McLAREN's greatest 'steals'
From snatching victory from the jaws of defeat to stealing a march on the opposition
Part of the joy of the competition are the times you get to put one over on your friends and frenemies in other teams, whether that’s an unexpected victory from the jaws of defeat, a long-odds championship title, delivering the game-changing tech du jour or simply making a dramatic signing.
So, in the spirit of McLaren Fan Heist, where we’re challenging you to heist a friend to convert them into a McLaren F1 fan, we thought we’d look back at some of our greatest ‘steals’.
It’s not over ‘til it’s over: the 2008 Brazilian Grand Prix
Has there ever been a more memorable fifth place than the one scored by Lewis Hamilton at Interlagos in 2008? It certainly must be the most surprising, as for 38 seconds, the Ferrari garage and, heartbreakingly, most of the Interlagos crowd were convinced local hero Felipe Massa had brought the drivers’ title home to Brazil.
With Massa leading the race into its final stages, Lewis, having an unusually out-of-sorts afternoon, needed to finish fifth or better. He was running fourth, and being chased hard by Sebastian Vettel when, on lap 63 of the 71, rain began to fall – the worst sort of rain: the Lando-in-Sochi sort of rain.
The leaders all pitted on lap 66, except Massa who stayed out until 67 – but behind them, Toyota’s Timo Glock stayed out, risking the dry tyres on the damp track. That moved Lewis down to fifth, which became sixth when Vettel passed him on lap 69. That’s how they were running when Massa crossed the line to win, but rising up the hill through the final few corners, first Vettel and then Hamilton managed to slither past Glock, and Lewis crossed the line in fifth to win the title. Uproar in the McLaren garage, silence ringing elsewhere around Autódromo José Carlos Pace.
Stealing an advantage from elsewhere: the first carbon fibre monocoque
That our 1981 challenger the MP4 – later renamed MP4/1 – is the first car with a carbon fibre monocoque is well known, less well documented, however, is how difficult a task that was and how surprising it was when the car made its debut. The story goes that design boss John Barnard was inspired having seen carbon fibre used by Rolls-Royce in the production of turbo-fan jet engines. With no great internal experience with the material, we looked outside but could not find a British company willing to take on the risk of such an unusual project.
Instead, we used carbon fibre supplied by Hercules Aerospace of Salt Lake City, a company where, not at all coincidentally, McLaren designer and native Salt Laker Steve Nichols had undertaken his apprenticeship. While the design was instantly hailed as revolutionary for its strength and low weight, what really sealed the deal in the minds of both the general public and the racing community was the huge crash at Monza from which John Watson walked away unscathed.
Daylight robbery: the 1986 Drivers’ Championship
Is it possible to steal a world championship? Logic dictates that it is not. While it’s entirely reasonable to steal a race, over the course of a season, the cream surely rises to the top. And yet, looking at the 1986 championship, Alain Prost must feel as though he robbed the Williams team in broad daylight.
Arriving in Australia for the final round, Williams had long-since wrapped up the Constructors’ title, with almost twice as many points as ourselves in second – but the Drivers’ Championship was still wide open, because Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet, who stretched the definition of ‘team-mate’ to its limit, were taking points off each other every weekend. Alain, meanwhile, was steadily accumulating results, and, going to the final round, was lying second in the championship on 64 points, with Mansell ahead on 70 and Piquet behind on 63.
Alain needed to win, and have Mansell do no better than fourth. Mansell, famously, was doing what he needed to do, running third in the final quarter of the race when his left-rear tyre exploded. With Keke Rosberg having also had a tyre failure and retired from the lead, and Piquet being called in for a precautionary stop, Alain was unopposed in taking the victory he needed for a quite unexpected title.
Being sneaky: brake-steer
There haven’t been many four-pedalled F1 cars, but we built one for David Coulthard in 1997 and it proved to be very quick – but also quite controversial. The brake-steer system employed an extra pedal in the footwell, linked to an extra master-cylinder that would brake one of the rear wheels. The notion was that by pressing the extra pedal – later called a fiddle brake – mid-corner, together with the accelerator, the car could be made to yaw, dialling out understeer.
Mika Häkkinen tested it first – it was easier to fit to his car because he used a hand-clutch and there was more space in his footwell, with just the two pedals. Having proved successful for him another version was made for DC, who still used a foot-clutch, and thus had a more complicated time getting four pedals into the limited space. It did, however, prove effective and both drivers used it, to considerable effect, the second half of 1997.
Other teams understood we were doing something clever but didn’t quite know what. In the end it was photographer Darren Heath who figured it out, pointing a camera down the footwell of Mika’s retired car at the Nürburgring and revealing the image of the extra pedal. We started 1998 with a refined version of the system, allowing the drivers to brake either rear wheel selectively at the flick of a switch, but then we started the season a bit too strongly and, as is often the case with a game-changing system difficult to replicate, our rivals managed to get it banned soon after.
If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em: the F-duct
Shortly before the advent of DRS, we invented a system to produce a similar effect in 2010 – a system that worked so well, other teams were left scrambling around trying to copy the idea. The name of the system was RW80 – though everyone wound-up calling it the F-duct. The system utilised a network of pipes threaded through the chassis and the anvil style engine cover, an air-scoop on the top of the chassis, and the driver’s left leg.
By pressing their leg against a hole in the duct, the driver could prevent air from the scoop entering the cockpit, instead channelling it up towards the airbox. When activated, this low-pressure system would trigger a fluidic switch, and high-pressure airflow from the airbox, instead of feeding out under the engine cover, would be diverted onto the rear wing to stall it. This reduced drag on the straights, with the airflow reattaching when the driver moved his leg to hit the brake pedal.
While the concept wasn’t difficult to copy, shoehorning the necessary ducting into an existing design was. The FIA eventually decided to ban it – but with DRS arriving in 2011, its value was going to be diminished anyway. Why was it called the F-duct? We don’t know! One theory is that it’s because the air-scoop looked a little bit like an ‘f’, another is that it was mounted next to the ‘f’ in ‘Vodafone’ on the livery. There’s another reason, based on what our rivals said when they figured out that it wasn’t the electronics cooler we’d claimed – but that one’s a bit rude.
From under your nose: Fernando Alonso signs for McLaren
An F1 team is always searching for those elusive tenths that will give it a defined edge and, in December 2005, we announced we’d found them – for 2007. Signing Fernando Alonso was a real coup. The Spaniard had just become the youngest F1 champion in history and was riding the crest of a turquoise wave at Renault, with a year to run on his contract and every expectation from the team that negotiations would be underway over the off-season.
Championship success notwithstanding, Renault’s long-term commitment to F1 was always being questioned and, days before signing Fernando, we had signed a massive new title sponsorship deal with Vodafone. It seemed everything was coming together at the right time – though apparently the seeds of the deal had been sewn when Fernando took a lift home from the Bahrain Grand Prix on our chartered jet.
The accounts say Fernando did his own heavy-lifting on the deal, rather than involving his management team, which included Renault team principal Flavio Briatore. Announcing the deal certainly made a splash, and it came as a huge surprise – but probably not as big as Fernando’s return to McLaren in 2015, which was surely the most unlikely reunion since Pink Floyd at Live 8.
It all went wrong until it went right: the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix
Jenson Button did not start a single lap of the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix in the lead – but he took the chequered flag first, and ultimately that’s really what matters. On the face of it, the race was a disaster for Jenson – except for the whole ‘winning it’ thing. He started a fairly lowly seventh, lost a couple of places on the wet opening lap, managed to collide with team-mate Lewis Hamilton a few laps later, putting him out, then picked up a drive-through penalty for speeding behind the Safety Car called out for the Hamilton incident.
That’s not all though. Having switched to Inters, Jenson was forced to switch back to full Wets when heavier rain began to fall, and then back to Inters after a Safety Car and red flag period. After dispatching Lewis, Jenson took Fernando Alonso off, nudging his Ferrari into a spin, and the Safety Car was called out again. Jenson picked up a puncture during the incident and had to pit. 37 laps of the 70 had been complete and Jenson was running last. Worst. Race. Ever.
But, you can never underestimate Jenson in a good car on a greasy track. He made his way back through the field, took advantage of other cars pitting, and was right on the tail of race leader Sebastian Vettel – who had kept his race clean at the front all afternoon with the flag fast approaching. Under pressure and in low-grip conditions, Vettel slid wide a couple of corners from home. He recovered – but it gave Jenson the opportunity to slither through and take the lead. You can tell how truly unexpected the victory was by the fact most of the crew were in the garage and not on the wall as he crosses the line. Also that they’re going absolutely nuts…
Baby Driver: the 1959 United States Grand Prix
Finally, we would be remiss in the week of the United States Grand Prix to not mention Bruce McLaren’s own first victory. In December 1959, F1 arrived in Florida for the final race of the season and the inaugural United States Grand Prix. Three drivers – Stirling Moss, Tony Brooks, Jack Brabham – were in contention for the title. Brabham, Bruce’s team-leader at Cooper, was the favourite, leading the championship and needing simply to beat the others.
Moss led away from pole but retired five laps in with gearbox trouble; Brooks spent a long time in the pits checking his car for damage after a collision with team-mate Wolfgang von Trips, leaving Brabham a clear run to the title. Bruce, in his first full season of F1, was following his mentor at a respectful distance. Brabham looked to have the race under control until the final few corners when he spluttered to a halt 360 metres from the chequered flag, out of fuel.
Initially, Bruce lifted, until being waved on by Brabham, who got out and pushed, eventually finishing fourth. It was largely superfluous as, with Moss out and Brooks only third, Brabham was world champion regardless. At 22 years and 104 days, Bruce was the youngest driver to ever win a grand prix – a record that stood until it was stolen by one Fernando Alonso in 2003.
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