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.

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