New rules, new ruler

CAR (UK) - - 70 Years Of Formula 1 - JAMES TAYLOR

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 di“cult 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?

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