How about this for a tantalising talking point ahead of the German Grand Prix... If one could watch two of McLaren’s former drivers race against each other, which would it be?
The attraction of these blogs has always been to involve the reader with a stimulating starting point from which we can start a meandering debate. Possibly this exchange of views and positions will lead to a firm and overwhelming conclusion or, more likely, perhaps, will prompt even more questions than it answers. If so, then, the McLaren website will have continued developing its established reputation for getting like-minded enthusiasts stepping up to the plate to offer their views.
When I first read the brief for this blog, I felt I’d almost got the answer to all the potential suggestions before I’d even pressed the ‘send’ button. More to the point, I’d probably seen the greatest two drivers McLaren ever employed together back in 1988: Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
Just to recap; that nail-biting 16 race season pitched Ayrton and Alain toe-to-toe at the wheel of their matchless Honda turbo-engined McLaren MP4-4s and saw the two drivers winning 15 races between them. Were they the best partnership McLaren has ever fielded? Or were there other drivers around who could have done just as well?
By the way, I deliberately used the phrase ‘just as well’ because, given they convincingly blew off the opposition in a manner unparalleled in F1 history, it’s pretty fruitless to speculate on whether they could have done any better. Could they?
Then we come to the matter of overlapping eras, for want of better words, and how things might have unfolded differently out on the F1 trail. Take Stefan Johannson, who joined McLaren in 1987 as what might be termed a ‘stalking horse’ for Ayrton Senna’s arrival the following season. Stefan was a highly regarded and very skilful operator, easy on the machinery and tactically astute. Sometimes I find myself feeling that if Ron Dennis had opted for a Senna/Johansson super team in 1988 then it might not have turned out too badly, to put it mildly.
We obviously need to have a circuit on which to stage our imaginary head-to-head confrontation. I would suggest Estoril or Suzuka as potential candidates under this heading.
With that taken care of, time to lay my hat on my choice. I would opt for Ayrton Senna and Mika Häkkinen to be pitched into action, defending their respective reputations. OK, so they ran together as McLaren team-mates when Mika was signed to replace Michael Andretti for the last three races of 1993. But had the Flying Finn been unleashed on a full championship campaign as Ayrton’s regular running mate then the 1994 season would have taken on a significantly different complexion. And that fate might not have intervened so cruelly at Imola.
In my view, Mika Häkkinen was probably the best driver McLaren ever signed. And before Senna fans jump to the defence of all the other brilliant talents who have driven for McLaren over the years, yes, yes, I hear you! Both were utterly brilliant drivers, quick as the flick of a switch to get up to speed, utterly unrelenting and capable of squeezing every split-second of oversteering potential from the car beneath them. Interestingly, I later formed the impression, gleaned from their off-track body language, that the only contemporary driver who attracted the whole-hearted respect of Michael Schumacher was Häkkinen. When Mika spoke to him, Michael listened alertly. The German would barely give the time of day to anybody else on the starting grid.
Go back to 1984, of course, to watch team-mates Alain Prost and Niki Lauda in their McLaren-TAGs with a precision which got the very best out of their neutral-handling machines. This dynamic duo were probably easier on the cars than any of their contemporaries. And they didn’t shy away when it came to facing-down the McLaren management to get their ways.
So who would be the fastest when it comes to our theoretical high-speed shoot-out? Common sense tells me that it would be Ayrton who would edge out the opposition. But common sense is but one element driving this complex equation. I can see why McLaren and Senna were both so highly regarded. Yet there is a nagging voice deep in my subconscious which whispers ‘no, it’s Mika.’ Good job I’m not running an F1 team, you might think. We’d get nothing done amongst all that tasty gossip.
Over to you...