No. 26 McLaren MP4-23
Born of controversy, this machine broke McLaren’s long dry spell in 2008
No other championship-winning racing car has been designed and built in as toxic a political atmosphere as the McLaren MP4-23. Its gestation tracked parallel to the drip of revelations in the ‘Spygate’ espionage scandal that shook Formula 1 to the core in 2007, in which McLaren’s chief designer, Mike Coughlan, obtained technical blueprints from former Ferrari race technical manager Nigel Stepney.
What they planned to do with this intelligence is debatable, for it was never proved that any Ferrari intellectual property appeared on either the MP4-22 in which Lewis Hamilton made his sizzling 2007 debut, or the MP4-23 in which he claimed the drivers’ title. Even so, the scandal was damaging: McLaren were hit with a record fine of $100m and stripped of their 2007 points, while FIA inspectors scoured the blueprints of the MP4-23 for any item that could have been influenced by knowledge illegally transferred from Ferrari.
Questions continued to be asked about the MP4-23’s technical provenance until the 2008 season began in earnest. Then suspicions faded, largely because Ferrari seemed to have the superior car. Hamilton won the season-opening Australian GP but was all at sea in the following races, even driving into the back of Kimi Räikkönen in the Montréal pitlane. But, mid-season, something clicked and a commanding win in the wet at Silverstone, where he appeared to be operating at an altogether higher level than any of his rivals, set him back on the road to championship contention.
The MP4-23 itself was an evolution of its predecessor, with a longer wheelbase and more aerodynamic detailing. During the season the high-mounted ‘bridge’ wing was joined by a pair of curving, nosemounted flow conditioners, an aero must-have pioneered by BMW. The MP4-23 also boasted another, concealed piece of trickery, the ‘inerter’. This consisted of a spinning mass that helped dissipate the energy of suspension movements; Renault did something similar with their ‘tuned mass damper’ in 2006, only to see it banned for the spurious reason that it constituted a moveable aerodynamic device.
For both McLaren and Ferrari this was a wearying season of sniping politics and nose-to-the-grindstone technical development, and it would prove to be their undoing the following year. As the ’08 season built towards its climax, each focused on wrangling more speed out of their current package rather than shifting focus to 2009.
Hamilton and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa faced off against one another in the most nail-biting season finale of all time. Massa won from pole position and could not have done any more on the day. Hamilton looked to have allowed the drivers’ title to slip from his grasp, undone by a late-race rain storm, only to clinch fifth place at the final corner – winning the title by a single point. It was McLaren’s first drivers’ title since 1999, but Ferrari beat them to the constructors’ crown.
After victory, defeat. Having deployed all their resources in 2008, neither Ferrari nor McLaren would win again until late 2009.