Is it really 30 years since Niki Lauda, Alain Prost and the McLaren-TAG MP4/2 steamrollered all opposition to clean up both the 1984 drivers’ and constructors’ championships? A quick check of my calendar suggests that, indeed, October 21 1984 was the date when McLaren, under the auspices of Ron Dennis, truly came of age.
To my mind, there’s something special, pivotal, about that ’84 season. It was the season when Formula 1’s doors were flung wide open and the new kids on the block abjectly humiliated the old guard, establishing a new era of utter dominance that had never previously been witnessed.
Of course, there had been dominant cars and campaigns in previous years: Mercedes came, saw and conquered in 1955, winning five of that year’s seven grands prix; Lotus and Tyrrell carved up the late 1960s and early ’70s, but no team had ever won more than eight championship grands prix in a single season (which happened with Lotus’s ground-effect cars, in 1978).
So when McLaren’s 1984 car, the beautiful MP4/2 won 12 races, it effectively rewrote the formbook. From that point on, utter domination became the benchmark, the goal, the ultimate ambition for any grand prix team. And subsequent campaigns from teams like Ferrari, Red Bull and, this year, Mercedes, all owe the genesis of their supremacy to the determined manner in which Ron Dennis went at it with such complete and utter intent at the start of ’84.
Perhaps Ron had taken a page from Italian politician and writer Niccolo Machiavelli’s medieval treatise, The Prince, where he stated: “Never do an enemy a small injury.” In other words, the simplest, most effective way of damaging your opponent is the decisive blow – one that leaves them reeling so much that he is unable to fight back. It was a mantra Ron certainly took to heart: every aspect of McLaren International’s operation was designed to be so devastatingly effective that it would offer McLaren’s rivals little opportunity to regroup and attack.
Ron had begun assembling the right people before he’d even made it into Formula 1. Technical director John Barnard was his secret weapon, having conceived a groundbreaking carbon-fibre chassis concept that would revolutionise the sport. At the end of 1981, he succeeded in persuading double world champion Niki Lauda back into the sport. And he also managed to convince Porsche to build a bespoke 1.5-litre turbo engine to power his cars – all while still struggling to find the necessary finance, frantically laying the proverbial traintrack while the locomotive sped forwards just metres behind him.
If Barnard was successfully gluing chassis and engine together as one cohesive whole, Ron was certainly doing the same with the organization. I clearly remember Ron’s intensity and zeal for the task of transforming McLaren International (as it then was) into a singular, motivated, cohesive whole: fighting fires, showcasing leadership, solving problems. While organisations were smaller and more compact back in those days, Ron did indeed succeed in ring-fencing his team from all outsiders and unnecessary intrusions. You could argue that, to this day, that’s still one of Ron’s primary motivations, and one of the reasons why his staff remain so true and loyal to both their boss and the orgnaisation; they feel secure and protected within it.
I remember talking to Ron’s people about the collaborative yet combative esprit de corps that existed at Woking during those days. Alan Jenkins, who was Alain’s race engineer in 1984, would regale us with tales of just how competitive technical director John Barnard was. Alan would explain how his engineers would return from a windtunnel session having only found a small, incremental improvement – when they presented their findings to Barnard, his dissatisfaction would fire him into a rage, and he’d race from the office, jump into his car and drive off to the windtunnel himself in a bid to improve upon the results!
Ironically, given its supremacy, Barnard’s first turbo-powered car was something of a compromise. His blueprint for a swept-up 60-degree engine vee angle had been created to increase the available underbody space and maximise the ground-effect that the regulations then permitted. By siting all of the engine’s ancillaries, such as pumps and radiators, above the optimum line needed to create beautiful underbody venturis, Barnard had hoped to create an awesomely devasting ground-effect car.
In December 1982, however, the rule-makers swiftly banned ground effect – for safety reasons – and effectively neutered Barnard’s baby before it had even been born. That must have been quite a grim day in the Boundary Road drawing office for all concerned!
It also pushed the programme behind schedule, prompting an impatient Lauda to cajole title sponsor Marlboro, against Barnard’s wishes, to push for a hacked-together mule car, dubbed MP4/1E, for the final races of 1983. It was a useful compromise, taught the team a lot about the higher stresses and strains brought about by the faster turbo engine, and paved the way for the all-new MP4/2, which broke cover the following March.
When it finally arrived, Barnard’s definitive ’84 turbo car looked just right. In fact, it was so perfect that it went on to win world titles in ’85 and ’86 in near-identical specification, even using the same tubs! Barnard had delivered a masterpiece of integrated design.
The other big change that occurred that winter was the sudden availability of a diminutive Frenchman called Alain Prost. After ‘failing’ to win the world championship for Renault (as opposed to the more commonly held view that Renault had failed to win the title despite the Frenchman’s best efforts), Prost had been unceremoniously dumped – and was picked up for an absolute steal by Dennis, who jettisoned John Watson to create the formidable Prost/Lauda driver line-up.
Strangely, that intra-team rivalry barely manifested itself on the circuit – which possibly explains why Lauda and Prost’s battle lacked the animosity that we’ve since come to expect when team-mates fight each other. Despite the MP4/2’s dominant pace, McLaren hadn’t nailed the bulletproof reliability that we’ve come to expect from modern Formula 1 machinery, which meant that attrition would often dictate results as much as all-out performance. And it was usually at ol’ Prosty’s expense!
During 1984, Prost and Lauda scored points in different ways – Lauda, my old friend, and still a wily old fox, rarely focused on qualifying pace, preferring instead to hone his set-up for the race. Prost, the younger and braver of the pair, was invariably the faster qualifier, but more often lost that advantage due to a mechanical malady. To put it more simply, when Prost won, Lauda usually joined him on the podium; when Lauda won, more often than not Prost was waylaid by a problem or a mechanical failure.
Their complementary approaches doubtless also added to the team’s steamrollering of the points – with no ultimate number one, nor a less-able number two, both drivers were usually in the points pound seats, almost always Hoovering up the points. Indeed, there were only two occasions that year when McLaren failed to score – in Belgium and Dallas.
By dint of his greater consistency, Lauda was able to steer his way into lead as the championship fight entered its final quarter. We needn’t repeat the story of that memorable denouement, as we all already know how Lauda nicked it from Prost by half a point when the curtain came down at Estoril.
We probably won’t see this year’s title fight separated by such a narrow margin – partly because half-points have yet to be issued yet this season, and partly because the huge tranche of points on offer at the final round make it unlikely that we’ll see a close finish – but it’s worth remembering that the outcome of the 2014 world championship will owe a little bit to the way the 1984 championship was fought, and won, by McLaren…