A race win­ner that couldn’t quite match its il­lus­tri­ous pre­de­ces­sor

F1 Racing - - CON­TENTS -

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.



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