West’s new race livery was initially kept under wraps, so that when the new MP4-12 made its debut at McLaren’s Albert Drive factory in Woking on January 14th it was finished in McLaren’s old trademark papaya orange, a neat touch.
The new team colours of silver and black with red and white highlights were only shown later, at an official launch at London’s Alexandra Palace complete with an all-star cast and live stage performances by the Spice Girls and Jamiroquai.
The fact that the first car was not completed until six o'clock on the morning of its launch - and was flown to Jerez for testing barely four hours after the event - gives some indication how comprehensively new this McLaren really was. It incorporated a number of technical innovations now required by new F1 regulations - including a rear crumple zone and collapsible steering column, reduced winglet area and suspension components of restricted depth-to-width ratio - and after every single component had been put under the microscope, 90 per cent of them were new or redesigned.
The MP4-12 was the result of many hours of research in the wind tunnel at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington, Ron Dennis happily admitting to “quantiﬁable gains" here, although he was in little doubt that his rivals too would have made big advances in this area. But he felt that trying to evaluate such things was a waste of time: “We just have to concentrate on developing the best car that we can.”
This McLaren did, together with Mercedes-Benz which produced the FO 110E version of its V10 using an all-new, sand-cast aluminium alloy block whose design was determined by a range of different performance and installation parameters. Marginally heavier than before at 124kg, about the same as Ferrari’s V10, it featured a new, lighter inlet system and a measurable hike in power.
Significantly, though slightly wider than the old engine it was also 17mm lower, thereby reducing the car’s centre of gravity. This in turn, with the reduced winglet area and rear crumple zone, required substantial aerodynamic work to be carried out on the rear end.
In pre-season testing the efforts were rewarded when Coulthard won the first race of the season, in Australia with Hakkinen finishing third. Though this was undoubtedly made slightly easier by the retirement of both Williams FW19s, the young Scot drove a cool race despite being under mounting pressure from Micheal Schumacher's Ferrari. It was a fabulous result for the new West McLaren Mercedes team first time out.
Coulthard also won a superb race at Monza even though he was again concerned by the car’s rear-end stability during much of the season. For his part Hakkinen, once again, seemed better able to adapt his driving style and finally rewarded with a win at Jerez, his first in Formula 1, after
Schumacher had controversially collided with the new World Champion, Jacques Villeneuve.
Elsewhere, McLaren’s trademark resourcefulness demonstrated itself when it came to refuelling and pit strategies so that, at Buenos Aires, for example, where the car’s harder compound tyres were not best suited, a one-stop strategy enabled Hakkinen to move from 17th to fifth place by the flag. Similar manoeuvring was on target to take the Finn to second place at Silverstone, where
Coulthard was dogged by brake trouble, until his engine failed six laps from the end.
With a new F-spec version of the Mercedes-Benz engine, the cars were by this time enjoying a field-leading 740bhp at 16,000rpm, but even this proved insufficient to push McLaren’s tally of wins for the season beyond three.
One of Adrian Newey’s first moves when he joined as Technical Director in August was to introduce a revised front wing for the Austrian race to give the car improved front-end grip, as work continued on efforts to enhance its driveability with developments such as a sophisticated secondary braking system which (once ruled legal by the FIA) was mimicked in testing by some rival teams.
The results of these improvements were not overwhelming but they were at least now making themselves felt even if nothing in 1997 could quite eclipse the latest Williams Renault. What mattered was that McLaren was once a ‘establishing itself as a Grand Prix winner. With resources already being poured into the following year’s effort, as the team directed much of its testing effort towards detailed preparation for the new era of narrow-track, grooved-tyre F1 cars, McLaren was very clearly back on track to become the pacesetter.