What made the McLaren MP4/4 special?

Apart from having been piloted by Senna
by Rowan Horncastle | Sep 30, 2018
PHOTO: Top Gear UK

In creating 1988’s MP4/4, McLaren found itself at a once-in-a-generation intersection of technical genius, turbocharged firepower and divine driving talent. Three names stand out: Gordon Murray, Honda and Ayrton Senna, all at the peak of their considerable powers.

Nobody pushed the envelope further than Murray, as he’d just done to 1986’s Brabham BT55. That car had a minimal frontal area, revolutionary aero and a reduced center of gravity, but gremlins in its BMW four-pot hobbled it. Murray brought his low-slung chassis design with him when he arrived at McLaren in 1987, while team boss Ron Dennis was negotiating to replace the ageing TAG-Porsche power unit with championship- winning Honda engines. With Senna switching to McLaren from Lotus, the stage was set for one of the most perfectly choreographed performances in sporting history.

Turbocharging was to be banned from the 1989 season, but rather than focusing on the new 3.5-liter V10, Honda’s RA18E twin-turbo 1.5-liter V6 was a monumental last hurrah. New rules for ’88 had reduced the fuel tank to 150 liters, and turbo boost pressure was lowered from 4.0 bar to a mandated 2.5, changes that should theoretically have favoured McLaren’s non-turbo’d rivals. Instead, the Honda unit’s compact size worked perfectly in the chassis, and was mounted so low that a new gearbox had to be developed. 

Murray, chief designer Steve Nichols and aero man Bob Bell reduced the MP4/4’s frontal area, extended the wheelbase, and simplified the rear wing. The result was as sleek and elegant an F1 car as there’s ever been, so low that the drivers were semi-recumbent inside it. Senna’s teammate Alain Prost grumbled about the driving position, but changed his tune when he realised how much potential the new McLaren had.

Here was the perfect racing car, visionary in design, in the hands of the world’s two best drivers. Only a mistake by Senna in the Italian GP--he tripped up over Jean-Louis Schlesser’s Williams as he attempted to lap him--and an engine failure for Prost in the same race prevented McLaren from winning all 16 rounds of the 1988 World Championship. The domination was offset by the growing rivalry between Senna and Prost, the Brazilian’s desire to win seemingly at all costs at odds with Prost’s silky driving style and less combative style. But in this instance, the car was as much the star as the men who raced it. And given who they were, that’s saying something.

Note: This article first appeared in Top Gear UK's October 2018 issue.

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PHOTO: Top Gear UK
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