Yesterday’s news from Tokyo may have offered an exciting glimpse into McLaren’s future, but, for me, it also rekindled many memories of the past.
That’s not to suggest that the union of McLaren and Honda will merely re-tread old ground – although, in many respects, I’m sure that’s what both parties would dearly love to achieve in terms of on-track success – but that such a rich history hangs between the two famous names.
I well remember sitting in Ron Dennis’s newly completed office in the team’s old factory on Albert Drive in Woking as he wrestled with a conundrum that offered no easy answer.
"By no means am I suggesting that I warrant attribution, but the order stuck, and that’s how Honda Marlboro McLaren was born. From three scraps of paper."
It was the autumn of 1987 and, with the deadline fast approaching for the official entry to be submitted for the following year’s FIA Formula 1 World Championship – the team’s first with Honda – Ron still hadn’t decided on the official name.
On his desk, sat three scraps of paper – on each was written a single word: ‘McLaren’, ‘Marlboro’ and ‘Honda’.
Ron tried them in various permutations, frowning when they failed to hit the right rhythmic note, and grimacing when they failed to satisfy the desired corporate nuance – after all, Ron needed to meet the needs of two considerably powerful corporate partners.
I took the scraps and rearranged them into what I thought was the best order.
By no means am I suggesting that I warrant attribution, or even credit, but the order stuck, and that’s how Honda Marlboro McLaren was born. From three scraps of paper.
It would be an even nicer story if I were to correctly proclaim that the roots of the relationship also bore fruit from such a tiny seedling. But, in truth, even before a wheel was turned, McLaren-Honda was already a strong, stout oak – and there was every reason to believe that the partnership was destined for mighty things together.
It was typical of how Ron went about things. Like a skilled card player, Ron had patiently gathered a killer hand and was about to lay his aces, having signed Honda, double-world champion Alain Prost, and wonder-kid Ayrton Senna just as each hit the most dominant phases of their respective career arcs.
If the partnership appeared fully formed, the actual nuts and bolts of the union were still a little more embryonic. The 1987 car, MP4/3, had been turned into a winter test-hack, running what was already widely credited as being the sport’s leanest and meanest engine. It went to Rio, as teams did back then, for a couple of weeks of pre-season testing.
That was, I believe, where Ayrton first drove the car. However, he was made to wait for it by a somewhat mischievous Alain.
Let me explain.
If you don’t know the men and women of McLaren well, you’d be forgiven for perhaps thinking that the team appears somewhat reserved from the outside. Cold and grey are the two most widely used terms I’ve heard to describe it. But, from the inside, the opposite is true: McLaren has such a remarkably familial warmth and such a wonderfully friendly atmosphere, that it’s hard to understand the opposing view when you see it at close quarters.
As somebody within the team once told me: “Perhaps we look cold from the outside because we have all the friends we could ever need inside the team.”
It’s a valid argument. Anyway, I digress. So while Ayrton was still being inaugurated into the ways of the McLaren family, he was yet to appreciate that the team’s friendliness and good humour extended to racing drivers too.
I remember when Alain had finished his first run in Rio in the Honda-powered MP4/3 mule. He brought it into the pitlane, where an already-excitable Ayrton was pacing up and down, already zipped up in his overalls and eager finally to get behind the wheel; fulfilling his destiny, you might call it.
Ayrton grabbed his helmet, and watched with growing agitation as Alain remained implacably in the cockpit, beckoning his engineers over so that he might initiate another mid-run engineering change. Ayrton’s stress levels were rising by the minute. Still, the team continued its slow but purposeful work around the car, while, to their great amusement, Ayrton grew increasingly agitated.
Finally, Alain lifted the lid on his visor, his face creasing into a wry smile as he slowly unclipped the belts and stood up in the cockpit. “Welcome to the family,” he seemed to be saying, as the comical side of the moment immediately broke the that early-relationship tension between the group.
"Of course, Ayrton had reason to smile himself when he finally got his hands on the team’s de facto 1988 car, MP4/4."
If Ayrton couldn’t quite see the funny side in those early days, he would grow increasingly accustomed to the practical jokes and humour that power every British Formula 1 team on the grid.
Of course, Ayrton had reason to smile himself when he finally got his hands on the team’s de facto 1988 car, MP4/4. If those weeks of testing in Brazil had been somewhat inconclusive, the first running of the new car – at a grey-skied Imola – was one of those moments when the Formula 1 world is shaken on its axis.
As was the habit at McLaren back then, the team spent the winter bunkered down at the factory working on the car until the last possible moment. As a result, the MP4/4 only broke cover a week before the first race at Rio. And it was blisteringly quick – after just one morning of testing, Alain’s laptime was more than a second clear of that all the other teams, all of whom had been testing at the Autodromo Dino Ferrari for a week. What’s more, Ayrton got into the car in the afternoon and hurled it a further second faster down the road.
Even more emphatically, at that year’s San Marino Grand Prix, Ayrton qualified a stunning 3.352s faster than the nearest non-McLaren! Just think about that statistic for a moment before you read on to the next line…
Quite simply, Honda raised the bar in Formula 1. Whereas an engine, even a turbo, had often been previously regarded as something of an oily mechanical component bolted into the back of a car, Honda turned engine-building into a modern science.
Back in the late ’80s, I remember a small army of inscrutable white-shirted Honda technicians – led by their diminutive but assertive leader Osamu Goto – assembling at every race. I remember rooms full of computers, busily printing out reams of data. I remember flight case after flight case all being busily shuttled between airport and base. This was an arms race that Honda clearly intended to win.
And Honda weren’t merely content to push the envelope of existing technology, either. They certainly didn’t rest on their laurels: after dominating F1 in 1987 with their 4-bar, pressure-limited V6, they squeezed more juice from a 1.5-litre engine limited to just 2.5-bar. In 1989, they built a beautiful high-revving 3.5-litre V10 that won World Championships for three successive seasons, and, in 1992, a sublime although less successful V12, surely the most beautiful-sounding engine configuration of them all.
I see that Honda’s return was spurred by the exciting new environment-friendly technologies that Formula 1 is set to embrace from 2014 onwards. From long experience, I well know how enticing the Japanese will have found the proposals for the new formula; and, I imagine, they will be keenly pushing the limits once more.
Make no mistake, this is a game-changing deal for our sport.