1991: the last V12 F1 title and a great sports car — both thanks to McLaren

“Today, the descant song of a racing V12 certainly survives as a rosy memory”

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I suppose it’s true that over time the tint of one’s glasses becomes increasingly rosy. Naturally, it’s always important to keep this in mind when looking back at racing seasons fondly remembered. The important thing is not to allow memory to become too fond.

That’s quite difficult thinking back, say, 30 years to the season of 1991. For starters it’s hard today to visualise no fewer than 18 teams registering to compete in the Formula 1 World Championship series. But in 1991 they did.

In addition to Ferrari, McLaren and Williams, there were AGS, Benetton, Brabham, Coloni, Dallara, Fondmetal, Footwork (née Arrows), Jordan, Lamborghini, Larrousse, Leyton House (aka March), Ligier, Lotus, Minardi and Tyrrell. Of course, not all of these teams or marques were healthy, vibrant, competitive entities. Several were lame ducks, no-hopers barely surviving on optimistic life-support systems of variable adequacy – but much the same could also be said of today’s hopeful F1 entry list.

Back in ’91 of course the year featured that knock-down, drag-out, season-long struggle for supremacy between McLaren-Honda and Williams-Renault, Ayrton Senna versus Nigel Mansell. Alain Prost battled manfully to insert himself between them in the developing, but then still immature Ferrari 642/643 cars, but while Ayrton Senna went on to win seven of the 16 title-qualifying races, and Mansell five, the French ‘Professor’ dibbed out and left the Italian team for diverse reasons – not altogether involving on-track matters – before season’s end. That year also, of course, brought the F1 debut of Michael Schumacher – such a promising breath of fresh air at that time – plus diverting GP wins for Nigel Mansell’s team-mate Riccardo Patrese (twice; Mexico and Portugal), for veteran Nelson Piquet of Benetton, and for Gerhard Berger, notably gifted by McLaren team-mate and the year’s World Champion Driver, Senna, in Japan.

That year also witnessed the last F1 World Championship title win for a V12-engined car, the McLaren-Honda MP4/6 with its 3.5-litre RA121 power unit. That success represented the final Grand Prix-racing triumph for the classical V12 configuration as had been pioneered in racing power boats (the Putney Motor Works Craig-Dörwald 18-litre of 1904), refined for aircraft (Renault, 12.2 litre, 1909) and eventually for competition cars in Louis Coatalen’s Brooklands Sunbeam Toodles V (9 litre, 1913). Between the two world wars such smooth-running, refined production V12s as the Packard Twin-Six, Daimler Double-Six, Auburn, Franklin and Lincoln, the Hispano-Suiza, Maybach Zeppelin and the Rolls-Royce Phantom III provided magic-carpet transport for the moneyed and (en)titled.

Meanwhile racing V12s built most notably by Delage, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz, Auto Union and Delahaye made their marks – followed, postwar, of course, by Ferrari. Had the instigators of the British BRM project in 1945-46 only listened to newly recruited staff engineer – and celebratedly eccentric boffin – Eric Richter, they too might have embarked upon perfecting a V12 engine instead of their theatrical V16, which might well have seen that entire saga rewarded with the early success its creators craved.

“The BMW-V12 made the McLaren F1 jaw-droppingly capable”

So Senna’s 1991 world title was accompanied by McLaren-Honda winning that year’s Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship. Back at that time I was involved with McLaren Cars Ltd, more or less as a retained observer following progress of their three-seat, centre-drive McLaren F1 project. We ended up producing a half-reasonable book covering it all. Rose-tinted glasses or not, that was a fascinating time. Gordon Murray had first asked me to become involved when the company had only recently formed, and the F1 existed only as a developing design concept apart from a rough mock-up buck in MDF board, with a roof-frame in place and taut strings indicating the windscreen surface. Pete Stevens was styling the piece and that little team in its secure building at Genesis Business Park, remote from the F1 works at Woking, was a frenzied hive of creative energy.

Up on the top floor was the associated TAG electronics office staffed largely, it seemed, by Germans. One Christmas Peter and his McLaren Cars mates challenged them to an England-Germany football game in the car park. Ron Dennis was not amused…

On February 1, 1991, the engine spec for the forthcoming McLaren F1 was agreed with BMW and on the 15th the new collaboration was announced, together with the choice of the F1 name for what would eventually be revealed as the forthcoming new centre-drive coupé. Thirty years ago. Coo!

The McLaren S70/2 engine custom-built for them by BMW would emerge as the 6.1-litre V12 which really made the F1 the jaw-droppingly capable projectile it proved to be. The first running prototype V12 was delivered to Genesis on March 4, 1992 – and a little over three years later the McLaren F1s made their Le Mans debut, won outright – and filled third, fourth, fifth and 13th places. For McLaren Cars, Le Mans ’95 marked the greatest Le Mans race debut in depth ever achieved. And that was with a detuned V12 road car.

Today the descant song of an internal-combustion naturally aspirated V12 at flat-strap, howling around a race circuit, certainly survives as a rosy memory. So with this in mind, who needs glasses?

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s