Great racing cars: 1988 McLaren MP4/4



A series taken from the 164-page Motor Sport special Great Racing Carswhich is available to buy here.

To buy the lead image, click here.

From the editor Damien Smith

How would you define a ‘great’ racing car? Race wins and championship titles are an obvious place to start – and admittedly, when we began the process of rounding up the ‘voices’ to fill this special magazine, published by the team behind Motor Sport, we had in mind the likes of the Lotus 72, Ferrari F2004, Porsche 917, Audi R10 and so on.

But as the interviews of familiar racing figures began, we realised greatness is often a very personal thing. Naturally, most – but not all – would pick cars they had experienced first-hand, as a driver, designer, engineer or team boss. And on occasion the cars that stood out in their minds as ‘great’ weren’t necessarily so in the grand scheme of history. That’s why you’ll find a Minardi here among Formula 1 cars from Lotus, Williams and McLaren.

Unexpected? Certainly. Wrong? Not to the man who chose it.

As the interviews accumulated, our magazine took on a life of its own, full of personal anecdotes about the myriad cars that made careers. Some of those we spoke to, such as Mario Andretti and Dan Gurney, couldn’t be tied to a single choice from multi-faceted lives at the wheel. Such heroes have earned the right to choose an F1, sports and Indycar, so we allowed them more than one bite.

Others refused to be confined by category. Hence the short ‘Odd ’n Sods’ chapter on cars that, by and large, are mere footnotes in lower divisions of racing lore.

Thus there is nothing definitive about the selection listed herein. Then again, there’s no claim that this compilation offers the ‘Greatest Racing Cars’ of history. It’s much more personal than that, much more quirky – and all the better for it.

1988 McLaren MP4/4

Mark Handford
Aerodynamicist (with a wing ‘device’ named after him!)

I really admired the Lotus 79, because it was winning everything when I started to take a proper interest in racing.

But the McLaren MP4/4 was the first car that I remember being so dominant and it was at a time when I was just starting in racing. A little later on I worked with Steve Nichols a little at Benetton and he actually told me that it was so much better than they first expected. Obviously they had favourable conditions, because in 1988 I think Honda had lobbied for – and optimised – technical regulations that favoured them considerably, especially when it came to the fuel consumption.

The V6 was also quite small and low lying, which was perfect for a chassis that had similar traits and was a carry-over from the 1987 car. I’m not sure if Steve was miffed about everyone saying they had this low-lying cockpit because Gordon Murray had come, but you couldn’t blame him if he was because, as far as I know, Gordon didn’t have a whole lot to do with the MP4/4.

Senna vs Prost in 1988

To compare more drivers, click here.

It is a matter of history and legend now that Senna and Prost won all but one race – and they should have won the lot. The car was so clean looking and sleek. I think that if you are going to choose one car, then this would have to be it because it had pretty much everything: great handling, inherent pace, good power, reliability and it also provided two of the greatest ever drivers with a platform to put on a thrilling and dominant display.

The dawn of a new challenge 
Denis Jenkinson reflects on the MP4/4’s winning debut in Brazil

At one time, a brand-new car winning its first Grand Prix was an outstanding achievement, but nowadays it seems to be an accepted thing, especially where McLaren International is concerned.

At the end of last season the McLaren TAG-Porsche contract ended and the Woking-based team, masterminded by Ron Dennis, switched its allegiance to Honda for the supply of engines. This meant a major redesign of its cars, and the best thing to do was to start from scratch with a clean drawing board.

The very successful Porsche-powered McLarens had been designed by John Barnard, and when he left to join Scuderia Ferrari much of his design philosophy and thinking naturally remained behind with those who had been working with him. Gordon Murray moved from the Brabham team to McLaren as technical director, and found waiting for him a highly skilled and dedicated workforce led by Steve Nichols and Neil Oatley, who were more than capable of carrying on where Barnard had left off.

With the change to Honda power in the offing, there was little point in doing much during 1987 other than continue development of the existing car. But once the 1987 season was over, work could start in earnest on something entirely new.

From the performance of the MP4/4 in Brazil, one can estimate that, at 2.5 bar boost pressure and mixture adjustments to go through the race on 150 litres of fuel, the Honda engine is probably giving 650-700 bhp.

Taken from the May 1988 issue of Motor Sport. To read more click here.

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