McLaren MP4/4

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A budding designer at March, under the tutelage of Adrian Newey, he was confident of their latest F1 offering. But when he saw McLaren’s new car, he wondered if he might have done better

In 1987, I had just started in Formula One as aerodynamicist at Leyton House. I worked a little bit on developing the 871, and then worked throughout the winter on the 1988 car with Adrian Newey. I was straight out of university, so it was obviously a fascinating and formative time in my career.

Particularly at that age, one had a tendency to get fixated in the direction that we were developing the car. Adrian was completely focused on aerodynamic efficiency — achieving the smallest possible package was the flavour of the month. The 881 was absolutely tiny in all respects, and had what is now quite a conventional ‘female’ moulded chassis.

Our March seemed reasonably good, but there was this other car which was just totally and utterly dominant — the McLaren-Honda MP4/4.

It came out at a time when John Barnard had left McLaren, and there was a new order, with Gordon Murray overseeing everything. The design team was led by Steve Nichols, and of particular note for myself was Dr Bob Bell, who worked on the aerodynamics. He eventually worked with me at Benetton, and has become a firm friend.

There were a number of things about the MP4/4 which taught me a lot, and which I really admired. The detailing and packaging aesthetics were marvellous. Under the bodywork, it was fearsomely symmetrical — a glorious machine. The attention to mechanical detail was very impressive. It still looks good to me, bodywork on or off.

The Honda engine was great in terms of driveability and consumption, but McLaren did far better with it than Lotus that year. They had paid great attention to the installation of the engine, and did a fantastic job on the transmission. They made a triple-shaft gearbox which kept the engine as flat and as low as it could be, because it was a low-crank engine with a small clutch. I believe Lotus used a two-shaft gearbox, pointing the engine and gearbox up at an angle to get the output flange at the right height for drive-shaft angularity. Obviously, that had an effect on centre-of-gravity height.

Rule changes that year meant a driver’s feet had to be behind the front axle centre line, and the fuel tank was cut down to 150-litres, so there was much repackaging to do. McLaren reclined the driver a bit more, which was obviously Gordon Murray-esque, harking back to what he did with the ultra-low Brabham BT55.

In almost all respects, it was the antithesis of what we had done on the 881. It was a male moulded chassis, which continued in the line of all John Barnard-penned tubs. It meant the internal design of the monocoque and the packaging of the suspension could be done very accurately. But it was a compromise aero-dynamically, and that was so true throughout the whole car. It had huge side outlets, and our tests suggested that would be horrendously inefficient, because the dirty air would come out and go straight underneath the car. Well maybe it did, but that’s what the Honda turbo required to make its power. We soon realised we had paid not nearly enough attention to the cooling system of the 881, which boiled the hell out of the engine (John Judd’s V8).

At the time, I didn’t understand the MP4/4. Most of my conversations with Adrian were of the ‘We don’t know why they’re doing that’ variety. Why haven’t they got a bi-plane rear wing? Why haven’t they got a trick front wing? Why haven’t they got a narrow monocoque? It was completely at odds with what we had found to be efficient If they did the same car, but with a different shaped monocoque, or optimised it with a bi-plane wing, it would have been even faster. But perhaps those efforts would have taken them away from something else.

It taught me a balanced view of designing race cars. They aren’t quick because of one factor. That McLaren design team had taken a holistic view of the car, and balanced up the centre of gravity, packaging, engine installation, and all the bits and pieces. Some of them would have been detrimental to aerodynamics — but they ended up with a dominant car.

Okay, one can’t dispute the quality of the drivers. If ever there was a dream team, it was Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. But it wasn’t just the drivers — it was a magnificent car. It was only because of Senna’s late-race tangle at Monza that it didn’t win every single race in ’88.

We had our glorious moment in Estoril, when Ivan Capelli was sandwiched between the two McLarens, and we were gaining on the leading one. We were sitting there thinking, ‘Is this really happening — are we actually racing against this amazing machine?’

Having said all this, I would have to add that the 881 reflects more the way that cars are now being designed, in that it was aero-dominated. In terms of construction techniques, female moulding has become standard, as have some aspects of what we did with the monocoque and how we squeezed everything in. More of the 881 has become the norm in F1.

However, the really successful teams still take a holistic approach. The Ferrari isn’t quick because it’s got great aerodynamics, a great driver or great engine: it’s a balance of all factors, not dominated by one particular side. And I think that’s a trend that was very much started by McLaren. The MP4/4 certainly influenced the way I think about race cars. And it came at a good age for me, when I wasn’t too fixed in my ways!

Nick Wirth was talking to Adam Cooper

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