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Opinion

The McLaren secrets revealed in a 60th birthday celebration

OPINION: McLaren has a history that is the envy of most rival outfits on the Formula 1 grid, and recently celebrated its 60th anniversary with a gathering of esteemed contributors to its success. Autosport was in attendance too, and came away with some intriguing insights

McLaren 60th Anniversary Reunion

McLaren’s impressive development across the 2023 Formula 1 season was a timely boost as the legendary team marked its 60th birthday. It’s not taken a title since 2008, but McLaren is still second on two of the most important F1 metrics: grand prix wins and drivers’ titles.

To celebrate the team’s rich history, a 60th anniversary celebration was organised and co-hosted by former long-term McLaren engineering and design employee Matthew Jeffreys and the team’s former sponsorship coordinator Richard West. Held on 8 November at the Old Thorns Hotel in Liphook, Hampshire, more than 300 past and current employees, many of whom are members of the ‘McLaren Old Boys and Girls Association’, joined guest of honour Ron Dennis for a very special evening. And the organisers kindly allowed Autosport to come along too.

McLaren’s story across F1, Indycar and Can-Am was represented by former staffers stretching back to employee number three Howden Ganley, as well as important relatives, including Amanda McLaren, daughter of founder Bruce, Teddy Mayer’s widow Sally Dean, and Freddie Hunt, son of 1976 world champion James.

Designers Gordon Coppuck, John Barnard, Steve Nichols, Neil Oatley and Adrian Newey – taking time out from penning the next of Red Bull’s dominant line of ground-effect machines – also attended, along with key figures such as Kathy Ojjeh, Jo Ramirez, Ekrem Sami and Martin Whitmarsh. Some may now work for other teams, but their presence underlined the affection they still hold for McLaren.

The Ron Dennis era, which ran from the end of 1980 to 2017, stands as McLaren’s most successful, with 158 of its 183 GP wins, 10 drivers’ titles (of the team’s overall total of 12) and seven constructors’ crowns (of eight). At times during that period, McLaren could seem a pretty cold place from the outside, but the evening proved that the feeling within the camp was very different.

Dennis made a moving speech that many used to his addresses would have been surprised to hear. The stories of others also revealed the care Dennis took to look after his employees when needed. The word ‘family’ was used a lot and it didn’t feel forced, even though there were figures in the room who haven’t always got along.

The reunion showed a different side to Dennis than many would expect

Photo by: Jeffreys/West/Harman

The reunion showed a different side to Dennis than many would expect

John Watson, who scored the Dennis era’s first victory at the 1981 British GP, appeared alongside Barnard to talk about the pioneering approach required to successfully bring carbon fibre to F1 with the MP4/1. And how he inadvertently crash-tested the concept at Monza in 1981!

Top 10: Ranking the greatest McLaren F1 cars 

In an evening full of emotional moments, few were more poignant than when double world champion Mika Hakkinen was on the stage. The Finn, another who is more verbose than most would believe, had already got the room in hysterics with a simple answer to master of ceremonies West’s question of what made McLaren so great during his time there: “Me!”

But Hakkinen, now 55, was taken aback when he was introduced, on stage and for the ‘first’ time, to Dr Jerome Cockings, a modest man who Jeffreys had tracked down some 12 months prior, and with whom he and West had lunched with several months ago to ensure the meeting of the two was handled with sensitivity.

“We knew we had to make sure we got Mika there once we’d spoken to Jerome so it was a nervous 12 months!” Matthew Jeffreys

As first responder, along with colleague Dr Steve Lewis, Cockings was the first on the scene of Hakkinen’s 1995 Australian GP crash and the person who should be credited for saving his life. Their embrace was a strong reminder of the journey Hakkinen had at McLaren and why he’ll forever be one of its favourite drivers.

Top 10: Ranking the greatest McLaren F1 drivers

“You don’t know how someone is going to react to something like that but it was a truly special moment,” says Jeffreys. “We knew we had to make sure we got Mika there once we’d spoken to Jerome so it was a nervous 12 months!”

Similarly powerful was the appearance of Vivian and Bianca Senna. Ayrton’s sister and her daughter appeared on stage, not only to talk about the legendary three-time world champion but also the work of the Senna Institute. The fact that it has helped 35 million Brazilian children (and counting) since 1994 is probably Senna’s greatest legacy.

Elsewhere in the hotel, McLaren MP4/4 chassis 03, driven by both Senna and Alain Prost during the successful 1988 campaign, was also on hand courtesy of current owner Kiklo Spaces. 

Hakkinen was 'introduced' on stage to the first responder who saved his life after his horrible crash at the 1995 Australian GP

Photo by: Sutton Images

Hakkinen was 'introduced' on stage to the first responder who saved his life after his horrible crash at the 1995 Australian GP

Given the way the 2015-17 McLaren-Honda relationship ended and the Japanese firm’s subsequent success with Red Bull, it was impressive to see Toyoharu Tanabe and Michio Kawamoto take to the stage with a ‘message of thanks from Japan’ for the four world title doubles the partnership achieved in 1988-91.

PLUS: How Senna won his greatest F1 title

As well as those in the room, there were video messages from Prost, David Coulthard, Martin Brundle and Mark Blundell, while ever-enthusiastic double F1 word champion Emerson Fittipaldi and engineer Steve Hallam joined live via video link.

Beyond the McLaren history, the Grand Prix Trust and Tyler James Alexander Scholarship were also highlighted. The GP Trust raises money to help F1’s trackside and factory-based personnel put their lives back on track when things go wrong. The newly formed Tyler James Alexander Scholarship, named after the McLaren lifer who died in 2016, will support gifted students for an MSc in motorsport engineering at Cranfield University with race team internships in the UK and United States.

Jeffreys and West agreed that, after so much hard work over the past 13 months, their efforts had been more than repaid in managing to assemble such an incredible group of people from across the globe. “More than anything, seeing so many friends being reunited seems like the greatest achievement,” reckons Jeffreys. Just like the current F1 schedule, they concurred, ‘It’s time for a little break now’.

The busy F1 calendar meant few of the current team’s staff were able to make it. But current McLaren CEO Zak Brown has a lot of enthusiasm and respect for McLaren’s past. Indeed, he told Autosport earlier this year: “This was my favourite team growing up. The fans love our history, our employees love our history.” And a number of the event’s guests were given a tour of the McLaren Technology Centre later that week, underlining the link between past and present.

PLUS: How a passion for the past is driving McLaren’s quest for titles

Brown has been adding to the squad’s resources and facilities in the hope that, under current team principal Andrea Stella, his time at the helm will add more success to McLaren’s illustrious history. There was a strong feeling of support and a desire to see their ‘McLaren family’ back at F1’s sharp end at the Old Thorns event, even if some of those present now work elsewhere in the paddock…

A video of the evening, produced with high quality AV standards by Guy and Tess Ferguson of Multimedia UK Ltd, will be made available on YouTube in December. So too will Jeffreys’ limited-edition artwork prints through his Car_Profile_Art pages on Instagram and Facebook.

Although they now work for rival squads, Newey and Whitmarsh were also in attendance at McLaren's celebration event

Photo by: Jeffreys/West/Harman

Although they now work for rival squads, Newey and Whitmarsh were also in attendance at McLaren's celebration event

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