NOW THAT WAS A CAR
THE MCLAREN MP4-13
F1 in the 1990s tended to be a battle for supremacy between McLaren and Williams. McLaren had dominated the early part of the decade, but the baton passed to Williams when Adrian Newey’s creations began to bear fruit. Benetton then came briefly to the fore, but Williams resumed their dominance in 1996-97.
Towards the end of 1996, McLaren chief Ron Dennis shrewdly poached Williams designer Newey. Amid contractual wranglings, Newey was placed on gardening leave, which meant he had no input whatsoever into the 1997 car. But he was finally unleashed, along with Neil Oatley, on the 1998 challenger, the MP4-13.
Regulation changes for 1998 stipulated that the cars would be much narrower, with a reduction in track from 2.0m to 1.8m, which, along with the introduction of grooved tyres to replace slicks, was intended to reduce cornering speeds. Of course, all the teams did their best to find ways around this, and McLaren’s engine partner, Mercedes, concentrated a massive amount of effort into their V10 FO 110G, trimming more than 20kg from its weight. McLaren also chose to drop long-time tyre supplier Goodyear in favour of Bridgestone, while their closest rivals, Williams and Ferrari, stayed on Goodyears.
The MP4-13 featured a new front suspension that used pushrodactuated, longitudinally mounted torsion bar springs, and this allowed for a slimmer monocoque. With Newey’s usual focus on aerodynamic efficiency and a very clean aero look all round, the result was an ultra- compact car. Despite the FIA-mandated reduction in car width, there was no similar reduction in wheelbase, so rather than shorten it McLaren actually increased it slightly from the MP4-12.
The car was initially launched in an interim orange livery, which was later replaced with McLaren’s usual red and silver colourway, and the team’s expectations for the car were modest – until testing began. “We didn’t really expect to be so competitive,” said Oatley. “At least until the car went to Barcelona and literally the first run we did was quicker than anyone else had done all week. That gave us an inkling that we had a reasonably competitive car.”
While it was by no means a radical machine, the MP4-13 was clearly a winner from the start. It was, however, dogged by controversy. At the season-opening Australian GP at Albert Park, everyone knew that McLaren’s two drivers, Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard, would be the men to beat, and they duly monopolised the front row with Häkkinen just 0.043s ahead of his team-mate. Both McLarens made good starts to hold off the Ferrari of Michael Schumacher, and they remained one-two after the first round of stops. Then, inexplicably, at the end of lap 35 Häkkinen returned to the pits as a result of a misheard radio message. This put Coulthard in the lead where he remained until lap 56 of 58, when he let Häkkinen past on the main straight as part of an agreement that whoever led at the first corner should be allowed to win the race if they were in a position to do so.
Third-placed Heinz-Harald Frentzen was a lap behind in his Williams, making a McLaren one-two almost inevitable, and so it was Häkkinen who started the season with maximum points instead of Coulthard. The team, and Häkkinen in particular, were unrepentant.
“Every single member of the team in the garage contributed to my victory today and I especially appreciate David’s sportsmanlike conduct,” said Mika. “What David did today was remarkable. What he did was really gentlemanly, unreal and fantastic.”
Criticism outside the team, however, was heavy, although whether the situation constituted team orders was open to interpretation. Ron Walker, chairman of the Australian GP Corporation, complained to the FIA, and the matter was eventually heard by the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council. McLaren were told that “any future act prejudicial to the interests of competition should be severely punished”.
The next race, Brazil, was a straightforward lights-to-flag victory for Häkkinen, with Coulthard in close attendance, and Schumacher more than a minute down. This time the controversy had occurred before the race, when the stewards declared McLaren’s braking system illegal. Their innovative third-pedal arrangement, which had been photographed at the Luxembourg GP (held at the Nürburgring) and exclusively revealed in the November 1997 issue of F1 Racing, enabled the driver to brake one rear wheel independently of the other into a corner. McLaren continued to use the system into 1998, but because they were now frontrunners (and despite the fact that the system had been approved by FIA technical delegate Charlie Whiting), rivals campaigned to get the extra pedal banned. Once the stewards had decided, McLaren dropped the system for the rest of the season.
Schumacher won round three in Argentina, but Coulthard took his first and only victory of the year at the San Marino Grand Prix. Back-to-back wins for Häkkinen in Spain and Monaco were followed by three wins for Schumacher. Another pair of Häkkinen victories in Austria and Germany, and Schumacher wins in Hungary and Italy, meant that with two races to go, Häkkinen and Schumacher were level on 80 points. Coulthard trailed behind them, a distant third.
When McLaren most needed Häkkinen’s A-game, he delivered. At the Luxembourg GP he started P3, and in the early part of the race was held up by Schumacher’s team-mate, Eddie Irvine. A great move on Irvine at the Veedol Chicane on lap 14 promoted Häkkinen to second and he then closed in on Schumacher. Häkkinen stayed out for an extra four laps after Schumacher had pitted to emerge ahead, held on to his lead at the second round of pitstops and subsequently extended his lead to five seconds over Schumacher by the finish.
The title was now well within Häkkinen’s grasp, and although Schumacher set pole at the season finale in Suzuka, his Ferrari stalled on the grid and later retired with a puncture. Häkkinen, meanwhile, claimed his eighth win of 1998 to secure the first of his two world titles. McLaren also won the constructors’ championship for the first time since 1991, and this was also the first title for the team’s engine supplier Mercedes, main sponsor West, and tyre supplier Bridgestone.
For a car that started out mired in controversy, the MP4-13 came out on top in a clash of the F1 titans. And that was just the start…