All new drivers arrive at McLaren for the first time absolutely brimming with self-confidence and inner belief that, no matter what has happened in the past, either to them or to McLaren, they’ll make the difference.
If McLaren is on top of the world, they believe they’ll enhance that level of dominance. If McLaren has been going through one of its occasional rough passages, they believe they’ll make the specific difference to reverse that decline.
Think about it: Emerson Fittipaldi, James Hunt, Niki Lauda, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna, Mika Hakkinen and Lewis Hamilton. McLaren’s seven world champions (so far) all made a decisive contribution writ large in the team’s history books.
But one man, despite his impeccable credentials, despite having already won a world championship with another team before he arrived in Woking indeed, never won a single race in a McLaren, let alone took a world championship. Even now, the failure of Keke Rosberg to stamp a dominant impression on the 1986 season as Alain’s McLaren team-mate seems baffling beyond belief – and certainly beyond explaining.
Keke turned up at McLaren radiating extrovert confidence, shrugging aside the notion that he might have big boots to fill, arriving as he was as Niki’s successor and Alain’s opposite number. Niki knew from his own experience of the rigours involved in joining the immaculate red-and-white liveried team, that Keke would need to work pretty hard to make an impact. But Keke, coming to McLaren from Williams, where he’d won the world championship in 1982, and where he’d carved out a reputation as a driver of brilliant natural ability and pure raw speed, was utterly sanguine about the challenge that lay ahead of him.
But he hadn’t reckoned on the dogmatism of McLaren’s autocratic technical director, John Barnard, whose word was law when it came to the day-to-day complexities of operating the cars in the heat of battle.
Alain quickly came to admire and respect his new team-mate. Having said that, even during the course of their very first test together, in Rio, Brazil, he (Alain) was startled by Keke’s directness when reporting his views on the TAG-turbo-engined MP4-2C. Diplomacy and tact weren’t obviously discernible elements of the exuberantly mustachio’d Finn’s personality.
“I must say I was rather taken aback by Keke’s brash confidence at that Rio test,” said Prost at the time. “He wasn’t like other drivers arriving at McLaren, who were usually meek in outlook and grateful for the opportunity. For instance, he just brushed aside John’s [Barnard’s] suggestion, made at that Rio test, that he might take things easy for the first couple of laps. Instead, he put his foot hard on the throttle straight away – and duly flew off the road mid-way through his second lap.
“The car was very badly damaged, and I don’t think Keke and John ever quite saw eye-to-eye again.”
But, as I say, Alain liked Keke – although his admiration for him was tempered by a slight lack of sympathy for his distinctive have-a-go-hero in-cockpit style: “Keke was very skilled, highly motivated and extremely hungry. Okay, perhaps he didn’t have quite the necessary finesse to get the very best out of the turbocharged fuel consumption era of racing we were in at the time, but he was certainly a great competitor as well as a good friend.”
For his part, Keke finished his solo season at McLaren abjectly disappointed at his failure to cure the car of its incipient and (for him) laptime-sapping understeer, especially in a season in which his team-mate drove the same car, with the same handling characteristics, to the world championship for a second successive year. “Look, I took part in 16 races and scored just seven points-scoring finishes, whereas meanwhile Alain scored points in 13 out of 16 races and won the world championship,” he remembers now. “Call that a good experience? I don’t! Of course, Alain had been at McLaren for many years. So perhaps they [he means Barnard] just got tired of my complaining and just didn’t listen any longer.”
Did the experience dent his confidence? Personally, I think not. “I still think that I was fundamentally the fastest driver out there in 1986, and I was sure I could have given Alain a good run for his money had we been driving a car with a different handling balance,” he told me not long ago. “The TAG turbo in the McLaren didn’t have the same top-end power as the Honda I’d been used to at Williams, but the main problem was that understeer. Alain and I talked about it a lot, but nothing was ever done about it. It was strange: the only time I had a decent-handling car was at Adelaide, the last race of the year, where I was walking the race only to suffer a tyre failure on lap 63. And that was pretty much the sum total of my year at Mclaren. It was not what I’d been expecting by any means!”
Now, though, nearly 30 years after Keke’s single year as a McLaren man, I find it gratifying to see that, whenever he goes to a Grand Prix, the motorhome he tends to gravitate towards when in need of a coffee or a sandwich isn’t that of the Mercedes AMG team, where his son Nico is Lewis Hamilton’s team-mate, nor that of the Williams team, for whom he won the world championship in 1982, but, yes, you’ve guessed it, the McLaren Brand Centre, where he can be seen chatting with his old paddock buddies, McLaren stalwarts such as Ron Dennis, Martin Whitmarsh, Jonathan Neale, Ekrem Sami, Matt Bishop et al. Nice.