|McLaren MP4/4 Honda|
Despite the dismal results achieved with the low-line Brabham BT55 in 1986, designer Gordon Murray found a willing ear at McLaren to give it another go a year later. This time round the results were a complete mirror image. Drivers Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost together won 15 of the 16 races in the 1988 season, making the ultra-low MP4/4 one of the most successful racing cars ever built.
In theory Murray's objective of placing all of the car's weight as low as possible in the chassis made perfect sense. With the Brabham that meant placing the BMW four-cylinder engine at a sharp angle, which created all sorts of problems. The very compact Honda V6 used by McLaren was much more suited to this purpose. The ultra-low chassis meant that the drivers had to lie almost flat in the car, which was something Alain Prost initially objected to.
Although the packaging and execution was very different, the specifications of the chassis, penned by Murray together with chief designer Steve Nichols, very much followed convention. At the core was a carbon fiber / honeycomb monocoque suspended by double wishbones on both ends. At the front push-rods actuated the springs/damper units while at the rear rocker-arms were used. Carbon ceramic disc brakes were used on all four wheels.
In addition to the obvious handling benefits, the low line also provided aerodynamic advantages. The frontal area was reduced by 10% and air could flow more cleanly to the rear wing, greatly improving its efficiency. Murray's only compromise concerned the ride-height, which was not quite as low as it could have been. This did make the MP4/4 more forgiving to drive and easier to setup.
The TAG/Porsche V6 that had brought three World Championships was replaced by the superior twin-turbo Honda V6, which had been used to great effect by the Williams and Lotus teams. Even with the latest boost-restrictions, it was the most powerful engine on the grid. The V6 was mated to a three-shaft six-speed gearbox that was specifically developed for the MP4/4 in conjunction with Weisman in the USA.
Brazilian rising star Ayrton Senna had moved with the Honda engines from Lotus to McLaren. His raw speed complemented by the then two-time World Champion Alain Prost. The French driver had earned the nickname 'Le Professeur' for his consistent and smooth driving style. The two best drivers on the grid, the ultra-low chassis and the most powerful engine made for an unbeatable combination.
Regardless of the strength of the car and driver, Formula 1 remains a mechanical sport where anything can happen. Amazingly problems only occurred for both drivers in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza where Prost was forced to retire with engine problems and Senna hit a back-marker in the closing stages. One week after Enzo Ferrari's death it was fitting that the home Grand Prix was won by Gerhard Berger in a Ferrari.
In the other fifteen races of the season, the McLarens were unstoppable. Senna had the edge with 13 pole positions and 8 victories. His teammate won the other 7 and scored 11 more points. However only the 11 best results of the year counted, so Senna was crowned Champion with a 3-point lead over Prost. Berger was a further 46 points adrift. Needless to say McLaren won the Constructor's Championship with nearly three times as many points as runner-up Ferrari.
The remarkable MP4/4 had to be retired at the end of the season as for 1989 turbocharged engines were banned. Having proven his point in rather dramatic fashion, Murray was assigned to the new road car program. Under a new designer and with a new Honda engine McLaren's dominance continued. The results and ultra-low appearance of the MP4/4 were however never matched. It remains as the best Grand Prix car ever built by McLaren.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on May 17, 2013
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