If one thing were clear from the somewhat muddied waters of pre-season testing at Jerez, it was that the Mercedes-Benz V6 engine looks to be the most effective power-unit of 2014.
For me, that’s no surprise – I’ve always been impressed and overwhelmed by the Brixworth boffins who have continued to make the Merc Formula 1’s ‘must-have’ power-unit for close to a decade.
Yet, it’s strange to think that this year’s shiny, silver MP4-29 will be the 20th and last McLaren model to be powered by Mercedes (21st, if you count the stillborn MP4-18, which we tend not to).
During the last two decades, the Anglo-German combination has enjoyed terrific success – 78 grand prix victories, 76 pole positions, 84 fastest laps, and – unforgettably – four world championships.
Now, though, there are just 19 grands prix remaining for the partnership.
So, for what it’s worth, I thought it might be interesting to compile my top 10 all-time favourite McLaren-Mercedes grand prix victories. Note, these aren’t necessarily the combination’s best races, but the ones that, as a racer, I hold closest to my heart.
10. 1998 Luxembourg GP
For me, there’s something special about races where the stakes are high. Of course, you could make that claim of every race, but it’s the races where the result can critically swing destiny that maketh the man. The penultimate race of 1998 was at the Nurburgring was one such example: Mika Hakkinen went into it level-pegging with Michael Schumacher, each on 80 points. Following it lay just one more race, in Japan, so it was essential weekend that pave the way for the grand denouement.
The McLarens weren’t a match for the scarlet cars that weekend, yet Mika dug deep, overcame an initial deficit (helped, partly, by the unhelpful tardiness of Schumacher’s team-mate Eddie Irvie) with a series of utterly blistering laps to – against the odds – move ahead of Schumacher during the pitstops.
A visibly deflated Michael conceded the lead, and, in that moment, the championship momentum swung in Mika’s favour. He held on to take his first drivers’ title a few weeks later.
My greatest tracks
9. 2007 European GP
A messy race, and one dominated by the sudden and impromptu arrival of a downpour that decimated the field. That Turn One squall seemed to catch out most of the field – including a certain Lewis Hamilton, who managed to persuade a local crane-driver to re-position his MP4-22 on the racetrack after it had been duly beached in the gravel!
Anyway, I digress: following the red flag, the race looked a cert for Felipe Massa, with McLaren’s Fernando Alonso menacingly closing the gap behind him. Following their final stops, and with the skies once again turning grey and drizzly, Fernando knew that his McLaren would fare better than the Ferrari as the cooler weather took the bite out of the tyres.
Five laps from the end, Fernando made his move and muscled past Felipe with a little bit of shoulder-rubbing, a tactic that later prompted some pretty heated discussions in the pre-podium green room.
Still, that’s life: if you want something, you need to go out and get it – which is exactly what Fernando did. And fair play to him, too.
8. 2005 Brazilian GP
As he did in 2004, albeit for Williams, Juan Pablo Montoya pulled out all the stops to beat Kimi Raikkonen and win the Brazilian Grand Prix at Interlagos – doing it through sheer muscle.
As race engineer Phil Prew puts it in the excellent ‘McLaren: 50 Years of Racing’ book; “Juan Pablo put in such a series of mega laps that, when Kimi pitted, Juan Pablo was right there. Kimi came out just in front, then Juan Pablo went round him in Turn Four and took the lead. After that, we told them to just get two cars to the end.
“Juan Pablo was never going to lose that race – if it had worked out the other way, and Juan Pablo had been told to back off, he would have ignored us completely!”
It’s good to know that there’s still a lot of love and affection for the fiery Colombian within McLaren – I think that speaks volumes for both parties.
7. 2004 Belgian GP
The MP4-19A wasn’t one of the best cars produced down in Woking. Its mid-season successor, dubbed the MP4-19B, was markedly and immediately better – introduced at Silverstone, Kimi put the car on pole, and finished second in the race, to the somewhat ubiquitous-at-the-time Michael Schumacher.
While the promise was there, 19B still wasn’t really a match for that season’s all-conquering F2004 Ferrari. In Spa, Kimi took his sole win of the season using guile and stealth, correctly reasoning that he wouldn’t be able to squarely rely on the car’s speed when it ultimately mattered.
Following the third and final Safety Car (!) of the afternoon, Michael was bunkered up behind leader Kimi’s rear-wing, ready for the restart, but Kimi slowed the pace to a crawl, correctly reasoning that the Ferrari took longer to work its rubber back to working temperature than his McLaren. Michael was wrong-footed, Kimi put the hammer down and stretched his advantage, stroking home to win.
Kimi is often unfairly characterised as an unthinking driver – but, make no mistake, he possesses a classic racing brain, and Spa 2004 showed that off to the max.
6. 2000 French GP
Seemingly forever in Mika’s shadow, comparing David Coulthard to the Flying Finn is to do the Scot a considerable injustice. While few in Formula 1 have ever matched Mika’s sheer, raw pace, David could often run him close, and, on his day, reached heights that even Mika failed to match.
One day in particular springs to mind: Sunday July 2 2000, at Magny-Cours, in central France. This was the day when David not only squarely beat Mika at his own game, but took the fight majestically to Michael Schumacher.
It was an attacking, unforgiving drive – David wasn’t about to take no for an answer, forcing his way past the German’s Ferrari and taking an emotional victory following an extremely difficult personal tragedy .
He was on a different level that day – perhaps the Scot’s greatest race?
F1's Greatest Circuit?
5. 2000 Belgian GP
This was another of those nail-biters. I think racing drivers dig just that little bit deeper when it gets personal. This was the race that almost got away from Mika Hakkinen – he’d carelessly spun from the lead at a rather innocuous mid-speed right-hander, and then spent the remainder of the race hounding after the new leader, one Michael Schumacher, before closing him down in the final laps to make his move.
What followed next was classic, gladiatorial motor racing; on lap 40, Mika got a super exit from Eau Rouge, drafted onto the back of the scarlet Ferrari, only to find Michael – incredibly – edging him onto the grass at 190mph! Cue furious gestures from the cockpit of the silver car.
The red mist quickly lifted, Mika dug even deeper the following lap, nailed Eau Rouge absolutely flat and, V10 breaking on the limiter, darted past a backmarker to scream past Michael and take the lead.
This, one could legitimately argue, was the greatest overtaking in Formula 1 history – a claim to which Ron Dennis would surely agree.
4. 2005 Japanese GP
What is it about McLaren and these emotional, last-ditch victories? Perhaps it speaks volumes for the hunger and commitment of the team, a belief that no race is over until the flag falls.
Suzuka 2005 was destined to be a strange race from Saturday’s qualifying: a sudden rainshower during the one-flying-lap format up-ended the grid, placing race favourites, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen 16th and 17th respectively.
Neither were prepared to sit still, and were soon scything through the field. Meanwhile, at the front, Giancarlo Fisichella, who’d started third, looked pretty assured for victory – but he’d reckoned without intervention from Kimi, who closed the gap to the bright blue Renault until he was in the slipstream as they crossed the line to start the very last lap.
Kimi didn’t need more than one opportunity: as Fisi moved right to cover the inside line into Turn One, Kimi kept it planted and screamed past on the outside to win.
Electrifying stuff – and Suzuka ’05 is a top contender for the greatest grand prix ever.
3. 2008 British GP
Lewis Hamilton didn’t arrive at Silverstone in the best of spirits: he’d crashed into Kimi Raikkonen – in the Montreal pitlane, no less – one month earlier; he’d had a fractious, erratic race in France, and the lead-up to his home race was filled with suggestion that he’d lost his focus.
Truth be told, he still hadn’t found his mojo at Silverstone, for whatever reason; he was out-flanked by team-mate Heikki Kovalainen in qualifying, and resigned to a tough slog on Sunday afternoon.
But then it rained, and Lewis reached majestic heights that I’ve barely seen in a racing driver. His cruise to victory – he took the chequer 1m08.577s ahead of runner-up spot – brought to mind Jackie Stewart’s incomparable drive at the Nordschleife in 1968, when the Scot finished four minutes clear of second-placed Graham Hill!
2. 2012 US Grand Prix
I loved watching Lewis wring the neck of a McLaren.
He’s like a wild animal unleashed when he’s on a charge, and that first race in Austin was typical of what he could do when given just the faintest sniff of victory. That year’s MP4-27 was a real beauty, and Lewis immediately got it working around the sweeps of the Circuit of the Americas. Unfortunately for him, Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull was equally hooked up, took pole, and looked set to dominate.
But Lewis dug deep, and kept pushing and pushing, until Seb stumbled over a backmarker, lost his momentum and broke his rhythm. Lewis didn’t need a second chance, out of the hairpin, he glued his front-wing to the rear of the Red Bull, stayed flat as Sebastian tried to jink to the right, and then nailed the car to the racing line, out-fumbling the German in the process.
Lewis’s look of elation on the podium told you all you needed to know about the satisfaction of that particular win.
1. 2011 Canadian GP
There are strange races, but this one definitely takes the biscuit – the longest grand prix in Formula 1 history (clocking in at a staggering 4h 04m39.537s, albeit with a lengthy red-flag stoppage in the middle), it was also one of the least predictable in living memory, with the victor never really looking assured until the chequered flag had fallen.
Formula 1 is often at its best when the elements conspire to turn the formbook on its head. As is well know, Jenson won this race after, variously, pitting five times (including one drive-through penalty and a stop to replace a punctured front tyre), a collision with his own team-mate, a collision with Fernando Alonso, and several laps spent trailing along at the back of the field.
That Jenson was even able to be in with a sniff of victory tells you everything about his innate and uncanny ability to find grip where others struggle. Into those closing laps, his McLaren looked mean, menacing and sure-footed, while the rest looked on tiptoes. The last-lap pass on Vettel was the result of that sure-footedness – he was just too fast to keep back.
Funnily enough, the last driver to win a grand prix from a position at the very back of the grid was also a certain Mr J Button esq – at the previous year’s Australian Grand Prix!
This, however, was Jenson’s day of days – the race he can one day rightfully recount to his grandchildren with justifiable pride.