In the rarefied air that is Formula One racing, Team McLaren is about as big as it gets. Second only to Scuderia Ferrari in terms of total championships won, race wins, and points accumulated, McLaren is obviously one of the most accomplished teams and constructors in the history of Grand Prix racing.
McLaren's history is filled with far more high points than lows. They first started building their own Grand Prix cars in 1966; 1968 saw the team's first Grand Prix victory. 1974 was the first year they won both the Drivers' World Championship (with Emerson Fittipaldi) and the Constructors' World Championship. After finishing second in the Constructors' championship in 1976 (the year James Hunt won the Drivers' World Championship in a McLaren), the well dried up, and McLaren was relegated to also-ran status.
The 1980s saw the team's renaissance. After being purchased by a consortium led by Ron Dennis and Mansour Ojjeh, McLaren rose from mediocrity and established itself as the definitive constructor of the 1980s. 1981 saw John Watson win the British Grand Prix; Niki Lauda, at that time a 2-time World Champion, won in Long Beach the following year.
The pattern was set. 1983 saw only one win, in Long Beach again (this time for John Watson, with Lauda finishing second), but the year was also notable simply because McLaren made its first definitive step back to the top of the Formula One mountain. This was the year when TAG (Techniques d'Avant Garde) began development of the Porsche turbo F1 V6 engine.
The following year, the TAG/Porsche engine was the most dominant powerplant in F1, propelling Niki Lauda to his third and final World Championship. He beat Alain Prost (who was returning to the team after debuting with them in 1980) by a half-point in what is still the closest World Championship in the history of the sport. Obviously, the team also won the Constructors' Championship in 1984.
Alain Prost won both the 1985 and 1986 Drivers' World Championships, while McLaren sustained their supremacy in the Constructors' championship in 1985. The team finished second to Williams-Honda in 1986, which would prove to be a harbinger of great things to come.
In 1987, the Honda-powered Williams and Lotus cars won thirteen races between them (eleven by Williams), while McLaren won only three (all by Prost). The TAG/Porsche engines were no match against the fully-mature Honda V6 turbos, and Porsche stated their intention to stop competing in F1 after 1987. Nevertheless, McLaren still finished second to Williams-Honda in the Constructors' World Championship.
The 1988 season was a McLaren red-and-whitewash. This was the season when they acquired two amazing assets: Honda jumped from Williams to McLaren, and Ayrton Senna joined the team after three years with Team Lotus. Senna won eight races, while Prost won seven and actually amassed a greater total number of points. A quirk to the scoring regulations, which stipulated that a driver could only count his best eleven scores in the sixteen-race season, meant that Senna won the first of his three Drivers' World Championships. McLaren could have won all of the races that year, but Senna's accident with Jean-Louis Schlesser whilst in the lead at the Italian Grand Prix at Monza put paid to the ultimate Grand Prix Grand Slam. Winning fifteen of sixteen races, though, is still the single most successful team performance in the history of Formula One.
Nothing lasts forever, however. 1989 was a season of turmoil and rancor within McLaren. Their two great champions, Prost and Senna, had an infamous fratricidal falling-out, culminating in an embarrassing crash with each other at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. Prost won four Grands Prix, and Senna six; Prost left McLaren for Ferrari as the Drivers' World Champion at the end of the year, marking the end of the Prost era. McLaren won their second consecutive Constructors' World Championship, bringing their total up to four for the 1980s.
By the end of the 1980s, McLaren had firmly established itself as the pre-eminent F1 constructor, becoming synonymous with winning and excellence. However, nothing is ever immune to vicissitudes, and Prost's departure from the team showed that not even great success is enough to maintain the status quo. The Eighties were wildly successful; what will the 1990s bring?
Tune in next time for that part of the story.
As always, thanks for reading. Comments and discussion are always welcome.