McLaren MP4/4 Honda

A success with many "fathers"

For McLaren, Honda, and Ayrton Senna the stars aligned spectacularly during the 1988 Formula 1 World Championship. Together with his then two-time World Champion teammate, Alain Prost, Senna managed to win fifteen out of a possible sixteen Grands Prix, making the McLaren MP4/4 Honda they used the most successful Formula 1 car of all time.

The dominant showing on track was hardly a reflection of the turbulence behind the scenes while the MP4/4 was developed. During the 1986 season, McLaren technical director John Barnard suddenly left the team. This left a skeleton crew, led by Steve Nichols to pick up the slack. Nichols had originally been brought in by Barnard from Hercules Aerospace to create the groundbreaking MP4/1 and MP4/2 Grand Prix cars, pioneering the carbon-fiber composite monocoque chassis.

The design brief of the MP4/4 was to be as low and narrow as possible.

In talented South African designer Gordon Murray, McLaren found a replacement for John Barnard. While working for Brabham, Murray had been responsible for two World Championship winning cars. He joined McLaren in 1987 and served as technical director. His final design for Brabham had been the very low but ultimately unsuccessful BT55. Murray had gone to great extremes to reduce drag by laying down the BMW turbocharged engine nearly flat. The driving position was also further reclined, all in an attempt to get a clean airflow over the car. From an aerodynamics perspective, the concept worked, but tilting over the engine prompted all sorts of reliability issues.

After Barnard’s departure, Nichols together with Neil Oatley designed the MP4/3 for 1987. Like its predecessor, it was powered by the TAG-Porsche twin-turbo V-6 engine but won only three Grands Prix. Compared with the MP4/2 it replaced, the 1987 McLaren was lower and narrower but not quite so extreme as the BT55 had been. This quest for aerodynamic efficiency was prompted by a reduction in the fuel limit for the race and a turbo boost limit of 4.0 bar. Gone were the days when the turbo engines had enough power available to drag wings the size of the proverbial barn door down the straights.

The beauty of the MP4/4 was in its simple but effective lines.

With Formula 1 preparing to go to naturally aspirated 3.5-liter engines only from 1989 onward, the turbocharged engines were further pegged back during their final year. Regulated by an FIA mandated pop-off valve, the boost limit was set to 2.5 bar for the 1988 season. The fuel tanks were also reduced in size from 195 liters in 1987 to 150 liters in 1988. These restrictions prompted McLaren to develop a car that was lower and narrower than the MP4/3. Although Murray has regularly suggested the MP4/4 was the spiritual successor of the BT55, it is more commonly accepted that it was designed by Nichols and his team, and as such was a logical development of the MP4/3.

Another major reason for McLaren to build a new car for 1988 was a change in engine suppliers. The team had managed to secure a deal to run the successful Honda twin-turbo V-6 at the expense of the Williams team. The Japanese engines had served the rival team very well as they won the Constructors’ Trophy in 1986 and 1987, and Nelson Piquet drove the Honda-engined Williams FW11B to the Drivers’ title in 1987. Honda’s sudden departure left Williams to stage their title defense with a naturally aspirated Judd V-8 customer engine.

A MP4/4 next to the Le Mans-winning F1 GTR.

While the earlier designs had a V-shaped bottom half to allow for wider (but long since banned ground-effect tunnels), the carbon-fiber composite monocoque of the MP4/4 had slab sides. This freed up more space low in the chassis for the fuel tank. Placed between the driver and the engine, the tank was shallower and shorter. The latter was a welcome side-effect of the reduction in fuel allocation, as from 1988 onward all new cars had to have the pedal box mounted behind the front axle line to protect the driver’s feet in case of an accident. So compared with the MP4/3, the driver sat slightly farther back in the chassis using the space once used for the larger fuel tank.

More compact than the TAG-Porsche engine, the Honda V-6 fitted in the design philosophy of the MP4/4 nicely. Designated the RA168E, the twin-turbo V-6 was the work of Honda’s Osamu Goto. Even though 1988 would be the last year for the turbos, Goto had designed a new engine rather than adapt the existing RA167E to the new fuel and boost limits. Despite the tightened regulations, the 1.5-liter unit was understood to produce as much as 700 hp at 12,500 rpm. The V-6 was used as a fully stressed member together with the purpose-built, six-speed gearbox. This was designed by David North to fit the engine, which was mounted extremely low in the chassis. The gearbox itself was built by longtime Brabham supplier Weismann.

The tail featured a tall wing and a full-width diffuser.

The front suspension was brand new and consisted of double wishbones with in-board mounted springs and dampers. These were now actuated trough rockers and pull- instead of push-rods. At the rear, the layout was similar with vertical springs and dampers but at this end, the push-rods were used. Responsible for the aerodynamics was Bob Bell. He devised a two-element front wing with tall triangle-shaped end-boards. Like the MP4/3, the new Honda-engined McLaren featured full-length side-pods with the radiator exits on the flanks. The tail featured a tall, three-element wing with a simple diffuser. The complete MP4/4 tipped the scales at the minimum weight of 540 kg.

The final piece of the puzzle for the McLaren team was signing the hugely talented Ayrton Senna ahead of the 1988 season. The young Brazilian had impressed during his debut season with Toleman and then scored his first Grand Prix wins during the 1985 season, driving for Lotus. At McLaren, he was partnered with Alain Prost, who was already a two-time World Champion at the time. This was unquestionably the strongest driver lineup in the field. Rival Ferrari opted to run an updated version of the car that had won the final two races of 1987. On paper, the only other opposition would come from Lotus, who had also built a new car for 1988, were also supplied by Honda, and had signed three-time World Champion Nelson Piquet to replace Senna.

The MP4/4 ran on Speedline wheels shod with Goodyear Eagle rubber.

While Ferrari had impressed during pre-season testing, it was Senna who clinched the pole-position for the season opening Brazilian Grand Prix. Nigel Mansell was second in his Williams, just ahead of Prost. On the parade lap to the grid, the gear selector mechanism on Senna’s MP4/4 broke, leaving him stuck in first gear. The start was aborted, allowing Senna to jump in the spare car and start from the pit lane. He quickly moved up the field and was in the points when he was black flagged and disqualified for making an illegal car change. There were no such issues for Prost, who grabbed the lead from the start, made his one pit-stop without losing the lead, and scored a commanding victory.

The performance of the MP4/4 Honda in Brazil was indicative of what was to come: a fight between Prost and Senna for the World Championship. Over a single lap, there was very little the Frenchman could do against Senna, who qualified on pole position a startling thirteen times in the sixteen Grands Prix. The Brazilian’s performance at Monaco was particularly remarkable; he beat teammate Prost by a stunning 1.4 seconds while Gerhard Berger was third for Ferrari a further 1.2 seconds behind. Prost was more consistent and his legendary race-craft left him in contention for most of the season. The regulations did not favor consistency, as only the eleven best results out of sixteen contributed to the final standings.

The rectangular monocoque with the inboard-mounted front spring and damper.

By the Italian Grand Prix, Prost realized he was in trouble, as Senna had won seven Grands Prix to Prost’s four. A victory would be crucial to keep his title bid alive. It would turn out quite differently for the McLaren team in front of the tifosi. The passionate Italian fans were still mourning Enzo Ferrari, who had passed away a month earlier. It was business as usual in qualifying, with Senna beating Prost by three tenths. The Ferraris of Berger and Michele Alboreto lined up in third and fourth. Prost saw his hopes of a third World Championship fade away in the race after a rare engine failure. Senna then famously made a mess of passing back-marker Jean-Louis Schlesser in a Williams. With the Brazilian also out of the race, the path was clear for Berger and Alboreto to score an emotional one-two victory for the Ferrari team.

The order was restored at the subsequent Portuguese Grand Prix, where Prost managed to grab one of his three pole positions and win the race. He would also win two of the final three of the year but it was not enough to beat teammate Senna in the standings. The final score was ninety for the Brazilian and eighty-seven for the Frenchman with the five poorest results eliminated. For Prost that meant three second place finishes had to be scratched, and although Senna was crowned World Champion, Prost had scored more points in total. McLaren scored 199 points, which was two shy of beating the entire field combined. Ferrari was best of the rest, while Lotus was only fourth as their Honda-engined 100T had proven very difficult to drive.

Even though it was pegged back, there was no match for the twin-turbo Honda V6.

What is perhaps most impressive of McLaren’s and Honda’s dominance during 1988, is that it did not come at the expense of the the preparations for the 1989 season despite the extensive rule changes. Such was the depth of talent at McLaren that it could afford to let Neil Oatley design the MP4/5 while the rest of the team was still focusing on the MP4/4. To some extent the MP4/5 was a further evolution of the same design philosophy. It was powered by an all-new, naturally aspirated Honda V-10 engine that once again was the work of Osamu Goto. It was raced again by Senna and Prost in what was an ever deepening rivalry. This time, it was Prost who came out on top and he left to join Ferrari the following year. In 1990, Senna used a subtly updated MP4/5B to win his second drivers’ title for McLaren.

McLaren and Honda would win again in 1991 but the performance was never quite as dominant as displayed by the MP4/4 during the 1988 season. Not surprisingly, the McLaren MP4/4 Honda was voted the greatest Formula 1 car of all time by a panel of Formula 1 engineers and designers. “Success has many fathers” the saying goes, and both Nichols and Murray have been involved in a rather public spat over who actually designed the car. The commonly held perception, also based on the stories of period McLaren employees, is that Nichols did indeed design the car and that Murray contributed to the success in his role technical director.

Today, all six MP4/4s constructed are accounted for with three cars still owned by McLaren, who have only a single engine. A fourth is part of the Honda collection and is also fully functional and is regularly demonstrated. Two examples are now owned by private enthusiasts and at least one is also in full running order.