McLaren at 50

This weekend’s Italian Grand Prix marks another return to hallowed ground – Monza, like Spa, is part of the fabric of the sport, and synonymous with Ferrari and the tifosi. But it is another team the limelight is on this weekend. Started by a New Zealander in 1963, they can proudly state they have won more races than any other since their involvement in F1. McLaren are 50 years old this weekend.

Any tribute to a team like this must necessarily be personal. My memories of McLaren are of the 1980s and 1990s, principally Senna in the Marlboro red-and-white with which they will always be associated, and then the stories: the stories of Fittipaldi and Hunt, of Lauda and Prost. They were just as romantic as any semi-mythology the Italians could recount. Senna’s yellow helmet in the rain at Donington in 1993 – the stuff of legend.

Then Hakkinen provided the chrome antidote to Schumacher’s Red Baron in 1998 and 1999, before the German became just too good for him. McLaren and their partners Mercedes Benz seemed like a good match, although it was during this period that a reputation for corporate-speak and clinical coldness was forged. David Coulthard and Juan Pablo Montoya the victims, but Raikkonen still thrilled us and McLaren were always a force to reckon with.

The late 2000s were the Hamilton era for McLaren. Always a team planning for the future, they had nurtured this boy to fulfil his blisteringly quick nature. Alonso was a bad choice to bring in and the sour taste lingers to this day – the Spygate scandal not the team’s finest hour. Still, they stuck to some of their principles. Ron Dennis said recently that McLaren exist to win, but not at any cost. In 2007, they refused to bow to Alonso’s reported demands for number one status – to Hamilton, it would have been like bringing up a horse to run the Grand National and then putting him in callipers.

Lately, despite a few wins in recent years, they have not been at the very top of the sport. This year in particular has been severely disappointing, but Hamilton will also see 2012 as a title lost because of his team’s failures. Whether they are capable of bouncing back is barely worth questioning. They are a behemoth of an organization; a living, breathing organism dedicated in the most part to the pursuit of glory in F1.
The McLaren Technology Centre is awe-inspiring in its size, complexity and ambition. Everything is clockwork. The wind tunnel has its own separate foundations; the trophy cabinet is located where employees are forced to walk past it every day; the hospitality generous, the grounds verdant.

All is nothing without grand prix victories, though. Their road car division is equally pristine and efficient, but may be a distraction for senior management. Elsewhere, senior figures like Paddy Lowe have moved on. It seems to be an entity in some kind of evolution, but there is stability in facilities, staff and – in all probability – drivers. This makes their return to the winners’ enclosure not so much a matter of ‘if’ but of ‘when’. Their reuniting with Honda is as astute a move as can be made in this era of unsigned Concorde Agreements and uncertain direction for the sport.

The colours of McLaren were orange, with the kiwi on the car, then red and white, then chrome and red. They are an incredible team and despite their origins are proudly British. Ferrari – the only team which can rival the Woking outfit in stature – know that McLaren are the one longstanding fighter with whom the battle is not over. Here’s to another 50 years.