A Brief History of the McLaren F1 Team

the McLaren logo

Despite their recent struggles in Formula 1, the McLaren F1 team is the second oldest and the third-winningest team in the sport. Only Ferrari has spent more time in F1, and only Ferrari and the equally terrible Williams have more constructor’s championships. Even if they didn’t win so many championships, just going through their list of drivers is impressive. Gilles Villeneuve, Ayrton Senna, Keke Rosberg, Kimi Raikkonen, Alain Prost, Nelson Piquet, Juan Pablo Montoya, Nigel Mansell, Niki Lauda, Jacky Ickx, James Hunt, David Hobbs, Lewis Hamilton, Mika Hakkinen, Dan Gurney, Emerson Fittipaldi. Vic Elford, Mark Donohue, David Coulthard, Jenson Button, Martin Brundle, Michael Andretti, and Fernando Alonso, to name a few. For most sports, that roster would be the entire Hall of Fame. This roster was just one team. Read on to find out more about the history of the McLaren F1 Team.

The Beginning of McLaren

Bruce McLaren racing one of his own orange race cars
Bruce McLaren racing his own car – photo from Lothar Spurzem

Bruce McLaren was born in Auckland, New Zealand, and his love for motorsports started early. It took him a year to build his first car, and he immediately set about entering hill climbs, gymkhanas (these aren’t new), and sprint races. McLaren opened Bruce McLaren Motors as a gas station in the suburbs of Auckland. A fellow by the name of Jack Brabham would eventually lure him to England, where he built and raced F2 cars. His first Grand Prix was the German Grand Prix in 1958 at the Nurburgring, where they combined F1 and F2. He finished 5th overall and first in F2. He would go on to win his first F1 race at the United States Grand Prix in 1959, making him the youngest Grand Prix winner up to that point (22 years and 104 days).

Bruce would go on to establish Bruce McLaren Ltd in 1963 and set about building his F1 cars. He continued to race for Cooper (who he won with previously) and also won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966 and the 12 Hours of Sebring with Mario Andretti. Their first entry in Formula 1 was at the Monaco Grand Prix in 1966, but they were unable to finish the race. With Bruce McLaren driving, their best finish that year was at the United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen. At that race, Bruce finished 5th, which was technically second to last since only six cars finished the race. It was also 108 laps, which is pretty ridiculous by today’s standards. They didn’t fare much better in 1967 with a best 4th place finish at Monaco with Bruce driving again.

The Switch to Ford and the Initial Success

Deny Hulme racing a McLaren M7A
Denis Hulme in a McLaren M7A – photo by Spurzem – Lothar Spurzem

In 1968, McLaren made two significant changes, they switched to Ford-Cosworth engines, and they added another driver, Denny Hulme (pictured above). Bruce McLaren on Denny, “As a racing driver Denny becomes a slightly different person. He has always had a lot of natural ability, and he doesn’t have to work at going fast.” They would finish 2nd in Spain and 5th at Monaco before snatching up their first win at Spa. Fittingly, it was Bruce who won the race from 6th place by a margin of 12 seconds. Hulme would retire from the race. They would go on to notch two more wins in Italy and Canada and a 2nd place podium in Mexico. Not bad for their second season in F1. I wish Haas could have done that.

After finishing 2nd in the Constructors’ Championship in 1968, they wouldn’t fare as well in 1969. Again, it was Bruce and Denny driving, and they would rack up five podiums, including a first-place finish in Mexico. This time it was Hulme who would rack up the win from 4th while Bruce retired before the race began. In the end, they were no match for Jackie Stewart and Matra-Ford. They expanded their lineup in 1970 and added an Alfa engine and a few new drivers. Dan Gurney raced a few rounds as well as some other less familiar drivers. The reason for the drivers change, Bruce McLaren died at Goodwood while testing a Can-Am car between the Monaco Grand Prix and Spa.

The Initial Post-Bruce McLaren Era

a 1973 Yardley McLaren at Goodwood
1973 Yardley McLaren at Goodwood 2009 – photo by Brian Snelson

Maybe missing his talent or reeling from his death, McLaren would not be very successful in 1971. Their only podium finish was a 3rd place finish in Canada in American Mark Donohue’s first race. McLaren would rebound in 1972 with the Yardley Team McLaren. Returning was Hulme joined by American Peter Revson, Brian Redman, and Jody Sheckter. McLaren would go on to take eight podiums, including a 1st place finish in Russia by Hulme, who won from 5th place by 14 seconds. They would continue their strong showing in 1973 with mostly the same driver lineup, adding Jacky Ickx for just one race that season. McLaren would knock out seven podium finishes, including 1st place finishes in Sweden, England, and Canada. Hulme would win from 6th place on the grid in Sweden; Peter Revson would win from 3rd at Silverstone and from 2nd in Canada.

Becoming a Champion

Emerson Fittipaldi racing a McLaren M23
Emerson Fittipaldi in the McLaren M23 1974 British BP – photo from Martin Lee

The 1974 F1 season saw some driver changes for McLaren with the addition of Brazilian Emerson Fittipaldi in the number 5 car. It would prove to be a fortuitous choice. 1974 would be McLaren’s best year resulting in their first Constructors’ Championships and Fittipaldi’s first Drivers’ Championship. McLaren would take an incredible ten podium finishes, including four 1st place finishes. They opened the season strong with five podiums in a row, and they never looked back. In 1975, McLaren retained Fittipaldi and added German Jochen Mass. They couldn’t catch the Ferrari of Niki Lauda, but they had another strong showing finishing 3rd in the Constructors’ Championship. They would knock out six podium finishes, including three wins in Argentina, Spain, Silverstone (Jochen Mass won Spain).

The next season, 1976, would see a driver shakeup with Fittipaldi starting his team and McLaren bringing in James Hunt alongside the German Jochen Mass. Losing Fittipaldi didn’t seem to matter as McLaren again found success. While they finished second in the Constructors’ Championships, driver Hunt would win the Drivers’ Championship. It was the infamous season depicted in the movie Rush, where Niki Lauda had the horrific wreck at the Nurburgring. McLaren would return with the same lineup in 1977. They would go on to finish 3rd in the Constructors’ Championship with seven podiums, including three 1st place finishes. Hunt won all three races. McLaren would drop to the middle of the pack in 1978, racking up only one podium in France.

Changes at McLaren

Niki Lauda driving a McLaren at the 1982 British GP
Niki Lauda driving his McLaren at the 1982 British GP – photo from Martin Lee

James Hunt was out and entered some drivers you had never heard of in 1979. Predictably, they finished in the middle of the pack with only one podium, a 3rd place finish by John Watson in Argentina. McLaren would add Alain Prost in 1980, but that wouldn’t lead to immediate success. McLaren would finish the season 9th without any podiums. The next year, 1981, wasn’t much better. They would collect four podiums, including a win at Silverstone. In 1982 McLaren would add a legend to the team, Niki Lauda. The team would respond, finishing second in the Constructors’ Championship knocking out eight podiums, including four wins. Niki won two races, as did John Watson. The same drivers returned for 1983 with two different chassis’ MP4/1C and MP4/1E. The result was a 5th place finish in the Constructors’ Championship with five podiums, including a 1-2 finish at Long Beach.

In 1984, McLaren would run TAG/Porsche engines that they used at the end of 1983. Niki Lauda returned, and Alain Prost came back to McLaren after getting fired from Renault. The results were incredible. McLaren would win another Constructors’ Championship by nearly 90 points. They collected 17 podiums, including 12 wins and four 1-2 finishes. Niki Lauda went on to win his third and final championship, finishing just half a point ahead of Prost. Marlboro McLaren International team would return the same driver lineup in 1985. The results were similar, McLaren would go on to win another Constructors’ Championship by 8 points over Ferrari. They racked up 12 podiums, including six wins and one 1-2 finish. Prost would win his first championship by 20 points.

Lauda Leaves, Prost Takes Over and Senna Joins

Keke Rosberg
Keke Rosberg joins McLaren

Changes occurred at McLaren as Lauda retires, Prost returns, and Keke Rosberg joins the team for the 1986 F1 season. Keke, Nico’s father, probably has the 2nd best mustache in F1 behind Nigel Mansell. Success would continue as McLaren would finish second in the Constructors Champion, and Prost would win his second title ahead of Mansell mentioned above. It was the second time a driver won back to back championships since Jack Brabham accomplished it in 1959 and 1960. Of course, it was Brabham who brought Bruce McLaren to the UK. They racked up 12 podiums that year, including four wins and a 1-2 finish at Monaco. Going back to the days of Bruce McLaren, there is something special about that track for the team.

Alain Prost returned, and Kiko Rosberg retired after the 1986 season, and McLaren brought in Swede Stefan Johansson. McLaren again finished 2nd in the 1987 Constructors’ Championship with 11 podiums, three wins, and one 1-2 finish and Prost finishing 4th in the Drivers’ Championship behind Senna, Mansell, and champion Piquet. 1988 saw them move to the Honda motor and the addition of Senna alongside Prost. Predictably, McLaren won another Constructors’ Championship by an insane 134 points. It included 25 podiums, 15 wins, and an impressive ten 1-2 finishes. Senna won his first championship by three points over teammate Prost. They would continue their success in 1989 again, winning the Constructors’ Championship but with Prost winning the Drivers title over Senna by 18 points.

Prost Leaves for Ferrari, Senna Takes Over

Senna driving a McLaren MP4-6
Ayrton Senna in the McLaren MP4-6 1991 US GP – photo by wileynorwichphoto

Prost would leave McLaren for rivals Ferrari, and Gerhard Berger would join Senna in 1990. The Honda V10 returned from the previous year. Surprisingly, McLaren won the Constructors’ Championship again, finishing 11 points ahead of Ferrari. Senna would win his second championship finishing 7 points ahead of Prost. McLaren would return the same driver lineup for the 1991 season but would step up to the Honda V12. To hear that beautiful V12 at Goodwood, click here. McLaren would again win the Constructors’ Championship, and Senna would defend his title with seven wins. In 1992, McLaren would take a step back, finishing second in the Constructors’ Championship. Senna would finish 4th behind newcomer Michael Schumacher, and no one could keep pace with Mansell. Nigel would go on a tear this year, finishing second or better in all but four races this year.

In 1993, McLaren would switch to the Ford 3.5 liter V8,, and Michael Andretti would join Senna. Senna was reluctant to resign with the team because he felt they would not be competitive, running the V8 against V10s and V12s. McLaren would prove to be competitive, finishing second in the Constructors’ Championship that year. Senna would finish second to Prost in the Drivers’ Championship. 1994 would prove to be one of the worst in Formula 1. McLaren would switch to Peugeot V10s, and Senna would leave for Williams to be replaced by Mikka Hakkinen and future commentary Martin Brundle. The season would prove fatal for Senna, who would die in San Marino. Predictably, McLaren fell back to 4th behind rival Ferrari.

The Mansell Disaster and the Mercedes Partnership

Hakkinen’s McLaren
Hakkinen’s McLaren – photo by MarcelBuehner

All sorts of changes occurred at McLaren in the 1995 season. They ran three different chassis, a Mercedes V10, and four drivers. One of those drivers was Nigel Mansell, who stated that this would be his last year. Mansell proved too fat for the McLaren and only managed two races. Mark Blundell and Mika Hakkinen would guide the team to a 4th place finish but would only get two podium finishes. McLaren would return the Mercedes V10 and Hakkinen for 1996, and Coulthard would join him. The team would again finish 4th but would improve with six podium finishes. The same lineup would return in 1997 with the same results, a 4th place Constructors’ Championship. They would sort things out in 1998.

McLaren would return the same drivers for the West McLaren Mercedes team in 1998. They won yet another Constructors’ Championship over Ferrari racking up 20 podiums, nine wins, and five 1-2 finishes. Mika Hakkinen would also win his first championship, besting Michael Schumacher by 14 points. McLaren would return the same car and team for 1999 but would finish second to Ferrari by only 4 points. Hakkinen would repeat as champion winning five races, including the last one in Japan, to clinch the title by two points. 2000 was more of the same with McLaren again finishing second to Ferrari (thanks to Schumacher). Hakkinen would also finish second to Schumacher in the Drivers’ Championship.

Adding Kimi Raikkonen and Chasing Ferrari

Kimi Raikkonen in the MP4-17
Kimi Raikkonen in the MP4-17 – photo by Martin Lee 

Another year, more of the same. 2001 went a lot like 2000. McLaren returned the same driver lineup, finished second to Ferrari, and Coulthard finished second to Schumacher. 2002 would see the addition of future legend Kimi Raikkonen beside future commentator David Coulthard. While the team finished third, no one was touching Schumacher and Ferrari. It was more of the same in 2003 with McLaren returning the same lineup but again finishing 3rd. Schumacher would again win the championship, but Kimi Raikkonen finished just a mere two points behind Michael. After getting four podiums in his first year, Kimi turned it on in his second, getting ten podiums and his first win in Malaysia. Kimi would win that race from 7th on the grid by an impressive 39 seconds over Barrichello.

McLaren again returned the same team for 2004 but dropped to the middle of the pack, finishing 5th in the Constructors’ Championship. Kimi was the only one of the team that was able to snatch a victory that year with a win at Spa. 2005 saw David Coulthard leave for the upstart Red Bull team and Juan Pablo Montoya joining Kimi. McLaren would beat Ferrari that year but again would finish 2nd, this time to Renault. Kimi would rebound with seven victories, and his new teammate, Montoya, would add three more. Kimi would finish 2nd in the Drivers’ Championship to Fernando Alonso. 2006 saw Montoya leave in the middle of the season for NASCAR, and McLaren failed to keep up with Renault or Ferrari finishing 100 points back in 3rd place.

Vodafone, a Two-Time Champion, and a rookie named Lewis Hamilton

Lewis Hamilton in a McLaren
Lewis Hamilton joins McLaren  – photo by Morio

2007 was a significant year for change at McLaren. Kimi would leave for rival Ferrari, where he would win a championship. McLaren acquired a new sponsor in Vodafone, resulting in a fresh new look for the team. They signed back to back champion Fernando Alonso and fresh face Lewis Hamilton. This year proved to be both successful and controversial. Lewis Hamilton would go on to have the most successful rookie season of any F1 driver notching nine consecutive podiums and four wins. He would finish tied for second with teammate Alonso, just one point for securing the championship from Kimi Raikkonen. McLaren would finish dead last after being barred from earning Constructor points after being found in possession of Ferrari intellectual property. The team received a fine of $100 million.

Lewis would prove that his rookie season was no fluke. Heikki Kovalainen replaced Alonso, who went running back to Renault after being outpaced by a rookie. The Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team would finish second in 2008 behind Ferrari, but Lewis would win his first championship. Alonso finished second, one point behind Hamilton. Hamilton became the youngest F1 Champion (a title that Vettel would take in 2010). The 2009 season proved to be much more challenging as McLaren found themselves a second and a half off the pace. Despite a slow start, Lewis was able to rack up five podiums finishes over the second half of the season, including wins in Hungary and Singapore. Unfortunately, McLaren finished third behind upstarts Red Bull and Brawn.

Running with Two Champions

Jenson Button in a black McLaren
Jenson Button at McLaren – photo from Jake Archibald from London, England

McLaren would again run two champions on the same roster after luring Jenson Button away from Brawn-Mercedes. He would join fellow champion, Lewis Hamilton. It was the first time a team ran two champion drivers since McLaren themselves accomplished that feat with Senna and Prost in 1989. 2010 would prove to be one of the closest in recent memory with McLaren keeping close to Red Bull, ultimately finishing second. The Drivers’ Championship was insanely close as a scant 16 points separated the top four. Lewis finished 4th ahead of his teammate, and Vettel took his 1st of 4 consecutive championships. McLaren returned Hamilton and Button, but it was Button who put pressure on Vettel this time. Unfortunately, Button and McLaren were no match for Red Bull and Vettel, who again won the championship.

McLaren and Ferrari would keep things close with Red Bull in 2012, but Vettel would win again, finishing three points ahead of Alonso. Lewis and Jenson dropped back to 4th and 5th, and McLaren would finish 3rd. McLaren would lose superstar Lewis Hamilton to Mercedes and would replace him with Sergio Perez for the 2013 season. Unfortunately, McLaren just wasn’t competitive, dropping back to 5th place and not racking up a single podium finish. Sergio Perez would leave for Force India to be replaced by Kevin Magnussen in 2014. Jenson Button would again return, and the team would start the season sharp, finishing 2-3 in Australia. Unfortunately, they couldn’t string things together, and they finished in 5th place with no more podiums.

Switch to Honda and Recent Struggles 

Carlos Sainz in an orange McLaren
Carlos Sainz at McLaren – photo by Alberto-g-rovi

McLaren would switch to Honda power from Mercedes engines rebranding the team McLaren-Honda. They also brought back Alonso, who hadn’t been with the team since 2007 and Button, who returned for another season. Unfortunately, McLaren would go to have one of their worst seasons, finishing an abysmal 9th place with only 6 points earning finishes. McLaren would improve in 2016, returning Alonso and Button and scoring 76 points for a 6th place finish. Jenson Button would retire in 2017, becoming a reserve driver while Alonso would return alongside Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren again dropped to the bottom of the ranks, only scoring 30 points. McLaren would switch to Renault’s power in 2018 and would return Vandoorne and Alonso, doubling their output to 62 points.

McLaren would return this season (2019) with an entirely new driver lineup consisting of Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz. They finally seem to be regaining some of their old form. McLaren is currently in 4th place behind Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull. They have 101 points, and they are comfortably ahead of Renault. It would be nice to see American Team Principal Zak Brown get McLaren back to the top of the racing world. They are already vastly improved from the previous two years. Maybe it’s the new engine, and perhaps it’s the return of the gorgeous McLaren orange paint job. Either way, it would be nice to see McLaren on the podium again.

Conclusion

McLaren is one of the most successful and longest-running constructors in Formula 1. They’ve collected 8 Constructors’ Championships and 12 Drivers’ Championships. Looking back through history, they have faced challenges, but they always make their way back to the top. Perhaps they’re again on the upswing.

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