Top 10 McLaren F1 cars ranked: M23, MP4/4 and more

Top 10 McLaren F1 cars ranked: M23, MP4/4 and more

02/12/2021

McLaren has taken eight constructors’ and 12 drivers’ championships since it arrived in F1 in 1966. But from such esteemed company, which is its best car? Lucy Rimmer and Kevin Turner pick out the best of the best

McLaren has not won a Formula 1 race since 2012 but remains one of the most successful teams in the championship’s history.

Its 182 victories put it second only to Ferrari, and McLaren has taken eight constructors’ and 12 drivers’ championships since it arrived in F1 in 1966.

That means there are plenty of great machines to choose from when picking out McLaren’s 10 best F1 cars. Here’s our selection, taking into account each car’s success, innovation and how cool we think it is.

10. McLaren-Mercedes MP4-20

Juan Pablo Montoya, McLaren MP4-20 Mercedes

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Year: 2005
Wins: 10
Drivers’ titles: 0
Constructors’ titles: 0

The fight for 10th spot was between two fast-but-flawed McLarens: the 2005 MP4-20 and the MP4-27 of 2012. In the end it has to go to the earlier car, partly because it had a bigger pace advantage over the opposition, partly because it got closer to winning a title, and also because its failure didn’t lead to the team losing Lewis Hamilton…

The switch to no-tyre stop rules and revised aero regulations for 2005 caught out the era’s dominant force, Ferrari. Adrian Newey’s MP4-20 was usually the fastest car of the season, particularly once the team had got on top of it after the early races.

But McLaren was always playing catch-up to Fernando Alonso and Renault. A combination of McLaren unreliability and a brilliant campaign from Alonso meant that the Spaniard beat Kimi Raikkonen to the drivers’ title.

The constructors’ fight was even closer, Juan Pablo Montoya being stronger than Renault number two Giancarlo Fisichella. But McLaren lost out by nine points after Alonso blitzed the Chinese Grand Prix finale, while Montoya retired after striking an errant drain cover.

The MP4-20 nevertheless scored 10 wins from 19 races and is recalled as one of F1’s best cars not to win the title.

9. McLaren-Honda MP4/6

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-6 Honda

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Year: 1991
Wins: 8
Drivers’ titles: 1 (Ayrton Senna, 1991)
Constructors’ titles: 1 (1991)

The MP4/6 started 1991 with four straight wins, but the campaign was not plain sailing for McLaren and Ayrton Senna.

For much of the middle of the season, Senna’s MP4/6 had reliability issues, increasing fuel consumption as Honda developed its V12 engine causing the Brazilian to run out of fuel at Silverstone and Hockenheim.

Perhaps more worryingly, the Williams-Renault combination came on strong. The FW14 was the better race car for much of the season, though gearbox issues and team errors meant Williams didn’t always make the most of it.

McLaren and Honda responded strongly, Senna brilliantly taking pole and winning the Hungarian GP in August, then fortuitously winning in Belgium. McLaren outpaced Williams in Japanese GP qualifying and, when Nigel Mansell went off in his Williams, Senna’s title was confirmed. He then handed the Suzuka win to teammate Gerhard Berger.

McLaren won the constructors’ title by 14 points and the MP4/6 was the last F1 car to win the world championship using a V12 engine or manual transmission.

8. McLaren-Mercedes MP4-22

Fernando Alonso, McLaren Mercedes MP4/22

Photo by: Sutton Images

Year: 2007
Wins: 8
Drivers’ titles: 0
Constructors’ titles: 0

The success of the MP4-22 is somewhat tainted by the ‘Spygate’ scandal, in which McLaren was found guilty of benefiting from secret Ferrari technical information. This resulted in a record $100million fine and McLaren being kicked out of the constructors’ championship.

But, on-track, the car delivered. It won eight of the season’s 17 races and outscored chief rival Ferrari. Only exclusion prevented it taking the constructors’ crown and it was both quicker compared to rivals and scored more wins than the MP4-23 with which Hamilton took his first drivers’ crown in 2008.

The 2007 drivers’ title was lost partly due to the rivalry between reigning world champion Alonso and rookie Hamilton, who both scored 109 points and were beaten by Ferrari’s Raikkonen on 110.

The MP4-22 was very reliable, provided a solid foundation for a rookie to make an immediate impact on F1, and there was not a single race in which at least one of the cars didn’t make the podium. It has a strong case for being one of the greatest McLarens not to win a title.

7. McLaren-Mercedes MP4-14

Mika Hakkinen, McLaren MP4-14 Mercedes

Photo by: Rainer W. Schlegelmilch

Year: 1999
Wins: 7
Drivers’ titles: 1 (Mika Hakkinen, 1999)
Constructors’ titles: 0

At the launch of the MP4-14, team boss Ron Dennis described the car as a representation of “the biggest single step we felt we could take for 1999 with perhaps the smallest ever percentage of carry-over components from last year’s car”. However, due to the intricate design of the car, and this low percentage of carry-over components, a lot of the year was spent fixing teething problems.

The season started disappointingly, with both cars dropping out of the Australian season opener despite locking out the front row. It set the theme for the season. The MP4-14 was comfortably the quickest car of the season – as proved by 11 poles from 16 races – but a range of problems, from driver errors to a wheel falling off Mika Hakkinen’s car at Silverstone, kept Ferrari in contention.

Despite Michael Schumacher missing six races following his leg-breaking British GP crash, Ferrari took the constructors’ crown, though Hakkinen did beat Eddie Irvine to the drivers’ title.

6. McLaren-Ford MP4/1

Niki Lauda, McLaren MP4/1B-Ford

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Years: 1981-83
Wins: 6
Drivers’ titles: 0
Constructors’ titles: 0

McLaren was struggling badly when it merged with the Project Four Racing F2 team and it did not take long for Dennis and his team to make an impact. Designer John Barnard’s MP4/1 not only took the team back to the front, it was innovative.

The MP4/1 had the first fully carbon composite F1 monocoque. Stiffer, lighter and safer than conventional chassis, carbonfibre would soon become de rigueur in single-seater racing.

John Watson’s 140mph crash at Monza in 1981, which he was able to walk away from, underlined the car’s strength and it was also a winner. Watson’s popular 1981 British GP success was McLaren’s first for four years and he went on to finish just five points behind world champion Keke Rosberg in a dramatic 1982 season.

The MP4/1 never won a title but Watson and Niki Lauda won six races across a three-year period.

The car also launched McLaren’s most-successful era and was a design milestone for F1.

5. McLaren-Honda MP4/5

Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-5 Honda, Alain Prost, McLaren MP4-5 Honda

Photo by: Ercole Colombo

Years: 1989-90
Wins: 16
Drivers’ titles: 2 (Alain Prost 1989, Ayrton Senna 1990)
Constructors’ titles: 2 (1989-90)

McLaren’s 1989 season is best remembered for the increasingly toxic relationship between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, their Suzuka clash and the subsequent controversy. And that tends to overshadow the fact that the MP4/5 was another great McLaren.

In raw pace terms, it was almost as far ahead of rivals as its fabled predecessor, the MP4/4, but it wasn’t as reliable. Engine and transmission issues – and some incidents – limited the MP4/5 to ‘only’ 10 wins from 16 races as McLaren stormed to another title double.

The revised MP4/5B faced tougher opposition from Ferrari (now with Prost in red) but its powerful Honda V10 engine, not to mention another controversial Senna-Prost crash at Suzuka, helped McLaren to another title double.

The model’s final tally was 16 wins and 27 poles from 32 outings, along with four championship successes, scored at a time when McLaren’s opposition was getting stronger.

4. McLaren-Mercedes MP4-13

David Coulthard, McLaren MP4-13

Photo by: Sutton Images

Year: 1998
Wins: 9
Drivers’ titles: 1 (Mika Hakkinen, 1998)
Constructors’ titles: 1 (1998)

In 1998, McLaren and Ferrari were truly in a class of their own. McLaren took the constructors’ title with 156 points to Ferrari’s 133, while the rest of the field only managed 127 points between them.

The MP4-13 was the first McLaren designed by Newey and, after lapping the opposition in the first race of the season, it was met with increased scrutiny. Despite the FIA giving McLaren the all-clear during winter testing for the asymmetric braking system, following campaigning from Ferrari, the braking system was deemed illegal, and the brakes were removed from the car.

Despite that, McLaren remained the dominant force in the first year of the narrow-car, grooved-tyres regulations. The MP4-13 took 12 of the first 13 poles of the season and ultimately ended the team’s seven-year wait for a title, Hakkinen adding the drivers’ laurels to the constructors’ success.

3. McLaren-Honda MP4/4

Alain Prost, McLaren MP4-4 Honda, Ayrton Senna, McLaren MP4-4 Honda, Gerhard Berger, Ferrari F1/87-88C

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Year: 1988
Wins: 15
Drivers’ titles: 1 (Ayrton Senna, 1988)
Constructors’ titles: 1 (1988)

A fan favourite and possibly the most famous of all McLarens, the MP4/4 won 15 from 16 races in 1988, with Senna and Prost fighting an epic title battle well clear of the rest.

The Honda-powered car’s raw pace advantage was greater than any other McLaren in world championship history and was beaten to pole only once. Its efficiency in races was rarely matched and it was reliable, scoring 10 1-2s.

Senna’s drive to clinch his first title at Suzuka was also one of his greatest.

The only reasons the MP4/4 isn’t higher on this list are that the opposition was weak – reigning champion Williams in particular being hamstrung by naturally aspirated Judd V8 power – and it wasn’t particularly innovative, turbo cars being outlawed for 1989.

Nevertheless, Neil Trundle, former chief mechanic to Senna, insists the MP4/4 is “the perfect package, still the lowest and sleekest looking car on display at the HQ”.

2. McLaren-Ford M23

Emerson Fittipaldi, McLaren M23

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Years: 1973-77
Wins: 16
Drivers’ titles: 2 (Emerson Fittipaldi 1974, James Hunt 1976)
Constructors’ titles: 1 (1974)

The first McLaren to win an F1 crown, the M23 took 16 victories and three championships in its long career. If you include its non-championship wins, it is the second most successful F1 McLaren and is certainly one of the most significant.

Designer Gordon Coppuck applied Colin Chapman’s thinking with the Lotus 72 – wedge shape and side radiators – and experience from his McLaren M16 Indycar to create the M23, which took a sensational pole on its debut in the hands of Denny Hulme.

The M23 should perhaps have won more races during its first season in 1973 but the arrival of Emerson Fittipaldi the following year raised the team’s game. Combined with bad luck for the revitalised Ferrari, that was enough to secure both championships in 1974.

Ferrari got its act together in 1975 but there was still time for another title challenge with the M23. After Fittipaldi left, the rapid James Hunt stepped in and took a dramatic drivers’ crown in 1976 following an epic battle with Lauda (Ferrari). And Hunt took the ageing car to two poles early on in 1977.

1. McLaren-TAG MP4/2

Niki Lauda, McLaren MP4-2 TAG

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Years: 1984-86
Wins: 22
Drivers’ titles: 3 (Niki Lauda 1984, Alain Prost 1985-86)
Constructors’ titles: 2 (1984-85)

The perfect combination of Barnard’s carbonfibre monocoque and ‘Coke bottle’ design, the TAG-badged Porsche engine, fuel management system by Bosch, and tyres from Michelin resulted in McLaren’s first period of true F1 domination.

Everything learned from the MP4/1 was incorporated into the design, Dennis had persuaded Porsche to re-enter F1, and there was backing from Marlboro.

Lauda and Prost put on a private contest for the 1984 world title, scoring 12 wins from 16 races as the Austrian famously beat his younger French teammate to the title by half a point.

The package, developed over a three-year period, took both titles again in 1985 (now with Goodyear rubber) and was still good enough in 1986 for Prost to score a superb second drivers’ crown against the more rapid Williams-Hondas.

The MP4/2’s final tally of 22 grand prix victories and five championships is unmatched in McLaren’s history.


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