Now that was a car
No. 46: The McLaren MP4/5B
The principal weapon in the war between Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost
Even as McLaren and Honda were dominating 1988, famously winning 15 of the season’s 16 grands prix, they faced a challenge that went beyond managing the simmering tension between drivers Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna. The end of the turbo era loomed: having taken several seasons to get their turbo package exactly right, could Honda manage a seamless transition to natural aspiration?
McLaren had sufficient engineering strength to transition to a new car for 1989 with few carry-over elements. Overseen by Neil Oatley and Steve Nichols, the neat-looking MP4/5 resembled its predecessor, bar the overhead air intake, but the carbon-fibre monocoque was new, as was the suspension geometry. Honda’s 3.5-litre 72° RA109E V10 proved powerful enough straight out of the box, but suffered some initial teething troubles with its lubrication system.
Despite misgivings about the MP4/5’s weight, Prost and Senna set about dominating the season once again, although not quite to the same extent as in 1988. Senna took pole at the first race of the year, in Rio, but fluffed the start and spun at the first corner, while Prost finished second; Senna would rue those lost points come year’s end.
With 38 cars vying for 26 places on the grid, F1 had quantity, if not quality. McLaren’s chief opponents on pace were Ferrari and Williams, but Ferrari’s technically advanced car (designed by ex-McLaren man John Barnard) wasn’t yet reliable enough and Williams were still bedding in with a new engine partner, Renault. Over the year, McLaren created the B-spec, paring weight from the car and swapping the longitudinal Weismann gearbox for a new transverse one, while Honda delivered more performance.
Prost took four wins to Senna’s six, but scored more consistently, and the title was decided in Prost’s favour at a dramatic Japanese Grand Prix in which the feuding team-mates collided. Senna restarted and fought back into the lead, but was controversially disqualified.
The rancour continued even as Prost departed, taking the number one and Steve Nichols to Ferrari; a year later the title would be decided at Suzuka again. Oatley’s team redesigned the MP4/5’s monocoque to take advantage of a new high-modulus carbon, letting them hit the weight limit and improve the car’s balance even after increasing the size of the fuel cell. New front suspension geometry, a revised diffuser and radiator layout and a new engine completed the launch spec of the MP4/5B, but the team had to fast-track upgrades, including a new floor, as Ferrari and Williams showed a more consistent and reliable turn of speed through 1990.
Senna and Prost won six races between them, but at Suzuka Senna infamously ran Prost’s Ferrari off the road, taking them both out of the race and sealing his second world title in the process. It was an unedifying moment that divides F1 fans to this day.