevin) is arguably the leading light of junior single-seater racing after winning the Formula Renault 3.5 championship in his debut year.

    But does that make him ready for a seat at McLaren?

    Inexperience is not the sole critique of a surprise signing. So take a look at my list of the top five drivers I was most surprised to see arrive in Woking.

Honourable Mentions

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    Blundell joined as McLaren was in a minor slump.
    Blundell joined as McLaren was in a minor slump.Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

    There are good cases to be made for several drivers not in the top five, and one of those is at the centre of the current debate.

    The decision to hire Sauber driver Sergio Perez as Lewis Hamilton's replacement raised eyebrows for three reasons: his reputation (Was scoring podiums with Sauber good enough?); concerns over his Mexican backing buying him the seat and the fact he had long been rumoured a future Ferrari driver.

    A little over 10 years prior to that, McLaren signed another surprise Sauber youngster: Kimi Raikkonen. The Finn had ended an impressive debut year in 10th, not bad for a man straight out of Formula Renault UK. Still, it was a big gamble from McLaren, though Raikkonen challenged for the title in his second season.

    Working back chronologically, Mark Blundell could be argued as a strange decision on hindsight (What did he ever achieve?), but at the time he'd scored podiums in uncompetitive Tyrrells and Ligiers and was a winner at Le Mans.

    Fifteen years further back and a rookie was making his F1 debut with McLaren. That was none other than Alain Prost, though this is less exceptional because McLaren was in a slump, and Prost was thought to galvanise the squad, as he was arriving as the ’79 F3 Euro champion and Monaco GP winner.

    Star of the cinema screen, James Hunt, turned heads when he signed for McLaren in 1976 after years with the privately run Hesketh squad. Hunt had a formidable reputation as a driver who shunted a lot and only had one win to his name. But McLaren gambled and was richly rewarded.

    Hunt beat Ferrari race-winner and multiple sportscar champion Jacky Ickx to that drive. The Ferrari star almost makes this list by virtue of his one-off in Germany in 1973. But he was well established then as a safe pair of hands, so he misses out.  

5. Jenson Button, 2010

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    Button was walking into a team built around Hamilton.
    Button was walking into a team built around Hamilton.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

    What had he done before?

    2009 world champion with Brawn GP.

     

    Why was it a surprise?

    Why is a world championship-winning driver joining a race-winning team a surprise in any sense?

    Because Jenson Button was walking into a team centred entirely on Lewis Hamilton.

    Button had also been at Brawn/Honda/BAR since 2003, riding the highs and surviving the lows with the Brackley-based squad until its phoenix-like rise to the 2009 drivers' and constructors' titles.

    With a deal still looking likely, the bombshell came: Button was going to take on Hamilton.

    Bear in mind at this point that Hamilton had driven Fernando Alonso out of the team as a rookie and had comprehensively beaten Heikki Kovalainen (on the way to the 2008 world title) as well.

    All credit to Button for taking the leap and pitting himself up against a world-class driver in his perfect and tailored environment. 

    Even more credit for matching him, if not beating him overall, during their three years together.

4. Emerson Fittipaldi, 1974

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    Emmo was Lotus' star, but switched in '74.
    Emmo was Lotus' star, but switched in '74.Getty Images/Getty Images

    What had he done before?

    1972 Formula One world champion.

     

    Why was it a surprise?

    Emerson Fittipaldi was the golden boy of Lotus in the early 1970s.

    After winning the 1972 title, he finished second in 1973 with more wins to his name.

    But he should have been champion in '73, for the Lotus was the superior car, but the hiring of Ronnie Peterson meant the two drivers took points off one another and the lesser Tyrrell of Jackie Stewart claimed the title.

    After four years in F1 with Lotus' team, winning nine races in total, 1974 beckoned a change of scenery. And it was McLaren that provided it.

    Furthermore, Fittipaldi was taking Marlboro millions with him: Yes, the Brazilian was the reason for those iconic liveries.

    Surprising? Yes. Successful? Definitely. Emmo won the title and was second the following year.

3. Michael Andretti, 1993

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    Andretti was a rookie - at 31!
    Andretti was a rookie - at 31!

    What had he done before?

    ChampCar stalwart and 1991 champion.

     

    Why was it a surprise?

    Because Michael Andretti had no F1 experience.

    He was 31 and, even at that age, a veteran of American single-seater racing.

    Champion in 1991 and several times a runner-up, Andretti had shown little inclination to following in legendary father Mario's footsteps despite proving himself one of America's greatest drivers of his generation.

    But sign for McLaren he did, and the experiment was less than successful. Regulations were introduced to restrict the amount of running on a Grand Prix weekend, which seriously hampered his learning process.

    With just three points finishes, he was replaced by test driver Mika Hakkinen for the final races of the year.

    The young Finn immediately shone where Andretti had failed to sparkle.

2. Denny Hulme, 1968

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    Hulme brought the No.1 to McLaren.
    Hulme brought the No.1 to McLaren.Getty Images

    What had he done before?

    1967 Formula One world champion.

     

    Why was it a surprise?

    The Kiwi was basking in the glory of being crowned the best driver in the world after three years with the crack Brabham squad culminated in the title in 1967.

    So, where next for 1968? Ah, the newly formed McLaren team—wait, what?

    McLaren (Bruce, that is) scored just three points in 1967 as Hulme took the championship. So what would drive him to go from the best team, which had won the title twice in a row, to one of the new guys?

    McLaren (the team, that is) had only been formed officially for 1966 and McLaren (Bruce, again) was its sole driver for the first two years.

    One word: McLaren. (Bruce, again!)

    His fellow Kiwi had an attraction about him, one that engendered belief and confidence. Hulme made the switch, and the team suddenly stepped up a gear: Hulme was third in the championship with two wins, McLaren fifth with one, and the team finished second in the constructors'.

    It was the beginning of a six-year career together, and while Hulme would not challenge for further titles, he won another three Grands Prix.

1. Niki Lauda, 1982

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    Lauda's return was surprising and sensational.
    Lauda's return was surprising and sensational.Adrian Murrell/Getty Images

    What had he done before?

    Retired as two-time Formula One world champion in 1975 and 1977.

     

    Why was it a surprise?

    Where to start?

    Having cheated death in 1976 and retiring three years later as a double world champion to pursue his interests in aviation, Lauda's F1 career was over.

    It should have been over before, but the Austrian had unbelievably recovered from his horrifying Nurburgring crash in 1976 to narrowly miss out that year's title, and then continued until he was champion in 1977.

    After his stellar Ferrari stint (15 wins, two titles), he became a race winner with Brabham before retiring in 1979.

    Then, for 1982, he was back! And in a McLaren!

    Lauda's aviation investments had hit trouble, and his business acumen kicked in. He knew where he could make money: by driving very well, very quickly, very successfully.

    It's surprising to see any driver U-turn on retirement. But after everything he had been through, it was downright remarkable.

    What was the result? Two wins in his first year back and the 1984 world title. Incredible, and what a surprise it was.