The McLaren M23 is one of a select few F1 cars that have proved true versatility in its time in the sport. McLaren’s weapon of choice between 1973 and 1977, it underwent several iterations and alterations in the half-decade it was used, and achieved the unique feat of delivering Driver’s Championship success in multiple years.
Perhaps surprisingly, the M23’s roots lay at the ovals of Indianapolis, rather than road circuits of Europe. Indeed, the M23 was in fact a direct development of the M16, McLaren’s three-time Indianapolis 500 winner. Equipped with the near-universally standard Ford Cosworth DFV, careful preparation of the V8 engine by Nicholson-McLaren saw the power output of the car reach 490hp.
Introduced for 1973 South African GP, the 3rd round of the season, in the hands of Denny Hulme the car took pole position on its debut, eventually finishing 5th in the race. The potential of the car evident, Hulme and teammate Peter Revson would go on to take three wins with the M23 that year, including a British GP victory for Revson.
LEGENDARY F1 CARS – McLaren M23
By the end of the 1973 season, the car was seen as the fastest in F1, and full of potential. 1972 champion Emerson Fittipaldi had seen enough; he joined McLaren from Lotus for 1974. The combination of the M23’s potential, Fittipaldi’s knowledge of the superb Lotus 72, and the meticulous preparation of the McLaren team was unbeatable.
McLaren won both thier first Driver’s and Constructor’s World Championships that year, Fittipaldi taking 3 wins, and Hulme adding success at the season-opener in Argentina to the tally.
The M23 was to be knocked off its perch in 1975, however, as Ferrari’s brand-new 312T was the class of the field. Fittipaldi would take 2 wins en route to 2nd in the Championship, with German Jochen Mass taking a further win, but Niki Lauda would take 5 of the last 10 races in the dominant Ferrari.
For 1976, Fittipaldi made a shock exit from the team for Copersucar, with Hesketh’s James Hunt replacing him. The revised M23D was more of a match for the Ferrari in 1976, with Hunt taking two wins in the first half of the season. Lauda and Ferrari however, were not just faster, but more reliable, and 4 wins in the first half of the season saw Lauda take a commanding lead in the championship.
Of course, in Germany, fate would intervene, and Lauda’s terrible crash would see him miss the following two raes, despite his tenacity in returning just six weeks later in Italy. His form, however, appeared to be significantly affected, and he would take just one more podium finish. Hunt, however, took wins in the Netherlands, Canada, and the USA, as well as winning at the Nurburgring, to take the championship to the final race in Japan. In appalling conditions, Lauda refused to complete the race, the mental scars from the Nurburgring baring themselves on the world stage. Hunt, too, had his troubles; a late puncture saw him shuffled back, but on new tyres he recovered to take the 3rd place he needed to take the title in dramatic circumstances, completing an incredible comeback.
The win in the USA that year was to be the last for the M23. For 1977, the M26 was introduced, but whilst technically superior, it would never match its esteemed predecessor. By 1981, McLaren had changed in ownership, with Ron Dennis and his Project 4 operation taking over, and turning McLaren into perennial winners. It was the M23, however, that gave birth to McLaren’s winning tradition, at least in F1. Taking 16 wins, it remains one of the greatest cars the sport has ever seen, and has become truly iconic, its beauty synonymous with the sensational 1976 season. It is, quite simply, the original McLaren championship winner.