THE WORST CAR I EVER DROVE BLUNDER BUS
JOHN WATSON McLAREN M28 McLAREN’S FIRST ATTEMPT AT A GROUND EFFECT CAR WAS SLOW, TRICKY AND FUNDAMENTALLY FLAWED IN DESIGN.JOHN WATSON WAS NOT A FAN IN 1978 I WAS STILI DRIVING FOR BRABFIAM, AS
team-mate to Nilci Lauda but was already thinking of moving on for 1979. There was a little incident on the eve of the French Grand Prix which probably sealed things.This was the first race after the fan car had been withdrawn andl’d taken pole with the conventional BT46. I was vefy proud of that and feeling good. But after the race-day warm-up Bernie (Ecclestone) asked if I’d be prepared to let Niki win if we were running 1-2 near the end. There was no contractual obligation for me to do this and I was astounded, confused and just didn’t know how to handle it. So I just answered honestly and said “No”. I think it was at this point Bernie just thought “right, you’re out.” He decided to invest in the future by taking on Nelson Piquet for 1979.
Through the tragic circumstances of Ronnie Peterson’s fatal accident, I ended up at McLaren for -79. Ronnie had been due to switch to McLaren from Lotus for the season but after his accident at Monza, the team sought me out as the one to take them into a new era. Suddenly,! seemed perfectly poised to take my career on to a new level. McLaren, though they’d not had a great 1978, were still very much one of the top teams with a fantastic history of success. It was a dream opportunity. I was going there as number one with all the attention on me. And they had a new car, their first ground effect machine, the M28… In fact, it was a lemon, its performance so bad that it left McLaren fighting for its commercial life; it damaged my reputation too. With hindsight it’s
easy to see why the great McLaren team suddenly floundered, but at the time I was just bewildered.
I drove the car for the first time at the back end of 78 at Silverstone and couldn’t believe how bad it was. I was lapping about 7sec slower than I’d done in the Brabham BT45 a year and a half earlier. It just felt bog slow, everywhere on the straights, round the comers and was extremely difficult to drive. It did one thing at one speed and something totallY different at another speed.
Eventually we got it going around Silverstone in a time comparable to the Brabham-Alfa from the 77 British Grand Prix and we began thinking that maybe around Silverstone there wasn’t a great deal of difference between a ground effect car and a conventional one. Which was a mistake. Then we took the car out to Watkins Glen in November. After a few laps we had a small problem and they took it back into the pit garage. We then
discovered the similarity between an M28 and Concorde. When put on it; axle stands, the nose drooped! Alistair Caldwell who was in charge of the test said, “Ern… I think we’d better stop and take it home.” There was just no torsional strength in the car at all a paper bag was more rigid.
They did a lot of work at the factory to give it some rigidity, but that made it honendously overweight. Virtually everything about the car was wrong. They’d designed it to take maximum advantage of the length and width regulations to give it as big a venturi area as possible, which fundamentally was a good thing. To the same end, they made the monocoque very slim so they could give more space to the sidepods. But add to this a huge fuel tank, giving big sectional changes, and an aluminium honeycomb structure and you have the recipe for the torsional problems. But it was badly wrong aerodynamically too with the centre of pressure moving about all over the place. As the season went on they tried different wheelbases which just upset the weight distribution; they were trying to rectify an aerodynamic problem by traditional mechanical means. It was real scattergun engineering. To understand how it could happen, you have to consider that McLaren had had a lot of success with conventional cars. Before the ground effect era you could expect to find perhaps half a second per season from things like suspension geometry and they were fantastic at that stuff, the meticulous development work. But ground effect required a different approach. Suddenly downforce was everything and you had to throw the old benchmarks away. They were impressed that it may have had twice the down force of an M26 or whatever. But that meant nothing. The design team just didn’t have the vision to see the potential of ground effect
Those able to approach it in a more abstract way, without reference to what had been possible before, were those who flourished people like Patrick Head, Gerard Ducarouge and Gordon Murray. That sort of aerodynamic expertise was just not in McLaren at that time. So while Ducarouge’s Ligier blew everyone’s doors off, then Patrick’s FVV07 appeared, we messed about with geometries and wheelbases and weren’t even beginning to attack the problem.
We weren’t alone though. At the beginning of the season it was only Ligier who had a properly conceived ground effects car ready and in Argentina I managed to finish third. But it wasn’t long before we tumbled down and by May, with big pressure from Marlboro, it was decided we were flogging a dead horse and plans began for the M29 basically McLaren’s version of the Williams FW07 except not as good, though much better than the M28.
But it was largely as a result of these failures that Marlboro could push through the merger with Ron Dennis which led to the birth of McLaren as it is today. So I guess it wasn’t in vain, though it felt it at the time.
The sadistic side of me surfaces sometimes when I look at the M28 in the Donington Collection and I shudder at the thought of a Schumacher-type front-end impact. It would have fokled up. I understand that Ron is currently having an M28 restored, but I won’t be first in the queue to try it.