As you read these words, all Formula 1 eyes are focused on Silverstone, the home of British motorsport, and specifically focused on the 2015 British Grand Prix, which will take place there at the weekend.
But, first, a little bit of (mainly British) history – and, before you begin to marvel at the fact that I appear suddenly to have become a Formula 1 historian, yes, I had a bit of help with this bit from my old mates who work for McLaren’s communications/PR department. The very first World Championship Grand Prix took place at Silverstone just over 65 years ago – on Saturday May 13th 1950 to be precise – and it was won by Giuseppe Farina in an Alfa Romeo 158. (And, yes, Saturday May 13th 1950 was also the day on which Stevland Hardaway Judkins was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in case you were wondering, which I expect you were not; he later became a singer, and decided to call himself Stevie Wonder.)
The highest-placed British driver on that dry and sunny Saturday afternoon in 1950 was Reg Parnell, who finished third, also in an Alfa Romeo 158. Significantly, he was one of 11 Brits who started that historic race, the other 10 being Bob Gerard (ERA B, 6th), Cuth Harrison (ERA B, 7th), David Hampshire (Maserati 4CLT-48, 9th), Joe Fry and Brian Shawe-Taylor (shared Maserati 4CL, 10th), David Murray (Maserati 4CLT-48, retired), Geoffrey Crossley (Alta GP, retired), Peter Walker and Tony Rolt (shared ERA E, retired) and Leslie Johnson (ERA E, retired).
That is correct, yes: of the 21 drivers who started the 1950 British Grand Prix, no fewer than 11 of them were British.
So Britain has always played a large and crucial role in World Championship Grand Prix racing, right from the get-go; and that was still pretty much the case 40-odd years after the first ever World Championship Grand Prix, on March 10th 1991 to be precise, when I made my Grand Prix debut in the United States Grand Prix at Phoenix, Arizona. I qualified 13th for that race in my Lotus-Judd – British car, British engine – and I retired after 59 laps. Of the 25 drivers who started the race alongside me, three were British: Martin Brundle (Brabham-Yamaha, 11th), Mark Blundell (Brabham-Yamaha, retired) and Nigel Mansell (Williams-Renault, retired). If you count Julian Bailey (Lotus-Judd, did not qualify), there were four Brits on the Formula 1 scene that warm but overcast Sunday afternoon in 1991. And, over the following decade, I would be a Formula 1 team-mate to all four of those doughty Englishmen at one time or another.
Indeed, apart from the great Brazilian, Ayrton Senna, about whom I will quite soon devote a future mclaren.com/formula1 blog, every single one of my Formula 1 team-mates would be a Brit, which statistical quirk deserves a blog of its own; and, yes, you are now reading that blog.
(Okay, okay, before all you Formula 1 trainspotters begin Tweeting your objections to the above paragraph, yes, I have not forgotten Michael Bartels, the German who entered four Grands Prix in 1991, as my Lotus-Judd team-mate. But, although Michael entered four Grands Prix, as I say, he started none, having unfortunately DNQ’d each time, so his contribution need not derail my Brits-plus-Senna angle as far as this blog is concerned.)
Julian Bailey was my first Formula 1 team-mate, and therefore also my first British Formula 1 team-mate. He and I drove alongside each other in Lotus-Judds in early 1991, entering four Grands Prix together: Phoenix (USA), Interlagos (Brazil), Imola (Italy) and Monaco (Monte-Carlo). The Lotus team was at one of its low points in 1991, and sadly Julian qualified for only one of those four Grands Prix, Imola, but he drove a strong race there to finish sixth at the flag. I finished fifth that day, so it was a decent day for both of us. I say ‘decent’ rather than ‘good’ because we were lapped three times that afternoon by the winner, Ayrton Senna in a McLaren-Honda.
That was the end of Julian’s Formula 1 career, because he was replaced by Johnny Herbert for the next Grand Prix, Montreal (Canada). But Julian was a great guy. He was a laugh to hang out with, friendly and fun, but in truth I sometimes wondered whether he was almost too nice for Formula 1. I know that is a bit of a cliché, but undoubtedly it also contains more than a grain of truth (to use another cliché – sorry). Julian was talented, undoubtedly, but perhaps he was not sufficiently ruthless to succeed in Formula 1. He was more successful in saloon car racing, especially the British Touring Car Championship, winning at Knockhill (Scotland) in 1993 for Toyota.
When Johnny Herbert took over from Julian at Lotus in 1991, it was clear that I now had a team-mate who was not only very talented but also very determined. Johnny has always appeared to be a happy-go-lucky kind of guy – and he certainly is that – but he was always very serious about his racing too. He did not qualify on his first outing for Lotus, the 1991 Canadian Grand Prix at Montreal, but thereafter he drove hard and well all year, managing to wring out of that sluggish and overweight car some very creditable performances. But it was a thankless task for both of us – perhaps even an impossible one – and neither of us scored a single World Championship point in the entire second half of the 1991 season.
As I say, Johnny was good. Johnny was quick. He was ambitious and popular too – all the mechanics loved him because he was such a chummy guy. Also, Peter Collins, the Lotus boss at the time, was a great mate of Johnny’s, and that made things a bit tricky for me. Alongside a warm friendship we consequently also developed a fierce rivalry, and I must credit him with making me realise that I had to dig deeper if I was going to succeed at the highest level of motorsport, as I so fervently wanted to. I remember saying to myself, “Mika, you must find a few extra tenths; you must not let this guy beat you.” So if I never thanked you for that at the time, Johnny, I am thanking you for it now.
Johnny and I continued as Lotus team-mates throughout 1992, which was a marginally better season for both of us. Johnny scored points in South Africa and France, and I scored points in Mexico, France, Britain, Hungary, Belgium and Portugal. But, again, we were a long way off the pace of the quick teams, and in 1993 I decided to join one of them, McLaren-Ford, albeit as test driver in the first instance.
For the great majority of the 1993 season, McLaren-Ford’s drivers were Ayrton Senna and Michael Andretti. It was only at the very end of the year, when the team parted company with Michael, that I was able to take my chance. I drove three Grands Prix that season – Portugal, Japan and Australia – and my team-mate was Ayrton each time. I managed to outqualify him in Portugal, which did not please him at all, but that is another story, and I will tell it properly in a future mclaren.com/formula1 blog, as I say.
Ayrton left McLaren for Williams for the 1994 season, and what should and could have been an extremely successful Senna/Williams partnership ended in famous and terrible tragedy. My McLaren-Peugeot team-mate in 1994 was therefore Martin Brundle – yes, yet another Brit.
Our McLaren-Peugeot MP4/9 was not a world-beater by McLaren’s high standards, but it was a lot more competitive than the Lotuses I had been driving in Formula 1 theretofore. I did not win a race in 1994, but I managed to bag six podium finishes, which placed me fourth overall in the Drivers’ World Championship at season’s end, behind only Michael Schumacher (Benetton-Ford), Damon Hill (Williams-Renault) and Gerhard Berger (Ferrari). Martin scored two podium finishes that season, including an excellent second place at Monaco.
I would describe Martin as a fast, accomplished and serious-minded driver. He was a deep thinker – intelligent and analytical – but I sometimes thought that was a disadvantage to him as well as an advantage. If he had sometimes let his natural talent flow more freely, he could perhaps have been even more successful. He was certainly good enough to win Grands Prix, plural, but sadly he never managed to win even one, despite having started 158 of them.
His technical feedback was always excellent, however, and that was a big bonus for the whole team. I learned from him in that area, and, for that reason, as I have just thanked Johnny, I would also like to take the opportunity to thank Martin for his positive technical influence on my development.
Martin moved to Ligier for 1995, and my 1995 team-mate at McLaren-Mercedes was – yes, you have guessed it – yet another Brit: the one ’n’ only Nigel Mansell.
A World Champion in 1992, Nigel had won 31 Grands Prix by the time he and I joined forces at McLaren-Mercedes in 1995, and he was clearly a vastly experienced and dauntingly capable team-mate for anyone. History tells us that he was not successful at McLaren-Mercedes – indeed he drove only two Grands Prix for us – but I found him massively inspirational in the short time I worked alongside him.
Despite the intense media attention that followed him everywhere he went, which applied colossal pressure on him, his commitment was unflinching. Yes, the cockpit of our McLaren-Mercedes MP4/10 was too tight for his brawny torso, and he was never comfortable in it as a result, but he was always totally professional in everything he did.
For example, he used to arrive at the circuit at 6.00am every morning, for tests as well as for races, in order to make sure that he was always meticulously prepared for the day ahead. He was broad in the beam, yes, but that was all muscle; indeed, he was incredibly strong. For example, I specified as large a steering wheel as would possibly fit in the MP4/10’s cramped cockpit, the better to maximise the leverage on its very heavy steering, but Nigel chose a tiny wheel, relying on brute force to wrench the car into the bends. I am proud to have driven alongside such a great World Champion, and I always will be.
When Nigel exited stage left in early 1995, he was replaced by – yes – yet another Brit: Mark Blundell. Mark and I did not have a great year, both of us thwarted by unreliability throughout. I managed two podiums, at Monza and Suzuka, scoring points on only two other occasions, at Interlagos and Imola; Mark scored points half-a-dozen times – at Interlagos, Monaco, Silverstone, Spa-Francorchamps, Monza and Adelaide – and I guess he could have considered himself rather unlucky not to have been retained for the following season.
Mark was, and is, a lovely guy. He was a great team player too, and I liked him a lot. But what I will remember most about him is his total lack of fear. He drove a Formula 1 car as though it were a bucking bronco – rodeo style. He used to barrel his way into corners as though he was driving a rally car. So I was not at all surprised when, having abandoned Formula 1, he carved out a successful career in Indycars, because you need to be brave to run on super-speedways on the far side of 220mph, and Mark never had any problem at all with bravery.
So who replaced Mark at McLaren-Mercedes for 1996? The answer, of course, is David Coulthard, the final Brit of my story. Unlike all the other Brits I have described in this blog, David stayed. He stayed a very very long time. In fact he and I were McLaren-Mercedes team-mates from 1996 until 2001 – six long years. During that time we achieved a huge amount of success together – two Drivers’ World Championships, one Constructors’ World Championship, 32 Grand Prix wins – and undoubtedly I would have to classify him as my most formidable team-mate of them all.
From day one, he took one look at me, and clearly but silently said to me, “Mika, mate, you’ve got no chance.” And I took one look at him, and silently said the same thing to him. I saw in his eyes the same burning desire to win that had been scorching my soul for years.
He was quick; of course he was quick; we were both quick. But he was also incredibly dedicated to the task of optimising his speed. He always worked non-stop with the team’s engineers, in an effort to make his car’s set-up as good as it could possibly be. He pushed me extremely hard, every day, every test, every session, every race. He was always there, ready to kick my butt. If I had an off day, or if I did not do my homework, there he was.
Even so, I really enjoyed working with him – and, as we matured together over the years, we both began to realise how important we were to each other. Ron Dennis was wise enough to recognise and encourage that process too, and I think our record together speaks for itself. We can be proud of ourselves, and of each other.
David and I both live in Monaco now, and occasionally we bump into each other. When we meet, we always stop for a chat, and we sometimes have a coffee. We remain great friends. I have enormous respect for him, and I hope he regards me in the same light. But, even though nowadays our chitchat is just that – smalltalk – I can never look at him without remembering what a fantastic driver he was, and how incredibly hard he pushed me, and what a wonderful six years we enjoyed together at McLaren-Mercedes, winning Grands Prix often, and World Championships too, and enjoying every single minute of it.