The recovery position

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Once the most successful team in Formula One, McLaren has not won a Grand Prix since 1993. Bruce Jones explains that it’s not the first time things have gone wrong

When the late Ayrton Senna beat Alain Prost’s Williams to the chequered flag in the 1993 Australian Grand Prix at Adelaide, he was creating more history than he could ever have imagined. For a start, his win advanced McLaren’s tally of Grand Prix victories to 104 and thus moved the team to the front of the all-time list, ahead of Ferrari. Secondly, it proved to be not only the great Brazilian’s final drive for McLaren but also his final victory, for he perished just three races into his 1994 campaign with Williams by crashing at Imola. Thirdly, it has remained McLaren’s best result through to the start of the coming Formula One season when McLaren and engine supplier Mercedes will be praying that their drivers Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard can guide them back to winning ways and move them ahead of Ferrari again to the top of the Grand Prix victories chart.

Dire as this three-season, 49-race winless streak must be to McLaren, it is not the worst in the team’s history. That came between 1977 and 1981 when there was a 54-race gap between James Hunt’s win in the season-closing Japanese Grand Prix and John Watson’s one in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone mid-way through 1981. Notably, Watson’s effort put the team back onto a victory trail that saw at least one win per season and 15 out of 16 in 1988 when Senna and Prost dominated the championship as never before through until that final race of 1993.

While McLaren hasn’t had the best of times from 1994 through to the end of last season, it has always been one of the top four teams in the constructors ‘ championship at the end of the season. Back in the first drought though, it ranged between eighth overall and sixth as the 1976 championship-winning M23 chassis was followed by the relatively poor M26. That in turn was supercooled by the hapless ground-effects M28 and the increasingly weak M29 and M30 designs.

So, why did it all go wrong for McLaren in the late Seventies? Essentially, the game moved on and the Gordon Coppuck-penned McLarens didn’t. Hunt, a winner in that final race of 1977, simply lost motivation in 1978 as he and new team-mate Patrick Tambay found their M26s no match for the rival cars from Lotus, Ferrari and Brabham, to say nothing of Tyrrell, Wolf, Ligier and even the Fittipaldi family’s Copersucar team. They scored only eight points each, and Hunt quit at the end of the season, leaving team boss Teddy Mayer to replace him with Watson, who arrived in time to drive one of the worst McLarens ever.

In an experiment to match the Lotus team’s understanding of ground effects, the 1979 car the M28 was designed to the category’s fullest dimensions to give as much underwing area as possible in the hope that this would help “suck” it down onto the track. Trouble was, the truck-like chassis was nowhere near as rigid as it was intended to be. While Watson dragged it to third place in the opening race, in Argentina, he never reached the rostrum again. Tambay didn’t even score a point, despite the M29 being introduced before the year was out. He then quit Formula One.

The 1980 season was little better, Watson further shaken by the fact that he was generally outpaced by his rookie team mate, Prost. Between them, they scored just 11 points all season. With these parlous results from a team that had carved its niche at the top of the sport, it was no wonder McLaren was restructured at the tail end of 1980 at the suggestion of sponsor Phillip Morris, parent company of Marlboro.

Mayer was talked into teaming up with Project Four, a successful outfit with strong roots in Formula Two that had a young man by the name of Ron Dennis at the tiller. Mayer stayed on as the principal shareholder in the team until Dennis bought him out at the end of 1982. Dennis has been in control ever since, with his spell in charge yielding 80 of the team’s wins, up until the end of 1993, as well as winning the constructors cup on six of the 10 seasons from 1984 and finishing as runner-up in the other four.

The principal key to the change of form was the introduction of a designer by the name of John Barnard. He was the man who penned the McLaren MP4 the Marlboro Project Four a car that turned the team’s fortunes around and revolutionised Formula One construction procedures by being the first chassis built from carbon fibre.

Introduced at the season’s fourth Grand Prix, Watson found it a winning proposition by his seventh outing, while team mate Andrea de Cesaris crashed out of eight races, and out of the team. The improvements were not only in the chassis and the engine bay with TAG Porsche, then Honda engines being fitted but also in the cock pit, with drivers of the calibre of Niki Lauda, Prost and Senna cleaning up for McLaren in the late Eighties. And so the team reformed and redefined itself with world-beating results, making the sub sequent drought all the harder to bear. It’s not hard to sympathise, but any team that runs four different engines (Honda 1992, Ford 1993, Peugeot 1994, Mercedes 1995) in four consecutive seasons is asking for trouble.

As for the season ahead, there is every chance that McLaren will return to its winning ways. With the Mercedes engine perhaps the strongest in the field and two of the best drivers in Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, the team from Woking might just come good.