Silly Season: McLaren 1994-1996Written by 'Αγγελος Φωτσεινός
Translated by Giannis Binas
The 1994-1996 period was a ‘laying low’ time for McLaren: the termination of cooperation with Honda in the end of 1992 and with Senna in 1993, marked the end of a big chapter, with the British team finding itself in a reconstruction phase, ahead of 1994.
Date of 1st publication: 04/11/14
Recovery to the top was certainly a more difficult process than the managers expected and didn’t happen anytime soon: 3 seasons without a single victory had to pass for the next 1st place on the podium to arrive.
In spite of the results recession, the team was hot on the rumor mill between 1994 and 1996.
1994: Alain Prost, Martin Brundle, Philippe Alliot, Christian Fittipaldi
With Mika Hakkinen bound by a three-year contract, the one side of McLaren’s garage was ensured.
For the other side though, the rumor mill was going overdrive from the very first moment the team announced its cooperation with Peugeot, in 1994.
The French firm entered Formula 1 after an excellent presence in WRC, Paris-Dakar rally and endurance series during the previous decade and they had a clear goal right from the start: to conquer the top of the pinnacle of motorsports too.
The motive for the top was strengthened by the fact that Peugeot’s ‘bitter enemy’, Renault, was in F1 at that time too. Williams-Renault on the one side, McLaren-Peugeot on the other and target was the prevalence of the newly created Franco-British project over the dominant first.
The champion Alain Prost had announced his retirement from Formula 1 at the end of 1993, a decision to which he was driven watching Williams signing with Senna for 1994.
Despite having restored his relationship with the Brazilian, he didn’t want to face him anew and, in contrast to the previous year, he couldn’t exercise a veto. So, he decided to retire, by agreeing to get full compensation for the remaining 1 year (1994) of his contract with Williams.
For sure, in Peugeot’s eyes, Prost wasn’t retired, but the top available French driver and for that reason tried to execute the “colpo grosso”.
Prost’s eventful departure from McLaren (with which, he won 3 of his 4 titles) in the end of 1989, seemed like a distant memory.
Peugeot’s interest was soon turned into an offer: 20 million dollars per year for a three-year contract.
Sir Frank Williams wasn’t particularly glad to hear about this offer: he would never, under any circumstances, ‘break’ Prost’s contract, letting him free to race on behalf of McLaren.
The Frenchman, knowing the situation better than anyone else, confided in the following statement:
''Whichever decision I take, I know that it won't be an easy one''.
McLaren intended to wait till the nick of time for Prost’s decision and that’s why, at that point, wasn’t in talks with any other driver.
With the team in waiting, only Hakkinen was present at MP4/9’s presentation (January 28).
A few days after the presentation, the eagerly expected announcement came, but not with the anticipated content: McLaren announced that Prost would try out the new single-seater at the testing of Estoril, without any reference to the conclusion of an agreement.
The testing at the Portuguese circuit was to be held one month after the announcement and just three weeks prior to the start of the championship.
The days were passing without any evolution on the matter and for that reason McLaren started evaluating other cases too, in the event of a negative result with Prost.
On the 2nd of March, Martin Brundle tried out the MP4/9 at Silverstone, but the team made it clear to him that they were waiting for Prost’s decision.
The Brit’s will to race for McLaren however, was so great, he was ready to wait until the last moment, rejecting, meanwhile, proposals from Ligier and Jordan.
Peugeot’s plan b differed in terms of the driver; in case Prost rejected the proposal, the solution was ready and proven: Phillippe Alliot.
The French driver didn’t have a remarkable career in F1, but had successfully raced on behalf of the ‘lion’ in endurance series during 1991-1993.
He had already signed as a test driver, so, in case he was upgraded, the test driver’s place would be covered by another French, Yannick Dalmas.
However, there was yet another plan b, worked out by a family with past and present in Formula 1.
Emerson Fittipaldi had very close relations with Marlboro (McLaren’s principal sponsor) and tried to promote his nephew, Christian Fittipaldi, to McLaren.
The “Fittipaldi” surname was already commercially ‘heavy’ by Emmo and, in his eyes, there was a big opportunity to be extended even more by the promising son of his brother Wilson.
Alas, everything moved in Prost’s tempo until the testing of Estoril.
With the spotlights on him, the French tested the car but made no statements.
A week had to pass to finally announce publicly that he wasn’t going to be present to the grid:
''I wanted to test, in order to see if I want to race again. The answer is no, as I don't want to take risks anymore''.
Eventually, Prost didn’t succumb to the offer, a decision that, briefly, related to what he had found out at the test; MP4/9 wasn’t a title-worthy single-seater. The French’s decision meant the transition to plan b, on which, as fore mentioned, the opinions were diverging.
At the last moments to register the drivers that would race at the 1st grand prix, Ron Dennis’ opinion prevailed and Martin Brundle would be Hakkinen’s team-mate.
Peugeot’s favorite, Philippe Alliot, would remain as a test driver (although he would make an appearance at Hungary, in Hakkinen’s place).
1995: Alain Prost, David Coulthard, Nigel Mansell, Christian Fittipaldi, Mark Blundell, Heinz-Harald Frentzen
Alain Prost was the main protagonist of the rumor mill for McLaren.
In spite of the inglorious ending of the McLaren-Peugeot cooperation in 1994, the French was on the team’s target for 1995 too.
This time, the burden of his contract with Williams was absent.
Nevertheless, his intentions were similar to what he had shown towards Ligier, in 1992: he would race for McLaren only if he would acquire stocks.
Dennis didn’t succumb, but the French participated in testing with McLaren for a 2nd year.
Hakkinen’s team-mate saga had to do with Williams this year too.
Williams had an option to renew Coulthard’s contract, while having Nigel Mansell on hold.
The latter’s negation to participate in October’s testing at Jerez, led Sir Frank Williams to use Coulthard’s option, something which he did overdue, though.
The Scott had already signed with McLaren and the dead-end couldn’t be solved by any other means than by applying to FIA’s Contract Recognition Board.
The Board ruled in favor of Williams, but there was a further informal agreement between Sir Frank and Ron Dennis that there would be no claims on behalf of the vindicated team for 1996.
Coulthard, therefore, would be driving for McLaren in 1996.
Still, a driver was remaining to be found for 1995.
In contrast to Peugeot, Mercedes wasn’t willing to spend millions to secure the services of a ‘top’ name.
The Germans regarded that Christian Fittipaldi was an ideal solution, insomuch as they were seeking a driver for just a year.
Marlboro however, that hadn’t been persuaded by Emmo’s prompts a year ago, had one and only goal: Nigel Mansell, the driver for whom Dennis had stated that he was never going to race for his team.
‘Fine words butter no parsnips’ as the saying goes and in that case, Dennis had to change his thinking drastically.
Despite the harsh negotiations between the two sides for nearly a month, Marlboro’s catalytic intervention eventually led to a deal: Mansell signed for 1 year with a salary of 10 million dollars and appeared at MP4/10’s presentation.
If the predisposition on the cooperation between Dennis and Mansell was negative, the tests performed by “il leone” made it even worse.
Mansell wouldn’t fit in the very narrow for his dimensions cockpit and the rumors for his absence till a modification was ready were proven true: the test driver Mark Blundell was the one that got behind the second MP4/10’s steering wheel at the first two races of the season.
In Imola, 3rd race of the year, the new cockpit was ready with Mansell making a very bad debut, finishing 10th.
With the relation between Dennis – Mansell being tense, the end of the cooperation seemed to be a matter of time.
McLaren’s announcement after the race of Spain (where they ‘crossed’' the British, stating he chose to retire although there was no mechanical error) alongside the compensation deal, hastened the procedure.
Just after two races, Mansell waved goodbye to McLaren, in an inglorious finale of his big career.
After the Mansell case fiasco, Dennis wanted Sauber’s Heinz Harald Frentzen for a replacement, but the matter ‘stuck’ at the remuneration the Swiss team wanted for the buy-out.
Thus, the Blundell solution was favored, who, eventually, remained for the rest of the season.
1996: Alain Prost, Jan Magnussen
Until the 10th of November 1995, there was no indication we would see a repetition of the drama of the 2 previous on the drivers’ duo.
An announcement by McLaren had come a while ago, in which they confirmed David Coulthard’s arrival.
Meanwhile, Jan Magnussen remained as a test driver, while Alain Prost would complete tests with the team for a 3rd year.
So, what happened on the 10nth of November and overturned the data?
Mika Hakkinen’s following accident during Adelaide’s free practice:
The ‘Flying Fin’ was, luckily, alive, but nobody could foretell the time of his recovery.
The team was willing to wait the Fin, but, since the chances of him not being ready to compete in the first races of 1996 could not be excluded, there should be a reserve driver to replace him.
Prost saw his name featuring for a third year in a row for a possible return to the sport, with rumors flaring when it was announced that he was hired as a special consultant.
The French, however, as had messaged in 1995, wanted shares of McLaren.
It was a period that he was on the lookout for an administrative role, seeking primarily to become the boss of a team.
Dennis was uncompromising, so there was no realistic possibility of a return to action.
Therefore, the choice of Magnussen was preferred, who had debuted at the Pacific GP, in 1995 (replacing Hakkinen, who had undergone surgery for appendicitis) and was highly regarded.
In the end, no replacement was necessary, as Mika recovered on time and his replacement drama had no point.