Team McLaren started the 1997 Formula One World Championship season without their familiar red-and-white Marlboro cigarette livery during pre-season testing. Instead, they ran in "McLaren Orange," a nod to their original color scheme back when New Zealander Bruce McLaren fielded the team's first M2B in the 1966 Monaco Grand Prix.
Some thought, despite new title sponsorship from the West cigarette brand, that the team would run the entire year with the eye-catching orange livery. By the time of the team's official 1997 launch, the cars had adopted a distinctive silver-grey, black, and white coloration. The motorsports press, and ardent fans of the sport with a keen consciousness of the sport's history, recognized that 1997 was the year the "Silver Arrows" of Mercedes-Benz returned to Formula One. This was despite the fact that McLaren had been running Mercedes-Benz V10s since 1995, and that the company had a presence in F1 since 1993.
1997 was also significant because this was the first year that Adrian Newey, hitherto the chief designer of the mighty Williams-Renaults which dominated Grand Prix racing from 1991-1996, started working with McLaren.
The separation from Philip Morris (Marlboro) gave the team the perfect opportunity to forge an entirely new identity, if only visually. The team's aspirations and ideals, even through the vicissitudes of the post-Senna years, never really changed; they always aimed to win the world championships.
1997 was a breakthrough, the beginning of their second renaissance. Appropriately enough, the team won both the first Grand Prix (the Australian GP at Melbourne, by David Coulthard) of the year, as well as the last, the European Grand Prix at Jerez, Spain. The European Grand Prix, in fact, was a McLaren 1-2, with Mika Hakkinen celebrating his maiden win in F1. Coulthard also managed to win the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.
Hakkinen and Coulthard proved to be a strong driver pairing in 1997. They combined for 63 points, with their cars' performances improving steadily as the season progressed. Only sundry reliability problems, inevitable when chasing the limits of design and performance, prevented the team scoring more points. Fourth in the Constructors' World Championship was a just reward.
The following year, an ascendant Bridgestone tire company allied with McLaren and helped the team win its first Constructors' World Championship since 1991. Moreover, Mika Hakkinen won half of the year's sixteen Grands Prix and won the Drivers' World Championship with a comfortable fourteen point margin over Michael Schumacher. David Coulthard won one Grand Prix, ensuring that McLaren won more than half of the year's races.
In 1999, Mika Hakkinen won only five Grands Prix, but still lifted the Drivers' World Championship cup at the end of the season. Coulthard won twice. Ferrari amassed four more points than McLaren and won a very closely-fought Constructors' World Championship.
2000-2004 were the years of Michael Schumacher's dominance of F1. Although the German and his Ferrari team won the World Championships every year during this period, McLaren remained a largely competitive force in Grand Prix racing. Hakkinen finished second to Schumacher in 2000, while Coulthard did the same the following year.
Hakkinen decided to retire at the end of 2001, which opened the door for another "Flying Finn," Kimi Raikkonen. Raikkonen did not win a race in his first year at McLaren, but Coulthard salvaged a lone victory at the 2002 Monaco Grand Prix, aided by electronic engine adjustments performed at the team garage via telemetry. Ferrari destroyed all opposition in one of the most dominant displays ever seen in F1.
2003 saw Raikkonen's first win, at the first Grand Prix of the season in Australia. This was followed by Coulthard's victory in Malaysia. These were McLaren's only race victories in 2003. However, thanks to scoring points in every race but two, Raikkonen still just lost the Drivers' World Championship by two points to Michael Schumacher. Amazingly, McLaren also missed out on second place in the Constructors' World Championship by a scant two points. Williams-BMW finished fourteen points adrift of Ferrari.
Results were thinner on the ground for McLaren in 2004, with Raikkonen scoring a lone victory at the glorious Spa-Francorchamps circuit in Belgium. Atrocious reliability problems conspired to reduce McLaren to bit players in that year's World Championships, managing a total of 69 points in the Constructors' World Championship and fifth place. Ferrari won with an incredible haul of 262.
2005 was better, with Raikkonen finishing second to Fernando Alonso in the Drivers' World Championship. Now teamed with Juan-Pablo Montoya, Raikkonen equaled Alonso's win total of seven for the year, but failed to finish in the points in five Grands Prix. Montoya finished fourth in the Drivers' World Championship and won thrice in 2005, helping McLaren to second place in the Constructors' World Championship.
The following year, West cigarettes ended their sponsorship of McLaren. Consequently, the team decided to change their livery yet again, adopting an attractive chromium silver paint job with black and red accents. 2006, however, was not as successful as the previous year. McLaren failed to win a single Grand Prix, and finished an unimpressive third in the Constructors' World Championship. At the end of the year, both Raikkonen and Montoya left the team, with the Finn moving on to Ferrari. Newey also ended his association with the squad as its chief designer.
2005 and 2006 were Fernando Alonso's years; he assumed the mantle of champion from Michael Schumacher. Amazingly, he announced late in 2005 that he was going to leave Renault and join the Silver Arrows in 2007. With McLaren's shockingly poor form in 2006, many wondered about the wisdom of joining McLaren and leaving the World Championship-winning constructor Renault.
In retrospect, the alliance between Alonso and McLaren was uneasy. Not that it wasn't successful, because it was. Alonso and his new teammate, Briton Lewis Hamilton, proved to be the best pair of drivers in the 2007 F1 World Championship, winning four races each and ending the season tied with 109 points apiece. Sadly, they both lost by one point to former McLaren driver Raikkonen in the Drivers' World Championship. Moreover, none of their points counted towards the Constructors' World Championship because of the unfortunate consequences of "Stepney-gate," the infamous spying scandal wherein former Ferrari boffin Nigel Stepney passed on sensitive Ferrari technical documents to his friend (and McLaren chief designer) Mike Coughlan. Had it not been for Stepney's and Coughlan's shenanigans, McLaren, now sponsored by Vodafone, would have ended the season as the Constructors' World Champions. In the end, though, 2007 was a season of bitterness and rancor.
Alonso divorced himself from McLaren and returned to Renault, ending what was originally a three-year commitment to drive the chromium silver-and-red cars. Hamilton, for his part, welcomed a new teammate, Finland's Heikki Kovalainen, for 2008.
McLaren's history is akin to a Grand Prix, filled with plenty of highs and lows, successes and failures. It's a story that is symbolic of the cycles of a technical competition as exists in the world of Formula One.
Come to think of it, it's a story not unlike that of many companies involved in the world of PCs.
I hope this journey has been as good for you to read as it has been for me to write. Thank you all, as always, for your kind attention. Comments and discussion, as always, are sought and welcomed!