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McLaren MP 4/4: So close to perfection

The McLaren MP 4/4 is one of the most successful cars in the history of Formula 1. Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost won 15 out of 16 races. And if it wasn’t for a mistake on Senna’s part, that would have been 16/16.

One of the most successful cars is important here. In many ways, the McLaren MP4/4 does not even come close to the Ferrari 500, dominating the Formula 1 races for all of 1952 and most of 1953. The only thing tarnishing the image of perfection? In those days, the Indianapolis 500 counted for the Formula 1 world championship as well. The race was very much the American affair it still is today, run to different rules. Indy 500 and Formula 1 were still worlds apart, and the Europeans did not even bother trying to give their more fragile Formula 1 cars a run on the Brickyard.

Alfa Romeo is very much in a similar situation with the 1950 Alfa Romeo 158, winning all races in the inaugural Formula 1 season…except for the Indy 500.

All-star cast

By 1988, the Indianapolis 500 was long gone from the Formula 1 calendar. After having seen the 1987-championship slip away towards the dominant Williams Honda, McLaren owner Ron Dennis decided to assemble an all-star cast for 1988. McLaren stalwart Alain Prost was joined by the highly talented Brazilian Ayrton Senna, who took the powerful Honda turbo engine along with him.

McLaren Honda MP4/4. Photo Honda

Best engine? Check. Best drivers? Check. All that was left to do, was to create the best chassis. For this, both McLaren engineers Steve Nichols and Gordon Murray take credit. Nichols stating it was his work and vision to let the monocoque evolve from the previous John Barnard creation into the low monocoque on the MP 4/4. Gordon Murray claims the idea for the low-rider McLaren MP 4/4 started with his design on the Brabham BT55.

Engineering-egos set aside, it is clear McLaren came up with a brilliant concept, aerodynamically advanced and with some great technological innovation, such as the three-shaft dry-sump gearbox allowing the drive shafts to be positioned higher, thus losing less horsepower in the transfer. Murray: “When we went to the pre-season test in Imola, the McLaren MP4/4 was 1.5 seconds faster than the competition. Which was pretty much what I had hoped.”

Winning from the start

The McLaren MP4/4 started winning that season from the moment the flag dropped in Rio, Brazil. First Prost, then Senna (Imola, San Marino GP). The others could consider themselves lucky if they managed to stay on the same lap as the leaders. Already in qualifying at Imola, Senna’s pace had stunned teammate Prost, but that was nothing compared to what was coming for race three, the Monaco GP.

Ayrton Senna. Photo Newspress

On the Monte Carlo street circuit, the Brazilian had already bagged pole, but he kept on going, posting ever faster laps. Senna would talk about being in a tunnel the whole time, ending up 1.4 seconds quicker than Prost in a similar McLaren MP4/4 and 2.7 seconds in front of third-placed Gerhard Berger in the Ferrari F187/88C. With Prost stuck behind Berger for much of the race, Senna took off in the distance, right up until lap 66. With just twelve laps to go, Senna stupidly crashed in one of the slowest corners of the circuit, Portier, just before the tunnel, thus handing Prost the victory.

Enzo Ferrari

The McLaren drivers would continue to divide the races between them, with Senna clawing back from his early points deficit by mid-season. The McLaren train continued at an unabated pace, only to derail at Monza. Just before the Italian Grand Prix, on August 14th, Enzo Ferrari died, aged 90. It was thought off as more than a little mystical that McLaren should let slip precisely this race. All was into place for yet another MP4/4 dominant run, but during the race, Alain Prost had to retire due to an unheard-of mechanical fault: an electrode fell of a spark plug, leading to engine damage.

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Sleek and low, the 1988 McLaren MP4/4 won 15 of 16 races. Photo Honda

Ayrton Senna was in the lead, but the early duel with Prost had cost him fuel. So he had to back off to save fuel and saw the Ferraris of Gerhard Berger and Michele Alboreto claw back 1.5 seconds per lap. So, when Senna came up behind Mansell-stand-in Jean-Louis Schlesser in the Williams, the Brazilian was in a hurry. This was the second time he was to lap Schlesser. Coming into the first chicane, Schlesser kept to the right to let Senna go inside.

On the dirt, Schlesser overshot his braking point and went wide, only just keeping his car on the track. At which point had Senna had moved back to the right to take his line for the second part of the corner. A collision with the Williams was inevitable. The McLaren was beached with damaged suspension, and thus Ferrari came one-two on holy Italian ground in Monza just after Enzo’s death. An incredible victory.

1988 brought Senna the first of three world titles. Photo Honda

Senna wins his first title

The rest of the season went McLaren’s way. Senna forced Prost against the wall during the next race in Estoril (Portugal), thus souring the mood within the team. With just one race to go, at Suzuka (Japan), Senna only needed victory to claim the world title, his first of three. Which he did in dominating fashion, even though he stalled at the start. Prost would win the final round in Adelaide (Australia). The best car had dominated, but by this time bitter rivalry had divided McLaren into two camps. A situation that would come to a dramatic climax in 1989.

With the McLaren MP4/4, Formula 1 said goodbye to the 1.5-litre turbo era in spectacular style. No car has held a similar iron grip on Formula 1 ever since.

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