It’s 1997. A new member of the McLaren team was tasked with improving and fine-tuning the design of the McLaren entry for that season. This team member had arrived too late to really have much of a say in developing Neil Oatley’s MP4-12. This member would put his energy, therefore, in co-developing next season’s car, the MP4-13. The man’s name: Adrian Newey. This is History of McLaren: Part 2.
The Era of the Flying Finn
Adrian Newey was fresh off of his stint with Williams. Having spent much of the ’90s with the team, he was partially responsible for the four world championships and three constructor’s championships. His relationship with Williams was soured by the end of his tenure there. A refusal from management about making him technical director of the team and the success of Benetton in 1995 meant that, by 1996, Newey was on Gardening leave. He would leave Williams for McLaren in what would be a significant coup for McLaren.
As I said, 1997 saw McLaren’s performance improving, with some decent wins and podiums by the second half of the 1997 Formula One World Championship; 1998 would be a successful return to form for McLaren. It already felt like a rebirth of the team, as the long-standing red and white Marlboro livery was replaced by the striking silver ‘West’ Livery that the team would keep until 2006. If 1997 was a rebirth, then 1998 was the coming of age for this McLaren.
It would also turn out to be McLaren’s most recent Constructor’s title win, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The 1998 Formula One World Championship, with the now well-established pairing of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard (writer’s note: my favourite era of McLaren), and the Adrian Newey designed MP4-13, McLaren were winners once more. Mika Hakkinen won his first Formula One World Championship, and McLaren won its first constructor’s championship since 1991.
Newey’s advantageous usage of the technical regulations for 1998, his primary focus on designing the 1998 car, and Williams losing their Renault engines and world champion driver meant that 1998 was only McLaren who could win. 1999 saw a second world championship for Hakkinen, though the team missed out on a constructor’s championship due to a strong Ferrari car and technical issues for the McLarens.
Truth be told, I believe that Michael Schumacher probably would have won the world championship in 1999. His broken leg wrote him out for much of the season, leading to his replacement by Mika Salo and Eddie Irvine becoming Ferrari’s number one driver for a spell. However, I love Mika Hakkinen, so I won’t complain.
By the year 2000, Ferrari had caught up with McLaren in terms of performance. The Silver clashing with the Red throughout the season in an exciting series of races, seven of which won by McLaren. However, as we know, 2000 was the beginning of the Schumacher-Barrichello domination of Formula One, with Ferrari winning the World Championship and Constructor’s Championship. This was the start of another decline in McLaren’s fortunes.
2001 was, therefore, a bit of a year for the team. Mika Hakkinen, their two-time world champion, who had driven with the team full since 1993, retired. David Coulthard, very much in his prime now, outscored his teammate for the very first time. Hakkinen, by this point, was a Dad, and fears of crashes were beginning to enter his head. As we know, F1 is a dangerous sport, and Hakkinen had experienced some scary crashes by then. He quit in 2001 and was replaced by his protege.
If you want to win, Get the Finn
In 2001, a relatively inexperienced driver entered Formula One for the first time, racing for Sauber. His obtaining of a Super Licence at the age of 22 was a point of contention for some due to his lack of racing experience. But that Finn went far in his maiden season. His first race saw him take his first point in a stunning debut in F1. In 2002, he became McLaren’s newest driver. That man was Kimi Raikkonen.
Simultaneously one of the most eccentric and flamboyant playboys in F1 and one of its most shy and icy personas, he was Hakkinen’s hand-picked replacement. The latter constantly said to Ron Dennis ‘If you want to win, get the Finn’.
Unfortunately for McLaren, Raikkonen, and Dennis, 2002-2006 would see McLaren be second fiddle to Ferrari for much of this period. That’s not to say the team didn’t win races. They did, but engine failures and mechanical issues hampered both Raikkonen and David Coulthard. In 2003, Raikkonen would lose out on a World Championship win by two points to Michael Schumacher, despite using last year’s car for an early portion of the season. 2004 saw little success as well, McLaren ending up 5th in the Constructor’s Championship, with 1 race win that season.
Adrian Newey would leave in 2005, as would David Coulthard, for a stint at the new Red Bull Racing (the former of which is still there today). Juan Pablo Montoya replaced Coulthard, and the team saw more success with the MP4-20. Winning 10 races that season, though the car would be a technical nightmare to run. It would constantly break down, and the tires would not heat up properly. 2006 would be a worse year for the team, with no victories and Montoya and Raikkonen leaving, the former in acrimonious circumstances. Mind you, with the way McLaren was then; you can’t blame both men for wanting out.
A Star is Born
Fernando Alonso has won two world championships in F1 for Renault. He is one of the best F1 drivers of the modern era, and he is now racing for McLaren. The team, with a newly redesigned car, and newish livery, were set. They even had a young lad from Stevenage, Ron Dennis’ protege, Lewis Hamilton as their rookie driver. 2007 was set to be a good year for McLaren. Until it wasn’t. The start of the season was good enough. They won races and led the Constructor’s Championship for a good chunk of that season. However, there were two big problems.
One, Alonso was not happy. He was the two time World Champion and felt that the team’s focus should be on the man who was the defending World Champion. It was not on him, and reports at the time talked about how Alonso ‘Was scared of Hamilton’s competitiveness’ and all that rubbish. An incident in Hungary did not help things either. More importantly, was McLaren’s ongoing court case over spying on Ferrari. The court case found McLaren guilty of using Ferrari blueprints a ‘rogue engineer’ had obtained. They had to pay $100 million and were removed from the constructor’s championship. Also, Alonso left after one season.
2008 saw Lewis Hamilton dramatically win his first world championship (see my ‘Champions That Never Were’ list for more). However, he could not properly capitalise on that success in 2009 due to the weaker performance of the MP4-24 car compared to the newly born and competitive Brawn GP. The Ascendant Red Bull Racing, the latter breaking from its mid-grid origins to front grid status. 2009 would see Ron Dennis leave as Team Principal of McLaren, replaced by Martin Whitmarsh. 2010 saw Jenson Button join the team, with he and Hamilton winning 5 races between them. However, neither would do much damage to the dominant Red Bull team and their 4 championships in a row.
By 2011, Button would finish the Drivers’ Championship in second place with 270 points ahead of Hamilton’s 227 points. McLaren was second in the Constructors’ Championship to Red Bull Racing. While in 2012, the team would suffer due to the adoption of Pirelli tyres and poor adaptations to the McLaren cars for the drivers. Ultimately, Lewis Hamilton would leave at the end of the season, beginning his time with Mercedes.
Trial and Error
As we come to the more recent history of McLaren, we see the team go through probably its longest dry spell of consistent victory in F1. Not helping matters being the constant changes in drivers and engines from this point on. 2013 saw the arrival of Sergio Perez to the team and no podium finishes in one of the team’s worst seasons.
2014 saw the end of the Ron Dennis and Mercedes era and the arrival of Kevin Magnussen to McLaren. The loss of Ron Dennis was coming, but his exit from the team would be sad, as he had led it for so long. The lack of success was probably weighing on the McLaren team at this point, leading to the revival of an old partnership. 2015 would be the year McLaren reunited with Honda and Fernando Alonso. 2015-2017 saw poor performance for McLaren Honda 2.0. They injured Alonso and just were not the team they were 10 years prior. They had become a middle grid team again.
However, by 2018, things were beginning to get better. Renault would be McLaren’s engine provider for 2 years. After finishing ninth in the constructor’s championship in 2017, they would go up to sixth next year. 2019 saw Alonso leave F1, and Carlos Sainz Jr would take his place alongside Lando Norris. This combination was successful, bringing the team up to fourth in the constructor’s championship. At the same time, 2020 would see the team in third place in the constructor’s championship, with Norris gaining his first podium.
And now we’ve reached 2021. As of today, McLaren has Mercedes engines again. Lando Norris is still driving for the team, alongside Daniel Ricciardo. They are currently competing, so I won’t say too much about them here, but they’re doing well so far. And that sums up McLaren in a nutshell. It hasn’t been easy for them, but they have done well. And long may they continue to do so.