1998 Formula 1 McLaren MP4-13
The creation of McLaren's unique two-seater did nothing to compromise the development of the 1998 team cars, and when these appeared it was evident that Adrian Newey had been working flat-out since joining the team from Williams in August the previous year.
Contractual restrictions meant he could not play an active role before that date, but clearly he still had plenty of time to consider the impact of the new regulations and to find the most beneficial way to comply with them. As Mercedes-Benz poured their expertise into the development of the new F0 110G V10, Newey and his team spent an incredible 12,000 man-hours finding new ways to recover the downforce which would otherwise have been sacrificed to the new rules.
This, together with a switch to Bridgestone tyres and a very real rekindling of team spirit once Mika Häkkinen discovered for himself the joys of winning at the highest level, quickly put McLaren back into a dominant position on the grid. From a base of three race wins in 1997, the team went on to win yet another Drivers‘ and Constructors‘ World Championship double, and its first with Mercedes-Benz and West.
Neil Oatley nevertheless recalled: “We didn’t really expect to be so competitive, at least until the car went to Barcelona, and literally the first run we did was quicker than anyone else had all week, so that gave us an inkling that we had reasonably competitive car."
Oatley also wondered whether, “because from a novelty point of view the MP4-13 was probably fairly uninteresting, maybe that was why it was so good." The design process, he said, was relatively late in starting — "it was a fairly hurried car in that respect" - but Newey brought a strong influence to bear on the monocoque shape and its aerodynamics. These were two factors which inevitably drove the whole programme, while other team members battled with the demands of the new narrower-track/grooved tyre regime.
The finished car was a neat and tidy package, relatively small and compact and perhaps because there were no completely radical new features on it everything tended to work well from the very start. Still in place was the previous season's low-level nose design, but the front suspension was quite different with inboard vertical dampers and torsion bars in place of the previous car's horizontally mounted coil spring/damper units. The switch to Bridgestone cost the team some valuable time when it came to finalising the suspension geometry, but it proved worthwhile.
From the first race the team was, as Oatley observed, “head and shoulders above everyone else" with both Häkkinen and David Coulthard running "like clockwork as well as being very quick." At Melbourne both drivers lapped the field, Coulthard leaving the way clear for Häkkinen to win the race.
Controversy followed in Brazil, with Ferrari querying the legality of McLaren‘s asymmetric braking system. Despite the FIA giving the okay during the winter, the stewards agreed with Ferrari. In the interest of the sport McLaren decided to withdraw the system rather than muddy the water in what it felt would be a Championship-winning year. This was a typically shrewd move, and even without the system the drivers managed another McLaren 1-2 leaving Ferrari's Michael Schumacher almost a lap behind.
At Buenos Aires, Schumacher fought back to win as Coulthard finished sixth. DC beat Häkkinen to win at lmola, and dominated again at Montreal until the throttle mechanism malfunctioned. “Embarrassing,” Ron Dennis called it, but the Finn soon reasserted his dominance after this and was never any lower than third on the grid, eventually posting nine poles, three second places and four thirds on the startline.
As the results show, Coulthard‘s throttle disaster was a rare failure, as was Hakkinen‘s retirement at lmola. Generally the cars performed exceptionally well although DC experienced a couple of bottom-end failures at Monza and Monaco while Hakkinen’s handling went awry in Budapest when the front anti-roll bar worked loose, costing the team a race win.
The team took full advantage of the downtime between races to test and refine the car, and towards the end of the season Häkkinen was able to find that little bit extra. Despite winning six races with just two still up for grabs, he was tied neck-and-neck with Schumacher. At the Nürburgring, however, he left nothing to chance, storming ahead to a victory which left the German trailing by a significant, but hardly decisive, four points. As a result there was still everything to fight for at the last race in Japan. It was nail-biting stuff, a real down-to-the-wire situation.
Fortunately, the Mika magic held true. “He drove an exceptional race at Suzuka,“ Oatley said. "He was very quick all weekend, didn’t make a single mistake, and the car was strong." By the end of the afternoon Häkkinen had delivered a great victory, and with exactly 100 points handed McLaren its first World Championship since Ayrton Senna‘s heyday. With one win of his own and six second-places Coulthard came third with 56 points, sufficient to give West McLaren Mercedes and the MP4-13 the Constructors‘ title as well.