The Story of F1's Most Dominant Car Ever - The MP4/4
No, not the W11...
The year is 1988.
An up and coming driver named Ayrton Senna had just signed for the iconic Mclaren team from Lotus. He'd won 6 races for them in 3 years, including his first in appalling conditions at Estoril, and this had been enough to convince his future team he was worthy of a drive.
Mclaren's experienced and established driver was Alain Prost, their stalwart who had been at the team since 1984. He did have a brief spell with them in 1980, but he left for Renault despite have two more years left in his contract because of tensions within the team. This is also what would lead to him leaving them for good at the end of 1989, turning out to be a great decision.
Alain had more wins than anybody in history (a record which would be shattered 14 years later, and then again 14 years after that), and nicknamed 'The Professor' because of his superb intelligence inside the cockpit. Together with the figurehead of the team Ron Dennis, Mclaren vowed to take the fight to Williams who had won the past 2 Constructors Championships.
Fourth months to the first race of the season though, this car did not exist.
And that's not just as a car: it didn't exist as a drawing either.
As a result of this, Mclaren had to work around a tight schedule in which they'd hope to create a conservative car; an all rounder which may or may not win a few races. This somehow ended up working in their favour, as I'll explain later.
McLaren, short on time, bucked the trend with the design and manufacture of the monocoque (the survival cell the driver sits in), as whilst most of the grid had shifted to using a female mould, McLaren continued to use male tooling.
This meant it could adapt its bodywork quickly if it made a mistake or found development wiggle room. It also meant that, with a flat panel approach, it could have a strength benefit over those using a female mould, as McLaren could use carbon fibre fabric as part of its production. A material we all know works very well nowadays in F1.
A decision was also taken to move away from John Barnard's (a legendary designer who also worked for Ferrari) V-shaped monocoque in favour of a 'bath tub'. This not only had aerodynamic benefits, but also vastly improved the cars torsional stiffness essentially by simplifying the whole structure as it was made of one piece.
Mclaren thought it never really seemed to fit in with the rest of the design, given it was all one part, and this contributed to the general consensus the car wouldn't be that great.
Crucially for them, the MP4/4 would have a new engine supplier for that year: Honda. The same supplier that saw Nelson Piquet win the previous Driver's Title in 1987 for Williams, and an engine which Sir Patrick Head said had an immeasurable amount of power in qualifying.
Honda's new engine delivered in the region of 700bhp; the RA168-E was a new design that was not only extremely powerful but also very fuel efficient and, even by modern standards, incredibly reliable. Another major player in the domination of that season.
The FIA were at the same time trying to reduce the advantage of the turbocharged cars in an attempt to level the playing field with the normally aspirated engines. They tried to do this by capping boost pressure at 2.5 bar, rather than 4 bar, whilst the total fuel at their disposal was reduced from 195 litres to 150 litres. The turbo runners were also handed a minimum weight handicap of 40kg over the normally aspirated cars.
Honda therefore went hard at work developing a special fuel blend with Shell, and it delivered a broad torque band that made the car much easier to drive than the now diminished turbocharged field and still provided an advantage over the normally aspirated cars.
The Honda engine featured a low crankshaft and was paired with a small clutch that had been developed by Tilton during 1987 for Lotus.
The Tilton carbon clutch measured just 5.5" in diameter and, whilst everyone else struggled on with 7.25" diameter clutches, the Tilton gave for superior heat management, smoother engagement, low inertia and high torque capacity that helped McLaren to deal with demands of the Honda engine.
With such a low crankshaft and small clutch, some out-of-the-box thinking was required when it came to McLaren's gearbox design.
To overcome these issues, Gordon Murray approached long-time Brabham contributor Pete Weismann to collaborate on the design. They decided upon a triple shaft arrangement that would allow them to keep the engine as low as possible, which lowers the car's centre of gravity and so improves performance, without affecting the angle of the driveshaft.
Lotus, for example, had the same problem and tried to remedy it by tilting the engine slightly upward and using a double shaft arrangement instead.
The design of the gearbox, like Honda's engine, paid particular attention to the oil system, both of which used dry sumps to improve temperature control, reliability and tolerate the huge g-forces exerted on the car.
It's a combination of all these factors (the engine, gearbox, weight, smooth aerodynamics, drivers and team) that helped Mclaren onto having the season they had.
The Record Breaking Season
During the 1988 season Mclaren absolutely obliterated their opposition. Williams faltered, and there was nobody to ever challenge them except themselves.
The only running the car had before the first race in Rio was at a test in Imola, and because of this the MP4/4 was still a raw race car. In the opening race the roll hoop hadn't even been painted, and the livery wasn't fully completed.
Still though, Prost won the race comfortably with a 10 second margin back to second. Something frankly nobody had expected.
Imola was the first race where Mclaren really started to destroy the competition. They finished first and second, Senna taking his first win of the season after being disqualified in Brazil. The atmosphere was still friendly at the time.
At Monaco came Senna's iconic qualifying lap, where he thread the Mclaren through the street, kerbs and barriers effortlessly to claim a pole position that has only ever been matched by Hamilton's 2018 Singapore run. The mighty Prost was coming under threat.
In the race however, Alain was trading fastest laps with Senna, albeit from 50 seconds away, which prompted Ron Dennis to order them to look after their cars and bring home the 1-2. Job done, then.
But onn Lap 66, the unthinkable happened.
Senna, after dominating every aspect of the weekend, crashed just a few laps from the finish. Slowing down was not a word in his vocabulary, and in pushing to achieve perfection he slid into the wall. Prost eased to victory.
I think that weekend perfectly sums up Prost and Senna; Senna clearly the faster of the two but Prost much more calm and calculated, a trait which often helped him beat Senna, and led to moments like this.
Senna hit back emphatically in the next few races, winning the Canadian Grand Prix by 40 seconds, and the race in Detroit by 50; lapping every car except his teammate. Prost won his home race while Senna had gearbox issues, Mclaren bringing home yet another 1-2.
The team's incredible streak of one-twos ended at a wet British GP, where Senna won again in heavy rain and Prost retired on lap 24.
After that came a few more wins for Senna, who by every race was strengthening his title bid. The Hungarian GP saw Mansell only one tenth away from Ayrton and Prost down in a remarkable 7th, but it ended in yet another 1-2, Alain only 0.5s off his teammate at the flag.
Meanwhile, tempers began to flare on and off the track between both of them, and the iconic rivalry was truly born.
The MP4/4 won 15/16 races that year, an unbelievable 93% win rate which had never been done before, and hasn't been seen since. The only race they didn't win they were actually dominating until Prost retired with a mechanical failure and Senna spun, beaching his car on the kerb while lapping a backmarker.
Ferrari took home a shock 1-2 finish, at Monza no less, to a delighted throng of tifosi... I daresay even Ron Dennis must have felt a little happy for them given how treacherous they'd made it for everyone else that year!
The title was won on Honda's home soil: Japan. Prost was only 3 tenths off Senna in qualifying, and like Michael Schumacher would do some years later, Ayrton stalled on the grid. Luckily he was able to bump start the car again as the track sloped downwards to T1, but he found himself in 12th place.
A spectacular drive had Senna up into second in little time, and he capitalised on Prost having a gear shift issue to swoop around the outside of the infamous Turn 1, taking the lead and the title.
The MP4/4 didn't necessarily have one defining factor which gave it the edge, slightly surprising given the usual dominating cars have something like so, but it's definitely one of the most well rounded cars ever to grace the sport.
A true winning machine.