THE MCLAREN MP4/8

Senna’s fi­nal race win­ner and the tool for per­haps his finest For­mula 1 vic­tory

F1 Racing (UK) - - RETRO - WORDS DAMIEN SMITH PICTURES JAMES MANN

In 1993, Alain Prost won his fourth world cham­pi­onship in what turned out to be his fi­nal sea­son in For­mula 1, driv­ing the most so­phis­ti­cated grand prix car yet seen. And still Ayr­ton Senna man­aged to steal his thun­der. The great Brazil­ian bitched and moaned about his unar­guable un­der­dog sta­tus at a weak­ened Mclaren, but si­mul­ta­ne­ously rev­elled in it – es­pe­cially on the (sev­eral) oc­ca­sions when he em­bar­rassed Prost, who had the en­vi­able power of Adrian Newey-era Wil­liams and Re­nault at his fingertips. Said to be a beaten man be­fore a wheel of the sea­son had turned, Senna clearly en­joyed him­self im­mensely on sev­eral oc­ca­sions dur­ing ’93, in what turned out to be not only his fi­nal sea­son, but also his last full year on earth.

The Senna shenani­gans kept us all hooked, but they also over­shad­owed an in­con­tro­vert­ible truth: the Mclaren MP4/8 might have lacked the fire­power of the won­drous Wil­liams FW15C, but it was still a great F1 car. It was also a stun­ner and one that only looks bet­ter with each pass­ing year.

De­signer Neil Oat­ley has ev­ery jus­ti­fi­ca­tion to be proud of this car. He and his team only dis­cov­ered in Novem­ber 1992 that en­gine part­ners Honda were pulling the plug on F1. In re­sponse, Mclaren boss Ron Den­nis did all he could to se­cure a sup­ply of pace-set­ting Re­nault V10s, but when he came up short the so­lu­tion for ’93 had to be Ford’s HB V8. Ex­cept Benet­ton had the ‘works’ deal. Mclaren would be a pay­ing cus­tomer, us­ing a spec one step be­hind the V8s in the B193s.

Quite a come­down for proud Den­nis and his once-dominant team but Oat­ley and co re­sponded by box­ing clever. They couldn’t have the most pow­er­ful car on the grid, but it would still be quick on its feet.

MP4/8 fea­tured new elec­tronic sys­tems and soft­ware to im­prove chas­sis con­trol, data ac­qui­si­tion and teleme­try, plus a new light­weight elec­tronic con­trol panel in the cock­pit – all made by Mclaren Group sub­sidiary TAG Elec­tron­ics. Mated to a great chas­sis, with im­proved ac­tive sus­pen­sion and trac­tion con­trol sys­tems at least a match for Wil­liams’, this was proof of Mclaren’s strength in depth.

As the team toiled that win­ter, Senna sulked in Brazil. With­out his beloved Honda or a Re­nault V10 be­hind him, and with neme­sis Prost now in a Wil­liams, he threat­ened to stay at home. The will-he-won’t-he saga be­gan.

When he re­turned to test the new car, he was sur­prised to find a nim­ble ma­chine with great han­dling. With a shorter wheel­base than the Wil­liams and an en­gine that was still com­pet­i­tive, the MP4/8 had the in­gre­di­ents to shine on tighter cir­cuits. Senna knew he had some­thing he could work with.

Still, he kept Den­nis and Mclaren’s spon­sors hang­ing on a chain. How much was con­trivance to re­mind the world of his

power re­mains open to con­jec­ture even now, but his ini­tial in­sis­tence on a race-by-race deal at $1 mil­lion a time cer­tainly en­sured col­umn inches. As usual, Senna and Mclaren were the story of the sea­son – even if a fourth ti­tle was out of their reach. Although they didn’t ex­actly keep to this script early on.

Prost won the sea­son opener in South Africa, but Senna hit back bril­liantly on home turf in a wet-dry In­ter­la­gos thriller. Then came Don­ing­ton Park.

Cir­cuit owner Tom Wheatcroft twisted Bernie Ec­cle­stone’s arm for a race, and a sur­prise (one-off ) Euro­pean GP was his re­ward. The April date in­evitably meant heavy rain (and heavy losses for Wheatcroft thanks to re­duced gate re­ceipts), but the recipe cooked up one of the most memorable races of the era – and a gold stan­dard Senna mas­ter­class. How he carved past four cars on the first lap to lead and ut­terly dom­i­nated both the con­di­tions and the race, while Prost and team-mate Da­mon Hill flailed in his wake, is the stuff of F1 legend.

Prost at­tempted to shrug off the hu­mil­i­a­tion with wins at Imola and Barcelona, then Senna added a record sixth Monaco GP to his tally in May. But there­after it be­came tougher to sus­tain the chal­lenge, as Wil­liams and Prost hit their stride. Nig­gling un­re­li­a­bil­ity hardly helped.

Still, Senna re­mained the story – es­pe­cially when he landed the cov­eted Wil­liams drive for ’94, essen­tially forc­ing Prost into re­tire­ment.

Alain had no in­ter­est in fac­ing down Senna in the same team again af­ter their two ex­plo­sive sea­sons to­gether at Mclaren.

Mean­while, Michael

An­dretti had also learned what it was like to be teamed with (and against) Senna at Mclaren, although the

Amer­i­can’s prob­lems were partly of his own mak­ing. Af­ter his bril­liance in Indy­cars,he was ex­pected to do just fine in

F1, but new test­ing re­stric­tions lim­ited his seat time, and early rounds in the rain didn’t help.

But sym­pa­thy ran short when An­dretti in­sisted on com­mut­ing from the States.

Did he re­ally want this? By

Septem­ber, and de­spite a Monza podium, Mclaren had seen enough. Michael was re­placed by test driver Mika Häkki­nen – who promptly out­qual­i­fied Senna first time out at Es­to­ril.

That week­end Prost an­nounced his re­tire­ment and won a de­served fourth ti­tle. Af­ter that Senna stole the lime­light, win­ning at Suzuka and then mem­o­rably at the Ade­laide fi­nale. Now Prost was sud­denly an ex-ri­val, Senna ac­knowl­edged his old en­emy with warmth and grace on the podium. In the con­text of all that had gone be­fore – and the tragedy that was to come in May ’94 – this was a spe­cial mo­ment.

As for Mclaren, dur­ing ’93 they had tested a B-spec MP4/8 fit­ted with Lam­borgh­ini’s Chrysler-badged V12. Senna and Häkki­nen were im­pressed, but the al­liance went no fur­ther. Den­nis then made an ill-fated deal with Peu­geot for ’94.

Af­ter Ade­laide, lit­tle did we know that Mclaren wouldn’t win again for four years – and Senna had scored his fi­nal vic­tory. The MP4/8 had al­ready proven it­self over the course of a dra­matic sea­son that in­cluded one of the great wetweather races of all time. But for the sig­nif­i­cance of its fi­nal race alone, this car will al­ways be spe­cial.

“SENNA AND MCLAREN WERE THE STORY OF THE SEA­SON, EVEN IF A FOURTH TI­TLE WAS OUT OF REACH”

THE M C LAREN MP4/8

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