French Disconnection - 1994 McLaren MP4/9 Peugeot

2y ago

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By mid-1993 the McLaren Formula 1 team was in bad shape. Their immensely successful partnership with Honda had ended in 1992 due to an economic recession, and with it their competitiveness waned. Forced to use the inferior Ford HBD V8 in 1993, the team slowly lost their edge. Superstar driver Ayrton Senna managed to elevate the mediocre MP4/8 through sheer skill, scoring four victories and 2nd overall in the championship, but the message was clear. In order to keep challenging the much more powerful Renault V10 Williams a change had to be made for 1994.

To make matters worse McLaren lost Senna to Williams for the 1994 season, as the Brazilian wished to race in the most competitive team in the field. Young Fin Mika Häkkinen had featured as Senna’s team mate for the final three rounds of the 1993 season as the disillusioned American Michael Andretti quit F1 before the end of the season. Häkkinen opted to stay with McLaren for a second year. The experienced Brit Martin Brundle was drafted in at the last second to replace Senna after the retiring Alain Prost had declined an offer from McLaren.

The French V10 promised an improvement in straight line performance.

The team’s 1993 engine supplier, Ford, had been unable to give them their most competitive engines for most of the season due to a pre-existing contract with Bennetton. Frustrated with the lack of power compared to Bennetton’s advanced development engines and the Renault V10’s, McLaren hastily sought out an alternative.

After a promising test in september 1993 of Lamborghini’s improved 3512 3.5L V12 which enthused both Senna and Häkkinen, McLaren’s chief Ron Dennis made a suprise deal with Peugeot. Senna left the team beforehand, and is said to have had some serious doubts about the French engine.

The Peugeot V10 as mounted to the MP4/9 chassis.

The A4 3.5L V10 was descended from Peugeot’s highly successful 905 Group C project, dominating the World Sportscar Championship and winning Le Mans in both 1992 and 1993. The engine regulations for Group C had been equalized with Formula 1 in 1991, to entice big manufacturers operating in the more popular Group C category to build more expensive F1 engines and enter their own teams, effectively destroying the WSC by 1993. Ayrton Senna reportedly questioned the endurance engine’s capability to withstand the high-strung savagery of an all-out Formula 1 sprint race.

Preceding versions of the engine had powered Peugeot to two consecutive Le Mans victories in 1992 and 1993.

Nonetheless the program proceeded without Senna. Designer Neil Oatley fashioned a new chassis around the 700 horsepower A4 powerplant, which was mated to a 6-speed semi-automatic transmission developed with technological partner TAG. The Ford HBD V8 used in the MP4/8 produced 680 horsepower, making the Peugeot little better.

In contrast the Lamborghini V12 used in 1993 testing produced around 760 horsepower, on par with the Renaults, making it seem the better option. Regulation changes for 1994 had banned the multitude of electronic driver aids so dominant in the previous years. The active suspension, traction control and power-assisted ABS brakes of the MP4/8 were by now all history.

The reveal of the Peugeot-powered MP4/9 on January 28, 1994. No driver had yet been signed to partner Mika Häkkinen.

Peugeot had initially brought in Philippe Ailliot, their star Group C driver, to partner Häkkinen in the second car. Ron Dennis was not in the mood for this at all as he disliked Ailliot and favored Martin Brundle. Ailliot had been competing in various back-marking F1-teams since 1984, and made a name for himself as a fast crasher. Dennis put his foot down to relegate the unreliable Frenchman to testing duties

Mika Häkkinen flaming out of the French Grand Prix, Magny Cours 1994.

The first round of the 1994 season took place at Interlagos, Brazil. The speed promised by the new engine failed to materialize, as Häkkinen qualified a disappointing 8th. Brundle was down in a dramatic 18th position on the grid. Häkkinen’s engine blew up after just 8 laps.

On lap 34, Brundle was taken out by a violent 4-car shunt caused by Jordan driver Eddie Irvine (GB) forcing rookie Bennetton pilot Jos Verstappen (NED) on the grass while lapping the Ligier of Éric Bernard (FRA). Verstappen was launched into the back of Brundle, ruining the day for both men.

For the second round F1 would move to the Pacific Grand Prix held at Aida, Japan. Häkkinen and Brundle improved considerably in qualifying, scoring 4th and 6th respectively. History repeated itself however, as Häkkinen was stranded with a broken gearbox after 19 laps, and Brundle’s V10 overheated on lap 67.

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Brundle being vicitimized, Brazil 1994.

At Imola both cars finally reached the finish. Häkkinen continued to lead the McLaren effort in 8th, with Brundle down in 13th. Sadly, the team’s minor success was greatly overshadowed by the tragic death of Austrian rookie Roland Ratzenberger and McLaren’s beloved champion Ayrton Senna.

Trying to move on despite the tragedy, McLaren set course for Monaco. Peugeot had in the meantime tried to tackle the disastrous reliability problems and disappointing performance of the A4 engine, introducing the improved 760 horsepower A6.

Performance was duly improved, as the cars scored 2nd (Häkkinen) and 8th (Brundle) on the grid. Unfortunately a start crash involving Williams’ Damon Hill (GB), Footwork-driver Gianni Morbidelli (ITA) and Pierluigi Martini’s Minardi quickly stifled the Fin’s good spirit. Martin Brundle however drove like he truly did steal it, and finished an amazing 2nd behind Bennetton ace Michael Schumacher.

Martin Brundle excelling at Monaco.

At the Spanish Grand Prix the new A6 engine showed its true face. Häkkinen’s example exploded after 48 laps, and Brundle followed suit on lap 59, still classified as 11th. Montreal saw Martin Brundle out after just 3 full laps with electrical issues, while his team mate once again enjoyed the Peugeot’s built-in fireworks on lap 61.

Qualifying speed had dropped sharply down to mid field again, and reliability was virtually non-existent. The French Grand Prix ended in a similar disaster with both engines expiring. Brundle’s on lap 29, and Häkkinen on lap 48.

Häkkinen driving to 3rd in front of JJ Lehto (#5 Bennetton), Mark Blundell (#4 Tyrrell) and Christian Fittipaldi (#9 Footwork) at Monza, 1994.

The eight round at Silverstone revealed the car did have the pace when everything worked. While his team mate suffered yet another engine failure, Häkkinen battled hard for 3rd with recently recovered rookie Rubens Barrichello (BRA). On the final corner of the very last lap, the two collided as Barrichello tried to take the inside. Inexplicably unaware that it was in fact the final lap, the young Brazilian pulled into the pits. Meanwhile Häkkinen was able to free his car from the gravel trap and limp over the finish line to take 3rd.

The chaotic German Grand Prix at Hockenheim came to an early end for McLaren’s #1 driver when Häkkinen squeezed David Coulthard’s Williams too far at the start. After colliding with the Williams the Fin shot through the densely packed field, taking out 10 of his competitors. Brundle made it to lap 19 before the Peugeot went to merde. Mika Häkkinen’s antics were awarded with a one race ban, forcing Ron Dennis to begrudgingly use Peugeot’s Phillipe Ailliot.

Mika Häkkinen about to make a mess of it, Hockenheim 1994.

Ailliot’s car sprung a water leak on lap 21 of the Hungarian Grand Prix, quickly robbing him of the chance to crash. Meanwhile Brundle put in an impressive drive and finished 4th. Häkkinen was back for Spa Francorchamps in Belgium, and scored another 2nd placing for the team. Martin Brundle was out yet again after spinning off on lap 13.

Peugeot had meanwhile been feverishly working to improve their embarrassingly awful engine, and promised both cars would from now on be able to at least finish. At both the Italian and Portuguese Grand Prix they held their promise. A pair of 3rd placings for Häkkinen and 5th and 6th for Brundle were glorious results compared to the rest of the dreadful season.

Martin Brundle kerbhopping in Hungary, 1994.

The V10 broke down once more for Brundle at the European Grand Prix run at Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. There, Häkkinen scored a third consecutive 3rd place. The flying Fin would top off the season on a low note with 7th at Suzuka and a disappointing 12th at Australia with failing brakes. Martin Brundle would spin out in Japan, and score an impressive 3rd on the street circuit of Adelaide. The MP4/9’s track record therefore made it the first McLaren to fail to win a race since 1980.

Mika Häkkinen contemplating his sins, Hockenheim 1994.

The McLaren MP4/9 was severely hampered by its stupidly unreliable Peugeot V10 engine. Despite its similarity to an F1-unit it had been designed for the less stressful discipline of endurance racing. The beating of full on banzai sprint racing was simply too much for it too handle. For 1995 McLaren would start a fruitful partnership with German automotive giant Mercedes-Benz.

The car might have had a much better chance with the older but improved Lamborghini V12, which was more powerful and purpose built for the job, but had an equally bad reputation at the time. One can only wonder what would’ve happened if Ron Dennis had listened to a certain former employee.

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