A LOOK BACK: The McLaren-Honda Partnership

ProstAlain_McLarenMP4-2B_1985‘McLaren’ and ‘Honda’, two names synonymous with success and prestige in Formula 1, are to reunite next year with the latter returning to the pinnacle for the first time since 2008. Their period together in the 1980s and 1990s is legendary and generally regarded as one of the most triumphant affiliations in racing history.

Why? Well the statistics speak for themselves.

During their glory years, McLaren-Honda secured 44 wins (for a 55% success rate), 46 podiums and 53 pole positions (66% of all available) from 80 Grand Prix starts. Between 1988 and 1992, they were the dominant force of Grand Prix racing winning four constructors’ championships.

Indeed, the MP4/4 still resembles an era of dominance and a master-class in competition when it stormed to fifteen of a possible sixteen Grand Prix victories in 1988. With Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna at the helm, it was always destined to be a special season. They were an unstoppable force and their intense rivalry helped push McLaren-Honda to become the very best entity it could.

The time under McLaren-Honda was infamous and is still considered sacred to this day. Red Bull, Ferrari and Williams have all enjoyed their time at the top but the British-Japanese pairing has a firm place in F1 history, and for good reason.

Honda enjoyed some individual success – producing their first Grand Prix challenger in 1964, just two years after their first road car – but once coupled with brand McLaren, the grid was at the mercy of one of the most revered driver line ups in history, with the car to match.

Qualifying for the 1988 Monaco Grand Prix was a classic. Senna was almost a minute ahead of his team mate on the street circuit but refused to yield, his car lapping the twists and turns of the principality with ease. The McLaren-Honda was in a league of its own and another 1-2 was on the cards for the creators of the MP4/4 until his sudden crash, a mere blip in 68 laps of supremacy.

Senna described an out-of-body experience beneath his helmet, a feeling of truly being at-one with his car. This is an incredible feat for a driver, one that seldom occurs in a driver’s career as they battle the elements, several mechanical demands and race their rivals for top positions. Monaco was his track, his place of dominance and at the hands of a McLaren-Honda, a place where he often made history.

1988 was also the year of Senna’s impressive Japanese Grand Prix qualifying, one of his best-known performances in a distinguished career.

An important thing to remember about 1988, this was Senna’s first time at the helm of a car with championship potential, a great leap in any driver’s career.

At a rain-sodden Suzuka, the characteristic wet conditions appeared to damage his chances of eternal glory that year after the monsoon weather forced him down from first to thirteenth by the first corner. Senna fought back, storming back to the front after just 27 laps of racing. There, he won the first of his three world titles in exceptional fashion.

Prost also enjoyed some of his most successful years thanks to a Honda power unit. With McLaren, the Frenchman won 30 Grands Prix and three drivers’ titles – a feat their 2014 incumbent are unlikely to experience anytime soon

One of his most historic wins under the McLaren-Honda kinship was a home victory at the French Grand Prix in 1989. A win in front of an adoring home crowd always sparks more emotion but for France’s first world champion, 1989 was a masterclass in driver consistency over a weekend.

Prost and Senna were enthralled in an intense battle for pole position, charging to a one-two for McLaren, the white and red cars separated by just two one-hundredths-of-a-second at the close of the session. Once again, Ferrari were the team’s nearest challengers with Nigel Mansell third.

The race is perhaps most famous for its collisions, all of which required a restart and some teams to field their spare car to stay in contention. During this second start, Senna’s car failed to pull away, giving Prost the advantage in front of the French crowd. Prost cruised to a 44 second lead at Paul Ricard, the notoriously difficult circuit keeping Mansell at bay. That weekend, Prost was untouchable.

For McLaren-Honda, the combination of engine, car and driver fitted in perfect harmony until their natural end in 1992. Since the demise of the partnership, McLaren has mostly relied on Mercedes engine power – undoubtedly the best all-around unit at the start of this V6 engine era.

From their time together in 1995, McLaren-Mercedes has one constructors’ title, seven runner-up finishes and 78 victories to their credit.

These are statistics some teams could only dream of but the decline is certainly visible when put in these terms. Take nothing away from Mercedes, they have stuck with McLaren through many rule changes and eras but compared to the McLaren-Honda partnership, it was never going to compare.

Prost and Senna are two of the most celebrated drivers in F1’s illustrious history and managing a line-up of this kind today is an arduous and not all together success task. Honda would need an Alonso-Hamilton type pairing in 2015 to match this success but that ended disastrously at the very same team in 2008. Perhaps therefore, Button will be overlooked?

There will be some growing pains at McLaren when these two infamous names join together once more, the legacy will be put to one side as a new period starts under the V6 engines. The past, although marvelled with interest, will not guarantee the team’s future as 2015 welcomes back the most celebrated of all F1 alliances.

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