'I'm sick of people living off my reputation', says Gordon Murray in McLaren MP4/4 row


Speaking in a new Motor Sport interview, Gordon Murray has expressed his anger at other members of McLaren's late '80s design team apparently claiming credit for what he believes is his design

1988 Monaco Senna

The McLaren MP4/4 swept almost all before it in 1988, but heated debate on who designed the car continues

Grand Prix Photo

It’s the Formula 1 car which swept all before it, with the highest win rate ever in the sport. But who really designed the McLaren MP4/4; winner of 15 out of 16 races en route to a crushing 1988 Constructors’ championship crown.

The car that took Ayrton Senna to his first ever Formula 1 drivers’ title has been at the heart of a row between feted F1 creative Gordon Murray and then-McLaren chief designer Steve Nichols, who both lay claim to leading its design.

Now, in a new Motor Sport interview, Murray has further stoked the fire, saying “I’m sick and tired of people living off my reputation” in regards to who actually designed the iconic MP4/4.

Speaking in this month’s issue, the South African refuted any notion that credit might be given to Nichols, who is cited by some as the ‘real’ designer of the car, not creative guru Murray.

“This thing about Steve Nichols being chief designer is the biggest load of rubbish you’ve ever heard,” Murray emphatically told Motor Sport.

From the archive

“The MP4/4 was not designed by Steve Nichols, I can promise you that. I put him in charge of the monocoque and the front-end while Dave North and I did the rear end, the aerodynamics, and a radical new dry-sump three-shaft gearbox working with Pete Weismann. It was a pretty radical motor car.

“I’d taken the Brabham BT55 drawings with me to McLaren so the basic concept of the MP4/4 was the BT55, with the lay-down driving position, and a far better rear end, with the Honda V6, and then I also designed new front suspension, using a pull rod with a roller and track system. If you look at the two cars together, the BT55 and the MP4/4, you’ll see the design is almost identical.”

McLaren engineer Neil Oatley corroborates Murray’s argument in the latter’s book One Formula, indicating the crossover between the two projects.

“There were certainly layout drawings of the Brabham BT55 around to use as a basis but I know Steve was a big fan, as was Gordon, of the Lotus 25, which had a quite similar seating position,” Oatley says. “The McLaren at the time had push-rod suspension front and rear, which had carried forward to MP4/3. The Brabham had used pull-rod suspension front and rear, which was the style used with the MP4/4 when it appeared.”

Team principle for Honda Marlboro McLaren Ron Dennis stands in between team designers Steve Nichols (L) and Gordon Murray (R)and Neil Oatley (far right) during the Foster's Australian Grand Prix on 5th November 1989 on the streets of Adelaide in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images)

Nichols (second left) and Murray (second right) don’t see eye to eye on the matter

Pascal Rondeau/Getty Images

However, Nichols’s view on the matter is almost completely opposing to Murray’s. The South African had moved over to McLaren at the end of 1986 to replace Ferrari-bound John Barnard, the former moving into a technical director role at Woking rather than a design role, which was filled – at least in name – by engineers Oatley, David North and Nichols. Nichols has said that Murray fulfilled a “figurehead” role, whilst those below him in the hierarchy were left to get on with designing the car.

Motor Sport has contacted both Nichols and McLaren for comment on the matter, without reply, although Nichols does detail his side of the story on his website.

“To overcome any confusion, Gordon sent around a memo, in which he said that I had total design responsibility for the MP4/4 and that Neil Oatley would be looking at the car after that, the MP4/5, a naturally aspirated car, requiring a longer gestation period,” he says.

From the archive

“This confirmed a discussion I had already had with Ron. Originally the plan was that Neil would do the MP4/4 and I would do the MP4/5, but as Neil was new to McLaren, Ron thought it would be better for me to do the 4/4 as the timescales for that car were going to be much tighter, and I agreed to that.”

There appears to be more to the argument than simply opposing viewpoints or confusion, with personal differences perhaps playing a part between the two.

“Although he [Nichols] wasn’t a good designer, he was a good race engineer – and I had a good race engineer in Neil Oatley as well,” says Murray in his aforementioned book. “They were my two main race engineers. They worked under me on the strategy.

“From then on, I used Neil for most of the design work and at the end of 1988 went to see Ron about moving Steve Nichols on. Ron asked me to keep him because of internal politics and I took his advice. Steve left at the end of 1989.”

Nichols’s concluding comment on the argument?

“I know I speak for us all when I voice our frustration that credit is not always given where it should be.”