THE MCLAREN MP4-12

Strug­gling Mclaren looked for new in­spi­ra­tion with this har­bin­ger of new hope

F1 Racing (UK) - - RETRO - WORDS DAMIEN SMITH PIC­TURES JAMES MANN

NOW THAT WAS A CAR No. 72

The dry patch lasted three full sea­sons and 49 races. At the time, it seemed in­con­ceiv­able that Mclaren – the su­per­power with which first Niki Lauda, then em­phat­i­cally Alain Prost and Ayr­ton Senna, be­strode For­mula 1 – should have fallen so low. To­day, af­ter a win drought that is now well over dou­ble the length and shows ab­so­lutely no sign of be­ing quenched, the mid-1990s seem just a blip. Per­spec­tives have changed. The loss of Honda at the end of 1992 trig­gered Mclaren’s down­fall, al­though Senna led a valiant charge with cus­tomer Ford power in ’93. The ill-ad­vised shot­gun mar­riage with Peu­geot lasted all but a sea­son, be­fore Ron Den­nis cracked the deal that would re­gen­er­ate his com­pany. It would take three years, but the part­ner­ship with Mercedes-benz would prove boun­ti­ful. And it was with this car that it first bore fruit.

To­day, the 1997 Mclaren MP4-12 tends to be over­looked, lost in the shadow of its suc­ces­sor. That’s un­der­stand­able. The 1998 MP4-13 was Adrian Newey’s first Mclaren and ma­jes­ti­cally car­ried Mika Häkki­nen to driv­ers’ ti­tle glory and the team an eighth – and to date last – con­struc­tors’ crown to kick­start a bright new era. But the seeds of its suc­cess were sown here, be­fore Newey joined from Wil­liams, and in­cluded one of the great grand prix tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tions that was both dev­as­tat­ingly ef­fec­tive and sim­ple all at the same time.

Steve Ni­chols, the de­signer largely re­spon­si­ble for the sublime 15-wins-out-of-16 MP4/4 of 1988, has been cred­ited with the idea for the clever brake-steer sys­tem de­ployed on MP4-12. De­vised in the win­ter, tested in the spring and on the race car by Canada in June, brake-steer gave Häkki­nen and team-mate David Coulthard the abil­ity to pull the an­chor on a sin­gle in­side rear wheel mid-cor­ner, via the use of an ex­tra brake pedal, to of­fer sig­nif­i­cant as­sis­tance to their change of di­rec­tion. It rep­re­sented a form of sta­bil­ity con­trol now com­mon on road cars, but ac­ti­vated man­u­ally by the driv­ers.

Ge­nius – but not par­tic­u­larly com­pli­cated. It worked by split­ting the rear brake line in two, with one linked to an ex­tra mas­ter cylin­der con­nected to the in­side rear wheel. The team would choose which rear wheel would ben­e­fit from the ex­tra brak­ing be­fore each race, de­pend­ing on the right/left bias of that track’s turns. When the driver braked nor­mally, stop­ping power would pump straight through this cylin­der to slow both rear wheels. But when he de­pressed the ex­tra pedal – while ac­cel­er­at­ing through the cor­ner – it would kick in and add brak­ing power only to the wheel it was con­nected to. Un­der­steer could be neutered and trac­tion en­hanced, en­abling the car to leave the bend on the best line and at a greater rate of knots. Newey, who joined in Au­gust 1997, reck­oned it was worth at least 0.3s a lap.

“THREE VIC­TO­RIES. NOT BAD. BUT THE RE­AL­ITY WAS MCLAREN WERE STILL ONLY F1’S FOURTH BEST TEAM”

News broke about it through this very mag­a­zine af­ter F1 Rac­ing pho­tog­ra­pher Dar­ren Heath no­ticed Mclaren’s in­side rear discs glow­ing un­der ac­cel­er­a­tion. At the Nür­bur­gring, where both cars re­tired while run­ning one-two with em­bar­rass­ing Mercedes fail­ures, he took the op­por­tu­nity to stick his cam­era in the cock­pit, cap­tur­ing in­con­tro­vert­ible proof of Mclaren’s ex­tra pedal. Scoop!

Häkki­nen, a nat­u­ral left-foot braker, loved it. For right­foot-brak­ing Coulthard, the sys­tem must have re­quired more ad­just­ment. Both felt the ben­e­fit. Yet even be­fore its in­tro­duc­tion, MP4-12 had al­ready proven its worth.

The car, con­ceived by long-time Mclaren de­sign wizard Neil Oat­ley, was sig­nif­i­cant for a num­ber of rea­sons. First, the ob­vi­ous: it was sil­ver and black rather than Day­glo and white – which took some get­ting used to.

The switch of to­bacco brands, from Philip Mor­ris’s Marl­boro to West, ended an F1 spon­sor part­ner­ship dat­ing back 23 years. The win­ter in­terim also pro­vided an op­por­tu­nity for Mclaren to ac­knowl­edge their dis­tant past: when MP4-12 took its bow in Jan­uary ’97 it was painted pa­paya or­ange, just like founder Bruce’s cars had been.

For the big re­veal of their dra­matic makeover, Mclaren went to town. Pre­cisely, north Lon­don. The Alexan­dra Palace launch ex­trav­a­ganza featured the Spice Girls, no less – who at the time were at the zenith of their (girl) power. Oh, and Jamiro­quai, too.

In Mel­bourne, Mclaren’s new-look fly­ing cig­a­rette packet smoked ’em at the first time of ask­ing, as Coulthard clinched his sec­ond ca­reer vic­tory. The drought was over. But a tor­rent of wins didn’t ex­actly fol­low. Not yet. Coulthard wouldn’t win again un­til Monza in Septem­ber, while Häkki­nen’s own break­through fol­lowed in con­tro­ver­sial cir­cum­stances at the Jerez sea­son fi­nale. In the wake of Michael Schu­macher’s failed move on Jac­ques Vil­leneuve, the man who would be­come world cham­pion ap­par­ently stuck by an al­leged pre-race agree­ment be­tween Wil­liams and Mclaren to move aside, if the lat­ter kept their red-tipped noses out of the ti­tle de­noue­ment. Häkki­nen also ap­peared to ben­e­fit from Coulthard’s obe­di­ence to an in­tra-team or­der from Den­nis. Hardly the best way for Häkki­nen to break his duck, but they all count, don’t they?

Three vic­to­ries. In the con­text of their fal­low patch, not bad. But the re­al­ity was Mclaren were still only F1’s fourth best team ac­cord­ing to the standings, way be­hind Wil­liams and Fer­rari and four points be­hind win­less Benet­ton. Un­re­li­a­bil­ity had cost them, Häkki­nen re­tir­ing three times from the lead of grands prix with engine trou­ble, and Coulthard’s clutch prob­lem in Canada let­ting an­other slip by.

But the signs looked clear: Mercedes were get­ting there. Their new V10 was at least a match for Fer­rari’s and not far off the Re­nault bench­mark. Newey’s Mi­das touch and his in­tu­itive trans­la­tion of F1’s new nar­row-track reg­u­la­tions, on grooved Bridge­stone tyres, would com­plete the re­gen­er­a­tion.

As for brake-steer, Mclaren moved it on a step for 1998. On the MP4-13, the driv­ers en­joyed the added power of choos­ing which wheel to brake cor­ner by cor­ner – only for the FIA, fol­low­ing a big nudge from Fer­rari, to ban the sys­tem from Brazil. Cue un­der­stand­able fury.

The old ri­valry, born dur­ing the Hunt vs Lauda duel of 1976, had been in­jected with new dose of venom.

THE MCLAREN MP4-12

SPEC­I­FI­CA­TION Chas­sis car­bon fi­bre and hon­ey­comb com­pos­ite Sus­pen­sion dou­ble wish­bones, pushrod-op­er­ated in­board coil spring/damper Engine Mercedes-benz FO 110E/FO 110F V10 Engine ca­pac­ity 2997cc Power 740bhp @ 16,000rpm Gearbox Mclaren six-speed lon­gi­tu­di­nal semi-au­to­matic Tyres Goodyear Weight 600kg No­table driv­ers Mika Häkki­nen, David Coulthard

RACE RECORD Starts 34 Wins 3 Poles 1 Fastest laps 2 Other podi­ums 4 Points 63

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