The McLaren MP4/4 - Unbeaten Glory
The story of the most dominant Formula 1 car of all time...
Emblazoned in glory and decorated in success, the McLaren MP4/4 rewrote the record books of motorsport and set the benchmark so high that not even the billion-pound goliaths of Formula 1 today can replicate it. Taking 15 out of 16 wins aswell as 25 podiums in the 1988 season, the McLaren MP4/4 can without doubt be regarded as one of the greatest Formula 1 cars of all time. Driven by the talents of Ayrton Senna & Alain Prost they stormed to win the championship accumulating a total of 199 points, 135 ahead of second-placed Ferrari.
It was not all plain sailing for McLaren however after coming off the back of a difficult season in 1987 finishing second best to a dominant Williams team. McLaren decided that to return to their championship winning ways of the '84 and '85 seasons they would have to end their engine partnership with TAG, who used Porsche engines. In replacement was the unconquerable Honda engine who had graced Williams the year before, allowing them with Piquet and Mansell at the helm to storm to their fourth constructors championship. The McLaren Honda partnership would continue with great success until 1992, gathering 49 wins and 4 championships along the way.
The MP4/4 was designed by Steve Nichols however it could be said the great mind of Gordon Murray contributed to it's success. Murray moved to McLaren midway through the 1987 season from Brabham and he quickly decided that the 'hodgepodge' of the McLaren MP4/3 was not worth the effort and so he moved his attention to the 1988 car. This included applying many traits from the Brabham BT55 'roller-skate' such as a lower driver position and rotating the engine by 18 degrees. This meant the engine height had to be lowered, causing them to scrap the standard two-shaft gearbox and replace it with a revolutionary three-shaft gearbox. As a result of the lowered crank height, the centre of gravity was lowered, allowing them to salvage further handling performance. This stroke of technical genius paired with the unsurmountable Honda engine put the MP4/4 in good stead against the likes of the Ferrari F188 and the Williams FW12.
The MP4/4 was also a continuation of the McLaren Marlboro livery that lasted from 1974 all the way through to 1996 making it one of the longest sponsorships in Formula 1, enjoying awesome success along the way, collecting seven constructors’ championships. However, it could be said that the MP4/4 put the livery on the map with the iconic combination of white and Marlboro red. Arguably it is the most beautiful livery in the history of Formula 1 due to its simplicity and vibrancy.
The driver line-up for 1988 certainly was not short of excellent aswell. Brazilian Ayrton Senna and Frenchman Alain Prost would go head to head in a true battle of attrition. Senna had joined McLaren in 1988 from the Lotus team from where he got to grips with Formula 1 taking six wins in total. To begin with, the then two-time world champion Prost was in support of his new teammate however this soon turned sour as they both exchanged race wins throughout the season. This included close fights at the French and Portuguese Grand Prix with Prost coming out on top in both. However it was the Monaco Grand Prix that will forever have a place in the history books, in qualifying on the Saturday Senna drove what many deem as the greatest qualifying lap of all time going a staggering 1.4 seconds faster than his teammate. Senna stated later that day; "I was kind of driving it by instinct, I was in a different dimension, I was in a tunnel, well beyond my conscious understanding." When it came to race day Senna sailed off into the distance and managed to gather a 50 second lead with 12 laps remaining. Team principal Ron Dennis told Senna on the radio to 'cool it' but Senna refused to slow down. It proved to be his downfall as a lapse in concentration caused him to hit the wall at Portier and retire from the race. Prost then overtook the stricken McLaren for his second win of the season. After eight rounds, Senna had claimed wins in San Marino, Canada, USA, and Great Britain with Prost claiming wins in Brazil, Monaco, Mexico and France.
Heading into the final races of the season Senna began to struggle with three consecutive finishes off the podium in Italy, Portugal, and Spain, however due to having more race wins he managed to stay in the fight. The title challenge was set to go down to Suzuka at the Japanese Grand Prix. Senna qualified on pole with Prost three tenths behind. However, when the lights went out Senna made a horrible start, dropping back to 14th while Prost sailed into the lead and off into the distance. What came next was another incredible display of excellence from Senna much like his pole lap in Monaco earlier in the season. He began to work his way through the field lapping several tenths faster than anyone else, he was truly in a race of his own. By lap 26 he was on his teammates tail pressuring him for the lead, he held his patience for one more lap overtaking Prost with a textbook move on the inside into turn one. By the time the chequered flag fell he was 13.3 seconds ahead of Prost. The points tally at the end of the season was Senna's 94 to Prost's 105 however due to only the top eleven results being counted towards the championship, Senna won the championship by three points. It would prove to be his first of three championships in his illustrious yet curtailed career.
Although the high-class line-up was a crucial part of the puzzle, the reliability of the Honda engines proved absolutely central to their dominance of 1988. During the season the MP4/4 only retired a total of three times at the Monaco, British and Italian Grand Prix however only two of these DNFs were due to technical difficulties. In comparison, Ferrari had a total of eleven retirements while Williams failed to finish 20 times that season due to their unreliable new Judd engines. The great Michael Schumacher once said, "In order to finish first, you first have to finish." This perfectly epitomizes the importance of the reliable Honda engines for McLaren's 1988 campaign and allowed them to acquire the highest win rate in history at a staggering 93.75%. The only two other cars that come close to this record are the Mercedes W07 at 90.48% and the Ferrari F2002 at 84.24%.
The illustrious success of 1988 would carry on into 1989 with the MP4/5 taking 10 wins aswell as Drivers and Constructors Championships thanks to the unbeatable combination of reliability, technical mastery and driving talent. Although both drivers delivered great success, their relationship proved the Achilles heal of the team by creating a hostile environment behind the scenes. This reached its crescendo at the penultimate race of the season at the Japanese Grand Prix where on lap 40 they crashed into each other at the Casino Triangle. If both drivers retired from the race, Prost would become world champion however Senna persisted and cut the chicane in order to carry on. Senna went on to win the race however a controversial post-race disqualification ruled out the possibility for back-to-back championships. Prost therefore won the championship but decided he was finished with McLaren and moved to Ferrari for the 1989 season stating, "I'm quite happy to leave because it becomes very difficult to work with Ayrton." However, although they did not share the same garage, the rivalry certainly continued.
The McLaren MP4/4 is without doubt one of the most iconic, legendary, and successful F1 cars of all time. It's position in the Formula 1 Hall of Fame is accompanied by the likes of the Ferrari F2002, Lotus 72 and Williams FW14 however many believe it takes the top step. The combination of Senna and Prost aswell as the Honda partnership gifted McLaren with a rare masterpiece, not just to admire but to drive aswell. Many cars have attempted its success but numerous have come up short, unable to maintain such high standards over the length of a season. It may be retired as a car, but it will continue to race through the hearts of the motorsport community.