Adrian Newey has been hailed as a genius in terms of designing Formula One cars and his record of championships is something to be marvelled at. But he is only human after all, and hasn’t always created gold from his drawing board. Rewind back to the start of the 2003 season, and the development of Mclaren’s challenger for that season, and you’ll find a car that not only was troubled from the outset, but eventually never raced in anger at all.
The mandate from Ron Dennis was simple – a radical approach to design was needed to beat the all-conquering Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. The Italian team had sown up the previous season’s trophies before the end of the European summer, prompting most of their main rivals to hunker away during the winter and rack their brains. McLaren had Newey in their corner – what could go wrong?
Well, quite a bit actually.
The initial build of the MP4-18 followed the usual trademarks of an Adrian Newey design. It was compact and tightly packaged, but done in such an extreme way that it was hard to get to the gearbox and engine without having to remove significant parts of the suspension.
The front of the car was also an area of interest from onlookers. The nose was slung low and the front wing jutted out past the low tip. If you want to see the original “ant-eater” design, this was it.
Maximising airflow was the overall aim and the slim sidepods helped sculp the air, coupled with the positioning of the exhausts, onto the rear diffuser to improve rear grip. A decade before he mastered the art at Red Bull, Newey had started to dip his toes into this area of car development
The complexity of the design proved to be the McLaren’s Achilles heel right from the word go. The team’s mechanics lamented the hard work needed to dismantle the suspension to get to the damaged components, usually caused by overheating due to the compact nature of the engine and gearbox.
The elaborate sidepods proved to be too fragile in design, leading to failures of the mandatory FIA crash tests not once, but twice, delaying its initial race debut and leaving McLaren in a pickle – one that was eventually resolved by the initiation of developing the 2002 car, that MP4-17, for the first few races at least.
It was a decision that wasn’t that out of the ordinary. Only 12 months previously Ferrari had implemented the same idea and gone on to dominate the season, and had planned to do the same for 2003. The additional time to develop their car had paid dividends, so McLaren knew that this was a viable option.
Initially, it was deemed a masterstroke. David Coulthard won the season opener in Australia and Kimi Raikkonen followed suit in Malaysia for his maiden victory a fortnight later.
By this time it had been decided that the new car would debut in Austria, the 6th race of the campaign. Raikkonen was leading the championship by 4 points and was regularly on the podium (four from the first five races, to be exact.). But the MP4-18 was still being problematic in terms of completing race distances without overheating it’s gearbox, and it was pushed back until after race 8, in Canada.
But in the days leading up to the race, Alex Wurz suffered a heavy crash in testing at Jerez, which he followed up with an even bigger shunt 10 days later. The MP4-18’s first race was again pushed back as the team looked to get to the bottom of its gremlins. In the meantime, Raikkonen lost the championship lead to Michael Schumacher after a poor showing in Montreal.
As the weeks turned into months, Ferrari started to flex its muscles with its brand new F2003-GA. Schumacher started to dominate race weekend with Kimi only managing to keep in touch thanks to some heroic efforts. The Williams duo of Ralf Schumacher and Juan-Pablo Montoya also became a factor as the season developed.
By August a decision had to be made. The team ran Alex Wurz in the car and the Austrian managed an impressive 330km in the car, but the internal temperatures of the gearbox topped 120 degrees and caused delamination of the heat-resistant coating. The game was up – Ron Dennis decided that the car would not race at all and would form the basis of the 2004 car.
The team struggled on, and Kimi Raikkonen still continued to impress. The Finn took the title fight down to the wire in a car that was, in essence, a year old, just missing out on the Drivers Championship to Michael Schumacher by just two points.
By this time the cracks had started to appear in the Dennis-Newey relationship. Both denied the rumours, but a few years later Adrian left McLaren to join the newly formed Red Bull outfit that had bought Jaguar.
And the rest, as they say, is history.