The History of the McLaren MP4/4 – F1’s Most Dominant Car

In 1988, one car would dominate the world of Formula One racing. It was so fast that after a couple of laps legendary F1 driver Alain Prost told the team principle at the time, Ron Dennis, that the car would win the World Championship.

By the end of the season the French driver would be proven to be correct, with the car winning an incredible 15 out of 16 races, taking both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ titles. This incredible machine was of course the McLaren MP4/4 and here is the complete history behind it.

Origins of the McLaren MP4/4

While compression devices were allowed on Formula One engines from 1960, it wasn’t until the late seventies that a company had any real interest in building one. The first to take the plunge would be Renault with their Gordini V-6 Turbo engine that first appeared at the British Grand Prix in 1977.

By 1980 Renault proved that turbocharging was the way to go. Their engine produced significantly more power than the likes of Ford-Cosworth’s DFV or Ferrari and Alfa Romeo’s naturally aspirated engines.

Over the coming years more manufacturers would produce turbocharged power units for Formula One. From 1982 Brabham fitted their cars with turbocharged in-line four engines from BMW and the next year Alfa Romeo introduced a turbo V8.

Porsche (badged as TAG), Ford-Cosworth and many other small companies would develop turbocharged engines of their own for the racing series, but it was Honda that would go on to create the greatest of these new generation of power units.

Honda returned to Formula One in 1983 as an engine supplier for Spirit, however, they would soon team up with Williams. The new partnership would take its first win at the 1984 Dallas Grand Prix and by the end of the next year it was clear that Honda’s engines were the best in the businesses after Nigel Mansell and Keke Rosberg took the final three wins of the season.

McLaren-Honda Partnership & the 1987 Season

The 1987 McLaren MP4/3

By the mid-1980s McLaren had proven their worth as one the best F1 teams on the grid. They were the first team to introduce a fully carbon fibre monocoque chassis and they had teamed up with Porsche-TAG for their engines. In 1985 they won their third Constructors’ title and the next year Alain Prost and the team would take the Drivers’ title, however, the Honda powered Williams proved to be too much for the Constructors’ title.

Despite being happy with the Drivers’ championship win, Ron Dennis, the team principle of McLaren at the time, could see the writing on the wall. Honda’s engines were clearly a cut above the rest and he and McLaren’s designers realised that they needed to convince the Japanese manufacturer to supply them instead of Williams otherwise their path to success would be made that much more difficult or even impossible.

What they needed to do was to create a car that would show Honda the teams future potential and engineering capabilities. The first pieces of the puzzle fell into place after John Barnard left the team in 1986 to join Ferrari. Steve Nichols was put in charge of the next car’s design and McLaren also hired Brabham’s long-time designer Gordon Murry who took over Barnard’s role as Technical Director.

The low design of the BT55 – This Monaco Grand Prix would prove to be Elio de Angelis’ last race.

For the 1987 season’s car, the direction that McLaren’s designers took was radically different to the V-shaped monocoque seen on the MP4/2. The new design was much more inline with the highly ambitious and radical lowline Brabham BT55 that Murry had created for the 1986 season than anything that McLaren had produced before.

While the BT55 proved to be disastrous for Brabham, Murry believed that the design was correct, and it was actually the BMW engine that was the cause of the team’s troubles. It was thought that as the engine had to be turned 18 degrees from horizontal due to the low design, oil surges were occurring during cornering, harming the engine’s already poor throttle response.

The low-slung design of the MP4/3 proved to be a hit and the TAG powered car managed to win three races during the season and second in the Constructors’ championship behind the mighty Honda powered Williams FW11B.

This was cause for celebration for the McLaren team. Not only did the result manage to convince rising star Ayrton Senna to join the team, but it also managed to persuade Honda to switch its engine supply to them as well.

The 1988 Car’s Design

The body and carbon monocoque structure of the MP4/4

With four months to go until the start of the 1988 season, McLaren still didn’t have a functioning 1988 car. In fact, they didn’t even have the final drawings for their next Formula One machine.

What they did have was a test mule for the Honda engine. This test vehicle was based on the 1987 car and was labelled the MP4/3B. While it never featured in any races, Prost and new team driver Senna spent a significant amount of time taking the thrown together contraption to its limits.

With an extremely tight deadline to meet, McLaren borrowed heavily from the MP4/3B and also based much of the final design on drawings provided by Gordon Murry from his Brabham BT55.

Incredibly, the Woking based team managed to get the car finished on time. One of the keys to their success was their ability to rapidly manufacture and develop the cars bodywork and carbon fibre monocoque.

Unlike other teams at the time they used a male mold instead of a female mold for the carbon monocoque that was combined with a flat panel approach. This not only allowed them to adapt the car’s bodywork more quickly after a mistake or issue was found, but also allowed the use of unidirectional carbon fibre fabric that added strength.

Another key feature of the monocoque design was the drop-in structure referred to as the bathtub. This structure essentially made up the entire cockpit region around the driver and its one-piece design provided further structural integrity and torsional stiffness.

McLaren wrapped the carbon monocoque in a sleek Marlboro liveried body that featured three distinctive aerodynamic configurations. The different aero styles were used to overcome the challenges of the various different types of circuits on the 1988 calendar.

Honda’s 650 – 700 hp turbocharged 1.5-litre V6 RA168E engine in the MP4/4

At the heart of the new McLaren F1 car was Honda’s 650 – 700 hp turbocharged 1.5-litre V6 RA168E engine that was angled just like the engine in the BT55. As requested by Murry, this new engine was lower than its predecessor which allowed Honda to use a compact clutch from Tilton, giving them the ability to lower the crank height by 29mm.

However, while lowering the crank and engine height helped keep weight as low to the ground as possible, there was a problem. The resultant drive shaft angles from the change and the combination of a two-shaft transmission lead to a noticeable power loss.

To help him and the McLaren team solve the problem, Murry turned to Pete Weismann and David North to collaborate on the design of the transmission. They decided on a triple shaft arrangement that would maintain the engine’s low position, while not adversely affecting the driveshaft angles and resultant power. However, this would be a massive risk and in contrast, McLaren’s competitor, Lotus, tried to overcome the problem a different way by slightly tilting the engine upward while maintaining a two-shaft arrangement.

The transmission on the new McLaren was a 6-speed manual arrangement, and, like Honda’s engine, it used a dry sump to improve temperature control, reliability, and the ability to withstand high g-force loads exerted on the car during a race.

A key change for the 1988 season was the FIA’s decision to limit the size of the fuel tank from 195 to 150 litres for turbocharged vehicles. Naturally aspirated cars on the other hand could carry as much as 215 litres of fuel.

While the smaller fuel tank of the MP4/4 did have its disadvantages (fuel conservation to get to the end of the race, etc.), it also had its benefits. McLaren’s designers could lower the profile of the car even further, improving aerodynamic performance and keeping weight even lower down in the vehicle.

The smaller fuel tank and reduced engine height allowed McLaren to make the driver position more reclined than that on previous cars. This new position was also needed to meet FIA regulations that required the top of the driver’s helmet to be below an imaginary line drawn from the top of the roll bar to the top of the cowling. While the taller Senna was more than happy with this position, Prost preferred the slightly more upright position on previous generation cars. Luckily, McLaren was able to accommodate the French driver without any modification to the car’s overall design.

Along with the fuel tank restrictions, the FIA also brought in more handicaps for turbocharged vehicles. They limited boost pressure to 2.5 bar, down from 4 the previous year, and they also gave them a minimum weight handicap of 40 kg over their naturally aspirated competitors

To help recoup any potential losses from the boost pressure restrictions, Honda teamed up with Shell to produce a special blend of fuel that avoided premature detonation. The new fuel had to be preheated due to its exotic hydrocarbon content.

Shell’s new potent mixture helped to deliver a broad torque band that made the 1988 car much more responsive and easier to drive.

The McLaren MP4/4 Takes the F1 World by Storm

Senna on pole at the 1988 Brazilian Grand Prix

The world got its first proper look at the MP4/4 at the Imola racetrack in Italy a week before the start of the 1988 season. From the outset it was clear that McLaren had created a monster. Prost lapped the famous circuit over two seconds faster than the prototype MP4/3B and after a couple of laps he told Dennis that the car would win the season.

At the first event in Brazil Senna would take his first pole for the McLaren team. However, the man lining up beside him would not be his teammate Prost, but Nigel Mansell in his Williams-Judd V8. Prost would start the race in third but would ultimately take the win after Senna’s gear selector broke on the grid.

The Brazilian driver switched to a backup car and stormed back up to second, but he was eventually disqualified as he had done the switch after the green flag had been waved following the warmup lap.

At the next round in San Marino it was clear to see what all McLaren’s competitors had feared. The MP4/4 was utterly dominant with Senna and Prost qualifying a massive three seconds ahead of the Lotus of Nelson Piquet in third, despite it having the same Honda engine as in the McLaren.

By the end of the race Senna and Prost had lapped the entire field, with Prost being just over 2 seconds behind the Brazilian. Both drivers were so quick in their McLarens that they both set faster race laps than any of the other drivers’ qualifying times.

Senna crashes out of the Monaco Grand Prix 1988

Despite McLaren’s dominance, the season was anything but boring. The tension between Senna and Prost was turning out to be incredible.

At Monaco, Prost set the fastest lap during the race. While Senna was in the lead, he couldn’t believe that his teammate had taken the fastest lap from him. He had qualified fastest and dominated the weekend so far and wanted to prove he was the best.

The Brazilian pushed hard and took back the fastest lap, but he had broken his rhythm. With a 50 second lead with 12 laps to go, he hit the wall at Portier and Prost took the win.

Round four in Mexico was much the same as San Marino, but this time one driver managed to stay on the lead lap. Prost would take his second race win in a row, while Senna had to settle for third.

However, despite the massive success, the failure of Piquet’s and Satoru Nakajima’s Honda engines were a cause of concern for McLaren.

Senna at the 1988 Canadian Grand Prix – Credit Paul Lannuier

The next event in Canada saw the first on-track battle for the lead between the two McLaren drivers. Prost won the start, but Senna would out brake him during lap 19 and would end the race five seconds ahead of his teammate.

In Detroit Senna would once again produce a brilliant display of one lap performance. He took his record seventh straight pole position and would once again take victory, with his teammate finishing just over 38 seconds behind. This dominating performance made it six out of six for McLaren.

Prost and Senna produced another brilliant 1-2 in France with the Frenchmen taking the helm for his home Grand Prix. He also managed to break Senna’s incredible run of pole positions, setting a time that was almost half a second faster than his teammate.

A wet British Grand Prix would be the first in a row of four wins for Senna and his MP4/4 with a surprise second place by Nigel Mansell, much to the pleasure of the roaring British crowd. Compared to his Brazilian teammate Prost had a horror race. He was down to ninth by the end of the first lap and he eventually retired due to a misfiring engine and poor handling on the 24th lap.

After a disastrous race in Britain for Prost, Germany would be a return to normal for the French driver and his McLaren team. Senna took the win while Prost claimed second with the MP4/4 once again showing its utter dominance over the field.

At the tenth event in Hungary, Senna secured his 24th pole position, the third highest after legends Jim Clark and Juan Manual Fangio. He backed up his incredible qualifying performance by taking victory over his teammate by just over half a second.

If the next event in Belgium taught Prost one thing it was to not change his set-up at the last minute. The French driver had become annoyed that Senna was copying his set-ups for every race, and Spa was no different.

At the last minute he changed his aero settings to have less wing. He had hoped that this would give him more top-end speed on straights and run from Stavelot to the Bus Stop chicane. Unfortunately for Prost, while he got into the lead at the start, Senna’s higher downforce set-up proved to be the right choice, with him taking victory by half a minute.

Before the Italian Grand Prix, Prost was quoted as saying that it was possible that McLaren would take out a perfect season of sixteen out of sixteen victories. However, he would speak too soon.

At the start of the race it looked like business as usual for the McLaren team. The MP4/4 was massively suited to the high-speed Monza circuit and both Senna and Prost sat on the front row with both Ferraris behind.

Prost managed to win the start, but it quickly became apparent that his Honda engine was misfiring. Senna pulled ahead and Prost, realising that there was a problem, turned the boost down on his car. Unfortunately, this wasn’t enough, and his engine blew up on the lap 35 to roars from the Italian crowd.

With only a handful of laps to go, Senna came up to lap the Williams of Jean-Louis Schlesser, who was standing in for the still unwell Nigel Mansell. Instead of waiting for the long, fast Curve Grande that was up next, the Brazilian driver dived under the Williams at the Rettifilo chicane.

Senna crashes out of the 1988 Italian Grand Prix

While Schlesser moved over to give Senna room, he locked his brakes in the marbles and dust on the edge of the circuit and slid wide. The French stand-in driver corrected the slide, but when he turned in to avoid the gravel trap he was met by the McLaren driver who had not left him enough room to re-join the circuit. The two drivers collided, leaving Senna beached on a curb and out of the race. This would be the teams only double retirement and would prove to be the only chink in McLaren’s perfect year.

The next race in Portugal would be an exciting affair and it would mark a change in the championship lead in favour of Prost. The French driver stormed to his fifth victory of the season, while his teammate would have to settle for sixth after race long handling issues.

Prost would once again take victory at the next event in Spain, while Senna suffered from a broken fuel gauge and an overheating engine. Despite his reliability problems, the Brazilian would manage to come home fourth, however, Prost extended his grip on the championship.

Senna and Prost at the 1988 Japanese Grand Prix

As with many times in the past, the Japanese Grand Prix would see the crowning of a champion. Prost made a superb start, whilst Senna stalled. Luckily, the slight slope on the Suzuka circuit gave Senna a helping hand to restart his McLaren. With nothing to lose and everything to gain, the Brazilian drove like a man possessed.

He knew he could win the championship in Japan and by the end of the lap he had already made up six places. By the fourth lap he was in fourth and then a bit of luck came his way. Rain started to fall, and the wet weather master started to put heat on those in-front.

Senna was soon hot on the heels of Prost and when the pair came to lap some back-markers he managed to pass the Frenchmen. He would go onto set three consecutive fastest laps and would take the win, giving him the championship.

At the last event in Australia McLaren was once again the dominant force on track. Senna claimed his record 13th pole of the year with his teammate just behind. By the end of the race their positions would be swapped after Senna struggled through the race with gear selector problems.

The final race would be a fitting end to the first turbo era in Formula One. With McLaren’s 1-2 and Piquet’s third place finish it gave Honda the top three spots at the last race and showed just how dominant the Japanese manufacturer’s power units were.

Conclusion

The McLaren MP4/4 is without a doubt the most dominant Formula One car over the course of a season. It combined the best of everything to make an unbeatable machine and will forever be remembered in F1 history.

McLaren MP4/4 Specifications

ModelMcLaren MP4/4
Years of Service1988
Layoutmid-engine, longitudinally mounted, rear-wheel drive
Engine                Honda RA168E, 80° V6, turbo (2.5 Bar limited)
Power650–700 hp (485–522 kW) @ 12,500 – 13,000 rpm
Capacity1.5-litre (1,494 cc)
TransmissionWeismann-McLaren 6-Speed manual
ChassisCarbon fibre honeycomb monocoque
Front SuspensionDouble wishbones, pull-rod actuated coil springs and dampers
Rear Suspension Double wishbones, rocker-arm actuated coil springs and dampers
TyresGoodyear

2 thoughts on “The History of the McLaren MP4/4 – F1’s Most Dominant Car”

  1. My name is simon and im a 7th grader writing a paper about mclaren. I am working on the work cited page and my teacher says i need a last name for your article. I cant find it…help! Lol

    Reply
    • Hi Simon, what a great subject to be writing a paper about – much more exciting than what we wrote about at school!

      The last name is “Frost” for the author.

      Reply

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