Formula 1: McLaren Mercedes More Than 40 Years in the Making

Ben AutySenior Writer IJune 15, 2008

The story starts with a Kiwi, no not the fruit, the people who are born in New Zealand. Bruce McLaren was his name, born in 1937 he was a race car designer, a driver, an engineer and an inventor. He lived and died doing what he loved and what he did best, racing. He was a very well established driver with numerous great titles under his belt. Bruce was a winner of 5 constructor’s championships between 1967 and 1972. He won the Indy 500 three times. Plus to top it all he won Le Mans 24 and the Sebring 12. He was quite a guy once he got behind a wheel.

McLaren raced its first Grand Prix in 1966 in Monaco and it only completed 9 laps after an oil leak on the car. Jackie Stewart went on to win the race in his BRM after 100 laps on the streets of Monte Carlo. How times have changed. The whole 66 program was plagued by numerous problems, more specifically with the poor engine choice. He was using a short stroke version of the Ford Indy engine, while it sounded like a Shelby AC Cobra going through the tunnel in Monaco (Sexy) it lacked power and consequently didn’t get the job done.

The team had to wait until 1968 before getting the taste of the bubbles at the top of the podium. How did it happen? Well the team had developed its own chassis, the M7, a Cosworth powered car. You hear the name Cosworth and you know this is where the magic is going to happen (All we need now is Paul Daniels and Debbie McGee and its game on). The team now consisted of 2 drivers, Bruce himself and Denny Hulme, the reigning Formula 1 World Champion at the time.

Spa-Francorchamps is the location in Belgium starting the race 6thon the grid it seemed like he had a battle on his hands but Bruce persevered and 28 laps later took that chequered flag. McLaren was established as a winning team. Where was Jackie Stewart now? Well down in 4th place, he had ran out of fuel on the penultimate lap. Maybe it was something to do with a safety car? (If only they had SC speed limiters) The story isn’t all rosy from here, there are dark times ahead.

Moving onto the 1970’s the decade started out somewhat grim for the outfit with the death of founder and driver Bruce McLaren. He died at the wheel of a new car he was testing. The M8D Can Am car. Bruce was travelling at approximately 170MPH when a fastener for the rear bodywork failed and the entire piece was detached from the car. The car spun into a concrete marshal post and Bruce McLaren was killed instantly.

Skip forward a few years when McLaren where winless in 1970 and 1971 due mainly to the domination of Jackie Stewart and Jochen Rindt. McLaren decide in 1972 to abandon the Can Am series and concentrate solely on Formula 1, thank god they did because Can Am ceased itself in 1974 with McLaren being the most successful constructor in the series history.

The cars we know and love today started to really take shape during this period, the first of the few big ones being the M16. This was one of the first cars to have the engine entirely ahead of the rear axle. The car also wore prominent front and rear wings. This then evolved into the (LEGENDARY)M23 designed by Gordon Coppuck for the 1973 season.  It was described to be the front of an M16 and the back of an M19. It was a car that was a chip of the old Lotus 72 block in the shape of a cheese wedge but with far more technological advances including a better suspension and improved aerodynamics.

In 1974 McLaren achieved their first Formula 1 World Constructors Championship and their first Driver Champion in the shape of the Emerson Fittipaldi, the Young Brazilian who had previously won the championship 2 years earlier with Lotus.  This was also the year that Yardley cosmetics was replaced as the team sponsor by Marlboro Cigarettes giving the car the well known red and white livery we all recognise today. Things where indeed looking up in the McLaren camp.

The Drivers Championship would again come McLarens way in 1976 where the legendary James Hunt beat Niki Lauda by a single point. Hunt won 3 times in 1977 and these would be the last wins for McLaren for the decade as the team plunged into unsuccessful times.

The current team as we know it today was a merger of 2 teams. Bruce McLaren Motor Racing and Project Four Racing, the 2 merged in 1981 when the current team principle Ron Dennis shook hands on a deal to bring together the expertise of PFR a successful Formula 2 outfit and the old McLaren team which was struggling at the time.

McLaren at the time of the merger in 1981 had not won a Grand Prix since 1977 with that legendary race driver James Hunt. They had just finished the last championship in a lowly 7th place in the constructor’s championship.  Things were not looking so great until now. Ron Dennis is a very clinical man who likes things done his way and he likes them done properly.

This was when McLarens most successful period begins to take shape and the kicking block really was in 1984 with the legendary design of the MP4/2 the first chassis to be made entirely from carbon fibre composites which proved to be a very strong partnership when paired with the Porsche/TAG engine. Alongside this engine was a glitzy list of legendary drivers to really stamp McLarens dominance in the 80’s and early 90’s. Drivers such as Alain Prost, Niki Lauder, Keke Rosberg and Stefan Johansson where behind the wheel in these machines that where comparable to the Ferraris of the modern day.

The most memorable partnership and probably the most successful but some would say at times controversial partnership had to be Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. These two guys dominated the scene from 1989 in the 3.5 litre naturally aspirated engine MP4/5. The two men never did really see eye to eye and one can only wonder would they have buried the hatchet by now? Their rivalry went as far as a collision between the two in Japan which cost Senna the title but handed it on a platter to Prost. It was a bitter feud which seemed to benefit the team awarding them with 2 back to back titles under the 2 drivers.

The supremacy continued as Senna was teamed up with Gerhard Berger in 1990 and the team won a further 2 championships. But these two wins where the last championships that the team would win. Between then and now a McLaren only won the championship on one occasion. That was in 1998 with Mika Hakkinen in the West McLaren Mercedes.

Speaking of West as a side note, the sponsorship deal was begun at the end of a racing era, the end of the Marlboro sponsorship. The cars as we know them today are still based on those good times although the guys at McLaren won’t tell you that. All car chassis numbers are prefix MP4/x or MP4-x. This initially stood for McLaren Marlboro Project 4. However it is now conveniently said to stand for McLaren Project 4. The famous Red and White livery had its time, it ran from 1974 through to 1996 and became what many consider iconic to many drivers and especially the McLaren brand.

So on we go, the 90’s from then on where quite bland and most would say the most boring in recent F1 history thanks to the predictable nature of one man. Michael Schumacher. He dominated the world or Formula 1 winning everything so it didn’t really give any other driver or constructor a look in.

Fast forward a few years to 2006 where McLaren undergo a big change in not only sponsor but in livery adopting a chrome look to their new MP4-21, the team at the time where without a major sponsor but one was just on the horizon. The team where optimistic going into this season due to an excellent run of results at the end of the previous season but in pre season testing it became apparent that the engine was lacking in power and a full new engine was designed and used giving them the performance needed. Disappointingly nothing came of it and the season was another let down for the team.

Then we have the famous 2007 season: “the one that got away” I say this in all senses of the phrase. First things first, a new sponsor in the shape of Vodafone is taken on. The team becomes Vodafone McLaren Mercedes and what a year to get on board for publicity. We have a rookie sensation and an ex world championship driver. Perfect combo? You would be wrong to think so, this was an eventful year in which McLaren where docked all Constructors Championship points due to the spy gate scandal where a colossal book of Ferrari data happened to fall into the hands of a McLaren technical engineer.

All of this alongside the current ongoing driver rift between the rookie and the champ. Well it made for interesting viewing. To top it all off after a run of 3 horrific races at the back end of the season McLaren didn’t win the Driver championship or the Constructors Championship. Ferrari took the 1-2.

So where now in 2008? The script is unwritten but it’s already shaping up to be a very packed year where a lot has already happened for our silver arrows. They are not looking too strong right now in terms of Constructor points but I wouldn’t write them off just yet. There is a long way to go and I know that Ron Dennis and the boys are capable of a shock or two. Watch this space.

Did you know?

That 86 drawings were made for the design of the M7 in comparison to today’s MP4-23 which was the result of almost 4600 drawings.

The workforce in 1968 comprised fewer than 30 people, two of whom work for Vodafone McLaren Mercedes today. Tyler Alexander travels with the team as a systems engineer and Ray Rowe works as a gearbox mechanic. In 2008, there are 1115 people based across three facilities at Woking, Brixworth and Stuttgart.

Back in 1968 the technical regulations for Formula 1 was only 2 pages. Now in 2008 it is 60 pages with a further 43 in the sporting regulations.

In 1968, Bruce and Denny travelled to 12 different Grand Prix in 4 different continents. Now the current regime takes the whole team around 18 different Grand Prix on 5 different continents.

McLaren Stats

  • Base – Woking, Surrey, UK
  • Team Principles – Ron Dennis, Martin Whitmarsh
  • Drivers – Lewis Hamilton, Heikki Kovalainen, Pedro De La Rosa, Gary Paffett
  • Races Completed – 638
  • Constructor Championships – 8 (1974, 1984, 1985, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1998)
  • Drivers Championships – 11 (1974, 1976, 1984, 1985, 1986, 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1998, 1999)
  • Race Victories – 158
  • Most Wins in a Season – 15
  • Podium Finishes - 423
  • Pole Positions – 134
  • Fastest Laps – 136

At a Glance – Timeline

1963 - Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd founded.

1968 - Bruce McLaren wins in Belgium, giving a first Grand Prix victory to his team, who finish second in the constructors' championship.

1970 - Bruce McLaren is killed at the Goodwood circuit while testing a Can-Am sportscar.

1976 - James Hunt takes the drivers' championship for the team, beating Ferrari's Niki Lauda by one point.

1984 - Niki Lauda joins to partner Alain Prost. The Austrian takes the drivers' championship by half a point from his French team mate .

1985 – 1986 - Alain Prost takes back-to-back drivers' championships for the team.

1988 – 1991 - A period of total McLaren dominance. In 1988 Ayrton Senna takes the title from his team mate Alain Prost, with honours reversed in 1989. In 1990 Senna takes back the title and retains it in 1991.

1998 – 1999 - Dominate after successfully adapting to rule changes. Mika Hakkinen takes the drivers' championship in both seasons with McLaren taking the constructors' championship in 1998.

2000 – 2001 - Finish second in both drivers' and constructors' championships two years in a row, with Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard.

2002 - Pushed down to third place in the constructors' championship, behind Ferrari and Williams. David Coulthard takes fifth place in the drivers' championship.

2003 - Third in the constructors' standings, just behind Williams. Kimi Raikkonen emerges as the team's key contender for the drivers' championship, losing out to Michael Schumacher at the final race in Japan.2004 - Worst start to a season in years with just five points from the first seven races. Stage strong recovery, including victory for Kimi Raikkonen in Belgium, to end the year fifth in the table.

2005 - The MP4-20 proves the quickest car on the grid, but poor reliability means they narrowly miss out on constructors' title, despite 10 wins - two more than champions Renault. Kimi Raikkonen runner-up in drivers' championship.

2006 - Distant third in championship, despite strong race pace in second half of season. End campaign winless for first time in a decade. Kimi Raikkonen the dominant driver, Juan Pablo Montoya departing mid season for NASCAR.

2007 - Win eight Grand Prix, but stripped of constructors' points and fined $100 million for benefiting from possession of confidential Ferrari data. Intense rivalry sees team mates Hamilton and Alonso finish level on points - one shy of the drivers' title.

2008 - Who knows?

So there you have it, that took me long enough to type so it must have took you long enough to read, if you are still with me now then well done. You deserve a medal. If you like what you have read then go back to the top of the page, present me with 5 stars and a lovely pick of the day award. If you don’t like it then feel free to leave me lots of negative comments (I am guessing that these will come from the Ferrari fans?) Thanks for listening.

Ben, Over and Out!


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