Each time Alain Prost (MAIN) and his
teammate, Ayrton Senna, stepped
into 1988’s McLaren-Honda MP4/4, a
grand prix win, a pole, or a fastest
session time was there for the taking.
(RIGHT) Technical director Gordon
Murray, team boss Ron Dennis and
eventual champion Ayrton Senna.
1988 - THE STATS
If F1 perfection is
defined by winning
every race, McLaren
came close. Still,
three DNFs and a DSQ
(Senna in Brazil) kept
the 1-2 quota down.
“conceded” the title a fortnight before at
Spa, Prost mischievously pressured Senna
into a fuel deficit: 195 liters ( 51 gallons)
had been reduced to 150 per race to
supposedly hobble 1.5-liter turbos in their
final season, against 3.5-liter atmos favored
by 40kg (88lbs) and unlimited tankage.
Told to reduce revs to save fuel, but run
rich to protect his engine – Prost’s DNF
was down to a failed spark plug – Senna
was being overhauled by the Ferraris. His
snap decision to attempt to pass a hesitant
backmarker exuded entitlement, but was
understandable in the circumstances. He
spun and beached on a curb.
At the next GP he squeezed Prost
against Estoril’s pit wall at 180mph. (His
ripostes were usually disproportionate.)
Still, the latter won brilliantly that day.
A year later, hostilities broke out in
Suzuka, Honda’s backyard, with a collision
at the final chicane putting Prost out, but
still securing him the ’ 89 title when Senna
was disqualified...for missing the chicane.
By then, Dennis’s McLaren had already
escalated F1. Its expanding professional
army – many of its nine-to-five regulars
rarely saw the end product – had waged
strategic war against bands of enthusiasts
fighting tactical battles. And this had
brought other pressures and enmities.
John Barnard’s preceding era as chief
designer had been dictatorial. His TAG/
Porsche-powered cars were successful,
but he was the sole repository of much
vital information. Increasingly frustrated
regulations were supposed
to put turbocharged cars
at a disadvantage. But
Honda’s new RA168E V6
and McLaren’s low-line
chassis concept made
the MP4/4 the most
dominant Formula 1
machine ever conceived.
“McLaren’s professional army
had waged strategic war against
bands of enthusiasts”
compulsive, ordered – also marked the
birth of modern F1: an ongoing 28-year
quest for those mythic lost laps of Monza.
Newcomer Ayrton Senna, whose move
had persuaded Honda to dump champion
constructor Williams, and old boy Alain
Prost led 1003 of 1031 laps to win 15 of
1988’s 16 GPs, the Brazilian’s eight to the
Frenchman’s seven giving him his first world
title, despite scoring 11 fewer (gross) points.
Civil initially, this relationship exhibited
inevitable cracks by the season’s end.
At Monza’s 12th round, sure that his
misfiring engine wouldn’t last, and having
in 1986 – before Barnard’s concept won
its fifth world title in three seasons.
Gordon Murray was headhunted from
fading Brabham. Astounded that his new
employer’s palatial HQ had no meeting
rooms, or that this pioneer of the
carbon-fiber monocoque did not possess
its own autoclave, McLaren’s inaugural
technical director returned to basics.
Nichols remains adamant that 1988’s
MP4/4 is his. Who wouldn’t? It was
beautiful and effective. Several key
colleagues support his insistence that it
was an obvious continuation/evolution in
response to a smaller fuel tank and engine.
Others say it’s less clear. There’s no
denying that it bears a strong resemblance
to Murray’s final Brabham, the unsuccessful
BT55 “roller skate.” Honda confirms it
lowered its V6’s crankshaft centerline at
Murray’s request. And nobody contests that
the raised three-shaft gearbox bolted to it
– to avoid “death on a stick” driveshaft
angles – was Murray’s pet project.
In truth it had become a job too big
for one man. The structures required to
support these new methods grew too big,
too quickly. Nichols followed his mentor
Barnard to Ferrari – and would be joined
by Prost, with his No. 1 plate, for 1990.
Dennis’ embarrassment increased when
an aghast Honda watched Senna punt his
Ferrari title rival into the Suzuka gravel.
And then Honda took an executive
decision to switch from V10 to V12.
Senna was not impressed.
At least Ferrari’s troubles, of which there
were many (it missed hopelessly its chance
to topple Senna’s relatively uninspired
McLaren-Honda in 1991 and wouldn’t win
again until ’ 94) were of its own making...