During this golden jubilee year, McLaren devotees have grown accustomed to the anniversary of many fascinating self-contained little stories that span half a century of achievement.
But this week’s anniversary slipped under the carpet in the rush (no pun intended) to celebrate the team’s de facto 50th birthday (on September 2). Nonetheless, the date of August 30 was a key marker in the team’s history, marking the passing of 30 years since McLaren’s first-ever turbo-engined Formula 1 car made its race debut.
The car was the MP4/1E (yes, the fourth, and final, iteration of that veritable carbon tub that had begun life as the MP4/1 back in’81), the engine was the [TAG-badged] Porsche Turbo 1.5-litre V6, the event was the 1983 Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort. And the driver was Niki Lauda.
As with many significant moments in history, it’s not the event itself that was remarkable, but the backstory behind it. This particular episode was no different: for the record, Niki qualified an unremarkable 19th, four places behind team-mate John Watson in the normally aspirated sister car, and cooked the brakes during the race – the higher temps the simple legacy of the higher end-of-straight speeds achieved by the new turbo.
Still, it was the start of something big…
The collaboration between McLaren and Porsche wasn’t the first indicator that McLaren boss Ron Dennis and his team’s perfectionist chief designer John Barnard would move heaven and earth to ensure they only got the best; after all, the MP4/1, the world’s first revolutionary all-carbon monocoque, had already demonstrated that ruthless perfectionism.
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The McLaren-Porsche alliance, however, was the second stage in that pair’s determination to change the Formula 1 game for the better.
For Dennis, that initial approach to Porsche would be crucial – get that opening pitch wrong and the door would be slammed in his face, get it right, and he’d be welcomed into one of the automotive world’s most revered manufacturers. Astutely, Ron approached the Germans not with the question ‘Will you build us a state-of-the-art F1 engine?’ but with a more subtle inquiry: ‘Will you build us a state-of-the-art F1 engine – if we supply the funding to meet the cost?’
The Porsche response to both questions was succinct. To the first it was ‘Porsche is not currently competing in F1.’ To the second, it was ‘Step this way, Herr Dennis.’ Where previous teams had failed, Ron had managed to get his foot in the door at Weissach, and, in typical style, would start to lever it open through sheer determination and belief.
Barnard, for his part, was now about to display the same original thinking towards building a turbo-charged F1 power unit as he had demonstrated with the ultra-sophisticated carbon-fibre monocoque programme.
Teaming up with John Barnard would turn out to be one of the most perspicacious decisions Ron Dennis ever made. Their partnership lasted barely six years, but it laid the hardcore for the foundations upon which the modern McLaren team of today was built.
In so many ways, Dennis and Barnard were very similar characters; motivated, uncompromising in their quest for excellence, and, in their own way, absolute perfectionists. Their professional relationship was volatile and explosive, though, giving rise to rows of heroic decibel proportions that have long since been written into the pages of contemporary F1 history.
When Ron’s approach to Porsche proved successful, the deal very much put John Barnard into the project’s driving seat. Born in Wembley, north London, he had initially studied engineering at Brunel Technical College and Watford Technical College, ending up in the GEC technical department making machinery for manufacturing electric lightbulbs.
For a life-long car enthusiast, this was understandably a short-term project and, in 1969, Barnard joined Lola Cars at their Huntingdon base as a junior in the drawing office. There he would find himself working alongside his future great F1 rival Patrick Head, whose Williams F1 designs would go head-to-head with JB’s McLarens for world championship glory through the 1980s.
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“I would not compromise on any aspect of the engine layout,” Barnard reflected to the author of this blog many years later. “We had to have the right turbo-chargers, positioned in absolutely the correct positions. I think I drove the Porsche engineers mad pulling in the bolt heads that extended outside the overall prescribed profile of the engine, re-engineering certain casings, and so on. It was quite a tense business by the F1 standards of the day.”
That first McLaren-TAG duly had its debut race at Zandvoort in 1983, although that wouldn’t have been the case if Barnard had had his way: it took Niki Lauda a lot of banging the table behind the scenes with key sponsors Marlboro to pull the engine’s race-date forwards. Barnard – ever the perfectionist – had been holding out to race the engine at the start of ’84, but Niki wasn’t having that.
The Austrian later recalled: “Barnard said the team was not going to race the turbo car before 1984 because he wanted to make the perfect car. But I went to see Ron and told him that Ferrari would win everything in ’84 if we didn’t get on and start developing the TAG turbo.
“But John still wouldn’t agree – so I had to eventually go behind their backs to Marlboro, who told Ron and John that, if they wanted to get the money, then they’d better get on and start developing the new car!
Lauda chuckled: “Barnard was furious – he hated me for that!”
Dennis felt genuinely aggrieved by Lauda’s intervention, agreeing wholeheartedly with Barnard’s view that a test hack was a bit of a waste of time. There were rumours to the effect that Marlboro had docked McLaren around $250,000 from its sponsorship budget for not having the new TAG turbo-engined car running as early as had originally been scheduled.
Amusingly, it’s still officially unconfirmed, but sources close to the McLaren top brass also suggest that Ron may have got his revenge on the issue by making a corresponding deduction from Lauda’s McLaren retainer!
Still, that $250,000 was a small price to pay for verifying the concept, validity and reliability of the new Porsche V6 ahead of a concerted championship push in 1984. And that toe-in-the-water exercise was most useful, too; it unearthed a raft of niggling teething problems that the engineers were able to iron out before the definitive turbo-car made its debut.
The MP4/1E may only be a footnote in McLaren’s race-winning story, but it’s fair to say that when its successor, MP4/2, won an unprecedented 12 grands prix out of 16 and rewrote the F1 history books in 1984, that humble little chassis-engine combo proved pretty conclusively to be the vital single acorn from which great oaks grow.