NOW THAT WAS A CAR

THE MCLAREN MP4-13

F1 Racing - - CONTENTS -

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…

WORDS STEWART WIL­LIAMS PIC­TURES JAMES MANN

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