When Alain Prost announced that he was leaving McLaren at the end of the 1989 F1 season, it effectively marked the end of the team's most successful period in its history. By the end of 1989, Prost had won three of his four Drivers' World Championships driving the red-and-white McLaren, picking up thirty five Grand Prix victories along the way. When he and Senna were teammates from 1988 - 1989, they won twenty five races (with Senna winning fourteen to Prost's eleven) out of thirty two. Only one other Grand Prix team, the 2004 Scuderia Ferrari team of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello, could boast a superior strike rate.
Ayrton Senna needed a new teammate, so Ron Dennis hired the Austrian Gerhard Berger. Berger drove at Ferrari, where Prost now took his place, and established himself as a race winner with an aggressive, attacking style. But where he was aggressive on the track, Berger was, by all accounts, an easy-going character. Dennis showed his brilliance as a team administrator by balancing Ayrton Senna's single-minded intensity with Berger's penchant for practical jokes and natural friendliness.
The new partnership proved to be successful, albeit short of the standard established by the halcyon days of when Prost and Senna were teammates. During their three seasons together (1990-1992), Senna and Berger won nineteen races, with Senna winning sixteen; Senna also won his second and third Drivers' World Championships in 1990 and 1991.
Technically speaking, the post-Prost McLaren-Hondas showed that they missed Prost's proficiency in testing and chassis development. While the 3.5L Honda V10 was clearly the most powerful engine in Formula One in 1990, the chassis development lagged behind the team's rivals, specifically the 1990 Ferrari 641/2 (developed chiefly by Alain Prost) and the Williams-Renaults of 1991-1992 (designed by Adrian Newey). Nevertheless, Senna's sheer ability to race, as well as his reprehensible decision to ram Prost's Ferrari in the 1990 Japanese Grand Prix, added Championship laurels for both himself and McLaren in 1990 and 1991.
By the end of the 1992 season, McLaren again faced a major change. Engine supplier Honda had decided to leave F1, despite having what was likely the most powerful F1 engine of the season in terms of sheer peak output. 1992 showed just how far McLaren had fallen, as Nigel Mansell's Williams-Renault FW14B destroyed all opposition and broke McLaren's four-year stranglehold on the Constructors' World Championship. Moreover, Gerhard Berger had been lured by a massive retainer back to Ferrari, and Senna himself wanted to sign with Williams. So desperate was Senna to drive the new dominant car in F1, he offered to drive the Williams for free!
Alain Prost, however, vetoed his inclusion into the Williams-Renault team, and Senna, after being tempted by a season in ChampCar (then known as IndyCar), re-signed with McLaren for a rumored $1 million per Grand Prix. Thankfully for Ron Dennis, Senna proved to be worth the price, as Senna won five Grands Prix in 1993 driving what was the third best car on the grid. The Williams-Renault won ten, while the Ford-powered Benetton (running more powerful Ford units compared to the McLaren's for most of the year) won only one. Some critics say that 1993 saw Senna at his absolute greatest.
The 1994 season was the second consecutive year when Mclaren changed engine suppliers. French manufacturer Peugeot made their F1 debut with McLaren. The 1994 McLaren was actually very nearly a Chrysler/Lamborghini-powered F1 car (Chrysler owned Lamborghini at the time), but Ron Dennis chose to go with a French manufacturer, perhaps with the intention of luring the freshly-retired Alain Prost back to his team. Prost, though, never again raced a Grand Prix car after retiring a four-time World Champion in 1993. Consequently, the 1994 McLaren-Peugeots were piloted by the quick yet inexperienced Mika Hakkinen and journeymen Martin Brundle and Philippe Alliot.
The Peugeot engine was not nearly powerful nor reliable enough, making it unclear just how good the McLaren chassis really was. Moreover, despite their very best efforts, the Hakkinen-Brundle/Alliot driving team could never hope to match Senna and whichever teammate he had. Not surprisingly, McLaren failed to win a single race in 1994.
The same was true for 1995, as well, even with the inclusion of 1992 Drivers' World Champion Nigel Mansell into the team. In fact, Mansell embarrassed himself, leaving the team (some reports said he was fired) early that season. Moreover, the 1995 season almost ended in tragedy, when Mika Hakkinen suffered head injuries in a crash in Australia. Thankfully, he recovered completely and raced with all of his natural speed and flair the next year.
1995, though, did give one ray of hope: McLaren jettisoned the Peugeot engine and established a relationship with Mercedes-Benz. The Mercedes-Benz engines were more mature, having been in constant and steady development as Ilmor V10s since 1991, and were on the cusp of becoming one of the leading powerplants in Formula One.
The following season, McLaren continued struggling, but at least were looking more competitive as the year progressed. Perhaps the chassis was not as good as it could have been, but the Mercedes engine was clearly getting better.
The mid-1990s were disappointing for a team as accomplished as McLaren. For four straight seasons, from 1994-1997 they finished fourth in the Constructors' World Championship, after finishing 2nd in both 1992 and 1993. 1996 was also the year that McLaren severed ties with the Philip-Morris company, who sponsored the team with their distinctive Marlboro branding since the early 1970s. McLaren had fallen from their lofty perch atop Formula One's pecking order mainly because of the instability brought on by such momentous changes during this period. How else can you describe the loss of its two greatest drivers, four different engine manufacturers in four years, and ultimately the loss of the team's biggest commercial partner?
Fortunately, 1997 was destined to be the beginning of McLaren's second renaissance.
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