Classic Cars in Motorsport – Part 6 – 1998 McLaren Mercedes MP4-13

It was the car that took McLaren back to the top of the pile after seven years of Williams (and two years of Benetton) dominance in the sport. The West inspired silver and black livery was relatively new to the car after years of red and white Marlboro colours but was to become a symbol of the sleek team that we seen on the track. But underneath it all was a champion, driven by two top drivers to the limit.

The McLaren MP4/13 was the first car designed for the team by design guru Adrian Newey after his departure from Williams in 1996. He was unable to influence last years MP4/12 due to the time of his release from Williams apart from adjustments. But with new rules making the cars narrower (down to 1.8 metres wide from 2metres) and running now on grooved tyres to reduce speed, Newey and McLaren proved best at adapting quickest.

When the teams arrived in Melbourne for the season opener Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, retained for another season with the team, where clear favourites for the win ahead of Ferrari’s pairing of Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine. What no one expected was just how emphatic the win would be.

The team took a 1-2 in that race, the first of five that season, and even had the time to swap places after a radio mix up seen Hakkinen make an extra pit stop. Team boss Ron Dennis claimed in 2007 that someone tapped into the radio communications and gave the instructions to the Finn. Coulthard returned the place, sticking to a pre race agreement with Hakkinen that whoever led into the first turn would win if in place to do so. The radio mix up meant it was public knowledge when it could have been behind closed doors.

But the car were 1-2 and lapped the entire field. It was repeated at the next race in Brazil but it wasn’t long before Ferrari started playing catch up. The McLaren had superior aero and power with the Mercedes V10 being the most powerful on the grid while Newey had set the car up to exploit aero rather than mechanical grip. This combo meant on the faster tracks like Silverstone and Hockenheim the Silver cars were in a class of their own.

On more technical tracks the Ferrari had the advantage but such was the McLaren’s set up that even here the car was in the points. In fact Hakkinen finished in the points in every race he finished while Coulthard done the same apart from the infamous Belgium Grand Prix. This consistency meant that despite the best efforts of the Maranello team Hakkinen and McLaren took both the drivers and constructors crowns, albeit at the final round in Japan. But another reason why this car is remembered is for its controversial ‘rear wheel’ steering system that was installed come the start of the season.

The system seen the footwell of the car have a third pedal, an extra brake pedal that helped control the rear braking. Initially when designed the team had to select which rear wheel it braked before sending the car to the track before they were able to make a system that allowed the driver to adjust it corner by corner.

By giving the ability to brake one of the rear wheels independently this allowed the driver to reduce over steer or understeer depending on the corner they faced. Teams got suspicious when they noticed the rear brakes glowing under braking, something that is not normal on F1 cars. But unable to figure out what the team were doing put them on the back foot. Eventually Ferrari appealed to the FIA, claiming the system was akin to four wheel steering which is banned, and the FIA forced McLaren to use a simpler braking system for the rest of the season.

But with Newey’s design and the cars aero superiority the team was able to keep Ferrari at bay and win the titles, their first since the MP4/6 in 1991 that we looked at earlier in the series. The car would take 9 wins from 16 races, a total of 12 poles and 9 fastest laps with Hakkinen and Coulthard taking a combined 20 podium places.

The car is still held in regard now too as in 1999 Nick Heidfeld, then Mclaren test driver, took the car up the hill at Goodwood Festival of Speed, setting the record time for the course of 41.6 seconds. This car seen the resurgence of the team and they would fight for and win titles and races for the next 15 years before the drop in performance and move to Honda at the start of 2014 season.

Andrew Campbell
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Photo Credit: Main: Motorsport history