As 2013 makes its way through its darkest month towards its conclusion, and as we petrolheads reflect on a busy if disappointing past Formula 1 season for McLaren, I find myself wandering down memory lane: always a pleasant thoroughfare in which to take a winter stroll.
In fact, as I sit down to write the following words for you, dear mclaren.com/formula1 reader, I find myself sauntering rather a long way down that well trodden path, in fact, and where my saunterings will stop is at a virtual signpost marked '1973': 40 long years ago.
In 1973, McLaren was a very different organisation from today's anthracite-hued corporate edifice, carved in Ron Dennis's image and likeness, that should by any measure be regarded as not only the pride of Woking but also one of the sporting jewels in the United Kingdom’s glitteringly bejewelled crown.
Prior to the 1973 F1 season, McLaren had won just five grands prix: three in 1968, courtesy of Bruce McLaren, who’d won the marque’s first ever grand prix, in Belgium in 1968, and his old mate and fellow Kiwi, Denny Hulme, who’d won in Italy and Canada that same year (ie, 1968), in Mexico the following year (ie, 1969) and in South Africa in 1972.
In other words, McLaren had been erratically there or thereabouts over the previous few years, but had never been quite competitive enough seriously to frighten the then-dominant forces of Lotus and Tyrrell, which two proud British teams had shared the past six years’ world championships as follows: Lotus 1968 (Graham Hill), 1970 (Jochen Rindt), 1972 (Emerson Fittipaldi); Tyrrell 1969 (Jackie Stewart), 1971 (ditto), 1973 (ditto again, as it happens).
But, despite the fact that Bruce had been killed in 1970, testing a McLaren M8D Can-Am car at Goodwood, Denny and the boys had continued to fight the good fight in their founder’s absence, and in them had steadily developed a steely determination to haul the team that their much-missed mate had founded to the very front of the F1 grids, toppling mighty Lotus and mighty Tyrrell in the process, whatever those two automotive autocrats, Colin Chapman (Lotus) and Ken Tyrrell (Tyrrell), might have to say about it.
The McLaren M7 of 1968 was a pretty car, orange and bullet-shaped, and as I say it won three grands prix that year. By season’s end, Denny had been classified third in the world championship standings, Bruce fifth, McLaren a very creditable second.
The M7 was pressed into service again in 1969, but Tyrrell’s Jackie/Matra combo was too quick for it by then and Denny won only once, at the season’s final grand prix, in Mexico; Bruce won no races at all, but ended up third in the world championship standings, courtesy of a strong run of points-scoring finishes; Denny ended up sixth; McLaren fourth.
For 1970 there was an all-new McLaren, the M14, and the season started well, with second places for Denny in South Africa and for Bruce in Spain. But then Bruce’s death came as a hammer-blow, understandably. The team completed the season, bravely, but Denny and Bruce’s replacement Peter Gethin failed to win a single race. Denny ended up fourth in the world championship standings, Peter 23rd, McLaren fifth.
The following year, 1971, was worse. Again there were no victories – no podiums either this time – and McLaren could manage only sixth in the world championship standings; Peter was ninth, Denny a very disappointing 13th.
Things had to change – and in 1972 they did. Peter had left to join BRM, but a reinvigorated Denny was still there, joined now by another Peter (Revson) and Brian Redman. The new McLaren M19 was a much better car than the M14 had been, and in it Denny won in South Africa, bagging six further podium finishes during the year, and ended up a strong third in the world championship standings; Peter scored four podium finishes to be fifth, and Brian was 14th; McLaren was back up to third.
Which leads us back to where we began: 1973. Brian had left the team, but, in the hugely experienced Denny and the impressively dapper Peter, McLaren had reason to be proud of its driver line-up. The team’s season duly began much as the previous one had ended, with the M19 very good but not brilliant, duly picking up podiums and points in the traditional season-opening grands prix in Argentina and Brazil.
Then came the step-change that the McLaren boys had toiled so hard to make, in the shape of their all-new M23, which made its debut in Denny’s hands in the third race of the season, South Africa, Peter making do with his trusty old M19.
The M23 finished fifth on its South African debut, and fourth (Peter) and sixth (Denny) on its next outing, in Spain, by which time both drivers had been given an M23 to play with. At Monaco they finished fifth (Peter) and sixth (Denny), and in Sweden Denny gave the new car the victory it had been hinting was possible over the past few grands prix, the wily old Kiwi passing the local hero Ronnie Peterson’s Lotus 72 on the race’s penultimate lap.
In Britain it was Peter’s turn to win, with Denny third. It was Peter’s maiden grand prix victory, and a popular one at that. He finished the season strongly, too, with third in Italy, fifth in the United States and a win in Canada. He and Denny finished fifth and sixth in the world championship standings, McLaren again third.
By season’s end, most F1 insiders had come to the opinion that the world’s fastest F1 car was now the McLaren M23. It was not only quicker than the Lotus 72 and Tyrrell 005/006 that had started the year as the quickest two cars of the year – and in which Emerson and Jackie had fought out the world championship, Jackie emerging victorious in the end – but it was also newer and had greater developmental potential.
That’s certainly what Emerson thought, because he left Lotus at the end of the year and joined McLaren, lured by the evident potential of the M23.
The rest, as they say, is history. Emerson duly won the world championship in 1974 – McLaren’s first F1 world championship – and it was clear that the M23 was still being improved, benefiting from a longer wheelbase and a wider track among many other more subtle mods. It continued to improve in 1975, acquiring the then-unique feature of a six-speed gearbox, and McLaren and Emerson were prevented from achieving consecutive world championship glories only by the flat-12 grunt of Ferrari and Niki Lauda, which was an unbeatable combo in 1975.
But by 1976 the M23 had been developed further, and in it James Hunt vanquished that previously unbeatable combo of Ferrari flat-12 grunt and the famously toothy Austrian automaton, winning McLaren’s second F1 world championship in what was by then a three-year-old car.
The following year there a new McLaren was launched, the M26, and James won three grands prix with it, in Britain, the United States and Japan. But in truth it was no better than the M23 on which it had been based, and indeed James’s team-mate Jochen Mass opted to stick instead with the M23, which he showed to be a very competitive car even four years after its debut.
The story of Fuji 1976
Jochen wasn’t and never had been as quick as James – the previous year (ie, 1976) they’d finished first and ninth in the world championship standings in twin M23s – but, in 1977, in which year James adopted the new M26 quite a few grands prix before Jochen did, for the simple reason that Jochen preferred the old M23, the gap was far closer.
They ended up fifth (James) and sixth (Jochen) in the 1977 world championship standings, Jochen scoring most of his points in the first half of the season, including a strong second place in Sweden, before the team’s management had asked him to switch to the M26. In truth, at the time of the switch, the M23 was likely still the better car, and probably always was.
In all, the M23 entered 83 grands prix, its brilliant F1 career beginning in South Africa in 1973 and ending in Italy in 1977. During those five seasons it won 16 grands prix, two drivers’ world championships and one constructors’ world championship.
If it isn’t the greatest F1 car in McLaren’s long and glorious history, that can only be because the McLaren MP4/4 of 1988 is the greatest F1 car in the history of the sport.
Oh... and the M23 looks and sounds gorgeous, too. Type ‘Martin Brundle drives a 1974 McLaren M23’ into YouTube if you don’t believe me.