McLaren and Mercedes are back together again for the 2021 Formula 1 season. After six years away, Mercedes agreed a four-year deal to supply McLaren their power unit.
It’s a partnership that made Mika Hakkinen two world titles, helped Lewis Hamilton become the youngest F1 world champion and delivered race wins for the likes of Fernando Alonso, Jenson Button, Kimi Raikkonen, Juan Pablo Montoya and David Coulthard.
The journey began in 1995 and it was a difficult start as McLaren’s woes continued from the previous year.
Things started to change when Coulthard managed to win the season-opening 1997 Australian Grand Prix, McLaren’s first win in over three years. And although reliability still plagued the car, two further wins that season showed that the team was gaining momentum with Adrian Newey now on board.
Newey made McLaren championship contenders again and they became the team to beat in 1998. Hakkinen stepped up to the pressures of being at the front of the field and beat Michael Schumacher and Ferrari to the title.
Remarkably, this was McLaren’s last constructors’ title in Formula 1. They will be looking to change that fact in the next few years.
Hakkinen vs. Schumacher
Hakkinen was not at his best in 1999 but the superiority of the McLaren car was enough to give him a second world championship. Schumacher was absent for six rounds when he broke his leg at the British Grand Prix so Eddie Irvine became Hakkinen’s closest challenger.
It all came down to the season finale at Suzuka and Hakkinen stood up to the pressure, knowing he had to finish in first place. He did not put a foot wrong, taking the lead at the start of the race and controlling the pace to seal the win and the title with a typically cool and calm performance under the most extreme pressure.
Ferrari and Schumacher went on a run of five consecutive drivers’ championships from 2000 but McLaren often provided the biggest challenge. Hakkinen’s win at the 2000 Belgian Grand Prix will be remembered forever in F1 history.
The Finn spun when leading the race which gave Schumacher a comfortable lead. But, Hakkinen fought back and gave it everything to try and catch the Ferrari driver. Schumacher defended robustly so Hakkinen was forced to get inventive with his attacking.
As the pair came up to lap Ricardo Zonta at the end of the Kemmel Straight, Hakkinen saw an opportunity and went to the inside of Zonta while Schumacher took the racing line. It was a spectacular moment and the move paid off for Hakkinen, an overtake that will never be forgotten.
Ultimately, Schumacher made the difference to end Hakkinen’s hopes of a hat-trick of titles.
The rise of Raikkonen
Coulthard was a stalwart for McLaren, winning a race in each of the seasons between 1997 and 2003. He was key for continuity and vital in terms of experience. McLaren were rejuvenated to an extent by F1’s latest rising star, a young Raikkonen.
Raikkonen replaced Finnish compatriot Hakkinen and proved to be incredibly fast. McLaren finished fifth in the constructors’ championship in 2003, their worst ranking since 1983, but a rapid Raikkonen took the drivers’ title to the wire and was the closest to defeating Schumacher in the early 2000s.
The biggest disappointment for Raikkonen and McLaren was 2005. They arguably had the quickest car with Raikkonen claiming seven wins, and the Finn was on course to add the San Marino and German Grands Prix before reliability woes brought the car to a halt.
Twelve months on, the same issues remained so Raikkonen and Montoya were never able to make a full assault on the championship despite their speed.
One of the highlights of the McLaren-Mercedes relationship was the 2005 Japanese Grand Prix. A wet qualifying session meant the quickest drivers including Raikkonen started towards the rear of the grid.
Starting from 17th, Raikkonen clawed his way through the field with one of the greatest drives in modern Formula 1. His pace was immense and on the last lap of the race, he caught leader Giancarlo Fisichella and overtook him around the outside going into turn one.
Internal battles and high drama
A new era beckoned in 2007 as McLaren brought in reigning and double world champion Fernando Alonso and rookie Hamilton. Little did anyone know the fireworks that were about to be set off.
Internal issues at McLaren led to a hostile relationship between the drivers and team principal Ron Dennis, which ultimately cost the team both championships. The so-called ‘spygate’ incident caused McLaren to be excluded from the constructors’ championship and fined €90 million.
A talented Hamilton gave Alonso problems which he did not expect so the Spaniard departed the team at the end of the year as both drivers missed out on the title by a solitary point to Ferrari’s Raikkonen.
Hamilton became McLaren’s new star and gave the team their first championship since 1999. For a driver in just his second season, some of his performances were outstanding. Silverstone and Hockenheim saw stunning drives from the now seven-time world champion. Hamilton did just enough to hang on to the title, denying Felipe Massa and breaking Brazilian hearts.
A disappointing 2009 was followed by a competitive 2010, with Button joining the Woking-based outfit. Both drivers found themselves with a chance of the championship going into the season finale at Abu Dhabi but Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull prevailed. It was a strong year for their drivers to be in that position even though Red Bull were the pace setters.
The end of the first chapter
Red Bull were still the team to beat in 2011 and 2012 but Button and Hamilton each had great seasons to give Vettel a difficult time.
Button’s memorable win at the 2011 Canadian Grand Prix when he pitted six times, came from the back twice and clashed with Hamilton was an all-time classic, while Hamilton was every bit as good as Alonso in 2012 (who received high praise that year), only to be let down by reliability.
Hamilton had won at least two races each season during his time at McLaren, a great achievement but he left for Mercedes in 2013. It proved to be an astute decision as McLaren struggled and failed to finish on the podium for the first time since 1980.
There was promise in 2014 when the team scored a double podium in the season-opener in Melbourne with Button and F1 debutant Kevin Magnussen. However, that turned out to be McLaren’s best result and performance of the inaugural turbo-hybrid season as they failed to take full advantage of the Mercedes power unit which was the benchmark engine.
A gamble to turn to Honda power didn’t pay off and 26 years on from the first races together, Mercedes and McLaren will do business again. It’s been a relatively successful partnership in the past so McLaren should be excited that they can repeat some of the triumphs they had with Mercedes in their latest chapter together.