THE MCLAREN MP4/8
Senna’s final race winner and the tool for perhaps his finest Formula 1 victory
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.
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