On the occasion of McLaren’s historic 150th pole position in World Championship Formula 1 racing, eight senior Woking men answer the question “Do you remember your first time?”
Team principal, Vodafone McLaren Mercedes
“I joined McLaren in 1989, and my first race with the team was in 1990. It was the US Grand Prix in Phoenix, an unusual place to hold a Formula 1 race – but it was a very successful event for the team. Gerhard Berger took pole position on his McLaren debut, outclassing Ayrton Senna – which was a great achievement. However, Ayrton went on to take victory, following a memorable dice with Jean Alesi in the anhedral-nosed Tyrrell. It was a pretty good race with which to start my McLaren career!”
“It was the 2001 San Marino Grand Prix. I’d only recently started and we were putting Ferrari under a lot of pressure to hold on to their dominance. David [Coulthard] had won in Brazil a fortnight earlier and we were looking good at Imola, David taking pole position and leading an all-McLaren-Mercedes front row with Mika [Hakkinen] second. Ralf Schumacher took his first grand prix victory on the Sunday and we only finished second and fourth in the race, with David once again leading us home, but those were exciting times for me.”
Director of engineering
“I joined McLaren Racing on June 6 1990, so my first race as a member of the team was the 1990 Canadian Grand Prix. Those were fantastic days for the team: Ayrton put MP4-5B on pole and Gerhard backed him by qualifying second. It was a pretty chaotic, wet race, won by Ayrton – I don’t remember too much about those early years, but I almost certainly came into the factory and watched the race from there, as I tended to do that back then.”
“The first pole position after I arrived at McLaren in June 1993 was at the final race of the year in Adelaide, Australia. After a difficult year, it was McLaren and Ayrton’s only pole of the season. Of course, it also became Ayrton’s last grand prix win.
“The significance for me was that I’d arrived at McLaren from Williams and had been fortunate enough to have been able to identify and develop some immediate performance gains, leading a team developing a powered brake-assistance system worth up to one second per lap. Despite knowing it would be banned for 1994, we got it onto the car for the final three races, scoring a win at Suzuka and pole and victory in Australia.
“I still feel very privileged and proud to have been able to work with Ayrton so briefly, yet to have contributed to his final pole and victory.”
Director of design and development programmes
“My first McLaren grand prix pole position was also McLaren’s first-ever grand prix pole – albeit watched from the grandstands at Paddock Hill Bend as a young(-ish) schoolboy who’d cycled to Brands Hatch to watch the 1968 Race of Champions!
“On that day, Bruce McLaren took the honours – but it was followed a few weeks later by Denny Hulme winning the Daily Express race at Silverstone, and Bruce taking the team’s first Formula 1 victory at Spa. An exhilarating time for the team.
“My first McLaren pole as a team member was in 1988, when we took 15 of the 16 poles. As Alain Prost’s race engineer, we only scored two of these – at Paul Ricard and Estoril – but the achievement in Portugal was particularly memorable.
“For some reason, Ayrton was perhaps a little off form and Alain set a pretty impressive lap time on Saturday less than halfway through the session. Afterwards, he leapt straight out of the car and disappeared into the truck, emerging five minutes later in his civvies and proceeded to walk across to talk to me on the pitwall.
“All the time, he kept looking directly back into Ayrton’s garage, merely adding to the mind games. It was just the sort of situation Ayrton had trouble coping with – and it all boiled over on race day as they ran side by side along the pit straight at the beginning of the race. Those were unforgettable times.”
Principal race engineer
“I’d joined the race team in December 1997, so the opening race of the ’98 season was my first race as assistant race engineer, working with Mika Hakkinen in Melbourne.
“After an encouraging series of winter tests, we knew the MP4-13 had good pace, but the margin we held over the others in qualifying was perhaps greater than we’d expected: we were 0.7s faster than Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari.
“Mika took the pole from David [Coulthard] and, despite some miscommunication between the drivers, the race was also exceptional. Both our cars lapped the entire field.
“Being my first race, I thought it was easy! However, I’ve been trying to develop a car with such dominant pace ever since…”
Race engineer, Jenson Button
The first time a car that I’d directly worked on took pole was at Silverstone in 2008 – and it was Heikki Kovalainen at the wheel of MP4-23.
“In Q1 he dominated the times, finishing 0.3s ahead of Lewis. In Q2, he continued to push hard and built momentum. As we prepared the car for Q3, we thought we’d possibly have a chance of pole but we expected Lewis – in front of his home crowd – to be exceptionally quick.
“As it happened, with only marginally less fuel onboard than Lewis, Heikki put it on pole by more than 0.5s, finishing fastest in every sector. We could have carried fuel for six more laps and still have been on pole.
“It was a stunning lap and a great example of driver and car being in perfect harmony. Heikki later commented that the lap didn’t feel that quick – but this was simply because he drove impeccably and the car responded faultlessly to every one of his inputs. A fantastic achievement and a terrific feeling.”
Race engineer, Lewis Hamilton
“My first pole for a car I was working on was when I was an assistant engineer on Kimi Raikkonen’s car at the 2005 San Marino Grand Prix.
“Back then, qualifying was an aggregate of a low-fuel and a high-fuel run. After Q1, it was very tight between us and Fernando Alonso. With race fuel in the car, Kimi then went 0.5s quicker, so I remember us feeling pretty confident for the race I remember. Unfortunately, a driveshaft failure on lap eight brought that feeling to an abrupt end.
“My first pole as a race engineer was in Montreal in 2010 with Lewis. He was fastest in every qualifying session and proved again just how much he likes the Canada circuit. I remember there being some discussion after qualifying about how long the tyres would last because we had qualified using the Option, and Red Bull, just behind us, had chosen the Prime.
“A slightly nervous night was followed by a great race from Lewis, who overtook Fernando Alonso in the second stint and then led the rest of the race.”
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