Classic Cars in Motorsport – Part 1 – 1988 McLaren Honda MP4-4

It is one of the most well known F1 cars in the sports history and still holds the record for most wins in a season (percentage), winning 93.75% of the races it entered in 1988. The story behind it all and its drivers is something that most people are aware of but how this phenomenal car came about is something most casual fans don’t know or know very little of.

The 1987 season had been quite disappointing for the team. The MP4/3 was powered by a Porsche built TAG V6 Turbo but was no match for the dominant Honda power in the Lotus and Williams cars with Nelson Piquet taking his Williams to what was his third and final drivers title.

But times were changing in the sport and 1988 was to be the final season of turbo power as the engines started to push a reported 1200bhp or more in qualifying trim, making them much to fast for the authorities and safety. They would be replaced by normally aspirated engines from 1989 and most teams decided to ditch turbo power early to get a head start on the new rules.

McLaren had managed to secure Honda power at the expense of reigning champions Williams for the new season and decided to go against the trend and stick with the turbo power, fitting Honda’s V6 Turbo to the new MP4/4 chassis designed by Steve Nichols and design guru Gordon Murray.

The lowline car design was one seen before with Murray implementing it when at Brabham with the BT55 in 1986. The design seen the front area reduced by around 30% and thus make for more efficient aero to the rear wing. This was shown with the BT55 being one of the fastest in a straight line.

But despite the aerodynamic advantage Brabham couldn’t exploit this due to the straight 4 BMW turbo engine.  The engines design was not the most compatible with the lowline chassis and the engine suffered from oil deprivation and starvation issues and the turbo lag was shocking at nearly 2 seconds before any power was delivered.

The V6 Honda was more suitable for the chassis design and the team pushed on with the brand new car, one of only a handful of teams to make new cars as most looked towards 1989 with the new rules to come. On the driver side of things the Woking based side added Brazilian star Ayrton Senna to drive alongside Alain Prost, what is now seen as one of F1’s most iconic driver line ups. Senna moved over from Lotus who had the Honda engine last year so he already had knowledge of the engines characteristics.

The team arrived at the season opener in Brazil with very little pre season testing but Senna put the car on pole by half a second from Nigel Mansell’s V8 Judd powered Williams. This was to be the first of 15 pole positions for the car in the 16 races, 13 of them would be set by the stunning Senna. But the cars domination was most apparent at the second race at Imola.

In qualifying the McLaren’s locked out the front row with Senna again on Pole setting a time in the  1.27s, over half a second ahead of Prost. But in third was Piquet in the Lotus 100T, using the same Honda turbo engine. The defending champion was 3.352 seconds slower than Senna and in the race both Prost and Senna lapped the entire field by lap 55 of 60. The Lotus was faster in the speed traps but the aero efficient McLaren was no match in the corners.  And to finish off the dominance both Prost and Senna had faster race laps than Piquet managed on his qualifying lap with full boost and qualifying tyres, this was just how good the MP4/4 was.

It was a season that seen the two McLaren’s trading wins and locking out front rows and top two podium steps with alarming regularity, ten times they finished a race 1-2. The only blip on the record for race wins was the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

The race was being held in Ferrari land but no one gave the Scuderia a chance against the dominance of the McLarens. Indeed Senna put the car on pole from Prost ahead of Berger and Alboreto’s Ferrari’s.

Prost took the lead at the start but then lost it before the Rettifilio chicane while changing gears cause a misfire. The Frenchman turned the boost right up to give chase. But by the mid point of the race the misfire got worse and forced the only engine related DNF of the entire season for the team.

But Senna would also retire just a few laps from the end of the race. Attempting to lap the Williams of Jean Louis Schlesser, standing in for an ill Nigel Mansell, the Williams driver locked the brakes and looked to be going straight on. The Frenchman managed to regain control, countering the slide but the change in direction cause the Williams to hit the rear of the McLaren, breaking the suspension and pitching Senna into a spin, beaching the car on the kerb. It would be the only race that both retired from and the only blotch on the record.

Berger and Alboreto took an emotional 1-2 in the team’s home race, less than a month since the team’s founder, Enzo Ferrari, passed away at the age of 90.

The season as a whole though was still all about McLaren Honda however. It also really ignited the Prost/Senna rivalry, a key moment being at Monaco where Senna was over 50 seconds clear and winning easily before crashing and the Portier corner before the tunnel. He was so incensed he went to his apartment rather than back to the garage. The rivalry would just escalate and is now the stuff of legends but the car that seen them team for the first time is a legend in its own right and the stats back it up.

Wins: 15 out of 16 (93.75%)
1-2 finishes: 10 out of 16
Pole Positions: 15 out of 16
Front row lock outs: 12 out of 16
Fastest Laps: 10 out of 16
Combined podiums: 25 out of 36

Drivers and constructors championships both won easily.

There are few cars that can stir emotions in F1 like this one when you look at the full story and the MP4/4 will no doubt live forever in the annals of history.