David Hunt was sweet 16 when his big brother won the Formula One world Championship. During the long hot summer of 1976 he watched James turn that incredible season on its head in this very car, McLaren M23, Chassis 6. Now, finally, it was his turn to drive it
“Look after my baby!” Lorina McLaughlin’s sole request of me prior to my being strapped into her pride and joy was heartfelt. She needn’t have worried. Not having driven anything on a truck for 12 years, my priority was to look after me! And anyway, she knew what I was shortly to learn: in stark contrast to its 1976 occupant, this McLaren M23 is vice free.
At an overcast but mercifully dry Donington, a seat-fitting was the first task. And my temporary office seemed okay for today’s purposes with a bit of foam stuffed behind me. James and I were identical in size the sole exception being our feet To drive James’s Hesketh 308 at Goodwood last summer required modifications to prevent the tops of my feet getting caught Ditto the M23. But without the time to make the necessary changes, I was going to have to keep my heels back so I didn’t get jammed on the loud pedal. The unfortunate corollary was that my kneecaps were now wedged against the dash bulkhead, perfectly positioned for surgical removal in the event of a front impact.
The beauty ofjumping into a car of this era is the simplicity. No £50k steering wheels, flashing lights, rows of switches or LEDs you can’t read in sunlight No rollbar-adjuster or brake balance. The M23 has a large rev-counter flanked by a double gauge either side fuel pressure/water temp to the left and oil pressure/oil temp to the right Beneath the latter are switches for fuel pump, rear light and something else I cannot recall! The ignition switch is on the left-hand spoke of the wheel the classic position for an accidental knock-off in the heat of battle and to the left, on the bulkhead, is the cable pull for the extinguisher. The gear lever is bent to the right and controls five forward Hewland cogs via a standard racing H-pattern gate, i.e. with dog-leg first.
Very straightforward. It’s no wonder James could go out on a bender the night before a test and still be on top of everything in his cockpit at 9.30 the next morning usually. Nilci Lauda tells a story of a test at Paul Ricard in the mid-1970s. As he left his hotel for the circuit he met James returning from his ‘evening out’. James grubbed a lift off Nilci and they headed to the track. At one point that morning James was the only car on the track, and after several laps there was a sudden and ominous silence. Concerned McLaren and Ferrari personnel rushed to his aid. Had he gone off? Had he hit anything?
When they found the M23 it was indeed some way off the circuit, its driver motionless in the cockpit… sound asleep.
As this car hadn’t turned a wheel since last summer, I was sent out for three laps to ensure its and my comfort (just about okay for a few laps, but a stark contrast to the armchair cosiness James clearly enjoyed!). Being so rusty, my plan had been to break myself back in by providing a mobile chicane for even the slower cars on track (ranging from Ford Capri to ERA). Wrong. The M23 just doesn’t want to be treated with that level of respect.
Its clutch isn’t heavy and has such a smooth bite that you could stop/start along Piccadilly without stalling. Out of the pits and through Redgate, and already I felt comfortable (forgetting my feet). Everything about the car inspires immediate confidence.
By the start of my first flying lap (having now confirmed that Donington’s short circuit is unchanged since my last visit 15 years ago), I was ready to accept the car’s open invitation to get on with it. Even at dawdle speed, Gordon Coppuck’s most celebrated piece of design had telegraphed that it doesn’t hide any nasty surprises. I just didn’t feel intimidated — testimony to the car, not me.
The one thing that did require a few laps of familiarisation was the gearchange. The gate is much wider than I had anticipated. “Tractor-like” was my description, which proved offensive to Lorina. Sony! I found myself occasionally selecting neutral until I got the hang of it. Once again, however, so good is the car-to-driver communication that I knew I hadn’t got the gear and so didn’t inflict a horror story on the rev-counter or bank balance.
The Cosworth DFV was strong but not eye-opening; I’d expected more of a shock after such a long absence. Recollecting my distant memories of the 1980s, it felt comparable to the grunt of an F3000 car, but was an absolute baby compared to the 1000bhp BMWand Ford-powered turbo Benettons I drove. The power delivery was very smooth, with a noticeable, but not harsh, pick-up above 7000rpm right through to 10,000rpm, which is when the limiter interjects. I suspect this engine is equipped with softer cams than when a full-blown F1 challenger.
The combined effect of slower traffic, repeated red lights and my less-than-ideal driving position made it very difficult for me to put in any multi-lap runs, get the tyres up to proper operational temperature and build a rhythm. My rustiness and caution did not help matters and so, unfortunately, I failed to explore the full extent of the car’s capabilities.
I did 20 laps in total, of which only nine were flying and thus timed. On one lap, during which! twice had to back off because of traffic, I clocked a 69sec. My feeling is that, with a couple of short runs and a clear lap, I could probably have managed something close to 65sec. About a decade after the M23 was in its pomp, I used to circulate Donington in my ground-effect F3 Ralt in around 68-69sec on British ‘control’ rubber and 66-67sec on stickier ‘European’ tyres — with only 160bhp against the Cosworth’s 500. Such was the speed of chassis and aerodynamic advances during that period.
The M23 has a soft and comfy ride — none of your modem rock-solid springs/dampers here. Its initial turn-in to corners is positive, but then the front-end control goes away a bit and mild understeer makes it easy to miss your apex if you haven’t got the nose pointing firmly at turn-in. After apexing and under power there is a gradual change to roll oversteer. This trait was pronounced at Coppice, a third-gear right-hander with a long exit that is taken under full power.
Direction change in the second-gear chicane was very good, and in the fifth-gear downhill charge through the fabulous rightleft of Craner Curves it was probably a bit too good. I would have wanted a little less front wing before attempting to taking them flat, but I reckon the car is more than capable of it.
Which brings me to downforce. The wings certainly work, but not to a level where! thought I would have to recalibrate my senses in order to explore the high-speed grip fully. This isn’t surprising:! doubt the M23 ever saw the inside of a wind tunnel and it was designed some six years before ground effect had been introduced to F1.
Another area! was unable to explore to its absolute limit was the braking. The pedal position was wrong (for me), its travel too long and soft (for me), but the brakes did give (for me) plenty of feel. Their efficiency improved markedly as the car shed speed, but! suspect we might have bettered that had we run them a bit hotter. Throttle pedal resistance was perfect, although once again the travel was too long (for me).
Any design that wins races four years on the trot deserves to be tagged ‘great’. But I now have a true insight into that greatness. The M23 feels ‘at one with you’ the moment you get on track. After a handful of five-lap runs, if I were told! had to race it the next day, I wouldn’t be worried (other than a complete absence of fitness!). For someone as out of practice as me to feel that way about a Formula One car, with less than 20 laps under his belt, says all you need to know about M23. It is sublime.
Thanks to Lotina and David McLaughlin of The FORCE.