Thirty years on - the McLaren MP4/4 delivers F1’s most devastating blow

The McLaren Honda MP4/4. We know all about it. Ayrton Senna. Alain Prost. The beautiful simple lines of the red and white chassis. The pocket rocket Honda V6 turbo.

No wonder its success was towering. Fifteen Grand Prix wins from 16 in 1988, indeed coming within two laps of a clean sweep when Senna got together with Jean-Louis Schlesser’s Williams at Monza. Whatever it was a season of demonstration runs interrupted but very rarely.

And we are almost exactly 30 years on from its on-track debut. Then McLaren delivered about the most devastating blow in F1 history, bar none. And not just for what came next in results. It also was a sudden blow, delivered when opponents were at their most unsuspecting and vulnerable. You might even call it a sucker punch. However it is described it floored its opponents.

It is always tempting to assume in hindsight that achieved success was inevitable. Particularly when it’s great success. Particularly too with considerations such as the MP4/4’s: best engine, best two drivers, now allied with what was long thought the best team with the best chassis. But in fact it all could have been very different.

One reason is that in 1988 turbo power wasn’t supposed to work. Yes turbos had dominated much of the 1980s and the turbo ban didn’t come in until the following year. But the phase-out had been in motion since the start of the previous season and while the FIA designed ostensibly an equivalency formula for turbos and non-turbos for 1988, its default was that it was to be impossible for turbos to prevail.

Little wonder. Boost was slashed from 4 bar atmospheric pressure in the previous year to 2.5 while the fuel for a race distance was chopped by pretty much a quarter, from 195 litres to 150. ‘Atmospheric’ non-turbo cars meanwhile had no fuel limit, as well as a minimum weight of 500kg against the turbos’ 540.

We are almost exactly 30 years on from its on-track debut. Then McLaren delivered about the most devastating blow in F1 history, bar none. And not just for what came next in results. It also was a sudden blow, delivered when opponents were at their most unsuspecting and vulnerable.

“I promise you, gentleman,” boomed a typically grandiose then-FIA president Jean-Marie Balestre in advance, “in 1988, no way for the turbos…”

Williams, partly through being left high and dry by Honda, had indeed gone non-turbo for 1988, as had Ford that supplied Benetton. Ferrari stuck with a turbo but viewed the season as one of transition. Even Honda swithered – as late as the Italian round the previous year when it was announced that Honda was joining forces with McLaren it even then wasn’t fully decided that Honda would stay turbo for 1988.

And McLaren with the MP4/4 for that year danced on the lip of disaster. The car debuted late. Later than late. As intimated the Honda engine switch was confirmed only in the previous September, then McLaren took a blank canvas approach to this most peculiar of seasons. It meant cutting things fine.

So while most rivals pounded around through the major winter tests with their 1988 machines Prost and Senna were stuck with an MP4/3B interim machine, essentially the 1987 car with the Honda unit shoehorned in agriculturally.

The car was unloved, but nevertheless test driver Emanuele Pirro completed thousands of miles in it and what was learned was shovelled into the MP4/4’s frantic development.

The day of the MP4/4’s public bow was 23 March 1988. The final day of the final Imola pre-season test, a mere nine days before first practice of the opening round at Rio. Indeed it was so late that some journalists present, there to get a glimpse of the new machine, had by then given up and gone home.

It is always tempting to assume in hindsight that achieved success was inevitable. But for the MP4/4 it all could have been very different. One reason is that in 1988 turbo power wasn’t supposed to work. Another is the car debuted late. Later than late.

But the car had arrived the previous evening by cargo plane after a herculean effort by those back at McLaren base; the race team arrived with it to join the test team that had been slogging away all winter.

“While we were there with this awful car the race team arrived with MP4/4,” recalled test team manager Indy Lall. “And it just looked the bollocks.”

Indeed – all sleek and simple lines and unmistakeably set low, almost flat to the ground, to cut through the air. The driver would be reclined rather than sat up as before. Honda agreed to build its engine 28mm lower to fit the concept. The necessarily miniature fuel tank dovetailed merrily too. While the detailing and packaging were things of beauty.

There is dispute over the origination of the ‘low line’ idea. Star designer Gordon Murray, newly joined from Brabham as technical director, can claim it existed on the Brabham BT55 used in 1986 and that it was a development of that. Those already at McLaren such as Neil Oately however can insist they were already developing the concept before Murray got there, and indeed a family resemblance with the MP4/3 of the previous year is discernible.

“We were knackered,” Lall went on, “and we were just sort of shovelled into the corner because Ayrton and Alain didn't want to know about the old car any more – and you can’t blame them.

“But it gives me goose bumps to this day when I think about what happened next. The MP4/4 went on track and the lap times just went quicker and quicker and quicker. It was getting dark – and Ayrton didn’t want to stop. It was an absolutely amazing experience.”

Yup, all of the team’s calculations back at base had proved spot on. It all worked first go. And Honda with the restrictions outlined had produced a jewel (although you can add that Lotus’s experience that year showed that the subsequent success was not all about Honda).

It gives me goose bumps to this day when I think about what happened next. The MP4/4 went on track and the lap times just went quicker and quicker and quicker. It was getting dark – and Ayrton didn’t want to stop. It was an absolutely amazing experience - Indy Lall

Senna it seems wasn’t concerned about concealing the team’s hand either as on that final test day he lapped two seconds faster than the car’s nearest rival. Suddenly it was clear to opponents and to everyone else what the story of 1988 was to be. Folk started to talk of another 1984, when McLaren won 12 rounds from 16. It turned out to be even more than that.

“It was a very good package, and the drivers were great,” boss Ron Dennis added some time later. “Within two hours of first testing the car at Imola, it was apparent that it was really good. When you’ve been working in racing a long time, you can get a damn good idea on the first day whether the car will perform or not...”

Of course the flipside of this late debut is that if its first run had revealed a problem, something fundamentally wrong perhaps, there would have been next to no time to resolve it. What became McLaren’s near season-long run at a clean sweep of wins would have been strangled at birth. Maybe the season more generally would have turned out very differently.

The opening round at Rio did give the opposition a little hope. Nigel Mansell in the now Judd-engined Williams somehow split the McLarens in qualifying after a stunning effort, while Prost won ‘only’ by 10 seconds from Gerhard Berger’s Ferrari (poleman Senna had been disqualified, after switching cars after a delayed start, technically after the green flag, when his gear mechanism broke). But still there was something ominous about the nonchalant way Prost managed the 10 second gap mentioned.

“I wasn’t worried about the Ferrari,” he noted afterwards.

It was round two at Imola that really underlined that McLaren wasn’t worried about Ferrari or anyone else. The first three of the qualifying order and best times read thus: Ayrton Senna 1m27.148s; Alain Prost 1m27.919s; Nelson Piquet, the first non-McLaren, 1m30.500s. You read that right. “We don’t understand why they are so slow,” said Prost almost sheepishly.

And they followed it up with a 1-2 in the race, having lapped the field. This on a track predicted to most strain the swingeing fuel limit.

The rest, as they say, is history.