Formula 1 is a fast-moving business, in every sense of the word.
For example, as Kimi Raikkonen stood atop the middle step of the victory podium after having won the opening Grand Prix of the 2013 season in Melbourne last weekend, for many F1 insiders, including your humble correspondent, there was a sense of deja-vu.
Why so? Well, as we Twitter-literate chaps who know what #BelieveInMcLaren signifies are unlikely to forget, McLaren old boy Kimi scored the first of his 20-and-counting Grand Prix victories in Malaysia precisely a decade ago, at the wheel of a McLaren MP4-17.
Of the other nine drivers who made up the top 10 behind the flying Finn that day, only two are still on active racing duty at Sepang again this weekend: Fernando Alonso, third for Renault in 2003 and a Ferrari driver in 2013, and Jenson Button, seventh for BAR in 2003 and a McLaren driver in 2013, as you won’t need me to remind you.
The other seven, for all you trainspotters out there, were as follows: Rubens Barrichello (Ferrari, second), Ralf Schumacher (Williams, fourth), Jarno Trulli (Renault, fifth), Michael Schumacher (Ferrari, sixth), Nick Heidfeld (Sauber, eighth), Heinz-Harald Frentzen (Sauber, ninth) and Ralph Firman (Jordan, 10th).
Kimi’s McLaren team-mate in 2003 was David Coulthard – who, unlike the seven ex-F1 stars listed in the paragraph above, is in Malaysia this year too, albeit as a paddock pundit (aka TV analyst) rather than as a throttle jockey (aka racing driver).
Ten years ago DC was unable to challenge his team-mate, Kimi, for victory in Sepang, since his race ended on lap three as a result of an electrical failure. I doubt if Kimi lost much sleep over David’s plight – for then, as now, intra-team rivalries were a mainstay-motivator of drivers in all forms of racing, and indeed one of the enduring hallmarks of McLaren’s 50-year history in international motorsport has in truth been internecine competition, tricky for the team’s managers to handle though it may have been at the time.
If the tension between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost wasn’t literally cut-throat during the two years in which they raced for McLaren together – 1988 and 1989 – then it was damn’ near, as those of you who’ve seen the movie Senna will be well aware, even though I for one thought that that film, despite its being a documentary, was too skewed in favour of its eponymous hero. I gather Alain has so far resisted the temptation to see it. The day he relents will be a dark one in the Prost household.
Alain first arrived at McLaren in 1980, smoothly guiding the less-than-stellar M29B to a brilliant sixth place in his first ever Formula 1 race, the Argentine Grand Prix, which was held at the majestic and much missed Autodromo Oscar Alfredo Galvez in Buenos Aires. He was quickly snapped up by Renault, for which team he drove for three years (1981, 1982 and 1983). He returned to McLaren in 1984, to partner Niki Lauda, who was already a double World Champion and was about to embark on the third season of his four-year comeback (1982, 1983, 1984 and 1985).
Ron Dennis had recently masterminded a deal in which McLaren would have exclusive use of the Porsche-made TAG turbo V6 engine for 1984, which was expected to be a winner straight out of the box. And so it was: Alain won the season’s opening race, the Brazilian Grand Prix, which was held not at the sadly truncated but still challenging Interlagos, the Sao Paulo home of Brazilian Grands Prix from 1990 until the present day, but at the Circuit Jacarepagua in Rio de Janeiro.
While we’re on the subject, the old Interlagos, that most magnificent of all Grand Prix switchbacks, all five interlocking miles of it, was the home of the Brazilian Grand Prix from 1972 until 1980 (save a one-year interregnum, 1978, in which year the race was held at Jacarepagua), and no-one who ever watched a low-downforce Formula 1 car race flat-out on the ragged edge of its fat tyres’ adhesion over the old Interlagos’s long, fast, bumpy curves will ever forget it. McLaren won there only once, in 1974, my fellow mclaren.com/formula1 blogger Emerson Fittipaldi at the wheel of the team’s rugged but rapid M23. Respect.
Anyway, I digress, as I’m wont to do when I’m traversing memory lane, especially when it’s the jarring ‘lanes’ of the old Interlagos that I’m traversing. So, where were we? Oh yes: 1984.
As expected, McLaren’s Porsche-made TAG turbo V6 engine proved to be a cracker, both powerful and reliable, and the John Barnard-designed chassis to which it was mated was also a brilliant design. As a result, the MP4/2 must be considered one of McLaren’s all-time greats, overshadowed though it may sadly be in many F1 fans’ memories by equally brilliant late-’80s McLarens driven to glory by Ayrton, whose searing charisma and untimely death set him apart as the brightest-shining star in the history of our sport.
A gentler soul than his future nemesis, and by some margin, Alain won seven of the 1984 season’s 16 Grands Prix in the MP4/2, Niki five, but Niki won the Drivers’ World Championship that year, albeit by just half-a-point from Alain, courtesy of a quartet of second places to support his quintet of victories. McLaren won the Constructors’ World Championship by a country mile.
The following year, 1985, Alain would again win the Drivers’ World Champion for McLaren, in a developed version of the MP4/2, the MP4/2B, and McLaren would again win the Constructors’ World Championship.
Of such enduring consecutive successes is McLaren’s splendid 50-year history made.
So... in Malaysia this weekend are we likely to witness Jenson and Checo etching similar tales of glory into the F1 record books? Are they likely to bring more silverware back to Woking next week, to add to the hundreds of gleaming trophies that are polished daily that they may look their glittering best in the lustrous cabinets that line the boulevard of the McLaren Technology Centre?
Probably not, for the McLaren MP4-28 isn’t (yet) a race-winner, unlike so many of its famous forebears. But I’ll leave you with two thoughts, both of which are lessons hard-wired into my old racer’s brain, carved there over the past 40-odd years as a result of my having covered more than 500 Grands Prix in a long and fascinating career as a motorsport journalist.
First, inside the hot and sweaty cockpits of their MP4-28s, both Jenson and Checo will be working veritable miracles, battling understeer or oversteer or lack of grip or front-end lock-up or whatever it is that McLaren’s matchless engineers have not yet managed to dial out; and, second, McLaren will be back to the front sooner than you think.
You’d better believe it. Or, to put it another way, #BelieveInMcLaren.