RAC­ING LE­GENDS

McLaren MP4/4

Top Gear (UK) - - TOP GEAR - WORDS: JA­SON BAR­LOW

In cre­at­ing 1988’s MP4/4, McLaren found it­self at a once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion in­ter­sec­tion of tech­ni­cal ge­nius, tur­bocharged firepower and di­vine driv­ing ta­lent. Three names stand out: Gor­don Mur­ray, Honda and Ayr­ton Senna, all at the peak of their con­sid­er­able pow­ers.

No­body pushed the en­ve­lope fur­ther than Mur­ray, as he’d just done to 1986’s Brab­ham BT55. That car had a min­i­mal frontal area, revo­lu­tion­ary aero and a re­duced cen­tre of grav­ity, but grem­lins in its BMW four-pot hob­bled it. Mur­ray brought his low-slung chas­sis de­sign with him when he ar­rived at McLaren in 1987, while team boss Ron Den­nis was ne­go­ti­at­ing to re­place the age­ing TAG-Porsche power unit with cham­pi­onship­win­ning Honda en­gines. With Senna switch­ing to McLaren from Lo­tus, the stage was set for one of the most per­fectly chore­ographed per­for­mances in sport­ing his­tory.

Tur­bocharg­ing was to be banned from the 1989 sea­son, but rather than fo­cus­ing on the new 3.5-litre V10, Honda’s RA18E twin-turbo 1.5-litre V6 was a mon­u­men­tal last hur­rah. New rules for ’88 had re­duced the fuel tank to 150 litres, and turbo boost pres­sure was low­ered from 4.0 bar to a man­dated 2.5, changes that should the­o­ret­i­cally have favoured McLaren’s non-turbo’d ri­vals. In­stead, the Honda unit’s com­pact size worked per­fectly in the chas­sis, and was mounted so low that a new gear­box had to be de­vel­oped.

Mur­ray, chief de­signer Steve Ni­chols and aero man Bob Bell re­duced the MP4/4’s frontal area, ex­tended the wheel­base, and sim­pli­fied the rear wing. The re­sult was as sleek and el­e­gant an F1 car as there’s ever been, so low that the drivers were semi-re­cum­bent in­side it. Senna’s team­mate Alain Prost grum­bled about the driv­ing po­si­tion, but changed his tune when he re­alised how much po­ten­tial the new McLaren had.

Here was the per­fect rac­ing car, vi­sion­ary in de­sign, in the hands of the world’s two best drivers. Only a mis­take by Senna in the Ital­ian GP – he tripped up over Jean-Louis Sch­lesser’s Wil­liams as he at­tempted to lap him – and an engine fail­ure for Prost in the same race pre­vented McLaren from win­ning all 16 rounds of the 1988 World Cham­pi­onship. The dom­i­na­tion was off­set by the grow­ing ri­valry between Senna and Prost, the Brazil­ian’s de­sire to win seem­ingly at all costs at odds with Prost’s silky driv­ing style and less com­bat­ive style. But in this in­stance, the car was as much the star as the men who raced it. And given who they were, that’s say­ing some­thing.

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