McLaren M23, the first World Championship car of the English team



The McLaren M23 is the first Formula 1 car of the English team. Designed by Gordon Coppuck with the help of John Barnard, the car comes to life thanks to an intelligent combination of solutions with the M16, a car designed for Indycar racing. The car is inspired by the winning Lotus 72, sharing the same layout and the Cosworth DFV engine, prepared however by Nicholson Engines.


In 1970, when Colin Chapman introduces his creature to the world, suddenly everything that exists on the track right now appears desolately outdated. There are two fundamental innovations of the 72: the wedge-shaped car body, capable of generating a partial aerodynamic load, and the radiators moved to the sides of the chassis, which allow to concentrate the masses around the center of gravity and use a smaller cooling circuit and light.


To these are added other smaller innovations that improve the effectiveness of the car: for the first time the front brakes in board and a rear wing with multiple flaps make their debut, while the suspensions reach a high level of sophistication in the possible adjustments, allowing to make the most of the characteristics of the tires.


Given the performance expressed by Colin Chapman's revolutionary single-seater, it is almost obvious that everyone has thrown themselves headlong into an attempt to replicate its solutions and results, but the prize for the runners-up must certainly be attributed to the McLaren M23. The Woking team is the only one who ideally interprets the themes introduced by the 72, bringing those forms to absolute perfection, and at the same time saving themselves from certain technical complications that had generated a lot of headaches for Lotus itself.


In the early 1970s, the management of the company was very complicated, due to the multiplicity of commitments that McLaren itself had to face, given that in addition to Formula 1, the English team was present in Indy races, in the exaggerated and millionaire Can- Am, and in Formula 5000. A frenetic activity that swallows up huge resources, while at the same time allowing the transfer of knowledge between one formula and another.


The genesis of the M23 begins from one of these transfers, and the author of the curious experiment is the aeronautical engineer Gordon Coppuck, one of the key technical figures of the decade. Former colleague Robin Herd, responsible for the design of the Can-Am and Formula 1 cars, wants him with him in McLaren. And when Herd leaves to go and found March with Max Mosley, Coppuck moves on to work under the guidance of Jo Marquart, only to take over part of the responsibilities in 1971.


Ralph Bellamy is left to design Formula 1, while Gordon focuses on Indy cars, creating the M16 inspired by Colin Chapman's winning Lotus 72. The new car is therefore characterized by a wedge shape capable of generating aerodynamic load, has radiators inserted in the sides, and has the tank in a central position.


The nose is flat and low, and is flanked by two adjustable wing profiles, balanced at the rear by a powerful monoplane wing, supported by a sturdy tubular trellis. The single-seater has a powerful 5815 cubic centimeter Offenhauser, with a power of 710 horsepower.


The Offenhauser represents the classic American racing engine, which however has no load-bearing functions and must be supported and attached to the aluminium monocoque by an auxiliary tubular frame, which guarantees the necessary rigidity to the whole. The gearbox is a three-speed Hewland LG500, which enhances the acceleration qualities more than traditional American two-speed gearboxes.


The new single-seater proves to be as good as the Colt Fords, true dominators of the Indy series of the 70s, and in 1973 it won the Usac title with McCluskey, while in 1974 it won the famous Indianapolis 500 with the very strong American driver Mark Donohue.


At the end of 1971, when the M16 is now ready, Gordon Coppuck is struck by an illumination and combines an M16 chassis with a Cosworth engine and the suspension of the M19 from Formula 1: from this combination the first steps that will lead the team are taken. Englishman to make the new McLaren M23.


In the immediate future, the collage did not follow, but in the following winter Coppuck passed from the design of the cars for the Usac to the Formula 1 single-seaters, and in nine weeks the M23 project took shape. The light and rigid aluminum monocoque of the M16 is the basis of the M23.


The characteristic front nose is integrated into an auxiliary structure that offers more space and passive safety to the driver, and compared to the chassis of the rival Lotus it has less marked shapes, with much more elaborate side wing profiles and delimited by side bulkheads, thus offering greater downforce.


A small outlet placed in a raised position allows you to ventilate the passenger compartment, which is characterized by the considerable advancement towards the front axle. This shift was necessary as it serves to place the large safety tank in the center of the car, which replaces the traditional side cells used on previous single-seaters.


The side boxes are fixed to the sides of the car which convey the air to the water radiators, located at the bottom of the ducts, in front of the rear wheels. These structures represent a step forward compared to those used on the Lotus 72 and on the M16 itself. In fact, their design gives a curious arrow shape to the car's chassis, as well as contributing considerably to the absorption of strong side impacts.


Fixed to the monocoque is the V8 Cosworth with a power of 465 horsepower, which runs at a speed of around 10.500 rpm. The British V8 is powered by an airbox with a generous square mouth, which leaves the heads uncovered and incorporates the protective roll bar.


Unlike the powerful American Offenhausers, the Cosworth has a load-bearing function and is able to withstand the gearbox and suspension without the use of auxiliary frames, effectively saving weight.


The transmission is a conventional five-speed longitudinal Hewland DG 400 unit, and on the sides of the gearbox there is the presence of Lockheed internally ventilated disc brakes.


As already pointed out previously, the suspensions derive from the M19 designed by Ralph Bellamy, and are very innovative as they see the introduction of connecting rods that allow a variable progression suspension.


In the rear area the scheme consists of an upper rocker arm coupled to a lower triangle, vertical shock absorbers in board and anti-roll bar, while at the front the scheme adopts an upper link, a lower triangle, and a strut that acts on the spring-shock absorber group and the anti-roll bar. Suspensions will always represent a critical point for the M23: according to the drivers, the car has its Achilles heel coming out of the corners.


The lack of traction pushes Coppuck to look for solutions that generate an anti-squat effect, anchoring the rear reaction struts higher and higher in order to avoid throwing the car in acceleration. In this way the traction improves, but the braking balance worsens, making it necessary to have an anti-dive system to counteract this behavior.


Another weak point is the lack of agility on the sinuous circuits, which we try to remedy by progressively increasing the wheelbase from the initial 2565 millimeters to the 2743 millimeters achieved in the last evolution of the car in 1976.


The rear monoplane profile stands out for its rationality and cleanliness: now much smaller than the one on the M16 and supported by a faired pillar, demonstrating the care in the design of the aerodynamic parts, offering more than enough load to keep the car glued to the soil. The oil coolers are located on the sides of the support, a completely conventional position for this era.


Already in its general appearance the M23 communicates aerodynamic efficiency and speed. Cared for but not sophisticated, this single-seater has one of its strengths in simplicity, allowing McLaren to sell its frames to smaller teams, and guaranteeing valuable savings in management without sacrificing performance.

1973 season


The car made its debut as early as 1973 with Denny Hulme at the wheel, at the South African Grand Prix. In the South African race, the New Zealand driver immediately won pole position, followed later by fifth place in the race. Over the course of the season the car took three wins, the first with Hulme in Sweden, then with Peter Revson in Great Britain and Canada.



In the same year, the M23 conquers another three third places: one each for Hulme, Revson and Jacky Ickx respectively in the Grand Prix of Great Britain, Italy and Germany, and another eight placements in points, conquering a total of 56 championship points and allowing the English team to settle in third position in the constructors' classification.


1974 season


The following season the fast Brazilian talent Emerson Fittipaldi arrived in McLaren, allowing the English technicians to refine the car using his knowledge of the Lotus 72. The 1974 season was inaugurated with the victory of Denny Hulme in Argentina, followed by the victory of Fittipaldi in Brazil, after having conquered the only pole position of the season.


Over the course of the season, the M23 wins on two more occasions, namely in Belgium and Canada, always with Fittipaldi at the wheel, while Hulme wins a second place in Austria and Hailwood a third place in South Africa. In addition to three seasonal victories, the Brazilian McLaren driver conquers two second places in Great Britain and Italy, and two third places in Spain and the Netherlands, taking the world title with 55 championship points, while McLaren conquers the Championship for the first time World Constructors in 1974 with a total of 75 world championship points.

Season 1975


Further developments of the car are carried out with a view to 1975, including a six-speed gearbox which represents a great novelty for the time: this helps Fittipaldi to fight to the last against Niki Lauda and Ferrari, winning second place at the end of the season. in the drivers' standings, after winning the Argentine and German Grand Prix, and taking four second places in Brazil, Monaco, Italy and the United States, while teammate Jochen Mass takes one victory in Spain and three thirds places in the Grands Prix of Brazil, France and the United States.



At the end of the season, McLaren won a total of 53 points, which earned him third place in the constructors' classification.

1976 season


1976 saw the abandonment of Fittipaldi and his replacement with the exuberant English talent James Hunt. The British driver is able to bring back the drivers' world title in a season characterized by an initial domination by Lauda, ​​at least until his Nürburgring crash, which limits his rise to the Austrian title. Hunt immediately won two poles in the first two races and his first victory in the Spanish Grand Prix, where among other things he also won his third pole in four races.


The English driver also wins on five other occasions: in the Grand Prix of France, Germany, Holland, Canada and the United States of the East, surrounded by a second place in South Africa and a third place in Japan, during which, thanks to the retirement by Niki Lauda the English driver wins the drivers' world championship for the first time with 69 points.


If Hunt manages to be competitive with the now outdated M23, Mass struggles a lot more and over the course of the season only grasps podium finishes, winning two third places in South Africa and Germany, combined by several points finishes in the remaining races. McLaren ended the season in second place in the constructors' standings, with a total of 74 championship points.


Season 1977


The following year McLaren began using the M26 model, which was tested as early as 1976 but never used in the race. However, the M23 is used very frequently, especially in the first part of the season, where Hunt conquers the first three poles of 1977, but never manages to win a race. The best result of the season is taken by the English in Brazil and by Mass in Sweden, finishing in both cases in second place.


In the second part of the season the M23 is used occasionally to run a third driver in addition to the two titles, who now use the M26 permanently. In England the M23 marks the debut in Formula 1 of Gilles Villeneuve, while in Monza it is the turn of Bruno Giacomelli, who is also making his debut in the world championship. The M23 also begins to be used by private pilots such as the Spaniard Emilio de Villota of the Iberia Airlines team, and by the American Brett Lunger of Chesterfield Racing.


Season 1978


In 1978 the car was used by Lunger for Liggett Group/B&S Fabrications in the first part of the season, then a private M23 was also driven by de Villota in the Spanish Grand Prix and by Tony Trimmer in the British Grand Prix with Melchester Racing.


In the second part of the season it is finally entrusted by the Liggett Group/B&S Fabrications to Nelson Piquet who wins an honourable ninth place in the Italian Grand Prix, thus marking the last appearance for the M23 in the world championship race.


The McLaren M23 still remains one of the most successful Formula 1 cars, closing its glorious history with sixteen victories, twenty podiums, fourteen pole positions, ten fastest laps, 258 world championship points and three world titles, including two world drivers. and a world builder.


Andrea Rasponi

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