McLaren-Honda 1989 Constructor’s Champion
ATEAM that won ten out of the sixteen races in the 1989 World Championship series should be fairly contented, and there are some teams that would have been deliriously happy to have achieved such a result. To the Mclaren International team the 1989 season was a bit of a disaster, not from the point of view of the overall result, but more by the way it was achieved.
In 1988, they came as close to winning all sixteen races as any one could honestly hope to do. It was only a driving error by their number one driver, while leading, that robbed them of a “clean sweep”. Winning fifteen out of the sixteen races, and losing the one race while leading, meant they had set themselves a pretty high standard. The 1989 season was approached with the view that they had to do better, which meant winning all the races.
1989 was the first year of the new Formula which limited engines to normal aspiration, with a capacity limit of 3500cc (3 I/2 litres), all forms of supercharging or turbocharging being banned. This meant a new car and a new engine. Before the 1988 season was finished, the first of the new Honda V10 engines was ready for shakedown tests and a 1988 McLaren MP4/4 was modified to take the new engine. If the new car was going to go as well as the engine sounded, the McLaren team did not have too much to worry about.
An initial advantage over other teams was that virtually no changes were made in the personnel, the system of management, the partnership with Honda and the whole structure of the team. With Ron Dennis in overall control, Gordon Murray leading the technical side of the car and Osamu Goto leading the engine project, the whole assembly was justified in feeling confident. During 1988, the last year of the turbocharged MP4/4, Steve Nichol looked after the actual race engineering, while Neil Oatley headed the design team working on the 1989 chassis MP4/5 project. In a recently released report of the development of the Honda V10 engine, it is revealed that the team designing and developing the engine were all young engineers and their leader had no experience of normally aspirated racing engines, having been always on turbocharged projects. In the early stages, the number of engineers and the facilities were limited, by Honda standards, as the last season of turbocharging was occupying the top echelon of engineers fairly fully. The design of the V10 was completed in 1987 and that autumn the first engine ran on the test bed. It failed to reach 500 bhp, which called for a lot of deep thinking and analysis, and the correction or alteration of detail design. By the spring of 1988, the engine was delivering over 600 bhp, which was considered a satisfactory starting point. During the initial track-testing, some lubrication problems arose and the “driveability” of the engine was not satis
factory. This referred to the torque curve balanced against the power curve, the delivery of the power and the response to the throttle openings. The whole of the engine Research & Development department applied themselves to these problems. It was soon decided to make a major change to the camshaft drive train, and the exposed toothed rubber-belt drive line from the crankshaft to the camshafts was abandoned and replaced with a totally enclosed gear train. This permitted much more accuracy and consistency in the valve timing, with better control of combustion and engine management response and produced horsepower that exceeded the target level, though the report discreetly omits to mention what the target level was. If we accept a figure of 650 bhp we will not be far out.
While all this work was going on in Japan, the team at Woking were completing the first of the MP4/5 cars. Although the basic layout of the car appeared unchanged from the previous cars, the MP4/5 was all-new in design, which it had to be, for the chassis no longer had to withstand 1000 bhp stresses and strains, the new V10 engine was longer than the turbo V6, and the engine bay no longer had to accommodate intercoolers, turbos, manifolding and other ancillaries particular to high pressure turbocharging. The centres of gravity of the major components were different and the aerodynamics could be altered and improved. Anyone who thought they could build a car for the new Formula by taking a 1988
design and changing the engine mountings from a turbocharged engine to a normally aspirated engine were not facing up to design reality.
By the time the first MP4/5 car was ready for track teasting, the new and finalised version of the Honda RA109E was also ready, and by the time of the first race, which was in Brazil, the team had three MP4/5 cars, all with the latest specification engines. The progress of the cars, race by race, is shown in the table overleaf. From the first event, development of the car and engine never stopped, changes and improvement went hand in hand in a well-orchestrated programme that saw the McLaren-Hondas set the pace at the first race and continue to set the pace right through to the last race. Every time there was a sign of serious opposition, either McLaren or Honda introduced some new step in their development programme which kept them ahead.
During the season Honda produced five different versions of the RA109E V10 engine, together with detail modifications, all in the search for reliability, increase in power, driveability and suitability to circuit requirements. These involved atmospheric conditions from sea level to the rarified atmosphere of Mexico City, temperature levels from Arizona to cold and damp in Canada, and speed requirements from the twists and turns of Monte Carlo to the high speed of Monza. Whatever the situation, Honda seemed to have a version of the V10 that was suitable. The MP4/5 had all the normal fine
adjustments of suspension geometry and springing, and all the normal variations of aerodynamic fins and wings, radiator ducting, air-flow over the body, air-flow to the engine and the cooling system. All these details could be pre-set to the driver’s requirements, along with tyres, tyre pressures, brake ratios, caliper sizes, pad material to say nothing of a vast choice of ratios for the 6-speed gearbox and final drive ratios. Juggling the choice of these variations is an art in itself, apart from driving the car, and a good and close relationship between driver and engineer is essential, while the Honda engineers were always ready to provide minute variations on engine management to fit in with all the chassis variations.
It is not surprising that at times you saw Ayrton Senna, Steve Nichol and Osamu Goto in deep conversation, not wishing to be distracted by media coverage for TV or the Daily Blurb.
By mid-season it became very obvious to the astute observer that Alain Prost had lost interest in the McLaren team, for he no longer utilised all the information and brains that were available to him, even though Neil Oatley was as attentive as always. The Frenchman’s announced departure from the team, to take effect at the end of the season, was no great surprise to those who had been watching closely. By mid-season, at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, McLaren introduced an entirely new transmission layout, and though there were a few minor teething troubles to begin with, they were sorted out and this new transmission was used at all times thereafter. The old layout consisted of a 5 or 6-speed gear cluster in an alloy housing, mounted on the back behind the differential and final-drive casing. The new arrangement was a compact gear cluster, lying across the car instead of longitudinally, and contained within a casing that filled the space
between the back of the engine and the final-drive unit. Previously this space contained a housing for the clutch and the main oil tank; it now also contained the gearbox, mounted traversely to the right side of the clutch centre line, with input bevels turning the drive through 90degrees and spur gears running back to the final-drive. This new transmission was cleverly designed so that it fitted into the suspension layout at the rear, in place of the old transmission, and if need be the old and the new could be interchanged without any major alterations to the car. It served two purposes, one, it brought a great mass of weight within the wheelbase, which
moved the centre of gravity of the car forwards, and two, it permitted a major change of air flow around the back of the car. Once the decision had been made to use this new gearbox, it became a standard component for the MP4/5.
Honda’s engine development programme was all pre-planned and their report shows total satisfaction as regards power increase. They set the engine used for the first race as their “basic version” and by the second race had added 10 bhp. By the British GP, the engine was giving 18 bhp more than the basic engine and by the Belgian GP, another 5 bhp had raised the total to 23 bhp over the basic engine. For the Italian GP, a further 5 bhp was added and for the Japanese GP, another 2 bhp brought the total increase since Brazil to 30 bhp, which was their target figure. Taking our reasonable estimate of 650 bhp in Brazil, it means they were up to 680 bhp by the end of the season, retaining inherent reliability all the time.
Honda think in such finite and detailed terms, that they went to great lengths to save 3 kilogrammes of weight from the engines for the Monaco GP, in view of the continual acceleration and braking that is needed on that circuit. During the season there were two major engine failures, on both occasions in Senna’s car, and while he was leading. The first was in Canada and the second at Monza. On both occasions the engine failed dramatically, causing instant retirement. Honda’s report reads as follows: “Lubrication problem at the Canadian GP: The reliability of the RA109E engine had been tested under various conditions. However, the Canadian GP was the first time the engine was used in wet condi
tions. The analysis made after the race revealed that oil consumption was much greater than expected; this being caused by the driving patterns used in wet conditions, when unlike in the dry, a greater percentage of time is spent with the throttle only part open or closed, which caused piston ring fluttering leading to unusually high oil consumption. At the same time, the fact that water entered the engine made the situation even worse. This resulted in a drop in the oil tank level which in turn caused oil pressure to drop and the bearings seized.
“Lubrication problem at the Italian GP: Thinking that we had successfully solved our lubrication problem after the Canadian GP, we were shocked to see an apparently similar situation develop during the Italian GP. Senna was in the lead from the start but his engine oil level began to decrease with a corresponding loss of oil pressure until this resulted in the bearings seizing. Post-race inspection showed that the cause of engine failure was different to that found in Canada, and was traced to poor quality control in the manufacture of the pistons. Prost went on to win the race, but subsequent examination of his race engine showed that it too was suffering from the same problem.”
These statements put the situation very simply, without going into detail as to what happened when the crankshaft bearings seized up at 12,800 rpm! Nor what all the instruments and gauges recording engine data in the pits did at the point of seizure. The Canadian seizure happened just as Senna was passing the pits and virtually as he lifted off for the following corner, and he pulled off onto the grass in a cloud of oil smoke. The blow-up at Monza was more dramatic for it happened on full song down the back straight. There was just time for Senna to see the oil pressure light come on and then it was all over. He was probably doing nearly 180 mph at the time, so he turned all the switches off and snicked into neutral, hoping to coast back to the pits. Not realising how much oil was all over the back of the car, he freewheeled into the Parabolic corner and as he turned in the rear wheels lost adhesion and he spun gently through 180 degrees and stopped, from fairly low speed.
The question of the top teams (ie Honda, Renault, Ferrari and Ford) having telemetry systems that transmit information from the car to the pits during a race, is one that gets some people stirred up very easily. There is nothing magic about it, it is a simple fact of modern technology, so that the engine people can watch the performance of their engines on screens and read-outs. All the relevant data from throttle openings, rpm, fuel consumption, Pressures, temperatures and anything else You need is recorded and can be studied as it happens, or studied afterwards. Honda are as deeply into this as anyone, and on test days they have a satellite dish that beams the information direct to the Research & Development centre in Japan. I have heard people suggest that such technology should be banned, but they are not in touch with the real world. Other people have suggested that Honda are one step ahead of everyone else, in that they can actually alter the engine conditions directly from the pits. This has caused unqualified media people to suggest that Honda are controlliing the power of the engine direct from the pits, which is a way of saying that Senna is given more power than Prost. Honda refute this emphatically as follows: “Is Honda controlling the Engine from
the Pits?; There has been much rumour and speculation concerning Honda’s use of telemetry. In particular it has been suggested that we can control the power output of the engine while the cars are on the track during a race. This is absolutely not true. Even if we had the technology to carry out this procedure we would not do so. The driver must have sole control of the engine during a race as it is not difficult to imagine the dangerous consequences of a driver finding that he suddenly has extra horsepower halfway through a corner.
“It is important to note that we do not have, never had, nor have any desire to have the ability to modify on-car performance by adjusting the engine management system by means of telemetry. All such functions are passive purely initiated for a better understanding of the car/engine performance from the viewpoint of enhancing their development.”
This data supplied by telemetry can be utilised in many ways, and the Honda engineers have had a most enjoyable time working with top drivers and coordinating driver feedback with the readings from the telemetry system, to their mutual advantage. At Monza, in qualifying, people unconnected with Honda suggested that Senna had a better engine than Prost, an idea which Prost took up to explain a 2 second difference on lap time. The Honda engineers used their telemetry data analysis to show that the cars had the same maximum speed, so presumably the same engine power, but that Senna was faster through the corners. The Curva Parabolica is given as an example. Senna’s engine rpm was 1000 higher than Prost’s, and he exited the corner 24 kph faster (15mph) than Prost. With the same maximum speed at the end of the pits straight, this would mean he averaged a higher speed on that part of the circuit. In Senna’s continual search for improvement he would study read-outs of rpm and throttle openings, in conjunction with a circuit map, searching out where he could use greater throttle openings, or keep the throttle fully open rather than flexing his toes and showing a throttle closing of perhaps 1 or 2 degrees, as against no movement at all. Such is the fine edge on which the top drivers work, and fortunate is the driver who has engineers like those from Honda to work with him.
It is the same with the McLaren part of the equation, the chassis engineers have vast data banks of information on all the available variables and will work to all hours with the driver to achieve improvement. One degree alteration here, a pound lower pressure there, a millimetre on the spring height, a minute change of angle on the ride-height, a fraction on the roll-bar setting, a single turn on the brake balance, an inch on the height of a nose fin endplate, the variations are endless. But the driver must be very knowledgeable and sensitive to change and be able to communicate his findings to his engineer, and Senna has a particularly good rapport with Steve Nichol, while Ron Dennis smiles with quiet satisfaction while he watches and listens as it all happens. When you think of all these things, it is not so surprising that Senna does not enjoy spending time speaking to the media-men, with corporate image platitudes in answer to banal questions. There are more interesting and important things to do. Six wins this past season, together with 13 pole positions and 3 fastest race laps would indicate that the combination Senna-McLaren-Honda
works well. Honda dropped the ball three times during the season, Senna dropped it three times, and McLaren once. Honda had engine failure twice, while Senna was leading, and electronic trouble once, Senna collided with Mansell, Prost and Brundle, putting himself out of the race on each occasion, and once he had the gearbox play up. Prost, on the other hand retired twice, once when the McLaren chassis let him down, and once when he collided with Senna. He netted four wins, and six second places, a third, a fourth and a fifth, and one withdrawal. He claimed
two pole positions and five fastest race laps. 1989 may not have been the best season for the McLaren-Honda partnership, but it was impressive by anyone else’s standards. It ended on an exciting high note with the public release of a new Honda V12 engine to be ready for testing later in 1990 and ready to race in 1991. By this time the present V10 engine will be considered to be obsolete as a Research & Development project, and will be made available to other teams, to keep them in
play in Formula One. DSc!