You could see that the dominance of Infiniti Red Bull Racing over the past four seasons was one of the most impressive when it comes to the eras that have been a part of Formula One’s history. But there is only one beast that tore through a season unlike any other: McLaren-Honda MP4-4.
In 1988, this car, powered by a 1.6 litre V6 turbocharged engine, won all bar one of the sixteen Grand Prix that season, and saw a new addition to the ranks of champions in the form of the late Ayrton Senna.
It also bore major significance, as Ron Dennis aligned himself with the Japanese automotive giant to go for major success, with Senna’s relationship with Honda bringing a further dynamic to the team’s performance. The Brazilian’s work at Lotus for the previous three years had helped to bring Honda into the equation.
One of the major characteristics of the car was the low-line concept that Gordon Murray had first used back in his days at Brabham, which only brought disaster due to the BT55’s BMW engine having issues such as oil starvation and severe turbo lag.
It simply worked because of the Honda V6 engine slotting in very well with the carbon-fibre chassis, and due to the low sitting position, it enhanced the MP4-4’s centre of gravity. Any car with a lower centre of gravity will have better handling characteristics and enhance the mechanical grip that keeps the car stuck to the track.
Switching to the Honda RA168-E engine for that year was a challenge for the Japanese manufacturer in terms of fuel economy, due to the governing body reducing the fuel capacity of the cars by 23 percent. But performance was not to be completely compromised, as reliability was also another aspect that every engine supplier needs to ensure successful times. The amount of turbo boost pressure was a saving grace for Dennis’ squad, as they decided against using a revised version of the previous TAG engine, which was producing 1,060bhp and 960bhp in qualifying and race trim respectively.
With a new engine to help adapt to the new changes, it was the marriage of a technical dream that would make the season one to remember, especially as the driving position that is now ‘de rigeur’ in modern-day Formula One was on the edge of perfection. The driver’s helmet had to be at a certain point below the mandatory roll bar, which was not to the liking of drivers like Alain Prost.
This in turn also helped to reduce drag and enhance the aerodynamic properties, so a high-octane missile was unleashed on the Formula One world. It even surpassed a predecessor in the form of the TAG-Porsche powered MP4-2 when it came to the results that the MP4-4 achieved in qualifying and races. The outright one lap pace was at some point three seconds faster than the rest of the field, which was especially the case when the car’s potential was fully exploited at tracks like Monza.
In some respects, one team Brawn GP has mirrored the transition from one engine supplier to another when it comes to making a call that works out for the best back in 2009. Even at that point, the team could not keep its early run of good form due to an unsecure future and the rest of the pack being able to made significant inroads when it came to development.
Such was the single mindedness of Dennis and the team that it was a case of not holding back in the race for glory. His two drivers that year were fighting tooth and nail to got for the ultimate prize also further helped to gain that success, with a car that clearly changed the way F1 cars have been designed in subsequent generations.
The regulations may have changed and evolved the sport into its current configuration, but in the last turbo era, the McLaren-Honda MP4-4 took no prisoners and didn’t hold back in the hands of its drivers. It is a car unlike any other and one that has made its mark in the history of the Formula One world. A car of its kind that we will never see the likes of again.
TECH TALK WITH WILLIAM TYSON
McLaren’s 1988 MP4/4 needs no introduction. After only one day of testing before the season began, the car was already at least a second a lap faster than its predecessor. A complete castaway from the 1987 MP4/3, the slender nose and overall lower appearance paved the way for Formula 1 design of the future. Its core foundations were based on the rather unsuccessful 1986 Brabham BT55, with Gordon Murray (the lead designer of the BT55) assisting with developments on the MP4/4.
McLaren’s partnership with Honda during the last year of turbo-charged power (until 2014, of course) was integral to their dominant success. Whilst a lot of engine manufacturers were concentrating hard on the naturally aspirated engines that would come into place in 1989 onwards, Honda developed a very short, compact 1.5l V6 turbo, mounted very low in the car. Whereas the BT55 had also utilised mounting a smaller engine longitudinally in the same way as the MP4/4, McLaren opted to lower the crankshaft which also allowed the gearbox to hunker the floor of the car, reducing the centre of gravity and boosting corner speed.
Another benefit of this layout was how the bodywork that wrapped around the engine freed up airflow to the rear wing which, back in the 80s, were pretty big and contributed a huge amount to the car’s overall downforce. Allied to the fact that the team also chose to place the driver in a slightly more horizontal position (something that had not been done since the late 60s), centre of gravity was further reduced, so it was win-win-win!
As with most successful racing cars, there is often not one silver bullet that makes it quick, but a combination of numerous smaller details that rack up to better laptime. In the case of the MP4/4, nothing was overlooked to find ultimate racing perfection.
Images (in order) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Alex Goldschmidt and Octane Photographic.