Twenty years ago, McLaren and Honda competed in Super GT for the first time. This is the story of that first race, the first season, and the legacies they created in 1996.
Twenty years ago on this day, 31 March, the McLaren F1 GTR and Honda NSX made their debuts in the Super GT Series at the opening round of the 1996 championship in Suzuka Circuit. It’s been two decades since that first round in Suzuka, and the unique legacies that both manufacturers have created in Super GT are still fondly remembered as the 2016 season approaches.
The path to their collision course in Japan was born eight years prior, when McLaren Honda dominated the 1988 Formula 1 World Championship in their first season together. Over a span of five years, the Honda-powered McLarens, driven by the likes of Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, were the single most dominant constructor in F1.
The McLaren F1 and the Honda NSX were their manufacturers’ ultimate road-going sports cars; conceived, developed, and launched during the zenith of their F1 successes. The F1 was the fastest production automobile in the world for over a decade, and still remains one of my favorite cars ever made. The NSX was an ultra high-tech, yet reliable and practical supercar that could run circles around even the finest that Ferrari had to offer. In 1995, the F1 and the NSX raced together for the first time at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The McLaren F1 GTRs dominated Le Mans that year, winning the race outright on its debut, taking four of the top five overall positions – and it was academic that they’d steamroll the competition in the GT1 category. Meanwhile in the GT2 class, a sole Honda NSX defeated a field mostly dominated by the mighty Porsche 911s to win the category.
At first, I didn’t like the idea of McLaren demoting, or even worse, cutting ties with Kevin Magnussen just to squeeze one more year out of Jenson Button’s Formula 1 career. I didn’t like it a bit. Not even twelve months had passed before McLaren signed Sergio Perez, who by the summer break of 2012 was absolutely red-hot with three podium finishes, two genuine brushes with victory at Malaysia and Italy – hell, he was strongly being considered as a mid-season replacement for the struggling Felipe Massa at Ferrari – before they let him go because he was underperforming compared to Button in a mediocre car.
They had promoted Magnussen in Perez’s place, with all the promise that the former Formula Renault 3.5 Series champion, just the second former champion to earn a promotion to Formula 1 the very next year after Robert Kubica, would be a star of the future. That promise seemed to be fulfilled when he scored a podium finish upon his F1 debut at the Australian Grand Prix, the first driver to put it on the podium in his F1 debut since another McLaren young driver of note named…Hamilton, was it? But after his form seemed to tail off afterwards (so did McLaren as a whole after Melbourne), and Jenson Button drove toward the end of the season like, well, like his career was on the line, McLaren were seemingly ready to burn through two different drivers, both under the age of 25, in a span of twelve months just so they could keep Button and bring in Fernando Alonso, who would absolutely never, EVER come back to McLaren the way their partnership ended so acrimoniously in 2007.
You know, just like how Kimi Raikkonen would never come back to Ferrari after being bought out of the largest Formula One contract to date to make room for Alonso in 2010, and like how Nigel Mansell would never come back to Williams after announcing that he was leaving for 1993 – during the middle of his championship season in ’92 – to go to IndyCar, and like how Paul Tracy said he would never “race for hot dogs and hamburgers” in the newly-unified IndyCar Series early in 2008, only to then make a one-off months later that year – and for the Vision Racing team run by Indy Racing League founder Tony George no less, the most hated man among the very same Champ Car supporters who had for years rallied around Tracy as a hero to them beginning shortly after the 2002 Indianapolis 500.
Back to Magnussen, the idea that McLaren would let him go just one year after bringing him in to replace Perez contradicts Ron Dennis‘ patient approach with other drivers several years ago. Dennis could have fired Mika Hakkinen for failing to deliver victories from his McLaren debut in late 1993 until he actually won his first race in 1997, in the season-ending European Grand Prix at Jerez. A timespan that included a near-fatal accident in Adelaide and dozens of races in cars that didn’t have enough to win races. He didn’t fire Hakkinen. Instead, Dennis was patient with his driver, and in the next two years, Hakkinen would be World Champion both times, staging some of the most memorable duels with Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. Dennis could have also fired Kimi Raikkonen just one year into his deal with McLaren after the 2002 season. Similar to Perez and Magnussen’s struggles in their first years at McLaren, Raikkonen scored just a paltry 24 points to teammate David Coulthard‘s 41 points that included a win in Monaco. Remember also that Raikkonen was not the former Sauber driver many were expecting to get the promotion to McLaren when Mika Hakkinen retired – that would have been Nick Heidfeld, who was actually a coveted prospect of McLaren’s in Formula 3 and Formula 3000. Instead, Dennis kept Raikkonen into 2003. Raikkonen won his first race, and went a full sixteen rounds against Schumacher for the title. Two years later, he’d battle Alonso for the championship in a fast, yet fragile McLaren MP4-20, and two years after that he’d be World Champion, albeit for McLaren’s biggest rivals. Now you have a McLaren team that’s burning through promising young drivers after just one season a piece it seems, all in the effort to win big, and win now. Continue reading “McLaren Honda’s Formula for Winning Now”