Looking back across the past 50 years of motorsport, and the past 47 years of Formula 1, McLaren has invariably been a team that one had to keep one’s eye on.
Bruce McLaren Motor Racing Ltd was founded in 1963, its first focus being the Tasman Series, and the team didn’t start its first Grand Prix until 1966 – hence my scrupulous 50/47-year reference in the paragraph above. Since 1966, though, McLaren has won a quite remarkable 182 Grands Prix – and literally hundreds of other races besides. The Woking boys didn’t and don’t always win – but, even in years when their CV looks slightly threadbare results-wise, there was always enough going on behind the scenes to stiffen the resolve of their drivers, engineers and investors, and to persuade them to knuckle down and exert a major push for future glory.
The first McLaren ‘wobble’ came in 1977-78. Emerson Fittipaldi had driven the superb M23 to the Drivers’ World Championship in 1974, and James Hunt had done the same thing a couple of years later. In each year, the vanquished party had been the old enemy, Ferrari; Clay Regazzoni was the man whom Emerson had pipped for the 1974 crown, and the ‘Boys’ Own’ way in which James had beaten Niki Lauda to lift the laurels in 1976, on streaming-wet asphalt at Fuji, Japan, had passed into motorsport folklore immediately. (Cinema-goers will be able to re-live the entire saga later this year, by the way, and I’m told that ‘Rush’, which is what Working Title’s new Hunt-versus-Lauda film will be called, is very impressive indeed.)
Putting one’s finger on how and why the M23 slipped from the high wire as the 1970s wore on isn’t an easy task. James, for all his extrovert ways, and for all his white-knuckle in-cockpit bravura, was also a very astute thinker. By 1977 he was aware that the M23 had passed its prime in terms of out-and-out grip, progressive handler though it remained, which is why he opted to campaign the much-stiffer M26 instead that year. By contrast, his team-mate Jochen Mass persisted with the sweeter M23. The M26 is often criticised as being a bit of a dog, but the record book shows that James won three times with it in 1977, and could have won with it at least twice more with better Cosworth engine reliability; in the golden-oldie M23, Jochen’s best result was a solitary second place.
The late 1970s was a complicated and confusing time in which to be the technical director of a leading Formula 1 team. In 1977, the Lotus 78 ‘wing car’ won more Grands Prix than anything else – five – but Niki Lauda and Carlos Reutemann scored a lot more points in their Ferraris than Mario Andretti and Gunnar Nilsson did in their Lotuses, and even Jody Scheckter’s brand-new Wolf, run by a tiny team that fielded only one car, was quick enough to enable him also to beat Mario to second place in the Drivers’ World Championship behind champion Niki. And, as I’ve made clear, James was often as quick as anyone in the M26, dog or not.
None of these cars – not the Ferrari, not the Wolf, not the McLaren – were ‘wing cars’, so it wasn’t immediately clear that, in channelling air underneath the Lotus 78’s chassis, Lotus’s Colin Chapman had found another magic bullet. But he had – as his Lotus 79, the 78’s swoopily beautiful successor, made abundantly clear in 1978. In that year Mario and team-mate Ronnie Peterson pulverised all comers, winning eight Grands Prix and finishing one-two four times, line astern, smooth as you like. But for iffy reliability, they could have won a whole lot more. By contrast, McLaren won no races at all, James’s plucky third place at Paul Ricard, France, being the team’s only podium finish all year. By mid-season every team was planning their Lotus 79 lookalike for 1979 – McLaren included.
McLaren’s technical director Gordon Coppuck, a very pleasant and even-tempered man, reasoned, quite logically, that to beat the Lotus 79 he would have to come up with car with an even larger ‘plan area’ in an effort to generate even more aerodynamic downforce than had the 79. But, in so doing, in his efforts to optimise ‘ground effect’ (as the 79’s sculpted underside venturi were being dubbed), Gordon had forgotten some of F1’s ground rules; as a result, in giving the McLaren M28 a larger ‘plan area’ than its rivals, he’d also made it too big, too heavy and too unwieldy. As a result, 1979 was another bad year for McLaren, and the M28 never won a single race.
McLaren’s team principal at that time was Teddy Mayer, one of the company’s co-founders alongside Bruce McLaren in 1963. I well remember his speaking to me in some detail about the M28’s somewhat tortuous development programme at the time. “That M28 was ghastly, a disaster,” he said, with a candour that left me rocking, close to stark disbelief. “It was ludicrous, quite diabolical. Gordon’s track record wasn’t looking too clever. I’m afraid he’d ignored all the crucial design precepts that say a car should be as light, as agile and as compact as possible. And the M28’s failure came at a difficult time for the team.”
To be fair to Teddy, after only a few Grands Prix of the 1979 season, by which time it had already become crystal clear that the M28 was beyond salvation, he sanctioned its immediate replacement, and the M29 made its appearance halfway through the season, finishing a promising fourth on its debut outing in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, a very relieved John Watson at the wheel.
But it was too little too late – and, looking back on it now, I’d say 1979-80 was probably the most turbulent period in McLaren’s history. By the end of 1980 the team’s exhausted designers had produced three different chassis in 18 months – the M30 arrived in 1980 – and the executives of the team’s long-time sponsor Marlboro had had enough. The result was that the Marlboro men effected an amalgamation between McLaren and Ron Dennis’s Project 4 organisation – and the rest, as they say, is history.
And, at last, after three winless seasons (1978, 1979 and 1980), in 1981, under Ron’s leadership, McLaren began to win once again: few McLaren victories can have been as well-received by the team’s hard-working stalwarts than John Watson’s triumph in the British Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1981. What we didn’t then know, but which we know now, was that McLaren was about to begin one of the most prodigiously successful winning sprees in Formula 1 history, conquering the rest of the 1980s more imperiously perhaps than any team has ever dominated any racing decade before or since.