This weekend McLaren is back on one of its most successful stamping-grounds, namely Suzuka. The famously tricky Japanese speedway is one of the most daunting of racetracks on the Formula 1 championship schedule, requiring not only a high-level of in-cockpit precision and derring-do but also the ability to master an F1 car’s set-up in order to squeeze the maximum performance potential out of its mechanical and aerodynamic configuration on any given day.
But, with a respectful nod to Fuji (of which more later), Suzuka is also the spiritual home of Japanese motorsport – and, as such, it always brings to my mind memories of the first great McLaren-Honda era. I say "the first great McLaren-Honda era" because I’m certain that the next McLaren-Honda era, which will begin in 2015, will also be great. But, first, let’s wallow in a bit of first-era nostalgia.
Japanese Grand Prix FP3 and Qualifying Report
When McLaren boss Ron Dennis signed McLaren up with Honda for the start of the 1988 season, he’d correctly judged the technical mood of the moment. Granted, McLaren had won three of the previous four world championships, using the 1.5-litre TAG turbo V6 engine, but Ron was absolutely convinced that if McLaren were to maintain its position at the very front of the F1 field then it would require a new collaboration with a major motor manufacturer.
Ron’s view was that it wasn’t only a question of persuading Honda to support his team by supplying its engines, but also the potential to tap into the giant Japanese car maker’s huge bank of accumulated engineering expertise. And, as so often, he was right.
Sound familiar? Well, it should do, because I’m pretty certain that the second-era McLaren-Honda alliance, due to hit the tracks in 2015, will be emulate the impeccable attention to detail and state-of-the-art engineering that was the first-era alliance’s hallmark almost three decades ago. Honda means business, and they’ll put their all might behind the partnership, mark my words; and, for their part, McLaren won’t be found wanting.
Yet, returning to 1988, there was more to Ron’s strategy than could easily be discerned by the casual observer. For example, he’d also concentrated ceaselessly on ensuring that his company’s human relationship with Honda was conducted in a manner that his new Japanese colleagues would find comfortable and reassuring. For months before the start of the 1988 season, therefore, the McLaren chief read as many books as he could find on Japanese culture and business methods. Not only was he determined that the alliance would be successful from the outset, but he was also anxious to ensure that it would be optimally long-lived.
No stone would be unturned. Consequently, for example, McLaren set an F1 trend by collaborating with Honda in developing a ground-breaking and bespoke test and development programme that employed its own dedicated test and development drivers – including Emmanuelle Pirro, Jonathan Palmer and Allan McNish over the years. Palmer, now boss of Motor Sport Vision, which includes the ownership of Brands Hatch among its assets, recalls just what demanding task-masters Honda turned out to be, expecting him to hot-foot it from Nagoya airport to Suzuka to jump straight into the cockpit of whatever McLaren-Honda he might be testing, bleary-eyed after a 12-hour flight from Heathrow.
"We Honda test drivers were treated as machines that should robotically run through the prescribed test and development programme, come rain or shine," Palmer remembers. "Or even snow! That’s right: on one occasion it even snowed at Suzuka –
yet even then I struggled to persuade the inscrutable Honda engineer present that it really wasn’t going to be very meaningful for me to try to test a series of different throttle linkage profiles when I couldn’t even get near half-throttle for wheelspin. They were happy days though, fuelled by lots of pork cut curry and combination salad."
Suzuka remains one of your humble correspondent’s favourite circuits. It was built originally as a Honda test track in the early 1960s, but it missed out as the venue for the first Japanese Grand Prix in 1976, in favour of Fuji, which is now probably most famous for its walk-on appearance in the recent cinematograph production, Rush. Suzuka finally bagged the Japanese Grand Prix for the first time in 1987, keeping it every year until now, save for a brief two-year reappearance of Fuji in 2007 and 2008.
The story of Fuji 1976
Of the 28 Japanese Grands Prix that have been held since that now-so-famous first one in 1976, McLaren has won nine (a record, with Ferrari in second place, with seven): two wins at Fuji and seven wins at Suzuka. One of those nine McLaren victories delivered my personal all-time favourite overtaking move, when Kimi Raikkonen hurled his McLaren MP4-20 around the outside of Giancarlo Fisichella’s Renault R25 on the first corner of the final lap of the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix, to score a truly sensational last-gasp victory. Brilliant. Just brilliant. Type 'Original Kimi Raikkonen vs Giancarlo Fisichella Suzuka 2005' into YouTube and you’ll see what I mean! You’ll also see that Ron really enjoyed it too!
Last but not least, I have a little bit of arcane trivia for you, albeit totally relevant to my musings above. It’s this. You may be interested to learn that the very first event to carry the title ‘Japanese Grand Prix’ wasn’t in truth a grand prix at all. It was a sports car race, held at Suzuka way back in 1963, and it was won by a young man by the name of Peter Warr, driving a Lotus 23.
Warr wasn’t an ace behind the wheel, but his place in the pantheon of motor racing greats is assured, having been Lotus’s F1 competitions manager during the 1970s and having taken over the leadership of the team after the death of the great Colin Chapman in 1982. During that time he worked and won with such as Jochen Rindt, Emerson Fittipaldi and of course the great Ayrton Senna.
Ironically, given the subject of this blog, it was Peter who, one year before Ron secured Honda engines for McLaren for 1988, cleverly persuaded Honda to supply Lotus with engines in 1987.
However, nobody is perfect, and it’s worth recording that, after the very wet 1984 Monaco Grand Prix, in which Lotus’s Nigel Mansell crashed out of the lead and Alain Prost went on to win for McLaren, Peter famously said of ‘our Nige’ that "he’ll never win a grand prix as long as I’ve got a hole in my arse". In fact, Nigel won 31 grands prix, but let’s not quibble over a trifling discrepancy such as that, shall we?!