MP4/4: MAGIC FORMULA

Next year, McLaren and Honda will once again join forces in Formula 1™, rebooting a relationship that made history back in the 1980s and ’90s.  In anticipation of the coming season, we look at the very first McLaren-Honda: the legendary MP4/4 of 1988.

 

When McLaren first joined forces with Honda in 1988, both were proven winners in Formula 1; but their recipe didn’t just lead to victories, it led to an unprecedented era of domination. McLaren-Honda won four Formula 1 constructors' titles between 1988 and 1992, plus four drivers’ titles, 44 victories, and 53 poles out of just 80 starts – a 66 per cent success rate. Of course the ingredients included the driving talents of Ayrton Senna, Alain Prost and Gerhard Berger; but there was undoubtedly magic in the McLaren-Honda relationship, a special, elusive ‘feeling’ between the Japanese engineers and British race team that was both precious and powerful. The two cultures came together and understood each other perfectly, and the results were astonishing. 

Arguably the most significant season during that initial partnership was the team’s first, in 1988. That year, McLaren-Honda won 15 out of 16 races, a record that stands to this day. The car that achieved that barely believable run of success was this one, the MP4/4. 

Designed by Gordon Murray and Steve Nichols, it was a radical departurere from what had gone before. Not in terms of its basic structure – it continued with the carbon chassis that McLaren had pioneered seven years earlier, hence the 'MP4' name that it shares with its predecessors. But the Honda engine was new and different, and that led to a design approach that makes the MP4/4 distinctive to this day. 

The Honda RA168E, as it was designated, was a 1.5-litre twin-turbo V6, and it was small, light and powerful. Honda had asked its clutch supplier, the US firm Tilton, to create a smaller, stronger clutch. The result was Formula 1's first carbon/carbon clutch, introduced in 1987. A year later, and now partnered with McLaren, Honda took the logical next step: it built a more compact V6 to suit the smaller-diameter clutch, lowering the engine’s centre of gravity. Combined with the smaller fuel tank (stipulated by the 1988 regulations), everything on the drawing board was now looking lower, flatter and more aerodynamic. Murray and Nichols then lowered the driver to suit, slanting back the driving position to a bath-tub lounge, and the result was a car that still looks positively lizard-like in its stance: a knee-high racing sled with sticky black tyres.

 

 

The MP4/4’s first test has gone down in Formula 1 folklore. Neil Oatley, who joined McLaren in 1986 and is now the team’s Director of Design and Development Programmes, takes up the story:

'After an extremely busy winter, we eventually had one MP4/4 ready for the final day of the final pre-season test of the winter at Imola – which was tight, even by our standards. I was there, as Alain’s race engineer, and we’d been successfully running the hybrid Honda-engine MP4/3B for several days. Then the new car arrived during the evening of the penultimate day – it wasn’t even fully finished, as it still needed some detail work before it could leave the garage in the morning. Alain drove the MP4/4 first and, even on his first proper run, he proved to be a couple of seconds faster than he’d been in the old car! It just felt right to the drivers right away – it was comfortable to drive, they knew it was going to do what they wanted, and the aerodynamic performance was obviously a real step forward.'

Prost stepped out of the car and told Team Principal Ron Dennis he knew right away he had a championship-winning machine. All he had to do now was beat his new Brazilian teammate. In the end, it was Ayrton Senna who prevailed that year, winning the 1988 drivers’ title, the first of three World Championships won with McLaren-Honda.

 

Twenty-six years on, the McLaren-Honda MP4/4 still draws the eye when customers and guests visit the McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, England. The building’s wide, airy ‘Boulevard’ features a row of historic McLarens, all with their distinctive liveries, many of them title winners. In the middle, the 1988 MP4/4 stands out by lying low, its sleek profile looking like a pencil-sharp sliver compared to the cars around it. 

Brilliantly packaged, beautifully engineered and magnificently successful, the McLaren-Honda MP4/4 represents all that can be achieved when two like-minded organisations collaborate in such a focused way. The fact that it looks sensational is just the icing on the cake. 

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