Tucked away in a factory, deep in the heart of England, a group of engineers worked tirelessly through the winter. Their dream was to craft a World Championship winning machine, capable of re-writing the history books. They garnered the most powerful engines, enlisted the world’s fastest drivers, and constructed an ingenious chassis that combined to produce a car so dominant it’s known today as the greatest Formula One car of all-time: the McLaren MP4/4.
It was so dominant, in fact, it won 15 out of 16 races in the 1988 season, with Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost behind the wheel. On six occasions the MP4/4 qualified first and second with a margin of a second or more, and at Monaco, Senna was 2.6 seconds faster than his nearest non-McLaren rival. But, even more amazing is this incredible pace was at no detriment to reliability. The MP4/4 retired just four times, two of which were a result of crashes.
To understand why this car was so successful we must go back to 1986. It was here a designer by the name of Gordon Murray set to work on creating the low-line Brabham BT55. Murray’s theory was by lowering the height of the car and reducing the frontal area by around 30-percent, it would be more aerodynamic and allow additional air to pass over the rear wing creating more downforce. Therefore, on paper, the low-line car should be faster on the straight and have more grip throughout the turns.
Despite the promise, Murray’s Brabham BT55 achieved dismal results. The problem was not the theory, but the execution given the limitations presented by the slanted straight 4 BMW motor. The sharp angle the engine was situated created a wealth of issues, such as fuel starvation, oil starvation, and engine installation woes. Mixed with BMW’s notorious turbo lag (often around two-seconds) the package never reached its true potential.
Murray left Brabham at the end of the 1986 season moving to McLaren to help refine American engineer, Steve Nichols’s, MP4/3. This car was McLaren’s first dabble at the low-line concept and, with the TAG-Porsche V6, it proved to be more successful, elevating their performance in relation to the mighty Honda powered cars, when compared to the previous season.
For 1987, with Murray fully integrated into the design process, McLaren acquired the small, powerful Honda V6 to replace the reliability hampered TAG motor, and took Murray’s theory to the next level. It was this combination, plus the signing of Brazilian hotshot Ayrton Senna, that proved a potent combination never before seen.
With the small twin-turbo V6 lowering the center-of-gravity, Murray and Nichols demanded the drivers practically lie flat within the car to keep the chassis as low as possible. Despite practicality concerns from Prost, the team remained confident that this approach would pay off, as it wasn’t too far removed from the layout of the old Lotus 25 F1 car. Ultimately, the team was right and the drivers proved comfortable.
The MP4/4 achieved a 10-percent reduction in frontal area compared to the MP4/3 and cleanly routed the flow of the air more efficiently to the rear wing. Murray’s only compromise was a slightly higher ride-height, but this made the car easier to setup and more forgiving to drive.
The rest of the car played to convention, with a carbon-fiber/honeycomb monocoque suspended by double wishbones, and the front push rods being actuated by the spring and damper units. Carbon ceramic disc brakes were fitted and the (roughly) 900-horsepower Honda Twin-Turbo V6 was mated to McLaren’s six-speed manual gearbox.
All this design work left the team behind schedule as the new season fast approached. In fact, the new car only arrived the night before the final day of pre-season testing at Imola. In the morning, work was still being done to prepare the MP4/4 for on-track action. Prost had been driving a hybrid MP4/3B for several days, but on his first proper run in the new car, he lapped two-seconds faster than ever before. Prost reported the car to be comfortable, easy to drive, and that the aerodynamic package was a clear step forward. The MP4/4 came away from the Imola test thrashing the opposition, and headed off to Brazil for the first race.
Hustling until the last possible moment, McLaren produced a machine that did indeed re-write history: the likes of which we may never see again.