In the second instalment of our #BeBrave history, we look back at the game-changing moments from our past in the 1980s and ’90s.
If our pioneering early years were a blend of tragedy and startling sucess, our maturation into a slick, world-class Formula 1 operation at the start of the 1980s underlined our determination to stay competitive.
Still, progress was nothing if not risky.
McLaren may have changed ownership (when Ron Dennis joined the team, in 1980), and was growing bigger and bigger, but it was still committed to taking brave gambles to move ahead.
Here we chronicle our #BeBrave moments during an era of domination.
1. Project ambition
Already successful in F3 and F2, Ron Dennis made a bold move when he kickstarted his own Project Four F1 programme – and, when Marlboro proposed a merger with the then-struggling McLaren team, he had the vision to recognise the benefits.
“He’s a perfectionist. A lot of Ron’s philosophy has had a massive influence on where contemporary F1 is. It was his vision that drove the company, and therefore drove rivals. Everyone who wanted to be competitive and reliable had to follow suit. That was his vision for what he wanted to achieve, and I’ve got a huge amount of respect for that.
“He understood what had to be done and he made what had to be done happen, as opposed to just talking about it. Nobody I’ve ever met has had that kind of vision of a facility. The growth of McLaren as a company or a brand is all a part of a growth of Ron Dennis.”
2. Crash testing the hard way…
The MP4/1 generated scepticism among rivals, but it showed its potential when John Watson won the 1981 British GP, McLaren’s first success for four years. Two months later in Italy the Ulsterman emerged unscathed from a huge accident – the innovative chassis had proved its worth in more ways than one.
“The biggest one I had was at Monza and the cockpit remained completely intact. The damage was at the back of the car – the engine, the gearbox, the ancillary parts coming off, exactly as they were designed to do. I had a slight stiffness in my neck on Monday morning. Other than that, I was OK.”
“Watson had that big moment at Monza, which ripped the engine off the back. It looked really bad, but he got up and walked away. That was the turning point. Not only did racing people start to think hang on, it didn't all fall apart in a black cloud of dust, but we also had the Civil Aviation Authority contact us. They were grappling with how to certify composite structures in aircraft, and they were really interested in that particular shunt.”
3. The rat comes back
Niki Lauda had retired at the end of 1979, but two years later he began to express an interest in returning. Luring him back into the cockpit was a risk – Lauda had walked away when ground-effect was still in its relative infancy, and he was returning to the turbo-charged era. But, in late 1981, Ron Dennis pulled out all the stops to attract the Austrian, who represented the final piece of the puzzle for McLaren. It was a gamble for both parties, but by 1984 Lauda was World Champion once more.
“I wanted a new challenge. I never lost my interest in racing, and in the last few months it has been more and more on my mind. People say that comebacks never work out. Well, that’s another reason why I want to come back – to prove them wrong. How can I say how things will go? Maybe they’ll be good, maybe bad. Maybe I’ll finish up in the hospital. Who knows? But if I didn’t feel I could come back and be competitive, I wouldn’t think about it.”
“I think the modern Grand Prix driver is more than just a talented individual who can climb into a car and drive around the circuit. I think he needs to be a much more computer-oriented person who needs to be intelligent and calculating. If the car can come second, come second, don’t crash trying to come first. If it can come fifth, don’t finish 10th in it and stroke around. I think that’s where Niki’s strength lies.”
4. “Are you buying or selling?”
After Ron Dennis joined McLaren he initially ran the company in conjunction with fellow owner Teddy Mayer, until the American decided that the arrangement wasn’t working. In agreeing to buy Mayer out and go it alone as McLaren’s sole boss Dennis made a huge financial commitment.
“[Teddy] said ‘You can’t have two managing directors. One of us has to buy the other out.’ I said, ‘Okay, you tell me the price and I’ll tell you whether I want to buy or sell.’ He came up with a figure and I went to Philip Morris and asked them to advance me a percentage of my contracted fees over the next few years so I could buy Teddy out.”
5. Prost ignores his fuel gauge
Williams drivers Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet were the headline contenders for the 1986 drivers’ world championship. However, in a dramatic finale in Adelaide outside-bet Prost unexpectedly found himself heading for the title – but with his fuel running low, he had to be brave and take a gamble.
“I had been so preoccupied that I hadn’t been able to think about looking after the fuel. I could see the readout was showing zero but I thought there was no point in trying to back off because Nelson was coming after me. I had to go for it – and hope. You can’t believe that feeling when I saw the flag and crossed the line.”
“Alain parked the car after the finish-line and then there was this picture of him jumping in the air. He was a foot or so in the air. It was an amazing picture and it still holds very clearly in the memory.”
6. Clash of the titans
Ron Dennis never stopped looking fearlessly to the future to find ways of improving an already top-quality package. In 1987 he pulled off a coup by announcing the arrival of Ayrton Senna and Honda engines for ‘88. With Alain Prost already onboard McLaren now had the most envied line-up in the pit-lane.
“Persuading Ayrton to come onboard was basically a matter, of he wanted to win, and we had a winning car. He made it very much part of the deal that we would use Honda engines, because he didn’t think Honda would be able to get to the same level of competitiveness with Lotus. So we lobbied Honda and put together a super-team. Prost had mixed views. He knew he was going to get the best engine, but he also knew he was going to have to race against Ayrton.”
7. From the track to the road
While waiting for a delayed flight home from the 1988 Italian GP McLaren leading lights Ron Dennis, Mansour Ojjeh, Gordon Murray and Creighton Brown began an informal discussion about the company’s future, with the focus soon moving to Gordon’s dream of creating a road car. Within a few months, a decision was taken – McLaren would go for it, with no holds barred.
“It began as an off-the-cuff conversation, simply finding a practical use for something that could well have become dead time. The discussion was not fine-detailed at all. It had been in my mind for some time that we would not allow ourselves to be confined simply to an F1 operation. We needed to broaden our business base, to explore and exploit further business opportunities. And it was very rare for us to all to be together with time on our hands – not under any particular pressure – and in that relaxed atmosphere it turned out to be a momentous and fruitful meeting.”
“The possibility of setting up a road car project came as a fantastically stimulating challenge – and I think for all of us it came at exactly the right time.”
“I think Ron was keen to see a kind of ‘British Ferrari’ appearing at some time, and Mansour absolutely agreed, saying ‘Why do I have to go to Italy to buy a supercar?’”
“As far as I can recall at that point no one mentioned the possibility of it becoming the world’s fastest production car. And in the end Mansour said simply, ‘Well let’s do it then!”
8. A Schumacher. In a McLaren?
As team boss it was the job of Ron Dennis to seek out the best engines, the best engineers, and the best drivers. Timing and circumstances meant that McLaren missed Michael Schumacher, but at an evening fashion show in Adelaide in 1993 he sounded out the young Benetton driver – and incredibly the fleeting moment was captured in a TV documentary.
“The thing to do is come and talk privately one day. Away from everything. See how I think.”
“I believe next year  we’ll really see what our team is worth, if they’re really a team to go for a World Championship, or not. Of course this year is all develop, develop, and now I think the situation is; something big has to happen to be better. If we can do this, then it’s fine. If not, after this period, I’m at the right time to leave. I have a contract, and as long as the team does not change to me, I don’t want to change the situation. I want to respect the contracts.”
“That’s absolutely the way to be. But at the right time, come and see, come and feel...”
“That’s right, I’m sure I’m going to do this.”
9. Winning Le Mans – in a road car
Neither Ron Dennis nor Gordon Murray had envisioned the F1 as a racing car, but when owners indicated their interest in taking to the track, McLaren provided full back-up. In 1995, the F1 beat the odds to win a dramatic Le Mans 24 Hours with an entry that could genuinely be called a road car.
“Winning Le Mans is more difficult than winning an F1 championship. It’s a whole season’s worth of races without stopping. It wasn’t just that we won, however, it was the way we won: on debut, and with a production GT car against prototypes. That was pretty bloody special. I’m proud of it. I had been dead against it, but I’m glad the F1 raced. My only regret is that we didn’t drive the winning car there and back. That would have been the ultimate.”
“Everybody pushed hard. The motivation was strong. It was important for the drivers to feel that ambience, feel this atmosphere. When you drive for a team, even if it is small, you must feel the positivity from the people. That was very good for us.”
10. Don’t call it a comeback
A crash at the 1995 Australian GP very nearly ended Mika Häkkinen's career, but McLaren kept faith, and the Finn fought his way back to fitness. In 1998, he rewarded the team with his first world title after defeating Michael Schumacher and Ferrari.
“There were lots of ups and downs, but the one thing that stood out was the trust. McLaren is very much about the trust in people working very hard; trust in Ron saying that we will get there, you will win and you will be champion. That trust gave me patience to wait. It gave me time to develop as a racing driver. After my accident in 1995, they could have got someone else. But they waited – and that was the best thing…”
“Mika was a very loyal and uncomplicated person who I continue to have a fantastic relationship with. He was a driver who fundamentally understood the role of the team in underpinning his success. He was always smiling, very funny, very dry – a real joker. He was another driver who the guys in the garage adored. They would always work hard for a fast driver, and Mika always delivered.”