Formula 1 history is written by drivers and teams. Sometimes the merits are not evenly divided, but in other circumstances those pairs are created that will remain etched in the pages of the Circus forever. Among these we find the legendary story of the Senna-McLaren duo, which officially began in 1988 with the iconic MP4/4, and which will sign the following years, effectively creating a myth still revered today by many fans.
The Woking team has to face a series of changes: after losing John Barnard, creator of the MP4/4 project, who officially landed in Maranello, McLaren must work hard to find a worthy replacement. It was therefore decided to focus on the designer Gordon Murray, a brilliant South African technician, known for his adventure with Brabham. Murray is known for being the designer of the two cars that allowed Bernie Ecclestone's team, who boasted a driver like Nelson Piquet, to win two Drivers' titles, in 1981 and 1983.
Unfortunately, the extravagant South African engineer also became famous over the years for being the father of the disastrous Brabham Bt55, the unsuccessful single-seater characterized by a belt line and a very low center of gravity, which among other things is the single-seater with which he lost his life in the 1986 Elio De Angelis, on the Le Catellet circuit.
But the McLaren news for the 1988 season are not limited to the designer: with great skill Ron Dennis convinces Honda to conclude his partnership with Williams, reigning champion team, to marry the project proposed by the Woking manufacturer. This is a strategic move, with enormous benefits for Dennis' team, considering that the Japanese company can boast the best engines in the Circus.
A remarkable change of pace, given that the V6 TAG Porsche Turbo has not been able to keep pace with Ferrari and Honda itself in recent years. As if that weren't enough, in 1988 McLaren decided to join Alain Prost with a certain Ayrton Senna, thus creating one of the most prestigious line ups seen in Formula 1 history.
1988 represents the last season of turbo engines in Formula 1 and many teams such as Williams, Benetton and Leyton House have already opted for naturally aspirated engines, advantageous for containing costs and useful for acquiring the necessary experience in view of the 1989 season.
The technical regulation provides for the possibility of using 3500 cc atmospheric engines with no consumption limits, or supercharged engines with 1500 cc of displacement, with pressure limited to 2.5 bar and 150 liters of fuel to cover the distance of the race.
Honda decides to choose this second possibility, as the evolutions envisaged for its engine allow it to maintain a significant performance advantage over the competition. Among other things, fatality has it that the unexpected development of events means that the engine wanted by Patrick Head since the end of 1986, designed by Katsumi Ichida, with the oil pan lowered by forty millimeters, will never be used by the Williams, but will favor the creation of the McLaren MP4/4.
Two projects are launched at McLaren, one called Mp4/4, whose manager is Steve Nichols, destined for the 1988 season, while the second, called Mp4/5 (whose manager is Neil Oatley instead), is being set up for 1989, the year in which the British car would always have a Honda engine, but with a different architecture for the aforementioned regulatory requirements. Murray as technical director oversees both projects, always having the last word.
The MP4/4 is inspired by the Brabham BT55 designed by Gordon Murray, although the first car to benefit from the Ecclestone team's car design is the MP4/3 from the previous year. Murray's idea is to build an extreme machine in terms of fluid dynamics, but in the case of the Brabham the expected advantages did not come as the powertrain was a very complex project and above all an end in itself.
According to the South African designer's point of view, designing a car with the lines of the BT55 allows to reduce the front section by about thirty percent compared to a conventional single-seater and this is possible because the belt line was extremely low. Doing so drastically reduces the resistance to advancement, with significant advantages in terms of top speed and consumption; it is no coincidence that the Brabham BT55 is the car with the highest top speed in 1986.
This solution, however, also allows to invest the rear wing surface with a greater air flow, consequently increasing the aerodynamic load on the drive wheels; in other words, the car enjoys an increase in traction and speed when cornering. The BT55 turned out to be a failure because the BMW engine equipped was a 4-cylinder in-line, therefore very high and in order to improve the aerodynamic design it was inclined by 72°, a solution that created serious problems of lubrication and correct combustion.
Furthermore, such a high engine had further disadvantages, such as the always very unbalanced dynamic center of gravity, also due to a very bulky and complicated 7-speed gearbox.
Already in 1987 Murray was able to test this solution as a consultant for the MP4/3 car designed by Nichols. Apart from the nose, all the rest of the car is redesigned trying to lower the belt line and the center of gravity. Murray can also intervene thanks to the fact that the MP4/3 uses a V6 engine with a 90° bank angle. The sides are also redesigned with the radiator vents on the sides of the car instead of on the top.
With a similar intervention, the height is reduced, as well as the roll bar is made more slender. For the 1988 season, with the supply of Honda engines for the MP4/4, Murray further took the concept introduced the year before to extremes: the Japanese engines are still V6 but had a cylinder bank angle of 80°, allowing the South African designer to lower further the overall height of the body. The incredible solutions devised by Murray, combined with the impressive levels of performance of the Honda engine, finally give the hoped-for results.
An indisputable domain
1988 essentially became a catwalk for McLaren: the MP4/4 immediately proved to be the single-seater to beat, but during the course of the season no team even remotely managed to worry Ron Dennis's team, and Sunday after Sunday the team cars of Woking literally annihilate the competition. This is because, in addition to the evident superiority of the vehicle, McLaren can count on two exceptional drivers, such as Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost.
This season, out of sixteen Grand Prix, McLaren has won fifteen, and in ten circumstances the two MP4/4s finish in first and second position, allowing Ayrton Senna to conquer the first of his three world titles, with only three points clear over his great rival Prost, but with 49 points of advantage over the first of his pursuers, Ferrari driver Gerhard Berger, the only non-McLaren driver to triumph during the year, in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. The single-seater designed by Murray still remains one of the most successful and famous in Formula 1 history.
Simone Pietro Zazza