THE MCLAREN MP4-12
Struggling Mclaren looked for new inspiration with this harbinger of new hope
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