THE MCLAREN M26
A race winner that couldn’t quite match its illustrious predecessor
For McLaren, following the iconic M23 – which delivered them two drivers’ championships and one constructors’ title – was never going to be easy. The M26 (M24 was an IndyCar, and the M25 a oneoff Formula 5000 car based on the M23 and modified by a young John Barnard) was due to be introduced in 1976, but it was repeatedly put on the back burner as the team focused on the increasingly fraught battle between James Hunt and Ferrari’s Niki Lauda.
Designer Gordon Coppuck’s intention was to create a lighter, lower and stiffer evolution of the M23, with a smaller frontal area for less overall drag. The essence of the M23’s mechanical package, honed over several successful years, was also carried over with few modifications: the trusty combination of Cosworth V8, Hewland gearbox, rocker-arm front suspension with inboard springs and dampers, and multi-link rear suspension with inboard brakes.
While more slippery in a straight line than the M23, the M26’s handling was inferior and it became clear the team had been too ambitious in packaging the radiators. The car overheated repeatedly and with Lauda ill in hospital and Hunt fighting to catch up in the championship during the summer of ’76, Hunt stuck with the M23.
The M26 made its grand prix debut in the hands of Hunt’s teammate Jochen Mass at Zandvoort, but that weekend just demonstrated how far the M26 had to travel before it was race-ready: Hunt qualified his M23 second and won the race, while Mass started 15th and finished out of the points in ninth.
McLaren saw out the 1976 season with the M23, and fell back on the old car once more at the beginning of 1977 when Hunt’s M26 had a brake failure in testing at Kyalami and crashed heavily. The team built up a new M26 chassis for Hunt, which he drove at the Spanish GP, but he hated the handling and reverted to the M23 for Monaco.
Coppuck solved both the handling imbalance and the poor cooling by moving the oil cooler to the nose, but this required a large aperture in the bodywork that added drag. Still, it was an improvement, and at the French GP Hunt qualified the M26 on the front row, finishing third when the car developed pace-sapping understeer.
Mid-way through the season, with Hunt’s title defence on the ropes, the result in France provided a ray of hope. Two weeks later, Hunt delighted the home crowd by planting his M26 on pole at Silverstone. Also on the grid, in ninth, was a hitherto little-known Canadian making his F1 debut in an M23 on the recommendation of Hunt, who had watched him race in Formula Atlantic: Gilles Villeneuve.
Hunt was slow away from the start but fought his way back into the lead to claim an emotional victory – he had won the British GP at Brands Hatch a year earlier, only to be disqualified after the fact. He won again at Watkins Glen as Lauda sealed the drivers’ title, then claimed what would be his final F1 win, at Fuji at the end of the year.
The M26 would prove inadequate against the ground-effect aerodynamics of the Lotus 78 and 79, which dominated the 1978 season. The team wouldn’t taste victory again until 1981.