The enmity within

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It’s war between Ferrari and McLaren in 2007, but this rivalry goes back over three decades

By Adam Cooper

The ongoing spy scandal involving Nigel Stepney and Mike Coughlan provides a distracting background to yet another World Championship battle involving McLaren and Ferrari. The two teams share an interwoven history, and have been locked in battle since the 1970s.

Bruce McLaren entered his own car in 1966, and for the first decade of its existence there was little to suggest that the team he founded would be pitched into a rivalry with Ferrari that would smoulder over 30 years. The likes of Brabham, Lotus and Tyrrell did most of the winning during that period, and only rarely did either Ferrari or McLaren offer a serious title challenge. An exception was 1974, when Emerson Fittipaldi and Clay Regazzoni took the title race down to the wire (although Tyrrell’s Jody Scheckter was also in the fight). Even then, there was little animosity. Perhaps the first hint of what lay ahead came at Watkins Glen in 1975, when a delayed Regazzoni refused to be lapped by Emmo’s McLaren, allowing his team-mate, race leader Niki Lauda, to break away.

Things would step up a gear in 1976, the year when the Lauda versus James Hunt battle began to turn Formula 1 into the soap opera that it is today. It kicked off with Hunt’s disqualification from his maiden victory for the team in the Spanish GP, for a wing infringement. However, in July he was awarded the win and the nine points back, much to Ferrari’s frustration. 

“If you cheat, you cheat,” says then Ferrari team manager, Daniele Audetto. “If the wing is too high – it must be 80cm and it was 81cm – you’re out of the rules. Why did they give it back? They said this small advantage didn’t affect the result. Give me a break!”

Then came Brands Hatch, where Hunt was sent skywards after Lauda and Regazzoni had collided in front of him. He crawled back to the pits through the back entrance, and discussions began as to whether he had still been running when the race was stopped. The suave Audetto and his opposite number, prickly McLaren boss Teddy Mayer, lobbied the officials, while the crowd voiced its disapproval. Hunt’s original chassis was repaired and presented on the grid – and he duly won the restart.

Ferrari was incensed. By the time an appeal was heard Lauda had crashed at the Nürburgring, and playing the sympathy card, the Italian team was handed the win. 

Then came Monza, where both McLarens (and John Watson’s Penske) were controversially relegated to the back after their fuel was deemed illegal. To this day Audetto says it was nothing to do with it being Ferrari’s home ground.

“If you have a wing that is too high, it’s too high, no discussion. If the octane number is too high, it’s too high. It wasn’t Ferrari, it’s the stewards and the technical people who decide. But McLaren were also lucky to escape the penalty in Jarama; I think it was very, very unfair to give them back the points. We would have won the championship even with Niki missing two races.”

The championship concluded at Fuji, where Lauda pulled out. Audetto still insists that Hunt and the others had also agreed to stop after a few laps, but reneged on the deal.

Despite all the animosity, Ferrari admired Hunt. Indeed, it was only his personal sponsorship deal with Vauxhall that prevented Hunt from moving to Maranello for 1978.

“I was asked by Enzo Ferrari to bring James to the team,” says Audetto. “We had to replace Niki, and James was very fast and very good. At Monaco in 1977, after practice on Saturday, I drove him all the way to Italy to meet Piero Ferrari in secret. And we shook hands – so we had a deal between Ferrari and James Hunt for ’78. We agreed money and terms.

“But James had to give his image to the Fiat Group, and we discovered – and he didn’t know – that he had a long-term contract with General Motors for exploiting his image. Because of that, it was not possible to complete the contract with us…”

Ferrari didn’t have to look far for a replacement. In July 1977, McLaren gave Gilles Villeneuve his debut in a third car at Silverstone, but Mayer didn’t want to commit for 1978, preferring Patrick Tambay. Grateful that its British rivals had brought him to its attention, Ferrari pounced.

For the next few years, things cooled off as far as a direct Ferrari/McLaren fight was concerned, although they were key players on the opposite sides in the FISA/FOCA war. 

In 1980, Marlboro engineered a takeover of McLaren by Ron Dennis, who had John Barnard’s MP4 design as his trump card. Ironically, the revamped team’s initial success came with none other than Lauda at the wheel. Then at the end of 1982 came some political manoeuvring of a type that has been repeated many times since.

“The whole TAG/Porsche deal was based on a package that was specific to a ground effect car,” recalls Barnard. “Then Ferrari pushed the flat floor rules through, which took away 50 per cent of the advantage of the engine we were building. That was the first sign of animosity towards them!”

In 1985, there was a direct fight between McLaren and Ferrari for the World Championship for the first time since 1976, as Alain Prost held off the challenge of the consistent Michele Alboreto in a generally controversy-free affair.

Then as now, Dennis did not enjoy seeing any key McLaren employee go elsewhere. Thus he was not impressed when Barnard left to join Ferrari at the end of 1986.

“A few people wanted to come with me,” John recalls. “I know Ron spoke to Enzo – via Marco Piccinini or someone – and engineered a truce. I think Ron was scared that he was going to lose a good few of his guys. I wasn’t able to take some of the guys I would have taken, at least for six months or so. I suspect that was the start of Ron’s fixation with Ferrari…”

Even worse perhaps for Ron, Prost followed Barnard to Ferrari in 1990, although by the time he got there the Briton had moved on to Benetton. Tired of fighting Ayrton Senna in the same car, Prost vowed to beat him in a different one, and that added a new edge to the fight between the teams. The title was settled at Suzuka, where Senna drove Prost off the road.

That year McLaren hired Gerhard Berger and Ferrari engineer Giorgio Ascanelli, emphasising the incestuous relationship between the two teams. That impression was strengthened further when Barnard was in effect replaced by another McLaren veteran, Steve Nichols.

The other close connection between the two was the ongoing support of Marlboro, more overt on the McLarens, of course, but by the 1980s just as important financially for Ferrari. Keeping both sides happy was a delicate balancing act for John Hogan of Marlboro’s parent company Philip Morris.

“I think everybody was aware that McLaren and Ferrari were the two key protagonists,” says Hogan. “There’s always a danger that things can get out of control and run away, but it’s a sporting rivalry born out of respect and competitiveness to the nth degree.

“There’s probably a special intensity. It’s like two football teams in a local derby. It wouldn’t be the same if it were two different teams, if it was Renault and McLaren, or Renault and Ferrari. This just has historical precedent.”

Ferrari faded in the early 1990s, and with Williams then Benetton doing most of the winning, the old rivals were generally part of the supporting cast. However, the seeds of future clashes were sewn in July 1993, when Jean Todt joined Ferrari, frustrated that Peugeot would not sanction a works F1 programme. The French manufacturer eventually changed its mind and became an engine supplier (initially with McLaren, of course!). 

Todt began to put pieces together for a Ferrari revival, and key among them was the signing of Michael Schumacher for 1996. The German had been discovered by Mercedes, but never repaid the debt by driving for McLaren, showing another curious overlap between the teams…

Ferrari’s signing of the Benetton ace coincided with another major change as Philip Morris decided to support only Ferrari from 1996, in essence so that it could underwrite Michael’s salary. McLaren had been red and white since 1974, and Dennis’s personal connections via Project 4 went back almost as far. Although he found a good replacement in West, it added yet another dimension to the contest.

By 1997, both teams had pace-setting cars, although poor reliability cost McLaren dearly. At the Jerez finale, Dennis wound up Ferrari by colluding with Williams to let Jacques Villeneuve take the fight to Michael. Right at the end, and with third place enough to secure the title, Jacques followed orders and let Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard past. 

The stage was set for a step-up in the rivalry between the two teams. Häkkinen beat Michael to the title in 1998, a year that included dramas such as Schumacher’s collision with David Coulthard in the rain at Spa-Francorchamps.

Michael looked set to get his revenge the following year until he was injured at Silverstone. Eddie Irvine took up the challenge, and kept the title race alive until the final round at Suzuka. But only after the mess that was Malaysia, where the returning Michael helped Irvine to victory – with a little blocking of Häkkinen – only for the Ferrari bargeboards to be deemed illegal.

The cars were excluded and the championship appeared to have gone McLaren’s way, only for the FIA to deem a few days later that the bargeboards weren’t illegal after all. The title fight did go to Suzuka, and in what appeared to be a perfect compromise, Häkkinen won the drivers’ title, Ferrari the constructors’ crown.

Nevertheless, the saga has never been forgotten, and ever since it has been used as Exhibit One by anyone trying to suggest that the governing body favours Ferrari. Brawn, meanwhile, kept a mounted bargeboard in his office at Maranello as a memento…

Schumacher beat McLaren in 2000 and began his run of five titles in a row. In 2001 and 2003, McLaren again provided the strongest challenge, and in 2003 Kimi Räikkönen came within a couple of points of defeating the German.

One of the more curious episodes in the history of the two teams involved Greek engineer Nikolas Tombazis. The erstwhile Ferrari chief aerodynamicist joined McLaren in April 2004, after a suitable gardening leave, and yet by March 2006 he was back at Maranello, and promoted to chief designer, having no doubt learned everything there was to know about how McLaren go racing.

Aside from the scandal, this year has seen yet more branches added to the interlinked family trees. Räikkönen became the first driver to move from Woking to Maranello since Berger’s return to Ferrari in 1993, while Dennis enjoyed his revenge for losing Marlboro’s support by landing Vodafone, previously a key Ferrari sponsor. And the man who manages the company’s F1 involvement? None other than John Hogan.

It’s very much a battle of personalities between Dennis on the one side, and Todt and Luca di Montezemolo on the other. There are hidden depths to the continuing struggle.

“Ron fancied himself as another Enzo,” says Barnard. “His whole business of making road cars was about emulating Ferrari. It wasn’t about making money! The problem is, Ron is not Enzo and you can’t just fashion yourself into an Enzo. I think to a large extent that’s one of the things that upsets Ron.”

“Ferrari thought McLaren stole the 1976 championship at Fuji,” says Audetto. “That’s why Montezemolo is still looking for revenge.”

Ferrari versus McLaren, a timeline of antagonism  

1975

Clay Regazzoni blocks Emerson Fittipaldi in US GP to let Niki Lauda escape

1976

James Hunt has Spanish GP win taken away for a too-high wing, but it’s later reinstated

1976

Hunt wins British GP, but Ferrari is angered that he was allowed to take restart

1976

James Hunt put to back of Italian GP grid for an alleged fuel irregularity

1976

Ferrari says that Hunt reneged on a deal to pull in after early laps of Japanese GP

1977

McLaren gives Gilles Villeneuve his debut in British GP, but Ferrari signs him for 1978

1982

Ferrari pushes for flat-floor rule, spiking McLaren’s hoped-for advantage

1986

John Barnard leaves McLaren for Ferrari, but Ron Dennis stops more following

1989

Barnard leaves Ferrari, but is replaced by another McLaren designer, Steve Nichols

1990

Alain Prost quits McLaren for Ferrari to try to beat Ayrton Senna in a different car

1990

Gerhard Berger and engineer Giorgio Ascanelli swap from Ferrari to McLaren

1990

Ayrton Senna drives Prost off the track at first corner of Japanese GP to claim drivers’ title

1996

Marlboro decides to drop McLaren but stays on as sponsor of Ferrari

1997

McLaren colludes with Williams to help Jacques Villeneuve beat Schumacher to the title

1998

Schumacher is convinced that Coulthard swerved into his path at Spa

1999

Ferrari kept in title battle when their Malaysian GP disqualification is overturned

2003

McLaren’s Kimi Räikkönen comes close to beating Schumacher to drivers’ title

2004

Ferrari engineer Nikolas Tombazis joins McLaren, only to return to Ferrari by 2006

2006

McLaren takes Ferrari main sponsor Vodafone for 2007

2007

McLaren designer Mike Coughlan is found in possession of 780 pages of Ferrari documentation

2007

Ferrari engineer Nigel Stepney is accused of passing on information and suspended

2007

World Motorsport Council clears McLaren of industrial espionage, but FIA grants Ferrari an appeal

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