The regeneration game
If McLaren is to re-emerge as a major force in F1, it will be through improved technology. Without it, argues Alan Henry, the team is now destined to become one of the 'also-rans'
The all-new McLaren-Mercedes MP4-12 may be the car which turns the corner for the second most successful Formula One constructor of all time. Strong words, perhaps, particularly as they are being written in the third week of January and will not be read until about five weeks later. By then most of the teams will be on the point of packing up their hardware for the long slog to Melbourne where the 1997 FIA F1 World Championship kicks off on March 9.
McLaren has been struggling for the past four seasons. Not simply in terms of track performance, but in establishing a stable relationship with an engine supply partner. Even before Honda ended its five-year alliance with the team after the 1992 season, the cracks were beginning to appear. The MP4/7 was a poor car by McLaren's standards.
In 1993 the team had to make do with a customer specification Ford HB V8 engine. Even so, it won five races, an achievement which was down as much as anything to the team's relentless commitment to developing its sophisticated active suspension system right through to the end of the year.
With the FIA banning such electronic driver aids from the start of 1994, F1 pace-setters Williams shelved development from mid-1993. McLaren pressed on and was rewarded by Senna's superb victories in the Japanese and Australian Grands Prix. It was typical of the McLaren ethos that no stone was left unturned in the quest for success.
Then came an inconclusive year with Peugeot, followed by two with the team's current engine partner, Mercedes-Benz. In 1995 and '96 the two companies spent most of the time learning how to work together and the MP4-12 hopefully represents the pay-off.
"We know that we have made quantifiable gains in the wind tunnel," said McLaren boss Ron Dennis, "but I would be surprised if all the other teams haven't made corresponding improvements. The only thing we don't know is where they are starting from."
Of course, in today's technically complex F1 environment, one of the crucial keys to success is a car's aerodynamic efficiency. This, by Dennis's admission, has been one area where the team has been working hard to catch up.
Last year's MP4/11 seemed at home on highspeed, low-downforce circuits. But on bumpy tracks or those which required a high degree of versatility from the chassis, it was less convincing. The team concentrated on reducing the car's pitch sensitivity and the engineers were satisfied that they had been successful in achieving that.
Nevertheless, optimising the car's handling on tracks with a broad range of corners proved more of a challenge. David Coulthard, in particular, had great difficulty keeping the MP4/11 's rear end under control and, coming into the team from the wheel of the neutral-handling Williams FW17, he found this quite unsettling. First indications are that the MP4-12 is a significant improvement in this particular area, having better aerodynamics and better grip levels.
Yet Dennis remains cautious. "I am not trying to play down the expectations of others as far as 1997 is concerned," he commented at the media preview of the new McLaren. "I am making a conscious effort to play down my own.
"We are taking a quiet and constructive approach. I don't allow myself the luxury of secretly harbouring great expectations."
Mercedes-Benz is equally cautious about 1997, even though Ilmor Engineering has worked nonstop since the end of last season to enhance the performance of its V10 engine, The new Merc F0110E is built round a brand new block, is lower, lighter and more powerful. At least, that's what the dynamometer says. The proof comes in March.
Throughout the latter part of 1996 there was much speculation that Adrian Newey, the Williams team's chief designer, would be joining McLaren. Newey's grasp of aerodynamics has been hailed as one of the most significant elements in the highly competitive Williams-Renault technical package since 1991 and it now looks certain he will join McLaren once he has sorted out his contractual difficulties with Williams.
"I think that every team has tried to discuss with Adrian his future plans," says Dennis, "and, of course, we're not an exception to that. But until his situation with Williams is resolved, it is difficult to establish any dialogue.
"But the fact is that we (McLaren) have a strong policy regarding contracts. We've always had that policy, often to the detriment of the company, and that hasn't changed. When Adrian is in a position to leave Williams, obviously we will be one of the teams pursuing him.
"That should not be considered by any of our engineering staff or technical staff as a lack of confidence in them. Everybody wants to be better (more competitive) and everybody wants to take any opportunity to be better."
Does this mean that Dennis is abandoning his long-established credo and inviting a "name" designer into the fold? Not at all. McLaren's philosophy under Ron's regime has always been that there are no individual stars, just a cohesive team which works well together.
"We do try to capture individuals who excel in any discipline," he explains, "and the expertise is to blend them all together to get a sum total that better than one person's mind. That isn't anything new for McLaren. We started doing it in 1986 and enjoyed tremendous success in the late Eighties and early Nineties.
'There is a range of circumstances, some which we know about, some which we don't, which have contributed to a lack of success over the past two or three years. But I don't think that lack of success is due to our design process. The upside of the way we work is that everybody has to respect what the others can contribute, and the objective is not to make individual superstars but to fulfil all our objectives, which means winning races.
"I don't feel this team would feel threatened by any talented, competent, world-class engineer joining the company and contributing. But, I have to stress, we are probably one of about 10 teams that would like Adrian's services."
This is all very well, of course, but there are those in the F1 community who believe that a front-line team cannot function to its best advantage without a strong, identifiable technical director whose word right or wrong is ultimately law.
Yet, equally, those insiders also understand why Dennis doesn't want a high profile personality taking such a role. His partnership with John Barnard, the chief designer and co-director of McLaren International from 1981 to '85 was sparky, often confrontational and wracked with tension. Yet, perhaps for that very reason, it produced one of the most successful spells in the team's history.
By the same token McLaren's brilliant Honda powered era was post-Barnard, yet buttressed by the driving talents of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Honda's engines were, for much of that time, the most powerful available. McLaren provided the rest of the package superbly, although Senna's sheer dynamic presence and insistence that everything, anything, could be improved was as much a driving force within the equation as Dennis's underlying commitment.
Neither Mika Hakkinen nor Coulthard can yet hope to enjoy the perceived status of a Prost or a Senna. They are both fine drivers, yet there is no consensus within F1 as to their ultimate potential. Some feel they can go all the way, others that they have flawed talents. Hakkinen, some say, is still too impulsive. Coulthard, say the critics, is too finnicky about his car set-up.
Yet if McLaren has a single enviable strength, it is Dennis's ability to shut out extraneous criticism from the world at large and focus his company's efforts entirely in the direction of success. He freely admits that he feels physical pain when he wakes up on the Monday morning after a Grand Prix and realises that McLaren did not win.
Going into 1997, the McLaren-Mercedes alliance is poised on a knife-edge of credibility. If it doesn't win Grands Prix this season, it will be a disaster certain to confirm its relegation to F1 's second division.
Yet the initial signs are upbeat and positive. McLaren men talk about the MP4-12 in hushed, almost reverential tones, almost as if they daren't believe they are poised on the edge of a performance breakthrough. As I said, it's early days, but the initial signs for McLaren are more positive now than at any time since 1993.