McLaren MP4/8 – the underrated 1993 F1 car Senna still 'loved'


McLaren chassis designer Matthew Jeffreys remembers the MP4/8, the car in which Ayrton Senna valiantly took five wins against adversity in 1993 – including his last F1 victory

Ayrton Senna McLaren 1993 Monaco GP Monte Carlo

Senna delivered some of his greatest performances in the McLaren MP4/8

Pascal Rondeau/Allsport/Getty Images

The dark, grey March sky looming on Silverstone reflected the mood of Ayrton Senna, casting a cumulative pall over the circuit. Would this new ’93 car be any good? Could it even win races? It was, and it could.

Labelled by Ron Dennis as “one of the best cars we ever made”, the McLaren MP4/8 is one of the great cult F1 machines. Not only was it Senna’s last McLaren – the Brazilian taking iconic red and white Marlboro colours for one last rodeo – it was also the car in which he delivered what so many believe is his greatest win: Donington ’93.

Thirty years to the day after that memorable East Midlands moment, then-senior McLaren design engineer Matthew Jeffreys – project leader on the MP4/8’s chassis design – tells Motor Sport that the neat, sleek car was dynamite “straight out of the box.”

Ayrton Senna McLaren 1992 Canadian GP Montreal

Honda leaving F1 caught out McLaren at end of ’92

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Using the MP4/8, Senna would take five wins to nemesis Alain Prost’s seven, who ultimately clinched the title in one of the most technologically advanced cars of all time, the Williams FW15C.

Unfortunately, where the car was lacking was in oomph from behind – Honda had made the shock announcement towards the end of ’92 that it would be leaving F1, forcing McLaren to run customer Ford units, but it was due to these circumstances that the team produced one of its best cars.

In 1992 Senna toiled to three wins in the relatively uncompetitive MP4/7 against the dominant Nigel Mansell and his all-conquering FW14B. Senna wanted to join Williams for the following season, but was vetoed by the returning Prost, leaving the former disgruntled in the extreme.

Towards the end of ‘92, things then suddenly got a whole lot worse for McLaren. Jeffreys witnessed the message come through from Tokyo – literally.

Ayrton Senna McLaren 1993 Japanese GP Suzuka

McLaren was forced to use Ford customer units after loss of Honda deal

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

“The announcement that Honda was going to be pulling out came through early in the morning on the drawing office’s fax machine when I was standing next to it,” he remembers.

“As all these pages kept coming through, I thought ‘Crikey, this is a bit major.’

“I took them straight into Ron, whose face dropped. He said ‘You haven’t read any of this, have you?’ And I replied ‘Read what?’”

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With next year’s car design well underway, Honda had left McLaren high and dry in terms of finding a new power unit partner.

“It was very late in the day – the options were limited,” says Jeffreys. “The fallback position was a Ford customer engine. Ayrton wasn’t keen on staying – but his options were limited too.

“Of course he then did his famous deal with Ron…”

Renault’s power unit was the choice of the grid with around 750-780bhp, whilst Benetton – with the works Ford deal – had roughly 700-730bhp. The customer Ford HBD7 left Woking working with around 680-700bhp.

Senna would eventually agree to drive on a race-by-race basis for McLaren for the eye-watering sum of $1m a GP but, prior to that, the Woking design team had to come up with a car which would persuade the three-time champion to compete.

For 1993, new FIA technical regulations resulted in cars becoming significantly smaller: the ‘track’ (axle width) was reduced from 2150mm (7ft 1in) to 2000mm (6ft 7in), the width of the rear tyres were reduced from 457 mm (18in) to 381mm (15in), and front tyre width from 330mm (13in) to 279mm (11in).

All this was done was to reduce cornering speed in the name of safety. It could be argued that in terms of chassis and aerodynamics, McLaren nailed the new rules better than anyone else – but this didn’t mean the design process was without its challenges.

2 Ayrton Senna McLaren 1993 French GP Magny Cours

Tight MP4/8 packing contributed to a nimble F1 car with good handling

Grand Prix Photo

Things were further exacerbated by the raft of technological innovations that McLaren introduced in response to the Williams FW14B – the MP4/8 had active suspension, traction control, a semi-automatic gear box and two-way telemetry.

“Henri Durand was the chief aerodynamicist,” says Jeffreys. “He and his team came up with a fairly challenging packaging requirement for the aero point of view.

“Because the car was pretty small, trying to get everything in was quite a nightmare. It was really a study into the efficiency of packaging design.

“We were using a female chassis mould, which meant we didn’t have much room for the driver, never mind anything else. Because of the active suspension, there were lots of control systems, hydraulics running all over the place, wires and cables running that had to get through from front to back.

Ayrton Senna McLaren 1993 French GP Magny Cours

Senna appeared quickly at home in MP4/8

Grand Prix Photo

“It was a challenge to find the space for everything – that’s my main memory of it.”

This created some classic back and forth between different elements of the design team, which was now working with the much smaller Ford V8 compared to the Honda V12.

“At one point Henri hadn’t decided where the sidepod should start on the side of the chassis,” he says.

“We had to get on with actually making the monocoque. To give him some more time we moulded a recessed region into the side of the chassis whereby we could then bond on some panel structures [at a later date] which gave him the flexibility to have them long or short, depending on what he decided after a few more weeks.

“One of the big chassis cables that came out of the cockpit and had to go back to the ECU – and engine – was about 30mm in diameter once it was shrink-wrapped, and had to squeeze past the top of the sidepod and on top of the radiator – but we only had a 25mm gap.

“I told Henri and he said ‘We’ll compromise at 27.5mm.’ I replied ‘It’s 30mm – we’re not bartering!’

“In the end we had to put a big dent in the radiator ducts for the cable to sink down a little bit lower – Henri was adamant he couldn’t spare another 2.5mm.”

Ayrton Senna McLaren 1993 Brazilian GP Interlagos

Senna would win second time out in Brazil

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Despite the stresses and strains of a new, smaller chassis concept packaged with the customer Ford engine, Senna was in for a pleasant surprise once he was behind the wheel.

“When the car was built and being tested at Silverstone, Senna showed up thinking, ‘This is going to be an underpowered car and I won’t enjoy it,’” says Jeffreys.

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“But he really loved it and said, ‘This is a great car.’ That kind of made him want to do the season and then Ron did the deal.

“Right from the first test, when the car first ran, we knew that it was a good one. We were more than pleasantly surprised. I think Ayrton was as well – it wasn’t what he contemplated when he thought about driving a Ford-powered McLaren.

“Quite a lot of effort was going into the aerodynamics to compensate for the engine [compared to previous cars]. We brought back bargeboards, to allow us to direct the air around the back of the front wheel, and favour the air underneath the car and round the side – we used extra-large ones at high downforce tracks like Donington.

“Ron did also invest heavily in us doing a bespoke inlet system [for the engine], from which we did get more power.”

Despite being out-gizmoed by Prost’s Williams, Senna showed what the MP4/8 could do at the season’s first race in South Africa, qualifying in second just 0.088sec behind the Frenchman.

Ayrton Senna McLaren 1993 European GP Donington

Senna’s Donington performance was an instant classic

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At the race start he leapt into the lead, before almost inevitably falling back into Prost’s clutches.

At a rain-soaked Interlagos for the second round though, Senna took a brilliant win while Prost crashed out, setting the stage for the European GP at Donington.

Though the Brazilian qualified fourth and briefly fell to fifth at the race start, a scintillating opening sequence saw him in the lead before the first lap was over, passing Karl Wendlinger, Michael Schumacher, Damon Hill and Prost in just a handful of corners.

After all the hard hours put in at the factory, Jeffreys was at home with family witnessing the incredible race unfold on television.

“Ayrton had this innate ability to know where the grip was. He had that exceptional seat-of-pants knowledge of where the limit was at all times. He used that on the first lap.”

Further adding to the advantage was the fact that this was a rare occasion that McLaren and its driver had the technology sussed better than Williams – as its then technical director Patrick Head explains to Motor Sport.

“Taking nothing from Ayrton, but his win owed much to our incompetence,” he says.

“The rain was very heavy, resulting in water building up on the track, generally a few millimetres deep, but in places much deeper.

“Our active car maintained very low ride heights, just a few millimetres above the ground, and gained aerodynamic performance by this, but when the water was deeper than the ride height of the car, our drivers were ‘surfing’.

“Although we had the possibility of making ride height adjustments from the cockpit controls, I don’t think we fully understood what was causing the problem for the drivers.

“I think Alain made eight visits to the pits and Damon seven, coming in as they had ‘no grip’ expecting that this was due to a problem with the tyres, but it was not.”

“It was amazing what he achieved. But we were still underdogs” Matthew Jeffreys

Despite Williams’ technological advantage, Senna brilliantly won three of the first six races, putting him five points ahead of Prost in the championship after Monaco.

“I, and probably a lot of people, thought it was amazing what he achieved. But we were still underdogs, because we had high-power circuits coming up in Silverstone and Hockenheim.”

And so it was – an ultimate lack of pace and mid-season reliability issues saw Senna’s challenge falter, before a late flurry when Prost’s title was won saw the Brazilian’s win tally finish at five – including his last ever F1 victory at Adelaide.

Senna would leave to replace Prost at Williams, unable to be persuaded to stay at Woking. Despite this, the ’93 car still stands as another fine example of McLaren engineering in its vastly successful history of competition machinery – and also one of F1’s great ‘what ifs’.

“It’s a close second to the MP4/4 for me,” says Jeffreys of ranking the MP4/8 amongst his favourite McLarens. “It’s a nice, nimble, fast car.

“I think we would have been in good shape to win the championship in ’93 [had the team had a better engine.]

“History would have had been different in a number of ways.”