New rules, new ruler
Think of this car as a monument to the power of the humble HB pencil. And Hobnobs. Design virtuoso Adrian Newey sketched the original layout of the MP4/13 on his trusty drawing board in his spare bedroom while on gardening leave from his previous team, Williams. Working in sustained bouts of epic concentration, breaking only for coffee and biscuits, he shaped the car that would dominate the 1998 season, scooping the constructors’ title and the first of Mika Häkkinen’s back-to-back drivers’ crowns.
The term ‘clean-sheet design’ is as overused in F1 as ‘for sure’ and ‘incident under investigation by the stewards’, but the MP4/13 was just that; clean-sheet. New regulations were ushered in for 1998 in an effort to make the cars slower and (in theory) safer, with dramatically narrower track widths (a full 20cm slimmer than before) and grooved tyres, to reduce grip and cornering speeds – which ironically served to make the cars knife-edge twitchy and dicult to drive. While other designers opted for a shorter wheelbase in a bid to win back agility, one of Newey’s masterstrokes was to go long, extending the MP4-13’s axles past those of the previous season to imbue the car with extra stability, particularly in long, fast corners.
After the wide, slick-shod cars of 1997, the ’98 McLaren’s stretched, slimline proportions looked odd, maybe even a touch awkward when it first appeared. But today it looks clean, elegant, uncluttered. Crouching down behind its silver rear wing you see the neatly packaged intricacy at play beneath, a latticework lasagne of wishbones, ducts, diffuser fins and quad exhausts exiting among it all. Imagining the sound of that 3.0-litre Ilmor-Mercedes V10 shrieking from them, the reflex is to step back to a safe distance. Its 760bhp peak was developed at 16,000rpm.
The MP4/13 scored a one-two first time out in Melbourne, Häkkinen taking the win after David Coulthard sportingly let him back into the lead after a bungled pitstop. Only the supreme speed of Michael Schumacher could keep the McLarens honest, the Ferrari driver remaining in the hunt until the final round at Suzuka, whereupon a stall and a puncture finally put him out of contention.
One more feather remained for the MP4/13’s cap: the following year it obliterated the outright record up the hill at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, Nick Heidfeld wrestled the shrieking, twitching McLaren from leafy start line to glory in just 41.6 seconds after a pre-run pep talk from Ron Dennis. The record would stand for 20 years, finally beaten in 2019 by VW’s ID R – a car virtually unconstrained by regulations. Which only serves to make the MP4/13’s performance all the more remarkable.
Designed while on gardening leave – hang on, is that allowed?