Like Brabham, McLaren were founded by a driver from “Down Under” – in this case, kiwi Bruce McLaren. McLaren had come second in 1960 and third in 1962 with the Cooper team, but left the team in 1965 to start his own stable, driving first solo and then alongside compatriot Denny Hulme. McLaren took the team’s first win in 1968, and Hulme won two that year and the team’s upward trajectory continued until 1970 when McLaren was killed testing a Can-Am car. Teddy Mayer took over the team and Hulme led the team through a turbulent early 1970s, but by 1974 the success returned, Emerson Fittipaldi taking the team’s first Drivers Championship before leaving for his brother’s new team and being replaced by James Hunt, whose duels with Ferrari’s Niki Lauda were legendary. However, during the late 1970s results dropped off badly. James Hunt was dropped at the end of 1978, to be replaced with Ronnie Peterson but when the Swede was killed at the 1978 Italian Grand Prix, John Watson was drafted in instead. In 1980, the team offered Alain Prost a debut, but his results were disappointing and he left for the Renault team at the end of the year. In September of that year, under pressure from sponsors, Marlboro owners Philip Morris, the team was merged with Formula Two team Project Four Racing (another Philip Morris team) under Ron Dennis, who took over management of McLaren. Their first car, the MP4 (later retrospectively christened the MP4/1) was ready in time for the 1981 season. John Watson was retained, with young charger Andrea de Cesaris coming over from the Marlboro-sponsored Alfa Romeo outfit.
Belfast-born John Watson made his F1 debut in 1973 with two drives in a customer Brabham for the Ceramica Paganossi team and spent the next few years as a journeyman racer bouncing from one privateer team to another before finally landing a full-time drive with Penske in 1976, winning his first race for them at Austria that year. A move to Brabham followed, but he joined the team on a downward spiral and moved on to McLaren in 1979. The 1979 and 1980 McLarens weren’t much better though and Watson made one podium visit in two years, but was consistently the better racer than teammates Tambay and Prost.
Roman Andrea de Cesaris made his name driving karts in Britain before moving into Formula Three and contesting the title with Chico Serra. Ron Dennis’ Project Four team recruited him for Formula Two and in 1980 he got his big break in tragic circumstances. Alfa Romeo driver Patrick Depailler was killed in practice at Hockenheim and was replaced by Vittorio Brambilla but after two races Brambilla’s seat was instead offered to de Cesaris for the last two races of the season. Despite an engine failure in one race and a crash in the other, a combination of his personal Marlboro sponsorship and previous relationship with Ron Dennis gave him a coveted McLaren seat for the 1981 season.